It’s because of American Gods that I have a sprawling perfume collection. Ten years ago, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab—BPAL for short—released their first line of scents based on Neil Gaiman’s novel, and I found I could no longer resist the temptation to find out what these beloved fictional characters might smell like.
If you are turning up your nose, thinking, Oh no, not perfume, I hate that stuff, wait! So was I. I loathed perfume. I held my breath walking past perfume counters, leaving a wide berth around the salespeople positioned to offer customers a spritz of something terrifying. When I saw references to BPAL online, I scrolled a little faster, certain it was not relevant to me.
But there is nothing like a story to make a person change her mind about a thing.
These are scents based on books—and not just any old books, but Gaiman’s evocative, atmospheric books. The scent descriptions, with their snippets of text, meant something to me, even when I raised an eyebrow at some of the choices. So I ordered Spider—yes, from Anansi Boys, not American Gods, but mandarin is gorgeous, and you have to start somewhere—and thus, a slight obsession was born.
Now, with American Gods taking another form, finally on television, BPAL has released a whole new line of scents inspired by the book. Finally, there’s a Shadow scent; eventually, we’ll see the Fuck You, Said the Raven scent that I never knew I was dying to smell. We got a generous selection of these new scents to try in the Tor.com offices, and try them we did. The reviews below come from sniffers new to BPAL and sniffers like me, who don’t want to admit how many scents we have tried.
There’s one very important thing to understand about BPAL—and about perfume in general, really. Scent is incredibly personal. What smells good to me may smell like rank garbage on a hot sidewalk to you; what smells amazing on your skin may smell like those little rose-shaped soaps from a certain grandma’s bathroom on mine. What a character or an idea smells like to Elizabeth Barrial, the mastermind behind BPAL, may run in direct opposition to what you or I think that character idea evokes, aromatically speaking.
Sniffing Black Phoenix scents isn’t necessarily just about deciding whether you want to smell like them; it’s also about seeing what they evoke for you. Is it the imagery Barrial intends, or something else entirely? (Once I sniffed a Halloween scent that immediately called to mind the dusty windowsills of my uncle’s house. It was extremely precise, and entirely inexplicable.) You can look at these scents simply as perfumes, aromas you may or may not want to carry through your day, or as tiny adventures for your nose, cues that elicit memories or ideas or associations. Do you want to be springy wisteria one day, smoky vetiver the next? A plucky Shakespearean heroine on Monday, Alice in Wonderland’s Red Queen by Friday? You can. Would you rather smell like America’s New Gods, or the oddly comforting, surprisingly beachy scent of Mr. Czernobog? Media or Laura? A god’s glass eye, or Technical Boy’s vape smoke?
Note: All label art by Julie Dillon; scent descriptions (in italic) from BPAL.
America’s New Gods
Scorched wires, silicone, tar, chlorine, wax, rubber, and exhaust.
Smells like the inside of a car on a summer road trip, windows down, Tom Waits blasting, America churning along just outside your windows. Everyone sounds good when they sing along to Tom Waits, and America looks great as long as you can keep moving. —Leah
Like a repair garage? In a good way? Is that even a thing? Why do I really like this? —Emily
Like a piece of hide that’s been scented with some sort of fake chocolatey food smell so that you have to keep stopping yourself from biting into it. —Natalie
This scent is a person whose hair is too shiny and whose eyes are too bright, driving a car that looks like it’s from the future. —Molly
Skin musk and 20-year ages frankincense, a sprig of asphodel, a splash of soma, a lightning-streak of sharp ozone, and stream of ambrosia.
Lots of frankincense in the bottle, but the minute it hits my skin, it’s air and ozone and an unexpected sweetness. Skin musk always gets a little soapy on me, and this is no exception. It’s cleaner than I’d expect thunder to be, but it’s also like cool air tinged with sweetness from somewhere far off. It smells like morning, and dries to something subtle and close to the skin, with a note that’s almost like honey in the foreground. —Molly
This gave me so many strange flashbacks to all the head shops my mother has dragged me into over the years. —Emily
The heart of the land: roots plunging ever deeper into thrumming black soil through the graves of faith, disillusion, and skepticism.
A pine tree graveyard after a rain, a summer night, deep in Florida. Talk to the ghosts and they might just hear you tonight. —Leah
This does smell like earth, but earth dipped in chocolate. Like when you were a kid and you made mud pies? But you always wanted mud pies on the playground to taste like mud pies that were made with pudding and cookie crumbles. That is what it smells like. On my skin it was faint, but very pleasant. I’m not sure that it is something that would work for me day to day, but it it has a spring-ness to it that makes it perfect right now. —Emily
The Buffalo Man
Warm dark brown musk, woodsmoke, and deep pools of labdanum.
This gave me a really visceral shiver, in a something-creeping-over-your-skin or hungover way. —Natalie
This is a yoga studio. —Emily
Cigarettes and Offerings
Cigarette smoke overlapping with the resonance of long-forgotten incenses.
An aunt’s purse, filled with packs of cigarettes and candies… but in a good way.—Leah
Wet, the mustiness of the cigarettes is sharper and much more distinct, yet without actually evoking the fill-your-nose smoke of the real thing. (Which was a relief, considering that dating enough awful men who were also smokers has created a permanent weird phantom-tug when I do wind up downwind of any smoker, and I was hoping to avoid that.) Dry, it’s like walking into a potpourri shop, where you can almost hear the tiny, brittle leaves crunching under the barest of touches. —Natalie
The depths of Mimisbrunnr: mugwort and frankincense, grey amber and ash.
I’m definitely getting a well, but a well where you tossed in flowers ages ago and they latched themselves into the stone and infused their scent into every bucket you pulled up. While I’m not usually one to mix senses, smelling this scent makes me think of the sound of glass clinking—not a glass eye on a table, but a glass bottle being unstoppered. —Natalie
The Jeweled Spider
Cigarillo smoke, spatters of ice cream sundae, a supersized mug of coffee, a pile of fruit, and a little bit of curried goat.
Sweet. Fruity. Troublemaking. Playful. It smells like a really good party. Might be too sweet for me personally to wear, but I like the way all the elements dance together, the huge pile of fruit and the sweet ice cream tempered by the slight smoke and coffee’s particular sweet bitter edge. It’s a statement necklace of a scent—it might be big and slightly gaudy, but you use it just right and it balances the whole image. And the longer you wear it, the more the smoke takes on an elegant tobacco note that glides over everything else, and can probably last as long as a very good night. —Molly
This smells incredible in the bottle, but on my skin it mostly smelled like curry. Given how much I love curry, that is not a hardship. Except it made me very, very hungry all the time. —Emily
Violets, upturned earth, mothballs, formaldehyde (mixed with glycerin and lanolin), and the memory of the taste of strawberry daiquiris suspended in twilight.
A dirty, dirty sweetness, a nice face with a sharp tongue. I don’t get violets, but I get a lot of earth and a lot of strawberry daiquiri—like sipping too-sweet drinks by a freshly dug grave. And then the chemical notes start to float up; they’re sneaky at first, but they make themselves known without smothering the sugar and dirt. There’s mischief in this scent, and I like it. It makes me think, oddly, of a county fair, somewhere with a melange of smells that might be fun, and might be terrible. It’s the image of Jolly Rancher dropped in the dirt. It’s perfect. It’s kind of mean. I’ve been looking for my perfect damp-earth scent, and this might be it. —Molly
All I could smell in the bottle was violet candy and mothballs, and then I ran away like the Nope Octopus. —Emily
Low Key Lyesmith
Black clove and cassia flung onto glowing cinders and mingled with slow-dripping poisons.
My initial thought was I hope poison smells awesome! Then I opened the bottle, and my next thought was This smells like evil baking. Delicious evil baking. After putting it on my skin, it morphed; the clove was very forward at first, then the cassia came up and whatever that poison note is. The longer I wore it, the more sneaky I felt. As though something in the scent was goading me into becoming a trickster god. It’s a very particular thing that I could only wear for certain days and occasions, but the strangeness of it made me feel powerful. You should probably watch out for me when I’m wearing it, as I doubt I’ll be trustworthy. —Emily
I blame the cloves, but this made me feel cozy like sipping spiced cider wrapped in a slightly smelly hand-knit blanket, and then I felt weird about that. —Natalie
It smells like the Krampus! —Leah
A news anchor’s cologne, a soap star’s perfume: perfect, pixelated, and glamorous; aglow with cathodes and anodes, coated with phosphor.
Wet, it’s almost cloyingly floral, the grandmotherly rose soaps Molly mentioned but also the generic perfume you could sniff in any bathroom you happen to sneak into. It’s frustrating, because I want more from the scent associated with this dynamic, shifting character. But then I realize—just as this scent could exist in every home, so too does Media inhabit every device. It’s the embodiment of a collective consciousness, a shared nose-memory. Of course, I say this, yet I’m the only one in the office who would wear this day-in, day-out. Dry, it diffuses, like the most comforting of bath bombs, into something more subtle, less variable and more established. —Natalie
Sleek cologne, the memory of a Nine Herbs Charm, gallows wood, and a splash of whiskey.
When I started smelling this one in the bottle I visibly screwed up my face is disgust. Then a second later, I changed my mind and decided that it smelled very nice and slick. And then I shouted “Hey, wait a minute,” because if that’s not the scented personification of a conman…. —Emily
Smells like my uncle who’s always thisclose to that million-dollar windfall but needs to borrow five hundred bucks in the meantime. Memory of a charm, indeed… —Natalie
It smells like Grandpa if your grandpa is an Ent. —Leah
Unfiltered cigarettes, the leather and metal of sledgehammers, aortal blood slowly drying, and black incense.
This smells like the beach. Somehow, impossibly. Both in the bottle and on my skin. I spent hours trying to figure out what about this combination made me think of the beach, and the only thing I could come up with was that the combination of metal and smoke and blood somehow gave the overall impression of beach bonfires and the way that skin smells when you’ve been baking in the sun for hours with sunscreen on. Metallic sweat and heat. It ended up being a deeply nostalgic scent for me, and it lingers very lightly, so that whenever I turned or gestured it hit me again. What a strange scent to end up taking comfort in. —Emily
Dark metal and sour grapefruit creeping over a field of bones.
An immediate discord in the bottle, clashing metal and grapefruit, and that field of bones smells like the earth beneath it as well as something dry and a little incensey. The metal note isn’t hot metal, that scent that welding has, but something cool and maybe a little oil-slicked. It’s very gender neutral, if something can be very neutral. It makes me think of old cars and potting soil, but with a grapefruit that’s almost soda-like. The grapefruit’s sweet-sourness unexpectedly comes to the foreground as it dries—it’s like my skin is taming the creepy notes. I haven’t smelled anything quite like this, and I’ve smelled a lot of BPAL. This kind of scent purrs in the background rather than putting itself on display. —Molly
How on earth did I get baby powder from this? My nose is on holiday or something. —Emily
Take the Moon
Silvered musk and lemon peel, white fir needle, frosted apple blossom, and mugwort.
The musk and the fir and the apple blossom do a swirly dance together, making a pretty good scent approximation of moonlight. It’s all very cool and bright—lemon bright, which is sharp rather than sunny in combination with the other notes. It makes me think of moonlit birch trees, that sort of slender, graceful evening image. There’s an undeniable paleness, trees and sharp silver light. It’s lovely and graceful, a strong counterpoint to all the heavy, smoky, earth-bound scents in the collection. It reminds me a little bit of Val Sans Retour, an old discontinued BPAL that I don’t know the notes for—the lemon and trees aspect—but there’s a lot more going on here. It pretty much sparkles. It’s a very clean and bright scent, hopeful and clear. —Molly
This is what a witch’s garden smells like. —Emily
The Renaissance festival during an early weekend, before everyone’s exhausted, while the turkey legs are still fresh, and there is still hope for an epic summer. —Leah
Vape smoke and burning electrical parts.
This one is clean and sharp. But that’s only the technical way to talk about Technical Boy. The reason I love this scent is that it smells like my friend Waldo’s room back in high school, where we’d all meet to play video games and watch anime and stuff ourselves with junk food. But again, in a good way. In the best way. —Leah
Red musk and wild plum, orange blossom and jasmine, juniper berries, sweet incense, and vetiver-laced sandalwood.
She comes billowing out of the bottle, all smoky vetiver and lush redness, a scent you can almost see. I expect this to be a tough one for me—I’m not a huge fan of red musk, which smells chemical on my skin, or orange blossom (blame it on a certain youthful association)—but I have grown to adore vetiver, all slinky darkness and rough edges. This scent is particularly carefully blended; the notes are hard to pick out, melded into something just shy of a stately, old-fashioned perfume. Fans of Mme. Moriarty and her lush, red-musky kin will be all over this—it’s a vibrant red/purple scent, but with that smoky vetiver streak that sets it apart. This is a scent that has secrets. It’s seen things. You might even believe some of them. —Molly
Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s American Gods scents are available here; there are also room sprays and nail polishes from their sister company, Black Phoenix Trading Post! All purchases from these lines benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Original label art is by Julie Dillon.