Crank book covers

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Cover art by Tony Roberts, 1974. A book I received as a present for Christmas, 1974. Also the first place I encountered the words “Popol Vuh”, before discovering the music of Florian Fricke and co. a few years later.

Yes, “crank” is a pejorative word but it’s used with some degree of affection, as in “harmless crank”. It’s also a convenient umbrella term for the books referred to in the weekend post which embrace diverse subjects, from lost continents and “earth energy” to ancient astronauts and flying saucers.

The prime crank decade was the 1970s, a period when publishers were falling over themselves to cash-in on the massive popularity of Erich von Däniken’s dubious investigations, while also catering to the by-products of the hippy era and the occult revival. Books by Charles Fort, Immanuel Velikovsky and James Churchward (the Mu series) all received reprints, with some appearing in paperback for the first time. The British editions of these books were published by imprints like Corgi, Panther and Sphere who were also publishing large quantities of science fiction, a situation that led to many crank titles being packaged as though they were fiction or fantasy. Sphere was in the vanguard, presenting a wide range of books with the same cover designs, cover artists and Novel Gothic typeface as their SF titles. A cynical move, no doubt, but it also makes the crank books seem more like fiction than their authors might have intended.

This post presents a selection of crank titles with cover art by SF artists but there are many more examples out there. (Watch the skies!) I’ve limited the selection to British publishers but the same syndrome was evident in American publishing, as documented at Absolute Elsewhere. And I’ve included a couple of books by sceptics John Sladek and Dr. Christopher Evans. These were intended to dismantle the claims of L. Ron Hubbard, Erich von Däniken and co. but were still packaged in paperback to resemble the books they were attacking. The major demolition of Von Däniken is Ronald Story’s The Space Gods Revealed but covers for that one have always been relatively restrained.

Missing from this list are three paintings by SF artist Peter Jones for books by Dr. Celia Green. The art may be seen in Jones’s Solar Wind collection but I couldn’t find any of the printed covers, which suggests they had a limited run if they were printed at all. These are odd for being typical fantasy imagery attached to serious studies of lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. Dr. Green is a philosopher and science researcher (she coined the term “out-of-body experience”) so she doesn’t belong on a crank list in any case. Also absent is the most popular British cover illustrator of the decade, Chris Foss, who would have been too busy working through his fiction commissions and creating designs for feature films.

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Cover art by Tony Roberts (?), 1974.

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Cover art by Bruce Pennington, 1974.

Evans was a computer scientist, an occasional contributor to New Worlds magazine, and also the model for the deranged Vaughan in JG Ballard’s Crash. Cults of Unreason investigates crank sects such as the flying-saucer worshippers of the Aetherius Society (hence the cover art), and the Scientologists who caused a stir in Britain in the 1960s when L. Ron Hubbard set up an outpost at East Grinstead.

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Cover art by Colin Hay, 1974.

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Cover art by Angus McKie, 1979.

Continue reading “Crank book covers”

Weekend links 590

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Understanding Mu (1970) by Hans Stefan Santesson. Cover art by Ron Walotsky. Via.

• “I have never believed Chariots of the Gods?—it takes faith, so what I mean is that I’ve never believed in it—but it has still held my affection for decades.” Patrick Allington on ancient aliens, unidentified aerial phenomena, and the unhinged pleasures of speculative nonfiction. I still have a stash of paperbacks in what I call “The Crank Box”, a collection of the more far-out titles that proliferated in the 1970s in the wake of the bestselling (and very egregious) Erich von Däniken. There aren’t many books about ancient astronauts or flying saucers in the box because they were so plentiful, I was always on the lookout for more outlandish volumes: lost continents, yes, but not the all-too-common Atlantis; Lemuria or Mu were more like it. So too with Hollow Earths and mysterious realms as detailed in Shambhala: Oasis of Light by Andrew Tomas, or The Lost World of Agharti: The Mystery of Vril Power by Alec MacLellan. The attraction wasn’t that any of this speculation might be true, more that these books operate as bargain-basement equivalents of the Borges conceit in which metaphysics is regarded as a branch of fantastic literature. Weird fiction by other means.

Collecting these books was a fun thing to do in the 1980s when the crank publications of the previous decade had washed up on the shelves of secondhand bookshops. The shine began to wear off in the 1990s when the emergence of the internet empowered a new breed of hucksters (and worse) pushing all of this stuff as though it was “hidden knowledge”. It’s hard to get excited about a battered paperback brimming with pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology when similar ideas proliferate on YouTube channels catering to credulous hordes.

• Absolutely elsewhere (and linked here on a regular basis): An archive of the endlessly fascinating Absolute Elsewhere, a website created by the late RT Gault in order to present “a bibliography of visionary, occult, new age, fringe science, strange and even crackpot works published between 1945 and 1988”. The listings are accompanied by an informed, sceptical and often enlightening commentary, and also include a fair amount of weird fiction. Mr Gault had the right attitude.

• New music: Raum by Tangerine Dream, a preview of the new album, Probe 6–8, which will be released next year; new/old music: a reissue of Marine Flowers (Science Fantasy) by Akira Ito.

• “He had been honest about himself, and shockingly honest about his parents, but about his work he had spun me a tale.” Carole Angier on the elusive WG Sebald.

• At The New Criterion: Two stray notes on Moby-Dick by William Logan; on contemporary reviews of Moby-Dick and Melville’s journey on the Acushnet.

• “Perhaps what’s most extraordinary about Kollaps is that it was made at all.” Jeremy Allen on Einstürzende Neubauten’s thrilling debut album.

• At Culture.pl: a podcast about Czech film director Vera Chytilová and her masterpiece of Surrealist anarchy, Daisies.

• At Perfect Sound Forever: Part 2 of a Jon Hassell tribute which talks to friends and musical collaborators.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…William S. Burroughs The Ticket That Exploded (1962).

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine unearths a medieval recipe for gingerbread.

• Mix of the week: Death’s Other Dominion by The Ephemeral Man.

MU-UR (2000) by Coil | Mu (2005) by Jah Wobble | Mu 1 (2015) by Acronym