The Gothic Tarot by Joseph Vargo
Review by Diane Wilkes

While I am not a Goth Girl, or anything resembling one, I recognize a class production when I see it. And the Gothic Tarot by Joseph Vargo is definitely a class production--the deck is both beautiful and professionally packaged--and it's an independently published deck, to boot.

The artwork, though, is what really makes this deck transcend the boundaries of theme. Like Robert Place's never-completed Vampire Tarot, the imagery is dramatic, but delicate, making this underworld a place of alluring mystery instead of an exaggerated joke. The difference between this and the Vampire Tarot is like comparing a stiletto and a sledgehammer. Panache vs. pancake. You get the drift.

The Magician is particularly unique, because normally this card is depicted with one individual. In this version, the Magician makes fire in a skull-based cauldron as he channels lightning, while four hooded souls stand by, each holding a symbol of the elements. The High Priestess looks like an Egyptian goddess standing in a sarcophagial portal.  Is she barring the way or beckoning you to come forth? You be the judge.

The Empress stands in her coffin, which is also an arched doorway. There is a look of shock or horror on her face--perhaps she sees that her mate, the Emperor, is having a fine time with his harem of vampire sirens.

Some of my favorite Majors are Strength, which reminds me of that famous scene in Ghostbusters when Sigourny Weaver opens herself to the elements, and Temperance, which shows a dark lady concocting a powerfully witchy brew in her fiery cauldron. The Tower shows a gargoyle-guarded fortress that remains intact as the full moon overlooks the bolt of lightning that strikes it--the scary part of this Tower is in its solid external structure. It's all too ominously, powerfully sturdy and can withstand any wraith's powers to escape.

Two of the Majors evoke the Vampire Tarot by Nathalie Hertz, a deck I disliked except for the Chariot and the Sun cards. The two Chariots in these decks are almost identical, but the Sun card, while carrying the same message, is more classically rendered--and dare I say more archetypal?--in the Gothic version.

One card I really don't quite get is the World, which looks like a decorated stone panel designed with two angels and two demons. The angels bear spears, which could be used as spikes through the heart of the vampire, I suppose, and the demons proffer shields adorned with skeletons. It's an interesting card, and I wish the little white book (LWB) explained its symbolism. But more on that later.

The Minor Arcana are derived in large part from the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), though the Gothic Tarot is not a clone of that deck. As in many decks, some cards are more similar than others. The Five of Cups depicts a cloaked man riveted by a skull in his hand. A grinning demonic harlequin sits on a throne surround by five swords in the Five of Swords. He holds a pole with a bloody crowned head, clasped triumphantly in one of his hands as blood drips down his arm. The Ten of Swords shows the requisite swords in the prone body, but it's a skeleton's structure that bears the weight. Talk about something really being completely over and done with! An Uncle-Fester type skulks about an icy graveyard in the Five of Pentacles, giving a whole new face to spiritual poverty.

Speaking of Uncle Fester, the Queen of Cups is pure Morticia Adams, lifting her chalice in the dark of night--perhaps to an invisible Gomez? For those who have long seen her as the essence of feminine charm, this deck is a necessity for the Queen of Cups alone.

Some of the most interesting cards in this deck are the ones that only hint at their RWS counterparts. The Six of Cups shows a white wraith sitting on the outside a graven tomb, reading a book. The image--and her eerie luminescence--convey a new perspective on nostalgia and its charms. The Eight of Swords shows a woman leaning against a pillar, her Victoria's Secret-style nightgown and enraptured visage showing the compelling pull of the underworld and a reason some give themselves up to it with abandon. She is an all-too-willing captive.

The images are dark and blanketed by a black border, which is thematically apropos. The suits are standard (Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles), but are illustrated with very Gothic artwork. The wand is ornate and could be used as a spike (you never know when you'll need one of those!), yet the gleaming ruby hilt adds both a fiery and elegant touch. The cup is a goblet seeded with glowing rubies, which is such a medieval touch when adorning a hammered silver chalice. The sword also contains a ruby, though the pentacle, alas, lacks a gem of any color.

Vargo is a gifted artist in the gothic fantasy field, and some of the tarot imagery is taken from earlier paintings. From a sheet that came with my deck, I learned that the artist had originally planned to do a pips-only deck, but changed his mind, influenced primarily by the RWS deck. The only thing I am disappointed by is the LWB provided with the Gothic Tarot. It doesn't offer any illumination on the deck's unique symbolism. Instead, it provides general information about the tarot, along with short card interpretations and two spreads, the Celtic Cross and something called the Mystic Seven. The card interpretations are traditional, and oft-times have no relationship with the image on the actual card. The Eight of Pentacles, for example, shows two gargoyles sitting next to a pillar lined with eight pentacles. The "Divinatory Meaning" reads, "craftmanship, skill and business savvy pay off, turning hobbies and interests into a profitable endeavor, gainful employment or a commissioned work. Reversed: vanity, overly ambitious." I fail to see how that description relates to the card's picture. The Ten of Wand's Divinatory Meaning: "the trappings of success, fortune and gain come at a price, a burden to carry, oppression, a lawsuit may end in defeat"--this describes the RWS Ten of Wands, but not the Gothic Tarot version, which depicts a ghostly woman carrying a glowing candelabrum as she descends stairs. On the balustrade sits a winged and howling fanged creature. The interpretation and image are not related in any discernible way.

This is, however, a deck I recommend highly, not merely to tarot collectors and Anne Rice/horror fiction enthusiasts, but to anyone looking for a dramatically beautiful, independently-published deck that is most reasonably priced.

Click here to see more cards and purchase this deck.

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs   X
Strength VIII, Justice XI   X
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana X  
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Disks) X  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions X  
Standard dimensions (4 3/4" X 2 3/4")   X
Smaller than standard X
Larger than standard X  

The Gothic Tarot by Joseph Vargo
Publisher: Monolith Graphics
ISBN#: 0967575621

Images 2002 Monolith Graphics
Review and page 2003 Diane Wilkes