Poe at 200

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Poe by Harry Clarke.

Happy birthday Edgar Allan Poe, born two hundred years ago today. I nearly missed this anniversary after a busy weekend. Rather than add to the mountain of praise for the writer, I thought I’d list some favourites among the numerous Poe-derived works in different media.

Illustrated books
For me the Harry Clarke edition of 1919 (later reworked with colour plates) has always been definitive. Many first-class artists have tried their hand at depicting Poe’s stories and poems, among them Aubrey Beardsley, Gustave Doré, Arthur Rackham, W Heath Robinson and Edmund Dulac; none complements the morbid atmosphere and florid prose as well as Clarke does. And if it’s horror you need, Clarke’s depiction of The Premature Burial could scarcely be improved upon.

Honourable mention should be made of two less well-known works, Wilfried Sätty’s The Illustrated Edgar Allan Poe (1976) and Visions of Poe (1988) by Simon Marsden. I wrote about Sätty’s collage engravings in Strange Attractor 2, and Sätty’s style was eminently suited to Poe’s work. Marsden’s photographs of old castles and decaying mansions are justly celebrated but in book form often seem in search of a subject beyond a general Gothic spookiness or a recounting of spectral anecdotes. His selection of Poe stories and poems is a great match for the photos, one of which, a view of Monument Valley for The Colloquy of Monos and Una, was also used on a Picador cover for Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

Recordings
These are legion but among the outstanding one-off tracks I’d note two poems set to music, Dream Within a Dream from Propaganda‘s 1985 album, A Secret Wish, and The Lake by Antony & The Johnsons. The latter appeared on the landmark Golden Apples of the Sun compilation and also on Antony’s own The Lake EP.

Among the full-length works, Hal Willner’s 1997 2-CD collection Closed on Account of Rabies features lengthy readings set to music from a typically eclectic Willner line-up: Marianne Faithfull, Christopher Walken, Iggy Pop, Diamanda Galás, Gavin Friday, Dr John, Deborah Harry, Jeff Buckley (one of the last recordings before his untimely death) and Gabriel Byrne. Byrne’s reading of The Masque of the Red Death is tremendous and the whole package is decked out in Ralph Steadman graphics.

Antony Hegarty appears again on another double-disc set, Lou Reed’s The Raven (2003), a very eccentric approach to Poe which I suspect I’m in the minority in enjoying as much as I do. An uneven mix of songs and reading/performances, Reed updates some Poe poems while others are presented straight and to often stunning effect by (among others) Willem Defoe, Steve Buscemi, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Amanda Plummer and Elizabeth Ashley.

Films
Once again, there’s too many films but The Masque of the Red Death (1964) has always been my favourite of the Roger Corman adaptations, not least for the presence of Jane Asher, Patrick Magee and (behind the camera) Nicolas Roeg. I wrote last May about the animated version of The Tell-Tale Heart from UPA. That adaptation, with narration by James Mason, is still on YouTube so if you haven’t seen it yet you can celebrate Poe’s anniversary by watching it right now.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Tell-Tale Heart from UPA
William Heath Robinson’s illustrated Poe
The art of Harry Clarke, 1889–1931

Buccaneers #2

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Continuing from yesterday’s post, these nameless characters were sketches for a proposed comic strip that writer Jamie Delano and I were planning in the mid-Nineties. We had a feeling that the long-neglected pirate genre was due for a revival and talked about a revisionist take on buccaneering which would dispense with the Robert Newton antics and steer closer to the brutal reality. Among the touchstones there was On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, the anarchist pirate community in Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs and the ferocious scalp-hunters in Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. There was also talk of throwing some voodoo into the mix, hence the veve tattoos. It wasn’t to be, of course. Little of my work has ever resembled mainstream comics fare and Jamie’s publishers, DC Comics, had already been underwhelmed by the detailed style I was using in the Lovecraft and Lord Horror comics. When I tried presenting them with some trial pages in a more open style I was told that they’d been expecting to see more of my detailed line work…

We had a couple of other characters planned, including a tattooed islander inspired by Queequeg from Moby Dick, but the samples here are the best of the sketches. The shark- or whale-jaw false leg was my own invention and something I’m fairly sure I’ve not seen before. I’ve no idea whether such a thing is workable but it was a nice touch.

Continue reading “Buccaneers #2”

Repackaging Cormac

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left: Vintage International (US), cover design by Susan Mitchell (1993).
right: Picador (UK) reprint (2008).

After the Oscars success of No Country for Old Men it’s understandable that Cormac McCarthy’s publishers would want to reprint all his works. His books still appear under the Picador imprint in the UK and they’ve been reissued recently in uniform editions with new cover designs. A couple of these are an improvement on their lacklustre predecessors, and they don’t look so bad when seen together on a shelf, but on the whole this McCarthy reader is disappointed by the overall blandness they present.

crossing.jpgMy earlier post about McCarthy’s UK covers was critical of the The Road which used a combination of a stock photo and Akzidenz-Grotesk Condensed for the typography. In the case of No Country for Old Men the photo from the American original by Chip Kidd was used but his carefully-judged type layout was dropped. Unfortunately it’s The Road approach which has been continued on the new covers with variable degrees of success. The Chip Kidd designs that Picador repeated in the 1990s made similar use of suggestive photos but there was at least some attempt made to match form to content; a number of the new designs are vague in the extreme. I assume that the disparate group of objects on the cover of Blood Meridian relate to the character of the Judge when he reveals his intention to catalogue every new object that he comes across. But that’s an incidental detail in one scene of a baroque, ferocious and very violent historical novel. So the image isn’t exactly a misrepresentation but it puts the wrong emphasis on a book that could easily be described as a Western nightmare. And they’ve also dropped the book’s subtitle, an amendment I find especially egregious.

Even more bland is the picture of a shack on the cover of Child of God, McCarthy’s tale of a backwoods psychopath who moves into a cave and murders women so he can have sex with their corpses. Anyone buying the Picador book on the strength of the cover is in for a surprise. And since when did that novel have a definite article in its title? Best of the bunch is probably The Crossing (above) which shows the wolf that provides the impetus for the story. The type works better on this cover and the animal’s reflection in the water is a nice touch since it can be read as relating to the various symmetries and reflections in The Border Trilogy, of which this book forms the second part.

Picador set a high standard for paperback design in the Seventies which makes the sight of uninspired and lazy work doubly-dismaying. Susan Mitchell’s covers for the Vintage paperbacks are still the best I’ve seen for McCarthy’s books—and they’re still available—but if these new editions pick up new readers on the strength of the author’s moment in the limelight then that’s no bad thing. It’s the words that count, after all.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Cormac McCarthy book covers

Cormac and Oprah

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Cormac McCarthy’s appearance on Oprah’s Book Club—his first television appearance ever—was screened last week. You can watch it online for free on her site although you need to register first. The interview is presented in chunks and only lasts for about twenty minutes but it was worthwhile for all that, even if it is chopped to pieces in that manner typical of American daytime TV.

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Most of the discussion skated on the surface but I was surprised (and pleased) when Oprah mentioned having read several of his books, including his ferocious masterwork, Blood Meridian. Main topic was The Road, of course, but we also got to hear something about Cormac’s dedicating himself to a life of precarious unemployment in order to have the freedom to write. He’s playing my tune but I imagine many of Oprah’s viewers would have struggled to comprehend that decision. Faulkner’s name was mentioned, and James Joyce when they talked about the lack of punctuation in his prose. In the end it was enough to simply see the man as a human being sat in a chair. And kudos again to Oprah for championing his work.

Meanwhile, The Sopranos screened its final episode on Sunday night. I watched the last couple of seasons via BitTorrent so I’m privy to the controversial ending which I won’t reveal here even though plenty of news sites have done so already. All I’ll say is I approve of the ending and regard the naysayers as foolish in complaining about a series which throughout its run tried to be different, challenging and better than the half-baked fare which is usually offered as television drama. For those who know the ending (or aren’t so concerned about it), series creator David Chase discussed his intentions and the audience reaction with the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Update: A David Chase comment from 2001 turned up via the NYT. I’m sure these are sentiments Cormac McCarthy would also agree with.

What’s the difference between what’s art and what isn’t art? That’s the hard question to answer. The only thing that I guess I believe is that a lot of what I see on the air and in other places is giving answers, and I don’t think art should give answers. I think art should only pose questions. And art should not fill in blanks for people, or I think that’s what’s called propaganda. I think art should only raise questions, a lot of which may be even dissonant and you don’t even know you’re being asked a question, but that it creates some kind of tension inside you.

Previously on { feuilleton }
In praise of Cormac
Cormac McCarthy book covers