A Gothic Grimoire


–  The Genie’s Guide to the Supernaturally Sublime

Something about October, the dance of glowing leaves in the wind, the shift in mood from the exuberance of spring and the dolce far niente of summer to a tinge of delicious melancholy, the very perfume of the air itself, with its first hints of looming winter and quietude, the mushroom scent of a forest floor after the rain, the sharp tang of fallen apples and the sudden epiphany of wood smoke in the air – all of these combined add up to what is without question one of my favorite times of the year.

If I were to put an epithet that somehow sums up all of October, it would surely be ‘Gothic’.

These days, Gothic conjures up associations of horror, darkness and menace, if not an entire subculture I once upon a storied time did my own small part to define the first time it surfaced in the zeitgeist of the mid-Eighties. While I may have outgrown my predilection for acres of black eyeliner and ditto lipstick, certain elements of that era have stuck with me ever since – a taste for melodramatic literature written at an operatic pitch of intensity, music, and a certain nineteenth-century feel and line in clothing. Although I still own an outsize amount of very black clothes, one indispensible item more than any other brings out that inspired state of being that consists of equal parts preternatural frisson, high drama, twinges of mortality, and the delectable, unbearable, existential darkness of being.


But what in all that chthonic murk constitutes a Gothic… perfume?

It goes without saying that all the happy-go-lucky flirty florals and fruity wonders we adore so much in high summer no longer cut it.

For a perfume to be deemed Gothic requires a few non-negotiable elements. First of all – that all-important question, my own pop-culture criterion:

Would Morticia Addams wear it?

If it is too light, too young, too obvious, too fleeting, the answer is likely a resounding ‘no’. Anything that doesn’t reduce our own resident Gomez Addams (should we have one) to a helpless pile of smoking ectoplasm need not apply. Speaking of ectoplasm…

All Gothic perfumes must by necessity contain an element of the numinous or the supernatural about them. It could be a question of composition, of overall texture, of unusual fragrant elements in mutual tension, but if it doesn’t give you a superstitious shiver down your spine and you can’t even explain why, what’s the point?

Since the Gothic mood and mindset is dark, intense, and brooding, the perfume must somehow convey all of these things. Therefore, Gothic perfumes are often very plush, with a lot of basenotes that may often include frankincense, labdanum, oud, patchouli, sandalwood, oakmoss, castoreum, civet, musk, leather and other wonders of that fertile alchemical undergrowth that provokes all our darkest, most secret, subconscious desires.

Last but never least, if you can answer an affirmative ‘yes!’ to the question…

Would you wear this to a graveside Halloween party?

Then you’ve found your very own Gothic perfume!

What follows below are my own personal decidedly Gothic favorites, arranged from vintage (and therefore, sadly, the current versions are reformulated beyond recognition and merit) to currently available.

Vintage Glories

Magie Noir – Lancôme

This 1978 classic by Gerard Goupy was a harbinger to come of those opulent Eighties orientals. It is also without question one of the witchiest perfumes ever made. I’ve worn it off and on since 1983, and it remains the single most complimented perfume I own, even today. In fact, I’ve never met a man who didn’t tilt backwards for this one, such is the Circe spell it weaves, turning any modern Odysseus into a slavering hog whether they want it or not. Although still in production, it’s not even a wan, pale echo of its former glory.

Narcisse Noir – Caron

Sometimes, I wonder at the fragrant bombshells I wore in my wanton youth, wonder I even dared to wear them. This great immortal classic, beloved of both Norma Desmond and Anaïs Nin, more than any other delineated my long-ago Goth days. It slew several wannabe latter-day Baudelaires I knew by taking a perfumery trope – orange blossom – and turning it completely inside out. Orange blossom is usually a joyous, summery, sunshine bloom. Ernest Daltroff’s 1912 classic inverts all those expectations and turns them inside out by being a dark, smoky, slinky animal of midnight and divine delirium. Narcisse Noir is still available, although it has irrevocably changed from its inky, slinky, seductive self to a prim Park Avenue mistress in palest dove gray.

Parlous Blooms

If ever an entire perfume house’s resident aesthetic somehow encapsulates all that is Gothic with a decadent French twist, it would surely be Serge Lutens. I doubt it’s an accident it is one of my all-time favorite perfume houses for precisely that reason. Best of all, Serge Lutens has – aided by resident alchymist Christopher Sheldrake and before him Maurice Roucel – subverted several classic florals into new, unnerving territory by making them eerie, and not just through their inscrutable press copy or their names, but throughout their very souls. Iris Silver Mist will send chills of otherworldly orris down your spine, Tubereuse Criminelle shall disturb you to your depths in all its heady jolie laide beauty, Sarrasins might sink its feral feline jasmine fangs into your nose and De Profundis exude its own cold kiss of mortality down your neck, but you will not forget them – nor will anyone who gets close enough to sniff.

Numinous Numbers

Certain perfumes are more than a little… numinous. Meaning they convey a hint or a whole ruined abbey of emotion, legend, ghosts of stories past and premonitions to come. They range from the transcendental to the uncanny, which is precisely why they’re so beloved.

Trayee & Ashoka – Neela Vermeire Crèations

It may seem a bit of a stretch to call Neela Vermeire’s Trayee and Ashoka ‘gothic’ when perhaps the first word that comes to mind is ‘exotic’, but think again – if we take the word to mean transporting in an emotionally compelling, numinous sense, then they both do precisely that in two different, very complex and nearly supernatural ways. Trayee with its sacred incense, oud and sandalwood, Ashoka with its sudden, shocking shift from deepest dark to luminous light – either is perfect for that lingering trail of sanctity we all aspire to leave behind us – or the samsara we all hope to achieve.

Rouge Avignon – Phaedon

Rouge Avignon, inspired by the Papal palace at Avignon, embodies the very best of Gothic sensibilities in its very DNA. Rose, incense, smoke, dark, deep woods – it is its own unholy witchy brew of blackest red and reddest black, the shade of a drop of blood, of power and of carefully concealed secrets, too.


Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know or… Les Hommes Fatales

Lady Caroline Lamb may well have had all sorts of personal reasons to describe George Gordon, Lord Byron as all of the above, but certain masculine-tinged perfumes will haunt me to my grave if not devastate me into a swoon, whether they’re worn by short, dark and interesting exemplars of the male gender or by tall, fair, rockstar poets in aviator shades fueled by Friday night and Pinot Grigio.

Baudelaire – Byredo

No fan of the Gothic can avoid a fatal predilection for the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. While I somehow doubt Byredo’s Baudelaire would be worn by its namesake, who did indeed have a great affinity for perfume, there’s no question in my demented mind it does full justice to the spirit of his words…erotic, evocative, subversive, and more than a little perilous to short, busty writers with (oversized) nitroglycerin imaginations. Poets beware!

1740 Marquis de Sade – Histoires de Parfums

This thick, heady, delirious leather/spicy/immortelle bombshell of a perfume was inspired by that greatest libertine of them all – or so the notorious Marquis liked to see himself. I say it’s much too good for his ghost, but absolutely grand for modern-day libertines out to slay the unsuspecting with everything they’ve got. So long as they’re careful never to promise more than they’re capable of delivering. I also say 1740 is everything any hopelessly romantic, Gothic-leaning female could wish to inhale, although the consequences of doing just that might be harrowing. My lips are sealed in scarlet ink. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, things occur in the dark of night that make anything happening in daylight seem… all right.

A Haunted History

Perfume, I heard myself saying some time ago, is every bit as legitimate a way of telling a story as a painting, a sculpture, a film, a novel. Few perfumes tell quite such a timeless story as the most haunting pair I know…

Memoir Man/Woman – Amouage

The great thing about Amouage paired perfumes is the way both the feminine and the masculine versions reflect two sides of the same story, and here, it’s that eternal epic love story of a tempestuous heaven and a mutual melodrama heartbreak. Either of them have utterly ruined me for life for other so-called ‘bottled love stories’, since so far as I’m concerned, this one is unbeatable. Certainly, it’s unforgettable. As all the best love stories – and worst heartbreaks! – always are.

Les Femmes Fatales

Ladies – you’ve been waiting for these. These perfumes are the dragon-slayers and pale-faced Succubi of the perfume world, the pearlescent vampires, the Liliths, Ligeias and Morellas and the Annabel Lees, the transgressions, the most ebony of carnal sins and ultimate, bottled evils, the justifications for terrible, heart-rending beauty and bone-chilling emanations.  If you think about it – what is Ulalume compared to all of those? Edgar? Anyone?

Midnight At The Crossroads Café – Neil Morris

Gothic literature has been such a mainstay of popular fiction for so long, it’s increasingly hard to imagine anything new could ever be done with it. Unless you happen to be that justly famous Boston treasure, perfumer Neil Morris, who took an unknown writer’s opening chapter and turned it into a upgraded Gothic perfume novella for the twenty-first century without overlooking any single essential: a witching hour, a vulnerable woman, a glass of mulled wine, an empty café and the distinct, supernatural thrill of the definitely dangerous and dangerously erotic Devil himself. It can be classified as a chypre, but this is unlike any chypre you think you know – this is as good as fragrant perdition gets. Take it from me. I know.

Immortal Mine – House of Cherry Bomb

Two years ago (and how it could be two years I’m still not sure), I had the great good fortune to participate in the Clarimonde Project, a cross-media collaboration of perfumers and writers to explore in prose and perfume one of the earliest and most unusual vampire stories ever – Thèophile Gautier’s 1836 La Morte Amoureuse. House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine is one of the superlative finest and supremely Gothic perfumes money can buy. It’s as deep and impenetrable as Nietzsche’s abyss, as black and vast as a winter hour before dawn, as licentious as any celebrated courtesan and as haunting (if not daunting) as Gautier’s story and his creation both.

Babylon Noir – Opus Oils

Hundreds of perfumes claim to be noir. Most of them barely qualify as wannabe noir, if that much. Babylon Noir, created by perfumer Kedra Hart of Opus Oils for the Devilscent Project, is such an audacious, outrageous, luscious feline carnivore of a perfume, it makes vintage Narcisse Noir (no slouch in the darkness department) blanc in comparison. Equally suitable for vampires and aspiring Liliths, it will slay anyone it touches, guaranteed, because darkness gets no blacker nor more alluring. Wear it to any Halloween party and watch the competition turn orange in envy.

Ormonde Woman – Ormonde Jayne London

Some very long time ago, when I was still fairly new to niche perfumery, I won a sample of Ormonde Woman on another perfume blog. That it was a green and witchy creature, I already knew from the review, but I wasn’t at all prepared for my own reaction. It was without question the most terrifying perfume I had ever encountered in my life, so much so, it was the original inspiration for Lilith’s perfume. Not for being repellent (which it wasn’t) nor even poisonous (although there was that hemlock absolute…) but precisely because it was such a feral thing of the forest. It took me a good long time (and very many perfumes) to come around to Ormonde Woman, but now I have another wafting weapon at my disposal to put the capital B in bewitching.

Lil – Olympic Orchids

Still with me on this fragrant descent into the heart of October darkness? In which case, you’re in for a very big surprise, because Olympic Orchids’ Lil – also created for the Devilscent Project – is not dark in the slightest. Ellen Covey happily took every Gothic trope and cliché in perfumery and subverted them into an absolutely terrifying – and horribly beautiful – perfume of sharp, piercing, eerie green light, as if she had somehow managed to capture a will-o’-the-wisp in a perfume bottle that will haunt (and taunt) your surroundings for a very long time. Wimps and wannabes need not apply.

The Moody, Magnificent Monster

Opus VII – Amouage

I’m a bit at a loss to describe Opus VII (although I’ve certainly tried) and its effects, but basically, this is a huge, shape-shifting beast of Faërie that takes oud, black leather, cypriol, fenugreek and galbanum and provides them all with the most delirious fangs  – or pangs! – you could never have imagined. You can wear it ten times and encounter ten different stories. You will catch a waft and think you have managed to parse its depths to your satisfaction. Ten minutes later, you’ll catch another and wonder what you were thinking. Then hours later, the only thing you can be sure of is one literal wild ride – or wild hunt through the undergrowth? – that surely explains every Dionysian mystery rite from antiquity to the present. Or does it? Only its sillage knows…

In short, if you seek the unusual, the preternatural thrill, the mysteries and the magic of a most magical time of year, these perfumes will be honored to send eerie shivers down your spine.

Because every day should be Halloween!

At least in October.


Serge Lutens perfumes are available from Luckyscent and for European customers, directly from the Serge Lutens website. Trayee and Ashoka are available at Luckyscent and from Neela Vermeire Crèations. Rouge Avignon is available directly from Phaedon. Baudelaire is available from Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Histoires de Parfums 1740 is at Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Amouage Memoir Man & Woman can be found at Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Neil Morris’ Midnight is available through his Vault collection of perfumes by request. House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine is available at Indie Scents. Opus Oils’ Babylon Noir is available directly from the Opus Oils website, Ormonde Woman from Ormonde Jayne London, Lil directly from Olympic Orchids. Amouage Opus VII is available from Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and directly from the Amouage website.

With thanks to the reader who inspired the post…;)

Illustrations: Franz von Stuck, Die Sünde, 1893 and Lucifer, 1890.

The Witch of Avignon


–  A review and a tale of Phaedon Paris’ Rouge Avignon

Avignon, December 1352

The summons came two short winter days before the feast of Saint Nicholas, when all of Avignon whispered what the world would soon come to know.

His Holiness Clement VI lay dying.

In a time when all certainty still reeled from the specter of the Black Death and faith, death and life itself called into question, the one constant – the Pope himself – would soon go to his own reward. Or punishment, as some of the cardinals murmured among themselves in the shadowy halls of the palace, jostling for position and power in preparation for the conclave to come.

She knew he would send for her before the end, knew from long acquaintance and their mutual history that the man would say goodbye before the Pope breathed his last.

So she wrapped up warm against the winter chill and damp that swirled like smoke above the Rhône, and followed the liveried page across the bridge, bracing herself for the last farewell to come, and paid the chill in her blood, the foreboding in her heart no mind.

It was warm in the private apartments, the fires crackling in defiance of the cold outside, the candlelight burnishing the gold plate on the tables, the jeweled and gilt wall hangings and the rich hues of the rugs on the marble floor with its own polish, the censers in the corners exuding their own fragrant divinity on the secular scene in the room.

“Come to me, child.” An imperious hand beckoned from behind the bed curtains and as she walked to obey, his voice, strong and commanding, demanded what she knew he would.

“Leave us. All of you.”

The pages, the secretaries, the clerks and the chamberlain all vanished as she came to his bed and kissed his ring in reverence. The doors shut behind them with an ominous finality against the carved stone.

The dynamic, powerful Cardinal she met all those years and all their life ago was no more. Instead, his skin had assumed the smooth, waxy parchment hues of the dying, his body frail beneath the samite, fur-lined bed cover embroidered with the Papal seal, and only his eyes still glowed in the firelight with the fervor and passion she knew from before.

“You are well?” he asked her, his voice suddenly humble in the quiet room. “And indeed Anne?”

“Indeed so, your Holiness, we are both well although all the people of Avignon have nearly died.” She rose to her feet and then sat upon the bed and took his hand. It seemed far too cool for such a warm room, smooth and hard as hewn marble in her own.

“Good. This matter has weighed a great deal upon my mind of late, as soon as I knew…”

“Knew, Holiness?”

“Knew that I was dying. Not from the plague, but from… ah, life itself, yes? The life any Pope must live so that the world shall continue onward through time, and the man to recede behind him. My time is nigh. It matters no more, just as God matters no more, nor even my immortal soul.” He laughed, a short, bitter laugh that told her of a few regrets, but only a few. “No celestial eternity for me, my dearest, but only the everlasting fires of Hell, if indeed that tale is true. I rather doubt it.”

“Such words are heresy, Holiness.”

“Yes, heresy. What is the greater sin, I ask you, to cling beyond hope to a faith that can never justify or explicate the horrors you and I have seen and survived, or to realize this God we all beseech in our prayers is a creation of our own minds, all so we can make a meaning of a world that has none beyond our faith?”

She thought back to that bleak and bitter day he stood as Pope on the banks of the river and consecrated it as holy ground, since none remained for countless miles around that could be used. The river itself invisible beneath…

“You ask me, whose faith is so reviled, whose adherents so hated and so persecuted, Holiness?”

“It is nonsense. They made all of you scapegoats, not knowing who else to blame for this calamity, not daring to blame God as I do, not even able to afford the compassion any deserves in such dire times.” He squeezed her hand. “Since I shall never know what eternity awaits me, I have made arrangements. My secretary has letters, coin purses, provisions for you and for Anne, so she shall be able to marry well when the time comes. You must leave Avignon and the carrière, my love. I have left you a house in Maumont for your own, all correct according to law, all bearing the seal of the Papal secretariat in case my successor would have it repealed. They would sooner see you dead as a witch, since your healing skills have saved so many. You must go to live out your days as a good Christian widow to the Black Death, and in Maumont, where none would dare to question you.”

She knew she could not argue against this one important yet bitter command. Knew it would be useless to protest, knew she had no choice if their daughter were to survive. Already, several families in the carrière had been lost to fires set by zealous survivors seeking to blame the innocent for their sorrows and their loss.

“Very well.”

He looked away, across the bed and the room, lost in thought for long moments as the fires crackled and snapped, and the candles hissed and flared in a sudden draft. Then, he turned his head yet again to study her as he often did, with a laugh in his eyes and a smile on his lips.

“Something I would have you do, my witch of Avignon, something in memory of the times and the man you knew. I shall never know that eternal reward only the blameless know. I have known too much, held such power to my hand, seen too much, questioned all I saw with my heretical thoughts. I have a request of my own.” He squeezed her hand. “Do you see it as I do, see the beauty, the splendor, the richness of this room, this palace to worldly ambition, for all they shall claim another sacred purpose? Do you see the hopes for the human soul I once held before the Black Death came and all our world changed? Do you see it, in the rugs on the floor, those furs by the fire where we made our own immortality, you and I?” His eyes beseeched her own, and she followed his finger pointed across the room to the crackling fire. She saw instead that night nine years ago, when all sanctity and all power was laid aside and only the man, the fire and earthly passion remained, the night their mutual history began.

“I want you to capture that, capture it as only you can in a potion… the gilt, the crimson of power, the fires, the burning censers, the prayers, the hopes and the faith, the marble and the stone, I want you to summon all the ghosts of all our past and I want you to call it immortality, to remember me when I am no more.”

“Such a thing has never been done, Holiness.” Indeed, it might be another kind of heresy to even consider such a thing. As she thought it, a tear slid down her cheek and another followed close behind. This farewell would be forever, a farewell to both the love and the faith that had sustained her for so long, and it was as bitter and as salt as the tears she tasted on her lips.

“But you can, my witch. You can.” He brushed away her tears, grasped her hand tighter in his own. “It is time to go, while we both still remember the good, before the indignity of my passing awaits me. Go with your God, your faith and our daughter, and live out your life in the peace you and I could never know, but create it, so I am remembered when I am no more but a long-dead thought in a careworn old book. Go now!”

As she bent down to kiss his ring one final time through her tears, as she bid the man a farewell so the Pope could pass on, as she pulled up her hood close against the contempt in the corridors outside and the looks she knew would come, she thought of how to create such a potion, such a perfume of reminiscence and history, of golden treasures and crimson moods, of firelight and ambition flickering on walls of stone and marble floors. She thought of all she must leave behind her with a pang before she knew with yet another – she already had as the doors were closed behind her.

It should seem so simple, so apparently effortless as air, as the act of breathing itself, she thought, and also as complex, as noble as the lion she knew he could be and sometimes was.

Down through her years she worked and brewed, thought and remembered, and on a starlit night of a crescent moon in a Limousin garden, she unstoppered a vial in hands trembling just a little with her age, and there beside a bush where the raspberries swelled and the apples glowed above her, she poured out her remembrance as a perfume. The rich, crimson rose of powers both sacred and profane lay within, folded among the wonders of a world to come she would never know, the decadent truffles he had loved to feed her with, the gilt of exotic woods from faraway lands, the smoke of prayers, of hopes, of comfort wafting up to that starry sky above her in a ribbon of black and crimson, where it would dissipate. To lie in wait down, down through the winding river of time and high above all inspirations, to be found by such a one who could comprehend it and recreate it and remember such immortality and such a tale, of a man who once held all sacred power, and a witch of Avignon.


With my undying gratitude to Cookie Queen for the opportunity (and the cookie!).

Notes: Raspberry, ylang ylang, rose, cacao pod, hinoki wood, black truffle, vetiver, sandalwood, musk, amber.

Rouge Avignon was created by perfumer Pierre Guillaume. It is available from Osswald, Bloom Perfumery Spitalfields, and directly from the Phaedon Paris website.

Image composite, my own.