Weekend links 504

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Eric Burdon and the Animals, Mother Earth, Hour Glass; Fillmore Auditorium, October 19-21, 1967 by Bonnie MacLean.

• RIP Bonnie MacLean, another of the original San Francisco poster artists, and the only woman of note in the US psychedelic poster scene. (Not the only woman, however; in Europe we had Marijke Koger.) Related: Bonnie MacLean’s posters at Wolfgang’s. And RIP to illustrator Tom Adams, an artist whose exceptional covers for novels by Agatha Christie are only one part of a long and varied career.

The Litanies Of Satan (1982), the short but uncompromising debut album by Diamanda Galás, is reissued on Galás’s own label later this month. Further albums from her remarkable back catalogue will follow. Related: video of Galás performing The Litanies Of Satan in 1985.

• “Scorsese is amazed that United Artists didn’t touch one frame of Raging Bull, since it’s the first time in his life as a feature director that this has apparently occurred.” In 1981 Derek Malcolm talked to Martin Scorsese about his reasons for making a boxing picture.

“…in a post-AIDS world, its scenes of mass male-on-male decadence evoke a sense of the spiritual: Not to put so blunt a phrase on it, but the majority of the men we see in Cruising‘s bars would likely die within the next decade, victims of a very heterosexual genocide of neglect. These are blurred, melancholic memories locked forever within Cruising‘s celluloid; a phantasmagoria of men whose liberation was not legislatively delivered, but recovered in the privacy of leather bars and cruising joints. The film’s overt sexuality makes it hard to escape a sense of catastrophic loss.”

Jack King on William Friedkin’s Cruising

• The Pet Shop Boys’ eccentric feature film, It Couldn’t Happen Here (1988), is released on blu-ray and DVD in June. The video for You Were Always On My Mind gives an idea of the contents.

• “Orion being one of the brightest constellations makes it a lot of people’s favourites, and he was my favourite as a kid.” Ben Chasny on his history of stargazing.

• “You think the Holy Grail is lost? No. I have it on my piano.” John Boorman talks to Xan Brooks.

• Laura Cumming on the dark and haunting paintings of Belgian Symbolist Léon Spilliaert.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 631 by Ondness.

Alistair Ryder chooses 10 great killer plant films.

Howl by John Foxx And The Maths.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Gleam.

The Litanies Of Satan (1969) by Ruth White | Grail (1971) by Grail | Plants’ Music (1981) by Ippu-Do

Shades of Darkness

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The end of the year in Britain is as much a time for ghost stories as the end of October, and this is one Christmas tradition (one of the few…) that I’ve always been happy to support. In recent years all of the best of the British TV ghost stories have appeared on DVD, along with some of the minor ones, but exceptions remain. Shades of Darkness was a series of hour-long supernatural dramas made by Granada TV in the 1980s, and so far seems to have only appeared on disc as a now-deleted Region 1 set.

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The series comprised two short seasons in 1983 and 1986, and dates from the period when Granada was in serious competition with the BBC for well-crafted period drama. Granada’s flagship production was the long-running Sherlock Holmes series, an attempt to film all the Holmes stories with Jeremy Brett in the lead, a mostly successful endeavour that was only compromised at the end by Brett’s failing health. Shades of Darkness shares with the Holmes adaptations some of the same production team (producer June Wyndham Davies and director Peter Hammond) together with well-chosen rural locations in damp and autumnal Lancashire and Cheshire.

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I’d only seen one of these films before, the adaptation by Ken Taylor of Walter de la Mare’s most anthologised story, Seaton’s Aunt. The story is a good choice for a series where the human drama is given as much space as the supernatural although the film doesn’t capture the subtleties or the insidious horror of de la Mare’s best writing. (The copy at YouTube is also blighted with Norwegian subtitles throughout.) I doubt that any adaptation of Seaton’s Aunt could satisfy me but it’s good to see Mary Morris in one of her last roles as poor Seaton’s malign and domineering guardian.

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More successful are Afterward by Edith Wharton, another popular entry in ghost-story collections, and The Maze by CHB Kitchin in which Francesca Annis’s post-war housewife is tormented by memories of a dead lover. Kitchin’s story is an odd inclusion among the familiar tales, and I wonder how it came to be chosen when it doesn’t seem to be subject to the same republication as the others. MR James biographer Michael Cox is credited as an executive producer on some of the films in the series, which suggests he may have advised on the story selections, but not on The Maze. Kitchin was a writer best known for his detective novels but he’s received more attention in recent years for a number of novels with gay themes. The Maze includes a character coded as gay who isn’t treated as an outright villain, an unusual detail in a story first published in 1954.

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Elsewhere, Hugh Grant has an early role in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover, and there are three adaptations by Alan Plater, one of which, LP Hartley’s Feet Foremost, is another frequently collected story which Plater surprisingly mishandles. Plater’s adaptation of The Intercessor by May Sinclair is better, with John Duttine in the role of a writer trying to work in a haunted farmhouse. I saw Duttine on stage a few years after this when he played a similar role as The Actor in the first theatrical run of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. It’s possible that The Intercessor secured him the part.

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All these films are currently on YouTube with the exception of the final episode in season two, The Last Seance by Agatha Christie. Watch them here.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Return: a ghost story
Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black
“Who is this who is coming?”

Of Mice and Minestrone

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I’ve done a lot of cover work this year, and there are still more designs waiting to be announced. Of Mice and Minestrone isn’t my usual line of work but it’s actually the third cover I’ve done for a Joe R. Lansdale book, although the previous titles were horror and steampunk respectively. The latest volume is a collection of crime stories, and an addition to Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard books, a series about a pair of Texan detectives whose popularity now extends to a TV show.

Crime presents many of the same challenges you find in other genres, all of which come with their own set of clichés which you can either choose to engage with or avoid. In the case of crime there’s a tendency for degraded typefaces to proliferate, along with variations on a red/black/white colour scheme. One of the early drafts of this design did use a red/black/white arrangement but I was told that Joe Lansdale was (unsurprisingly) tired of seeing this scheme applied to his own books. The title of the collection comes from the opening story which concerns the young Hap’s involvement with an older woman and her abusive husband; the marital abuse is resolved via a bowl of soup which has been poisoned with a dead rat, hence the title and the cover image. I like using pareidolia when I can, and the slightly unusual imagery pushed the appearance away from generic clichés (if you discount the bullets) towards the marvellously surreal covers that Tom Adams painted for Agatha Christie’s novels.

The background photo is a rare example of my using a stock image. The soup bowl looked fine from the outset but the background lacked a suitably ominous quality, and was at risk of looking too much like a recipe book. (As it happens there are some recipes by Kasey Lansdale following the fiction although I don’t think any require the use of dead rats.) After trying a number of different table surfaces I decided on a lateral approach so went searching for pictures of Texan storm clouds. The image we eventually used—a tornado over farmland near Patricia, Texas by John Finney at Getty Images—was the second one I tried and it worked so well we decided to keep it.

Of Mice and Minestrone will be published by Tachyon in March 2020 but is available for pre-order now.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Gods of HP Lovecraft
Lovecraft’s Monsters
Ten titles and a cover
Steampunk overloaded!
New things for April

Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

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Cover design by Jim Tierney; photo by Richard Corman.

When so many current biographies are recounting the lives of those about whom we’ve already heard a great deal (see the new biography of Oscar Wilde by Matthew Sturgis), a book exploring the career of a previously undocumented yet worthwhile figure is especially welcome. Such is the case with Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s life of the elusive Edward Gorey: artist, writer, illustrator, book designer, book creator, bibliophile, theatre designer, cat lover and balletomane.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Gorey’s small books have long been one of the more curious fixtures of American culture: many of them look like children’s books but aren’t (unless the child is Wednesday Addams); others look like comic books but they aren’t comics either. The books are sometimes (but not always) Surrealist fables; or brief accounts of irreducible mystery; or sombre inexplicabilities; or camp ripostes to the pieties of Victorian morality; infrequently spiced with black humour and with lurches into outright horror. Gorey delivered his miniature tales in an idiosyncratic drawing style that combines a cartoon-like stylisation with the density of shading found in old wood engravings, a blend that would prove influential as his popularity grew. As Dery notes in his book’s introduction, without Edward Gorey’s work there would be no Lemony Snicket, while Tim Burton would be a skeletal shadow of his present self. (Given the latter’s current output, this might do him some good. But I digress.)

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The Doubtful Guest (1957).

In Britain, however, Gorey remains a cult rather than cultural figure, still overshadowed by better-known contemporaries such as Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Until the publication of the Amphigorey story collections Gorey’s books were produced in small editions with such a limited availability you were more likely to encounter his art on the cover of another author’s book than within the pages of his own. I became aware of Gorey’s work by gradual osmosis. The first substantial piece I read about him was his entry in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984), in which Core’s mention of an art style “recollecting Victorian engravings” marked Gorey as an artist to be investigated. Two years later he received a longer entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan. (Camp and horror: how many other artists sit so easily in both worlds?) But Gorey is absent from many books about 20th-century illustrators, and despite the sequential nature of his work you won’t find him in histories of comic art.

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Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1979).

In a way it’s fitting that the work of a man who was adamant in his determination to avoid being pinned down should be so difficult to find. But it’s also a shame that the work of an ardent Anglophile should be hard to find in the country that fuelled his imagination. Among Gorey’s literary favourites Dery lists Jane Austen and Agatha Christie together with Ronald Firbank, Saki, and EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. (The latter trio are all present in Core’s book on camp, which no doubt makes Gorey camp to the core. Whether he would have approved of being labelled as such is another matter.) I wasn’t surprised by the mention of Saki when so many of Saki’s story titles (The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope) sound like Gorey books, while many of the stories themselves are like Gorey scenarios in prose. Not all Gorey’s work is camp or comic, however; the 32 drawings that comprise the wordless masterpiece of The West Wing (1963) are closer to David Lynch or the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, the latter an author that Gorey illustrated on several occasions. Dery emphasises how Gorey’s love of silent cinema contributed to The West Wing and other pieces, especially the serials of the Surrealists’ favourite filmmaker, Louis Feuillade.

Continue reading “Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey”