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Scent as Storytelling: Adapting American Gods to Perfume

 

BPAL/American Gods Original Art by Hugo Award-winner Julie Dillon

I got into Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab – a perfume oil brand known for making scents inspired by fandoms – and American Gods – Neil Gaiman’s novel about an ex-con who finds himself caught in the middle of a war between old gods and new ones – at almost exactly the same time during my second year of college. They’re both the kind of thing you might discover in college if you’re the kind of person who loves comic books and grand mythological sagas, but also loves the small weird ways human being are cruel and kind to one another, and also wants to know what the Egyptian cat goddess Bast might have smelled like (for the record, it’s cardamom and spicy vanilla and amber, and it’s just as wonderful as one would hope).

In many ways, scent is another kind of storytelling. A perfume progresses from top notes (the first thing you smell when you open a bottle or apply a scent to your skin) through heart notes to base notes (the last thing left before it fades), and this classic progression mimics narrative storytelling – we journey from the familiar to the strange, from whom we have been to who we might be. But scent also tells a story about the wearer – a perfume will never smell quite the same from one body to the next, and no two people’s reaction to a fragrance will be exactly the same. The first is a somewhat simple matter of body chemistry – our skin’s particularities mean that perfume compositions will react differently on us than on someone else, creating a personal alchemy rather than a deliverable result. The second is more magical. Our olfactory senses are the most visceral ties we have to memory, and so smells contain worlds of reference specific only to one person. What summons a huge reaction in me because it smells like the flowerbed outside the house where I grew up might do very little for the next person who smells the same scent. In this way, scent works on its audience through the same personal alchemy as books – while each book or each fragrance might be marketed widely, they are experienced in a one-to-one conversation, and each of those conversations – between individual and text or individual and smell – is determined by all the past experiences that the reader or the wearer brings with them.

Art by Julie Dillon

BPAL/American Gods Original Art by Julie Dillon

One thing that’s wonderful about BPAL is that all of its scents are more or less inside jokes. They’re fan service. While a scent titled Fuck You, Said the Raven could smell good on anyone who likes the smell of myrrh and patchouli and oak leaf, the scent of the back room of an occult shop you stumble on in an alleyway in an unfamiliar city, the bottle is more than just the smell inside. It’s intended for people who know the name’s reference, who get the joke, who know when this happens in American Gods and why it matters. Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab makes beautiful scents, but they built their reputation on offering fragrances that function as a proof of loyalty. Their scents are oils rather than perfumes, and they operate pointedly and intentionally outside of the larger perfume industry. The website descriptions reads like sincere witchcraft and everything is handmade, small batch: scents for people who who want to smell like ideas rather than flowers, scent as cosplay. Of course scent is always a sort of cosplay – the joy of perfume is that it allows you to invisibly dress up as someone else, to signal a different personality and choose the reaction you want to generate in the same way a costume does. Perhaps because perfume is so closely tied to character and make-believe, perfumers are often book nerds. BPAL is certainly not the only brand of scents to be based on literature (Imaginary Authors is another great one for book nerds interested in perfume). Often what we love about books, about the particular stories and characters that root in our interiors and become part of who we are, is something that can’t quite be expressed logically, that isn’t so simple as what can be seen or spoken. Scent allows us to go beyond that, to a more visceral understanding of a person or an idea, and so perfume and literature often naturally grow into a paired interest.

BPAL’s American Gods collection is a collaboration with Neil Gaiman, and the first installment comprises sixteen perfume oil blends. These scents are part of an ongoing series with Gaiman, who has frequently joined forces with BPAL to create scents based on his characters and stories in the past (and presumably in the future, as the current American Gods scents are described as “part one” of this particular collaboration). Both interested in myth and storytelling, both beloved by devoted followers, and both unapologetically cheesy in a deeply generous way, BPAL and Gaiman are a natural match.

Like many of BPAL’s other themed collections, this one is almost hilariously comprehensive – there are scents for central characters and scents for characters who appear only in a few scenes, and scents for phrases and ideas that run through the series (one called Believe is meant to represent the whole central theme of the book, and smells at once like raw, wet earth and caramelized sugar). The perfumes seek to represent the whole landscape of the story, all its locations and accidents, its mercies and its worries. Sometimes this is overwhelming, or stubbornly completist (do we really need to have a perfume for Hinzelmann? For Chad the cop? For a minor god who appeared unnamed in the backseat of a car for one scene?), but at its best, the unexpected scents distill the particular alchemy of this book and its expansive, overcrowded world into something you can carry around on your skin like a secret.

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BPAL/American Gods Original Art by Julie Dillon

BPAL’s website copy quotes the section of the book about Shadow’s encounter with the old gods, seeing them arrayed for war on the Rock City mountaintop, where he says, “They were too big. Everything was too big.” The god characters in American Gods roam across a landscape too small to contain them, pushing at the boundaries of a shrinking reality. They’re kind to each other and awful to each other, they’re outrageous and petty, powerful and helpless. The book takes one of the most classic and generally stupidest forms of American literature – the road trip – and updates it against the tradition of the Odyssey, a man’s journey interrupted by gods who keep popping up in the road. There’s Mr. Ibis, the Egyptian god of the Dead, working as a mortician, whose perfume oil smells like riverwater and paper, with an undertow of decay. There’s Eostre of the Dawn, whose scent is a huge white floral with an off-putting spicy rot at its heart (Kristin Chenoweth’s casting as this character is a stroke of genius in an adaptation that appears to be full of strokes of genius, and the perfume oil smells a lot like her speaking voice sounds). There’s one scent for each of the three sisters who represent the phases of the moon – the first smells like blood, and the last smells like candy. Some succeed more than others – Czernobog’s perfume smells like unfiltered cigarettes exactly as it says in the description, careless and heavy and dank, shrugging at death. Loki Lie-Smith’s fragrance, on the other hand, smells less like a trickster god, and more like putting your face into a bag full of stale powdered cinnamon. Mr. Wednesday, at the center of the book’s plot, gets two scents, Mister Wednesday for his American con artist manifestation, the character who drives the action of the book, and Odin All-Father, grand god out of stories from the old country, behind the facade. The first is a slick memory of whiskey and cigars, the smell of a low-rent old-boys’ club, and the second is another oaky, heavy, spicy, woody smell (meant, appropriately, to smell like honey mead).

In the kind of myths in whose traditions American Gods follows, mortals collide with the gods and their lives are irrevocably changed by it. There are four perfumes in this collection for four human characters, and these are more difficult to render, as they don’t link to gestural concepts in quite the same way that the gods do – big ideas translate well to scent. Sam, the young woman whom Shadow picks up on the side of the road, and perhaps the best and kindest person in the whole book, has a scent that is smells like incense and soap, like clean skin and a warm car on a cold day. On the other hand, Shadow’s unfaithful wife Laura, who returns from the dead at his unwitting summons and follows him around looking to win back his loyalty even as she begins to visibly decay, gets a scent that smells all too accurate to the character – sweetness layered over rot, fruit left out too long going bad on a kitchen counter (perhaps this will smell wonderful on someone other than me, though – who knows?) Where the collection succeeds best are the scents that capture not a character but an idea – ineffable concepts fit naturally with perfumes, which always express the intangible. My favorite of the whole set is Coin Trick, a reference fans of the story will get immediately and those new to it will soon come to recognize. The smell is clean and comforting at once, white florals and electricity. It really does smell like luck.

Shadow himself, the center of the story, the strong, silent anchor around which the wind-up roadside attraction of myth spins and turns, the opaque truth at the center of the whirr and sparkle of myth and con, appropriately has no scent. Shadow is surrounded by people seeking his loyalty, seeking to force him to define himself by his devotion to them. The book centers on Shadow’s untold backstory, his search for a identity and an answer. Shadow functions as an Everyman, a placeholder who could be anyone. He is scentless because he’s undefined, refusing to offer his loyalty, refusing to choose one god.

I hope the television series is as good as it appears; I have every reason to believe it will be. It’s difficult when something you love gets adapted to reach a wider audience. When I saw the first American Gods trailer, I was simultaneously thrilled – they’re getting it right, they’re getting it right – and jealous, wanting to hold this thing I love as close to myself as I possibly could and let no one see what I was hoarding. American Gods creates a world by which one can be swallowed up and consumed. Many of us get overprotective about books like these because they were places we went when we needed somewhere to go. At his best, Gaiman has a particular talent for the kind of read-you-to-sleep story that roots in people’s hearts because it offers a retreat and a hiding place. These inside-joke perfumes remind those of us who already know the book that it still belongs to us, that there’s still a way to possess this beloved story that’s about to become more widely known.

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