The Crawling King: A Conversation With Einar Baldvin

Einar Baldvin’s graphic novel The Crawling King released in 2018 on the heels of a successful Kickstarter campaign. The eerie grimoire blends fairy tale elements, Lovecraftian monsters, and an overarching narrative about a fallen kingdom. The book is an ideal conversation starter: a lovingly crafted, horror-filled tome packed with dazzlingly dark illustrations and compelling yarns. 

But after its initial run, The Crawling King seemed to fade into the background. The book soon became hard to find, with secondhand copies surfacing rarely and almost always above list price. 

After I discussed the graphic novel in my article about fictional texts with dark or mysterious implications, Einar Baldvin got in touch. We chatted about The Crawling King and his career as an animator and illustrator. He also revealed that he and his publisher have a few stray copies of the book still available, which are now available for purchase

My conversation with Baldvin below spans origin stories (his own and that of The Crawling King), inspirations, his experience working with Starburns Industries, and a few hints at what’s next…. 

“I’m originally from Iceland, I moved to Los Angeles to study animation at Calarts in 2005, and then ended up doing a master’s at USC, also in animation. There I made two shorts—Baboon and The Pride of Strathmoor—which broke me into the film festival scene, both [in the U.S.] and overseas. Particularly The Pride of Strathmoor, which won several prestigious awards and established me as a filmmaker. It brought me a lot of professional work and enabled me to pitch other animated projects of my own. Some other exciting things I’ve worked on have been a watercolor animation I made with my friend, animator Simon-Wilches Castro, for Apple and George R.R Martin to promote the release of the Game of Thrones Enhanced Editions, and two animated horror shorts I directed for FX networks: Ormur and Harpy. The latter is currently in production. Aside from all this animation work I, of course, also made The Crawling King.”

The Crawling King isn’t exactly for the faint of heart, but it also doesn’t overstep into the deeply horrific. It strikes a balance between fear and the fairy-tale aesthetic. The result is a dark and sometimes terrifying collection of tales, but it feels accessible, drawing you in…I consider myself a bit of a horror wimp, but I loved The Crawling King. Baldvin says it’s hard to pin down where the ideas for the stories originated. 

“In terms of the overall concept, I feel the way an art piece looks should match what it is about, so it was natural once I decided the stories would take place in a fallen kingdom, that everything about the book should match that concept. The pages are burnt and ravaged. The art looks old and each story attempts to build some trepidation or dread.

“It’s always hard to explain where exactly ideas come from because it is usually a mysterious process. I would say a lot of them are spun from childhood memories. The book is themed around arthropods, something I have always been interested in, and had a particularly strong fascination with when I was a child. My younger brother, Emil, shared that obsession. He’s the one who would capture them and keep them rotting in jars. A bad habit that lasted until he had an unfortunate encounter with a worm. That’s exactly what happens in the first story in The Crawling King, ‘A Story From The Childhood of King Aemilius I.'”

One story, “Hunger,” has creepy real-world origins stemming from Baldvin’s inclination toward the macabre.

“’Hunger’ is about rats who disguise themselves to infiltrate a costume party (they don’t have an invitation). It had a very distinct aesthetic inspiration: a book I found as a child, in an abandoned farmhouse in the north of Iceland. Some mice had eaten most of it, and I wanted to capture that look. So the original art was made by tearing up pages and gluing them back together and the rats are drawn like they are bursting out of the page.”

In The Crawling King, there is a constant interplay between form and function. Baldvin capitalized on his skill in various mediums to shape and expand on his ideas and create something wholly unique. 

“The ideas usually start as a simple inspiration or a vague idea and then they involve work bringing them to life. What’s nice about being a visual artist and a writer is that the drawings and the writing can inspire each other as I go back and forth. It helps me to switch the medium since writing is very different from drawing/painting.”

Stories shape us, and Baldvin’s inspirations are like stars in a constellation, showing us the composite parts of his artistry until they take shape into a larger whole. Simply put, his artistic and literary inspirations seem like a melting pot destined to give us a creator who revels in the creepy-crawly horror fantasy genre. During our discussion, he lists a handful of influences that generally led to his fascination with the genre and, by extension, helped bring The Crawling King to life, citing all of Lovecraft’s work, the 1999 board game Mordheim, 1997’s Diablo, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the art of William Blake, and Dark Souls 3 among his biggest inspirations. 

It’s a fitting selection of fantastically intriguing, enigmatic, and uncanny art and storytelling, considering The Crawling King draws out the darkest and deadliest fears and brings them to life on the page with each illustration and scrawl of scratchy text. The Crawling King is set in Gyldenbrae, a formerly thriving kingdom overrun by monstrosities. But what was the land like before its fall?

“Gyldenbrae was founded in tragic circumstances, but also around an act of love, sacrifice, and bravery. This resulted in a great miracle which made it the most resplendent and prosperous of all kingdoms for a thousand years. It would be just as wonderful to live there as it would be dreadful to roam its ruins after the great calamity.” 

To get a full sense of just how dreadful Gyldenbrae is, you’ll have to read the book. And if it sounds intriguing, you’re in good company: Starburns Industries, a production and publishing company founded by Dan Harmon (of Community and Rick & Morty) and a team of directors and producers, was on board from the get-go.

“I had a general meeting with Starburns Industries. They had seen The Pride of Strathmoor and wanted to meet and see what I was up to. I knew they’d made Anomalisa and Rick & Morty and were interested in developing something dark. I had a vague idea of a horror anthology series in the vein of my previous work. I met with Simon Ore, the eventual editor of The Crawling King, who was their head of development at the time, and he was very interested. He also told me they were getting into publishing and asked if I’d be interested in turning these ideas into a book. It sounded like fun and I started seriously developing the idea. What started as separate stories merged into connected stories, set in one world, and soon the idea of a lost, fragmented, mysterious and evil book started taking form. It would be a book not only set in a ruined kingdom but a book from the ruins.”

The Crawling King’s format led to a unique creative process. 

“I work best when I can really descend into black holes of my own making. As I mentioned earlier there was a lot of writing and drawing back and forth. A lot of pure instinct combined with meticulous plotting. The stories are all tied together thematically, but given the fractured nature of the book, the stories could be added or subtracted at any point. As the book was getting closer to being ready, I made plenty of extra drawings and letters, fragmented hints at the larger scope of things, that could go anywhere in the book. Some of the drawings depict literal events in Gyldenbrae and some are symbolic of larger themes. This is true of the stories also, not all of them depict actual events. This free, or chaotic, way of working went on until we were ready to print. I was making extra drawings as I was designing the layout, and moving things around constantly.”

Once the book was ready for production, Baldvin and Starburns Industries decided crowdfunding was the way to go. (This is long before Brandon Sanderson shattered the platform’s funding records.) 

“I found Kickstarter to be an amazing experience, I designed and ran the campaign myself and I felt right away that the most fun and interesting thing would be to run the entire thing in the character of the book—as if we were peddling an actual cursed object. So I wrote most of the text in character, gave all the rewards ominous names, and invented an in-world backstory for every step of the way. The most enjoyable part of that whole campaign was that people got really into it and started playing along, essentially roleplaying in character in the comment section and private messages. Plenty of long, fun exchanges resulted from that, meaning that the campaign became a creative effort of its own. It was an incredibly fun month and I’m very grateful to anyone who participated in bringing the book to life.”

The book garnered a positive response, including a few reactions from unexpected fans. Baldvin says anyone who enjoys horror or fantasy would enjoy The Crawling King. Speaking from experience, I can vouch for this claim. He also notes that fans of twisted fairy tales might enjoy his macabre take on the genre. But the standout, most unexpected readers? Children.

“To my pleasant surprise, I’ve also had a lot of very positive interactions with children, who seem to really enjoy the book. Some have even sent me their own drawings based on the characters, which is the most fun thing I could receive. One mother told me her daughter got in trouble at school when she showed her drawings to the class. So if you want to get your children in trouble, you may love the book in your home.”

Whether you plan to share the book with younger fans or keep it all for yourself, if you’re interested in The Crawling King, you can now get a copy from the book’s online store. As for Baldvin, he’s got his sights set on a few future projects, some of which will see him return to the world of Gyldenbrae.

“I’m currently working on that second animated horror short for FX networks; that’s not too far from being finished. I’m also directing animated sequences for a very exciting feature documentary film, which is funny about another hand-written and illustrated book (but one even bigger and heavier than The Crawling King). [I’m working on] a few other film things, but all are wrapped in shadowy and contractual secrecy. When it comes to Gyldenbrae, I have a lot planned. I’m quite far along writing a new book, where the world is greatly expanded. You will learn how Gyldenbrae was founded, what it was like as it prospered, and how exactly evil grew after Prince Aemilius made his bargain with the worm. It’s a very elaborate book that I’m excited to bring to people when it’s ready.”

Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.

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