Illustrating Zothique

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Cover art by George Barr, 1970.

A few years ago I wrote a short piece about Virgil Finlay’s illustrations for a Zothique story by Clark Ashton Smith, The Garden of Adompha, so this post may be regarded as a more substantial sequel. If Smith remains something of a cult author then Zothique is the pre-eminent cult creation from his career as a writer of weird fiction. Most of Smith’s stories can be grouped together according to their location: Atlantis, Hyperborea, Averoigne in medieval France, the planet Mars, and so on. Zothique was a more original conception than his other worlds, being the last continent on Earth in the final years of the planet, an idea which had precedents in earlier novels such as William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land but which hadn’t been used before as a setting for a cycle of stories. The distant future suggests science fiction but, as with the Zothique-influenced Dying Earth of Jack Vance, science and technology is long-forgotten and sorcery rules the day. The poetry that Smith wrote before he took to writing short stories had a distinctly Decadent quality—”like a verbal Gustave Moreau painting“—and Zothique is a richly Decadent world, with the entire planet in a state of decay along with its barbarous, demon-worshipping peoples.

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Weird Tales, September 1932. Art by T. Wyatt Nelson.

All the Zothique stories had their first printings in Weird Tales, a magazine that ran illustrations with most contributions, but unless you’re a pulp collector many of the illustrations have been difficult to see until very recently. One of the pleasures of looking through fiction magazines is seeing how their stories might have been illustrated when they were first published. Popular tales eventually find their way into book collections but their illustrations tend to be marooned in the titles where they first appeared unless the artist is of sufficient merit to warrant a collection of their own.

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Weird Tales, March 1933. Art by Jayem Wilcox.

The examples here are all from recent uploads at the Internet Archive which now has a complete run of Weird Tales from 1923 to 1954. The illustrations also run in order of publication with links to the relevant issues, although I agree with Lin Carter’s ordering of the stories. Smith never organised them himself, and the later reprints from Arkham House and others tend to scatter them through separate volumes. When Lin Carter edited the Zothique collection in 1970 he put the stories into an order that follows the very loose chronology running through the cycle.

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Weird Tales, January 1934. Art by Clark Ashton Smith.

One surprise of this search was discovering that Smith himself had provided illustrations for several of the stories. Some Smith enthusiasts like his drawings and paintings but I’m afraid I’m not among them, his sculpture work is better. It’s doubtful that these would have been printed at all if they weren’t the work of the author.

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More detectives

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I was going to post these designs a couple of weeks ago but other things kept intervening. Gilded Age Detective Stories and Steam-Age Crime Stories follow my earlier design for the Joe Phenix Detective Series (below), with all three forming a colour-coded trilogy of books from Dark Lantern Tales reprinting late-Victorian crime fiction. My earlier post about the Joe Phenix series went into some detail about the lettering design so there’s no need to repeat that here. The new covers follow the template established by the first, the main deviation being the larger title box for Crime Stories, each title of which is by a different author. As before, the illustrations are adapted from the often crude wood engravings that ran with the original stories. The illustrations in pulp magazines of this period tend to lack the finesse of their counterparts in books and newspapers but then you could say the same about the stories; if you’re attracted to this material then the rough edges are part of the package.

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As before, all these books are currently available as ebooks only but plans are afoot for a series of paperback reprints. Any further news about this will be posted in due course.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Joe Phenix Detective Series

The eyes have it

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Recent picture research turned up issues of L’Oeil de la Police, a lurid French crime magazine that I hadn’t encountered before. It shouldn’t be too surprising when the nation that gave the world the guillotine and Grand Guignol theatre produces magazines filled with gore, but the amount of red ink in these pages (also applied to gun shots and explosions) is certainly unusual for the time. The covers of Le Petit Journal—which ran concurrently with L’Oeil de la Police—also tended to the lurid and gory but the quality of illustration was better there. L’Oeil de la Police is positively cartoon-like, especially on the back covers of each issue which present their disasters in comic-like pages overseen by the spectral Eye of the Law. This is rather disingenuous when many of the scenes don’t involve law-breaking at all, but are reports of natural disasters and fatal accidents. The samples below show the most bizarre feature of the back pages which is the titular Eye in places becoming anthropomorphised, like an atrocity-viewing precursor of the eyeball heads worn by The Residents.

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The L’Oeil de la Police archive at Gallica runs from 1908 to 1914 should you require an antique disaster fix. The archive site has improved in recent years but it can still be awkward (and slow) to use so perseverance is required.

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The Joe Phenix Detective Series

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After six months of black-and-white drawing it’s been good to return to colour book covers of which this is the first of a new crop of designs. Albert W. Aiken (c.1846–1894) was a prolific American author of pulp fiction, whether writing under his own name or pseudonymously (and sometimes as a woman) for Dime Library, Banner Weekly, Saturday Journal and many other publications. Joe Phenix (also named Phoenix in later stories) was one of his more popular creations, a late-Victorian detective whose investigations ran to over 20 adventures. These tales are in the process of being made available by Mark Williams in ebook form so my task was to provide a single cover design that could function for all the titles.

In keeping with the new format, the style deployed here is mostly a pastiche of the dime novel idiom with a few contemporary touches. Many of the dime publications favoured a large box in the top third of the cover which would contain a typically florid title arrangement. The accompanying illustrations were often comparatively crude but the titles followed the style of the period with engraved drop shadows, gradients and lots of fine decoration. It’s fun to imitate this style although it can also be more time-consuming than contemporary design since everything has to be worked out one piece at a time. Several of the decorative elements on this cover are what printers used to refer to as “combination ornaments”, very small details which can be pieced together in a number of ways to form banners, borders and other motifs. Combination ornaments were a solution to the problem of working elaborate decoration into spaces of variable size and shape; instead of a pre-shaped design you’d shape the decoration to fit the space. They were also lucrative since printers charged for the use of each small element. In a digital composition such as this the joins between the pieces are invisible but in a period design you can often spot the combination pieces (especially in border designs) when the individual elements fail to line up properly. The figure with the gun, incidentally, is Mr Phenix himself, taken from the cover of Beadle’s Dime Library.

The first few Joe Phenix titles are available now at Amazon and other ebook outlets with further titles to follow.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The man who wasn’t Tesla
The George Dower Trilogy by KW Jeter
Steampunk in the Tank
More vapour trails
Steampunk catalogued
Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism
Steampunk Calendar
Words and pictures
Nathanial Krill at the Time Node
Fiendish Schemes
Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam
Steampunk Revolution
The Bookman Histories
Aether Cola
Crafting steampunk illustrations
SteamPunk Magazine
Morlocks, airships and curious cabinets
The Steampunk Bible
Steampunk Reloaded
Steampunk overloaded!
More Steampunk and the Crawling Chaos
Steampunk Redux
Steampunk framed
Steampunk Horror Shortcuts

Essex House book covers

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I’ve known the name of American publisher Essex House for many years but the books they published, all of which appeared in a frenzy of activity from 1968 to 1969, have never been easy to find in the UK. The company is chiefly of note today for having three original Philip José Farmer novels on their list, all works of fantasy with the erotic side more dominant than in Farmer’s previous work. Erotic fiction with a generic slant was the Essex House speciality, and while the Farmer covers have appeared here before, I’d not seen any other Essex House covers until the discovery of this page which collects 38 of the 42 published titles.

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It’s immediately evident looking down the list that the (uncredited) designer managed to forge a distinctive identity for the books at a time when any cover would suffice if the written material was sufficiently pornographic. Many of the covers borrow (or mutate) pre-existing artworks, while others emulate the watered-down psychedelic style that by the late 60s was visible everywhere in the US and much of Europe. These aren’t all great pieces of design but the graphics on erotic titles in the 60s either played safe by favouring text-only covers or sported technically crude emulations of paperback illustration. (For an example of just how technically crude, see this post about some of the many gay pulps on sale in the US.)

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Essex House may not have been around for long but they seemed to be attempting something different, at least where the covers were concerned. I’ve only read the Farmer books so I can’t vouch for the other titles but the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction writes that

…about half the 42 titles published by Essex House were sf/fantasy; they included novels by Philip José Farmer, Richard E Geis, David Meltzer (perhaps the most distinguished), Michael Perkins and Hank Stine…of which a number were ambitious, some literary, and most somewhat joyless—even emetic—and redolent of 1960s radicalism.

Pornography as a tool of radical politics had a brief vogue in the late 60s and early 70s, something that’s particularly evident in the underground magazines of the period. The results may be “joyless” to some but then I find a lot of the alleged classics of science fiction joyless so it’s all a matter of taste. There was no equivalent of Essex House in the UK but in the 1970s France had the Chute Libre imprint which not only published all of the Essex House Farmer titles but did so with a collection of equally striking (or “joyless”) cover designs.

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Artwork is a solarised version of Le Bout du monde (1949) by Leonor Fini.

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