Bibliothek des Hauses Usher

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As promised a couple of weeks ago, this book-cover post is one of several that originates with Franz Rottensteiner’s horizon-expanding The Fantasy Book: The Ghostly, the Gothic, the Magical, the Unreal (1978). Rottensteiner’s study was important for me not only for its introduction to many hitherto unknown writers but also for its wide-ranging collection of illustrations and cover designs. Most of the artwork has since become very familiar but a few examples were by artists or designers I hadn’t encountered elsewhere. Hans Ulrich Osterwalder was one of these, his art for a series of German horror titles appearing inside the book and, in the case of the US edition of The Fantasy Book, on the cover. Searching for Osterwalder’s work a few weeks ago I was delighted to discover that the German covers were part of a series of horror/dark fantasy reprints for the Bibliothek des Hauses Usher imprint from Insel Verlag, for which Osterwalder created many more striking and unusual covers.

Bibliothek des Hauses Usher published 26 novels or story collections from 1969 to 1975. I thought at first that this was a paperback series but all the books were hardbacks with uniform black covers and white spines. The imprint logo is a rather ordinary looking House of Usher cracking down the middle (a nod to Arkham House, perhaps) with a slogan on the back cover borrowed from Ambrose Bierce: “Can such things be?” Each volume was printed on light green paper, at least until the paper stock ran out. The last three volumes were printed on white paper then on green again when further stocks were found.

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Osterwalder’s work on this series stands out for being innovative, surreal and free of the cliches that persist on horror titles. Most of the artwork is illustrative of the contents but it manages this without being too overt or obvious which isn’t an easy thing to do. The list of authors is an interesting mix as well (if you overlook the typically lamentable absence of women writers): many of the names are those you’d expect in a series such as this but there are also some such as Jean Ray and Stefan Grabinski who you wouldn’t find in an Anglophone series. Grabinski was a Polish writer of weird fiction who receives a mention in Rottensteiner’s book (and is a favourite of China Miéville) but whose work is still largely unknown to Anglophone readers. Just as obscure to English readers is Thomas Owen who was a Belgian writer (real name Gérald Bertot) and a friend of Jean Ray’s. Tartarus Press published a collection of Owen’s stories in 2012 but I’ve not read it so can’t vouch for their quality.

All 26 covers are shown below in their order of publication. Hans Ulrich Osterwalder still works as an artist and designer, and has a website here. Franz Rottensteiner was interviewed at 50 Watts a few years ago.

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The Return: a ghost story

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Another obscure film, The Return (1973) isn’t a television drama, more a miniature for the cinema, and as such may have been produced as a double-feature short. Director and co-writer Sture Rydman only has one other film to his credit but the music for The Return is by film composer Marc Wilkinson while the photography is the work of the very distinguished Douglas Slocombe.

The story is a blend by Rydman and fellow writer Brian Scobie of two ghost stories: Nobody’s House by AM Burrage, and The Middle Toe of the Right Foot by Ambrose Bierce. Nobody’s House is surprisingly one of the few Burrage stories I have on the shelves, and it provides the bulk of the script, the Bierce story being a very different piece concerning a duel in an abandoned building. Rydman’s film is a two-handed affair for two very good actors: Rosalie Crutchley, here playing a less sinister housekeeper than she did in The Haunting, and Peter Vaughan who the year before had been the lead in one of the best of the BBC’s MR James adaptations, A Warning to the Curious. The Return runs for 30 minutes, and to say much more would be to spoil it. The copy at YouTube does Slocombe’s photography no favours but you can at least watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black
“Who is this who is coming?”

Intertextuality

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): in the upper half there’s the big sun from Bob Peak’s poster for Apocalypse Now, in the lower half a radical reworking of Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead.

In 1990, shortly after the first season of Twin Peaks had finished showing in the US, Video Watchdog magazine ran a feature by Tim Lucas which attempted to trace all the various cultural allusions in the character names and dialogue: references to old TV shows, song lyrics and the like. This was done in a spirit of celebration with Lucas and other contributors welcoming the opportunity to dig deeper into something they’d already enjoyed. This week we’ve had a similar unravelling of textual borrowings in a TV series, only now we have the internet which, with its boundless appetite for accusing and shaming, can often seem like something from the grand old days of the Cultural Revolution.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): a more subtle allusion to Apocalypse Now.

The latest culprit ushered to the front of the assembly for the Great Internet Struggle Session is Nic Pizzolatto whose script for True Detective has indeed been celebrated for its nods to Robert Chambers and The King in Yellow. It’s also in the process of being condemned for having borrowed phrases or aphorisms from Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2011). See this post for chapter and verse.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): It’s not very clear but that’s a boat from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

If I find it difficult to get worked up over all this pearl-clutching it’s because a) it shows a misunderstanding of art and the way many artists work, b) True Detective was an outstanding series, and I’d love to see more from Pizzolatto and co, and c) I’ve done more than enough borrowing of my own in a variety of media, as these samples from my adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu demonstrate, a 33-page comic strip where there’s a reference to a painting, artist or film on almost all the pages, sometimes several on the same page.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Ophelia by Millais.

Cthulhu is a good choice here since Pizzolatto’s story edged towards Lovecraft via the repeated “Carcosa” references. You’d think a Lovecraft zine of all things would know better than to haul someone over the coals for borrowing from another writer when Lovecraft himself borrowed from Robert Chambers (and Arthur Machen and others), while “Carcosa” isn’t even original to Chambers’ The King in Yellow but a borrowing from an Ambrose Bierce story, An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1886). Furthermore, Lovecraft famously complained about his own tendencies to pastiche other writers in a 1929 letter to Elizabeth Toldridge: “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany pieces’—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?”

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Lovecraft’s Monsters

Lovecraft's Monsters

Graphic for the title page and ends of chapters.

I don’t usually post things so far away from publication, but editor Ellen Datlow put these pictures on her Facebook page a few hours ago so I may as well do the same here.

Back in February I bought a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet, something I’ve been using with regularity for the past few months. The Alas Vegas Tarot cards I designed in the summer were the first major attempt at getting used to working with it; Lovecraft’s Monsters, a forthcoming fiction anthology for Tachyon is the second, and I now feel very comfortable working with it. More than that, I’m increasingly pleased with the way it’s possible to combine the drawing techniques I’ve been using for years with the additional possibilities provided by working in Photoshop. As always, it’s the end result that counts but arriving at an end result can be easy or difficult. Some of these illustrations look no different than they would have done had I used ink on paper but they took half the time to create, a considerable benefit when a deadline is looming.

The stories Ellen Datlow has chosen for this collection all present different aspects of monstrosity seen through the lens of Lovecraft’s fiction and his cosmic menagerie. Some are full-on extensions of the Mythos, others are more allusive; all the pieces bar one have been published before but I’d not read any of them so for me this was fresh material. Having spent the past few years saying I was finished with Lovecraft’s fiction I was excited to be working on this book. The stories are good, and I welcomed the challenge of having to illustrate such a variety of material.

Larger copies of all the pictures can be seen here.

The star-headed thing at the top of this page is another amalgam of elements plundered from Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur and other sources. I’ve leaned rather heavily on Haeckel in the past, something I wanted to avoid here; this serves as a kind of visual punctuation separating the stories.

Lovecraft's Monsters

Cthulhu.

The drawing I’ve called Cthulhu is a piece for the introductory pages. Having already produced a lot of Cthulhoid art I didn’t want to repeat myself. The initial idea was of a tiny human figure faced with something enormous and nightmarish; that could be a vast eyeball or it could be a mouth or some other organ/aperture, the vagueness was intentional. Lovecraft continually impresses upon his readers how difficult things are to describe or apprehend but you seldom find this quality in art based upon his stories. Cthulhu especially has devolved into little more than an outsize man-in-a-rubber-suit à la the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In The Call of Cthulhu the figure on the mysterious statuette is described as having a humanoid shape but Lovecraft doesn’t describe the appalling reality in any detail at all. When Cthulhu is struck by a ship at the end of the story it breaks apart and is then seen recombining, the implication being that the creature is corporeally amorphous.

Lovecraft's Monsters

Only the End of the World Again by Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman’s entry concerns a werewolf private detective in Innsmouth. Lovecraft’s decaying fishing village and its inhabitants turn up in several of the stories so care was taken to avoid repetition.

Lovecraft's Monsters

Bulldozer by Laird Barron.

A great story about another detective, a Pinkerton agent this time, hunting his quarry through the Old West. Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal is mentioned so I used some of Louis Breton’s illustrations from the third edition.

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Chickamauga

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They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek.

Chickamauga (1891) by Ambrose Bierce

Chickamauga (1962) is another of Robert Enrico’s three short films based on the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce. The withdrawal of hope at the end of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge may seem bleak but that story is positively cheerful beside the horrors of Chickamauga in which a small deaf boy wanders from home to find a new playground in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The story is grim enough for it to find its way into horror anthologies which is where I first read it. Once again Enrico’s adaptation is very faithful, and the way he uses songs as a commentary makes more sense of the similar use in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. This copy of the film is another grainy one from VHS but it’s the only one you’ll see for now. The same YouTube channel has the third of the director’s Bierce adaptations, The Mockingbird, a lesser piece than the other two but still worth a watch, not least because these films have been out of circulation for so long. See also: Robert Enrico’s Civil War Trilogy by Justine Smith.

Previously on { feuilleton }
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge