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

Seward/Howard

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William Burroughs, New York, 1953. Photo by Allen Ginsberg.

Lonely lemur calls whispered in the walls of silent obsidian temples in a land of black lagoons, the ancient rotting kingdom of Jupiter – smelling the black berry smoke drifting through huge spiderwebs in ruined courtyards under eternal moonlight – ghost hands at the paneless windows weaving memories of blood and war in stone shapes – A host of dead warriors stand at petrified statues in vast charred black plains – Silent ebony eyes turned toward a horizon of always, waiting with a patience born of a million years, for the dawn that never rises – Thousands of voices muttered the beating of his heart – gurgling sounds from soaring lungs trailing the neon ghost writing – Lykin lay gasping in the embrace can only be reached through channels running to naked photographic process – molded by absent memory, by vibrating focus scalpel of the fishboy gently in a series of positions running delicious cold fingers “Stand here – Turn around – Bend”

The Ticket that Exploded (1962)

William Burroughs always talked favourably of Ernest Hemingway, and the famously spare style of Hemingway’s prose is evidently a style he sought himself, especially in the later works where there’s less of an emphasis on linguistic pyrotechnics. Something that always strikes me when I return to Burroughs’s earlier novels is the quality of passages like the one above which is a long way from the Hemingway style. What’s even more noticeable—and this is something which attracted me to Burroughs’s work from the outset—is the degree to which some of these passages are reminiscent of HP Lovecraft. In the case of the example above, taken from The Black Meat chapter of The Ticket that Exploded, some of this may be the work of Michael Portman who Burroughs credits as co-writer. What Portman contributed to The Black Meat and another chapter of that novel I’ve never discovered but there are plenty of other examples by Burroughs alone to show that he wasn’t incapable of this himself. The Ticket that Exploded was the first Burroughs book I read, and part of the shock and fascination came from encountering a recognisable Weird Tales-style atmosphere wrenched into inexplicable and thoroughly alien territory.

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Frank Belknap Long and HP Lovecraft, New York, 1931. Photo by WB Talman.

There are others connections beyond literary style. When the Simon Necronomicon was published in 1977 Burroughs was asked to provide a blurb for the book. He wasn’t as effusive as the publishers might have hoped but the dubious volume was still advertised with his recommendation:

Let the secrets of the ages be revealed. The publication of the Necronomicon may well be a landmark in the liberation of the human spirit.

If it wasn’t for this then the extraordinary Invocation which opens Cities of the Red Night (1981) would have been diminished. Among the other “gods of dispersal and emptiness” whose names are called, Burroughs mentions “Kutulu, the Sleeping Serpent who cannot be summoned”, and “the Great Old One”, among a number of the usual Mayan gods, and several Sumerian deities whose descriptions (as with Kutulu) are taken from the pages of the Simon Necronomicon. It’s impossible to imagine Saul Bellow or John Updike opening a novel this way, just as it’s impossible to imagine many genre writers wandering into the areas that Burroughs explores elsewhere in that novel. This is one reason why Burroughs (and JG Ballard) were included in DM Mitchell’s The Starry Wisdom anthology in 1994, an attempt to expand the acceptable boundaries of Lovecraftian fiction, and also wilfully trample the fences that separate the genre and literary camps. I campaigned at the time for The Black Meat chapter to be included but Dave was set on Wind Die, You Die, We Die from Exterminator! (1973), a lesser piece although in the end it didn’t seem out of place in the book as a whole.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Thot-Fal’N, a film by Stan Brakhage
Mr Bradly Mr Martin Hear Us Through The Hole In Thin Air
The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, a film by Gerrit van Dijk
Burroughs at 100
Nova Express, a film by Andre Perkowski
Decoder, a film by Jürgen Muschalek
The Burroughs Century
Interzone: A William Burroughs Mix
Sine Fiction
The Ticket That Exploded: An Ongoing Opera
Burroughs: The Movie revisited
Zimbu Xolotl Time
Ah Pook Is Here
Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine
Looking for the Wild Boys
Wroblewski covers Burroughs
Mugwump jism
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
Burroughs in Paris
William Burroughs interviews
Soft machines
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

New things for July

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In Spaces Between from The Great Old Ones (1999).

Some noteworthy pieces of news as the month draws to a rain-sodden and dismal conclusion.

• Frank Woodward was in touch this week to let me know that his excellent HP Lovecraft documentary, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, will at last be appearing on DVD in October. This is a feature-length appraisal of Lovecraft’s life, work and influence, and includes contributions from Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Caitlin R Kiernan, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell and Lovecraft scholar ST Joshi. A number of my artworks are included throughout and they’ll probably also be featured in a gallery section on the disc. The film was shot in HD so it’s being released on Blu-ray as well as regular DVD.

• Also Lovecraft-related, and also due out shortly, is DM Mitchell’s follow-up to the landmark Starry Wisdom anthology of Lovecraft-inspired texts and graphics. That volume was acclaimed in some quarters and condemned in others; I don’t doubt that this new work, Songs of the Black Wurm Gism, will manage the same. Contributors include David Britton, Grant Morrison and yours truly. The cover is Alan Moore’s splendid portrait of Asmodeus.

• Last but not least, Paul Schütze was also in touch this week with news that two more audio works have been added to his online catalogue. Soundworks 01 is his atmospherics created with with Andrew Hulme from the recent TV drama series Red Riding, while Tokyo/Osaka Live is two pieces of improvisation with Simon Hopkins. Both releases are available through iTunes.

Readouts

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The HAL Project.

January flew by in a blizzard of work so posting here tended to rely more on pictures than words. As usual the things I’ve been designing will be unveiled when they’re closer to being published or released but for now here’s some new or not-so-new items worthy of note.

The HAL Project screensaver. I’ve never had much time for gaudy screensavers, I prefer something which doesn’t get annoying when I’m otherwise engaged. For a while now I’ve been using the Mac-only Lotsawater which turns your monitor into a vertical water tank with slow motion ripples. I replaced that this week with Joe Mackenzie’s HAL Project screensaver (for Mac and Windows) which throws up random samplings of the HAL 9000 monitor animations from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sounds a bit dull until you see it in action, very crisp and detailed graphics, many of which mimic the animations of those in the film. I’ve belatedly realised how similar these fields of colour and their lines of white type are to the opening titles of A Clockwork Orange, yet another connection between the two films. Now I can sit trying to figure out some of the less obvious 3-letter codes for the spacecraft’s systems; Stanley Kubrick was so thorough you just know they all mean something.

Via the Kubrick obsessives at Coudal.

A pair of new blogs. Designer Barney Bubbles should need little introduction here but if you require one then read this. Paul Gorman has been in touch to inform me of a new online companion to his BB book, Reasons To Be Cheerful, which already looks like a treat with displays of Bubbles creations that didn’t make the book.

Writer Russ Kick was also in touch this week with news of his books and book culture blog, Books Are People, Too. Russ is the author of several books for Disinformation and his Memory Hole website notoriously caused a headache for the Bush regime when he forced photos of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq onto the front pages of American newspapers.

Songs of the Black Würm Gism. And speaking of books, the much delayed sequel to DM Mitchell’s landmark Lovecraft anthology, The Starry Wisdom comes shambling into the light of day at last. The Creation Oneiros website describes it thus:

The Black Würm Gism Cult – oceanic insect porn – a vortex of cosmic mayhem stalked by ravening lysergic entities – a post-human psychedelic seizure of Lovecraftian text, art and fragments. SONGS OF THE BLACK WÜRM GISM picks up where the acclaimed anthology THE STARRY WISDOM left off and goes beyond – way beyond! – what H.P. Lovecraft dared to show. Editor D.M. Mitchell presents an illustrated brainstorm of visceral deep-sea dream currents, aberrant trans-species sex visions, and frenzied ophidian entropy.

Contributors include: alan moore (cover illustration), john coulthart (introduction), grant morrison, david britton, ian miller, john beal, david conway, kenji siratori, herzan chimera, james havoc, reza negarestani, & many others

Yes, the rather pompous introduction for this volume is mine and the cover is Alan Moore’s psychedelic arachnoid rendering of the demon Asmodeus, the same picture I used to create my little hidden film on the Mindscape of Alan Moore DVD. The Starry Wisdom roused a vaporous fury among the more staid Lovecraft readers so I look forward to seeing what squeaks of outrage this new book inspires. Publication is set for September 2009 but you can order it now from Amazon and other outlets.

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Ghost Box haunts again. And if anything was going to provide a suitable soundtrack to “aberrant trans-species sex visions, and frenzied ophidian entropy” you could do worse than some of the works of the Ghost Box collective, especially the spooky and abrasive Ouroborindra by Eric Zann. Ritual and Education is a new download-only sampler of Ghost Box tracks and probably an ideal place to start if your curiosity is piqued by my recurrent raves about these releases. From An Ancient Star is the latest CD from Belbury Poly which swaps the Pelican Books graphics of earlier works for a convincing piece of crank lit. cover art which wouldn’t look out of place in the RT Gault archives.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Demon Regent Asmodeus
The Séance at Hobs Lane
Ghost Box
2001: A Space Odyssey program

New work for July

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This new Savoy volume was an exhausting task, 608pp with illustrations on nearly every page. The book is another study of Savoy’s long career as publishers with many digressions examining the various maverick and often unsavoury characters that have fuelled David Britton’s books and the wider Savoy corpus, from real and imagined fascists to pulp writers, movie cowboys, PJ Proby and sundry rock’n’rollers. It forms a loose trilogy with two earlier books, Robert Meadley’s A Tea Dance at Savoy and DM Mitchell’s A Serious Life.

For the design I wanted to avoid the obvious that the title would imply and play around with a different brand of totalitarian imagery, namely the iconography of Soviet Russia and its accompanying propaganda. We used Jonathan Barnbrook’s Newspeak font for all of the titles and headings, a great design that has the right look while still being contemporary. The cover and interior chapter spreads borrow elements of the Soviet style, with some nods towards the general Bauhaus and Art Deco designs of the 1920s and ’30s. It was an enjoyable project even if it did seem interminable at times.