Lockdown elevation

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The post this week included a poster print by Toby Melville-Brown, an artistic response to the lockdown of April and May. Toby has a colourful graphic style that favours architectural views in the mode of Archigram and other futurists, past and present; at the end of February I featured one of his invented book covers (below) in a weekend post. The title of the cover—Notes from a Troubled Rock—seemed darkly humorous at a time of political turmoil and a growing pandemic. Four months on it reads like a summary of 2020.

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The lockdown poster, Life Indoors: A Cross-Section, is more positive, a cutaway elevation of a high-rise block, with each apartment showing the response of a real person or group of people to the viral situation. To fill out the rooms Toby sent an email to 175 households asking for a photographic reflection of lockdown life. I’m in one of the rooms but if you want to know where you’ll have to buy a copy of the poster which is available here. All profits go to Refuge, a charity supporting those at risk from domestic violence. When I first moved to Manchester I spent four years in a Brutalist flatblock that would have had JG Ballard’s wealthy high-rise denizens fleeing for the suburbs. Toby’s elevation looks like a better place to be.

(And I’ve just been informed that the poster sale will end at midnight [UK time] on Friday 12th June.)

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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Weekend links 481

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L’Hamestoque (1977) by Christine Gaussot.

• Another announcement from Strange Attractor Press: Of Mud & Flame
A Penda’s Fen Sourcebook
edited by Matthew Harle and James Machin will be published at the end of October. Among the contents will be the screenplay of David Rudkin’s cult television play, an item that’s always been impossible to find in print.

• A trailer for Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), another semi-animated fantasy film by Karel Zeman which will released on disc next month by Second Run.

• “There was craziness in getting lost and dizzy.” Stereolab choose favourite songs from their back catalogue.

E=MC² (1976), an album of spacey jazz-electronica by Teddy Lasry which has never been reissued.

• “Why do so many book covers look the same? Blame Getty Images,” says Cory Matteson.

• Mix of the week: The Ephemeral Man’s Teapot by The Ephemeral Man.

Masataka Nakano has been photographing a deserted Tokyo for almost 30 years.

• Beyond the bounds of depravity: an oral history of David Cronenberg’s Crash.

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series.

• A new novel by M. John Harrison is always a good thing.

Hamid Drake‘s favourite music.

Warm Leatherette (1980) by Grace Jones | Crash (1980) by Tuxedomoon | A Crash At Every Speed (1994) by Disco Inferno

The Fallen King’s Penitent Soldier

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Despite having been busy throughout this year I’ve not updated my website for a while so this is the first of several posts intended to remedy the situation. It’s also a dismaying entry since it not only sees the end of this series of gay romance titles by Megan Derr but also the end of the publisher, Less Than Three, who closed their doors a couple of months ago. The sombre appearance of The Fallen King’s Penitent Soldier (which I completed late last year) seems in retrospect like an omen. Gloom aside, I was pleased with the way this series evolved, with each cover posing a challenge in how to maintain the format while working a new variation on the theme.

There are more new book covers still to come, and—when I can find the time—some news of a personal project of my own. As with previous posts about Megan’s series, I’ve included the rest of the covers below.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Mercenaries of the Stolen Moon
The Heart of the Lost Star
Tales of the High Court

Claude Shepperson’s First Men in the Moon

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In the week following the Moon-landing anniversary I’ve been re-reading The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells. This was a late entry in Wells’ extraordinary run of science fiction novels, and is both shorter and lighter in tone than his earlier novels, some of which veer at times into outright horror. The First Men in the Moon might have been a serious examination of interstellar travel but the narrative is overtly comic in places, rather like The Man Who Could Work Miracles, a Wells story in which a fantastic gift is offered to a character unprepared to make the most of it. Wells’ lunar explorers—Bedford, a failed entrepreneur, and Cavor, an absent-minded inventor—lurch from one mishap to another, yoked together through their own inadequacies. Early in the proceedings Cavor destroys his house when his gravity-repelling “Cavorite” generates a violent funnel of air before launching itself into space. Cavor regards this as fortunate, explaining that a slightly different set of circumstances might have removed the breathable atmosphere from the entire planet for a day or so. The trip to the Moon is conducted almost on a whim: Cavor has no real reason for going, and Bedford tags along in the hope of finding some future business opportunity. Like the hapless protagonists of Withnail and I, this is a lunar voyage undertaken “by mistake”.

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It’s probable that Wells regarded absurdity as being the best way to approach a story that was less original than his earlier works. The first edition of the novel opens with an epigraph from Lucian’s True History (or True Story), a book from the second century AD which includes a journey to the Moon among its planetary travels. Lucian’s book was the first to feature such a journey (and is often regarded as the first work of science fiction) but many others followed, even before From the Earth to the Moon (1865) by Jules Verne, a book which Bedford mentions during the expedition discussions. (Cavor has never heard of it.)

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The illustrations here by Claude Allin Shepperson are also from the first edition, and are closer to the tone of the novel than those by other artists. E. Hering’s illustrations for American readers are in a style which is more detailed and inventive than Shepperson’s but which also suggests a more serious story. Readers expecting a new War of the Worlds would have been surprised. Shepperson’s drawing of Cavor’s spacecraft evidently provided the model for Ray Harryhausen in the 1964 film adaptation, although Harryhausen’s Selenites differ from both Shepperson and Wells’ descriptions. Nigel Kneale’s screenplay deviates from the book elsewhere but the film is still a more faithful adaptation than those based on Wells’ more popular novels, as are many of the other screen adaptations, the first being a lost silent from 1919. All of which reminds me that I’ve not seen Harryhausen’s film for many years. I’d welcome another date with the Grand Lunar.

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Continue reading “Claude Shepperson’s First Men in the Moon”