Old Weird and New Weird

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Savoy Books, 1984.

A couple more recent arrivals that feature my work. These are of minority interest but worth noting since academic articles don’t always travel beyond a small audience of subscribers.

A recent issue of Foundation (The International Review of Science Fiction), Volume 45.1, number 123, contains an article by Mark P. Williams, Underground Assemblages: Savoy Dreams and The Starry Wisdom. This examines the legacy of New Worlds magazine under the editorship of Michael Moorcock (from 1964 to 1974) via two writing collections, Savoy Dreams (Savoy Books, 1984) and The Starry Wisdom (Creation Books, 1994). The two collections are very different: Savoy Dreams, edited by David Britton and Michael Butterworth, was an eclectic overview of Savoy’s publishing endeavours up to that point. Among the original writing there’s fiction by Butterworth, M. John Harrison (the first publication of the Viriconium story, Lords of Misrule) and others, plus a reaction by Michael Moorcock to William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, a book that Savoy had contracted to publish before police harassment forced the company’s bankruptcy. The rest of the book is taken up with press reviews of Savoy books.

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Creation Books, 1994. Cover art by Peter Smith.

The Starry Wisdom should require less of an introduction since the book has been in print since 1994, and has a small, possibly notorious, reputation among HP Lovecraft enthusiasts. Editor DM Mitchell felt that the assembling of post-Lovecraftian fiction up to that point had been too cosy and insular: too many story collections were being edited and written by groups of friends in the genre fiction “community”, with the result that the stories were often stale and complacent. The startling newness of Lovecraft’s imagination in comparison to many of his contemporaries in Weird Tales seemed to have been bled away into pastiche, a process that began soon after Lovecraft’s death. Mitchell’s solution was to commission original pieces of Lovecraft-inspired work from writers outside the genre world, notably Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and newcomer David Conway; he also reprinted pieces that would never appear elsewhere as Lovecraftian fiction, including Wind Die. You Die. We Die. by William Burroughs, and Prisoner of the Coral Deep by JG Ballard. Burroughs and Ballard connect directly to New Worlds, of course (Ballard wrote about Burroughs for the magazine), while the pair cast a shadow over many of Savoy’s book productions. Both Savoy Dreams and The Starry Wisdom featured comic strips; Tales of the Cramps by Kris Guidio appeared in Savoy Dreams, while The Starry Wisdom contained strips by Mike Philbin & James Havoc, Rick Grimes, and the first publication of my own adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu.

I was surprised—and pleased—that my comic strip receives a fair amount of scrutiny in Williams’ piece. My Lovecraft strips have received almost no attention from the comics world, a consequence of having been printed by book publishers and distributed to book shops. (A rare exception was this recent piece by Matt Maxwell.) When you’ve been overlooked in this manner it’s a surprise to find your work receiving serious evaluation from an entirely different quarter. Mark P. Williams’ essay examines the contents of both collections, my strip included, as “assemblages”. This is a valid critique in the case of the Cthulhu strip since Lovecraft’s story is itself an assemblage of what seems at first to be unrelated data. The comic adaptation assembles a range of cultural references—some genuine, others invented—to parallel the narrator’s investigation, and even uses genuine documents in places, including columns from The New York Times. I don’t know if Williams has seen the blog post I made that points out many of the cultural references but he notes some of the more overt ones, such as Joseph Conrad appearing as the doomed Professor Angell, Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead, and so on. While I was drawing the strip I was trying to imagine the story as an RKO production, a hybrid of two island films—The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong—and Orson Welles’ unmade Heart of Darkness. These references, many of which aren’t very obvious, were largely for my own amusement. The series I created with David Britton that followed the Lovecraft strips, Reverbstorm, puts assemblage and cultural reference at the forefront.

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Cover art is my illustration for Remnants from Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow.

The Cthulhu strip and the Reverbstorm series—now collected as Lord Horror: Reverbstorm—are the subject of a very perceptive piece by Benjamin Noys in the latest edition of Genre, an academic journal published by Duke University Press. This number of the journal is a kind of Weird special edited by Benjamin Noys and Timothy S. Murphy. Noys’ Full Spectrum Offence: Savoy’s Reverbstorm and the Weirding of Modernity is the final article in a publication that examines aspects of the “Old Weird” (ie: the Lovecraft-era Weird Tales) and contrasts it with the more recent “New Weird”. The latter was a short-lived label coined by M. John Harrison in 2003 for a range of fiction that was ignoring genre boundaries, and consciously developing the Weird as a project. China Miéville was one of the most visible proponents of the New Weird, and Harrison’s term emerged in part as a response to Miéville’s fiction. Miéville is interviewed in this issue of Genre where, as usual, he has some very worthwhile things to say. He prefers the term “haute Weird” for the original manifestation, possibly because it avoids the negative connotations of the word “old”.

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A spread from part 7 of Reverbstorm.

Benjamin Noys’ article is lengthy and resists easy summary, but it begins by investigating the way my work on the Lovecraft strips permeated the Lord Horror comics and dictated some of the imagery, in particular the architectural forms and eruptions of monstrosity. Later discussion concerns the way that Reverbstorm forces the Weird and Modernism together, a collision that I believe is still unique anywhere, never mind in the comics medium. Noys’ piece has given me a lot to think about, not least for its being the first substantial critical appraisal of Reverbstorm. The series is a difficult one, being deliberately excessive and avant-garde, and presenting the reader with a torrent of interrelating cultural references. Many of these are itemised in the appendix but the success (or not) of their working together, and the potential sparking of connections, depends very much on the prior knowledge of the individual reader. Noys is not only knowledgeable but adept at forging his own connections while situating the series in the larger context of the Weird, old (or haute) and new. Even without the inclusion of my work inside the journal and on the cover, I’d recommend this issue of Genre to anyone with an interest in the subject. One of the reasons I favour the Weird as a chosen work label is the way it evades (or ignores) generic boundaries. Years ago I realised that many of the things I liked the best in the arts were the chimeras, those works that transgress boundaries and created new hybrids. No surprise then that I enjoy a genre that refuses easy definition. There aren’t many masts I pin my colours to but the Weird is one of them.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Weird

Yuggoth details

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Yuggoth Cultures (1994) by John Coulthart.

Earlier this week I spent a day scanning this painting—which I’m now surprised to find is 21 years old—so I might at last have a good quality digital copy. There’s been a copy on the website for years but that was a print made at a high-street copy shop that did nothing for the detail and range of colour. It’s quite a large piece—49.54 x 71.39 cm (19.5 x 28.1 inches)—done with acrylics on board. Since 2003 the painting has been used (in another poor reproduction) on the cover of The Starry Wisdom, the controversial collection of Lovecraftian fiction from Creation Books. The painting wasn’t originally intended for that collection, however, and doesn’t quite fit since a number of the portraits don’t feature in the book at all.

Yuggoth Cultures would have been an earlier collection of Lovecraftian fiction and non-fiction that Alan Moore had begun writing for Creation in 1993. Alan’s idea was to take Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth sonnet sequence as the basis for a collection that would explore Lovecraft’s fictional world and also draw together a variety of figures from the same era: fellow writers, occultists like Aleister Crowley and Austin Spare, and Harry Houdini for whom Lovecraft ghost-wrote Imprisoned with the Pharaohs in 1924. Unfortunately the stars were not right on this occasion; Alan took the sole copy of the half-written manuscript to London in order to read selections at an event in Soho but left the papers in a cab. Some pieces survived, having been copied and stored elsewhere—The Courtyard in The Starry Wisdom is one of these—and there was talk for a while of the lost pieces being rewritten but enthusiasm for the project flagged.

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This is Alan’s sketch for the cover, the idea being to have a Lovecraft head made of fungal growths rather like an Arcimboldo painting. The head would be sprouting tendrils whose loops would contain pictures of some of the people featured in the book. Alan’s quick sketch is actually a better approximation of Lovecraft’s strange features than my painted version which isn’t narrow enough. For the record (and because people always ask), the other people on the cover are Alan himself, Austin Osman Spare, Aleister Crowley, Harry Houdini, Robert E Howard (not Al Capone as people often think) and Clark Ashton Smith.

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While searching through the archives I discovered these lettering designs although they’re probably not bold enough to read very well on such a busy painting. Before I started using a computer, designs like this had to be drawn at large size then scaled down using a photocopier.

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Heliotropic

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Arriving in the post this week was a catalogue for a Maison & Objet exposition of design and decoration which includes one of my paintings among the listed “Inspirations“. The event was held in Paris at the end of January but I’ve been so busy for the past few of months I forgot to see when it was on. Not that I could have said much about it since this is a showcase event you have to attend rather than experience remotely.

Catalogues for big art and design events often tend to the lavish and expensive but the Elsewhere book is the most lavish I’ve ever encountered. The production runs the gamut of the many expensive options which modern printing can provide: metallic inks, varnish effects, iridescent and translucent sheets, embossing, die-cutting, tipped-in inserts, and variable page sizes. The inflexible icing on the cake comes in the shape of a small square of polished marble glued to one of the pages. Excess aside, the print quality is excellent, and I’m very pleased with the way my Elvis painting appears.

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Sun King (1996).

Sun King was commissioned by Creation Books in 1996 as cover art for a Jeremy Reed novel which ended up being dropped by the company. The concept was the author’s, and while I’m pleased with the way it turned out I always felt it should have had more of a Gustave Moreau quality. This is the first time the picture been used anywhere although I did reuse the Elvis-in-a-Cadillac idea recently for one of the Alas Vegas Tarot cards.

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My painting is included in the Heliotropic section of the book which shows some of François Bernard’s inspirations. I’m pleased they placed one of the die-cut overlays before my piece. The photos below show some of the pages from the other sections which concern the inspirations of Elizabeth Leriche—her section includes the chunk of marble—and Vincent Grégoire whose section features futurism, space scenes, metallic effects, and Daft Punk.

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Continue reading “Heliotropic”

CthulhuPress

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The Twitter consensus yesterday was that CafePress products based on this design were required so here they are. As usual I never know what people want from CafePress so I tend to throw the design on their entire range so long as it fits the requisite size and shape. This piece works better than most since it’s simple and direct, my more detailed and pictorial creations look better as prints. I keep feeling that someone must have made a design like this already, these variations on the “Keep Calm” poster have proliferated so much, but searching didn’t reveal anything so… The web address doesn’t appear on the CafePress things, that’s just for the images posted here if and when they drift into Tumblr’s Sargasso Sea of uncredited pictures.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1987–88).

While we’re on the subject of everyone’s favourite Great Old One, I may as well take the opportunity to remind those interested that these earlier renderings are also available as various CafePress products. The Call of Cthulhu piece above is the opening page of my comic strip adaptation of the story as seen in The Starry Wisdom anthology from Creation Books and my Haunter of the Dark collection.

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Cthulhu from The Great Old Ones (1999).

The Great Old Ones drawing was one of the plates from the series of the same name I produced with Alan Moore for the Haunter book. And Cthulhu Rising is the cover of that volume, of course, seen here with its Haeckel-derived frame. The Great Old Ones Cthulhu was drawn with a Biro pen then tweaked slightly in Photoshop. I don’t think I’ve ever posted a large version of it so here it is.

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Cthulhu Rising (2004).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Design as virus #8: Keep Calm and Carry On
Cubist Cthulhu

Philip José Farmer book covers

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top left: artist unknown (1969); top right: Patrick Woodroffe (1975)
bottom left: Peter Elson (1988); bottom right: artist unknown (1995)

The Men with snakes post at the weekend finished on a note of Freudian melodrama with a picture of Doc Savage battling a giant python. Lester Dent’s brazen hero has appeared a number of times in the work of Philip José Farmer, a writer who’s spent much of his career laying bare the psychosexual forces which give us stories of pulp heroes struggling with (among other things) enormous snakes.

Farmer is famous—notorious, even—for being the first writer to place sex centre stage in science fiction with his story of a human/alien encounter, The Lovers, in 1952. While subsequent writers have broadened the field in their own way, Farmer is somewhat unique in being equally adept at writing solidly successful sf adventure such as the World of Tiers or Riverworld books, yet with a mischievous and intellectual facility that could be upsetting to what used to be a very conservative sf establishment. Farmer was writing about sex at a time when few genre writers wanted to deal with the subject. He also loves pulp fiction in all its manifestations yet isn’t afraid of examining its characters with the objectivity of an anthropologist. Both these impulses came together (so to speak) in the late Sixties with the outrageous pulp pornography of Image of the Beast and A Feast Unknown. More about these in a minute.

Farmer has a particular enthusiasm for Tarzan and Doc Savage and eventually wrote “official biographies” of the pair with Tarzan Alive (1972) and the splendidly-titled Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973). These books saw the beginning of his Wold Newton Universe which sought to connect all the heroes and villains of the late 19th and early 20th century into a vast, incestuous family tree, a scheme which predates similar exercises such as Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by three decades or more. His versatility and delight in pastiche was demonstrated in Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod (1968) which rewrote Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan in the style of William Burroughs. There aren’t many writers with a full-enough appreciation of both these authors to pull off such a challenge.

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Original Essex House editions, 1968 & 1969. Artist/designer unknown although the cover of Blown is based on Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man by Salvador Dalí.

Image of the Beast (1968), its sequel, Blown (1969), and A Feast Unknown (1969) were all written for sf-porn publisher Essex House, an opportunity which unleashed Farmer’s already fertile imagination. These took a while to be reprinted but are now considered among his best works; they’re certainly favourites of mine and I love the simple graphics of the original covers, such a change from the usual airbrushed sf fare. I produced a cover illustration for the Creation Books edition of Image/Blown in 2001 which, while okay, I now feel could have been better. A Feast Unknown is Farmer’s most gloriously excessive novel, and still surprises when read today. Illustrator Patrick Woodroffe, who painted the cover for the first UK printing, thought the book “dangerous” and complained in his Mythopoeikon collection that there was little he could safely illustrate. The story has a thinly-disguised Tarzan (Lord Grandrith) and Doc Savage (Doc Caliban) set against each other by a group of mysterious immortals. The pair discover that violence gives them erections and killing provokes an orgasm, the cue for a couple of hundred pages of eye-popping, ball-busting mayhem. It’s ironic that during the Seventies when general readers were looking for racy thrills in books by Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins, the real hardcore stuff was over on the science fiction shelves with Farmer’s work, Ballard’s Crash, Samuel Delany’s Equinox, aka The Tides of Lust, Charles Platt’s The Gas, and others.

Farmer wrote two equally crazy sequels to Feast in 1970, Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin but unfortunately stripped out the excesses of the former book. I’ve always been disappointed by this and continue to hope that one day the original versions of the sequels will see print. Science fiction may have calmed down a bit (or grown conservative again) since the Seventies but Farmer’s work still exerts an influence. His unveiling of the weird psychosis at the heart of pulp fiction certainly affected the approach I took with the Lord Horror series Reverbstorm, created with David Britton in the 1990s, a series I’ve referred to more than once as a psychopathology of heroic fantasy.

The covers above all come from the official PJF website which also includes my Image/Blown cover design. (And where they also spell my name wrong.)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Men with snakes
The book covers archive