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

William Heath Robinson’s illustrated Poe

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Another gem from the Internet Archive collection of scans from North American libraries. This edition of the poems of Edgar Allan Poe from 1900 was illustrated by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944), an artist whose later cartoons of quirky inventions have completely overshadowed his earlier books and the work of his equally talented older brother, Charles. I’m probably in the minority in preferring his book illustration to his cartoons and this edition of Poe is a superb example of his mastery of line and space. It can’t compete with Harry Clarke’s Poe, of course, but then no one can compete with that. WHR wasn’t really suited to the darker side of literature but he acquits himself here far better than Arthur Rackham did when he attempted his own Poe collection in 1935.

Bud Plant’s W Heath Robinson page
W Heath Robinson’s fairy tale illustrations

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The Conqueror Worm.

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Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

A playlist for Halloween

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Der Tod als Erwürger (1851) by Alfred Rethel.

It’s a fact (sad or otherwise) that a substantial percentage of my music collection would make good Halloween listening but in that percentage a number of works are prominent as spooky favourites. So here’s another list to add to those already clogging the world’s servers, in no particular order:

Theme from Halloween (1978) by John Carpenter & Alan Howarth.
What a surprise… All John Carpenter‘s early films have electronic scores and great themes, Halloween being the most memorable, and one that’s gradually infected the wider musical culture as various hip hop borrowings and Heat Miser by Massive Attack demonstrate.

Monster Mash (1962) by Bobby “Boris” Pickett.
The ultimate Halloween novelty record. A host of imitators followed the success of this single while poor Bobby struggled to be more than a one-hit wonder. It wasn’t to be, this was his finest hour. Available on These Ghoulish Things: Horror Hits for Halloween with some radio spots by Bobby and a selection of other horror-themed rock’n’roll songs.

The Divine Punishment (1986) & Saint of the Pit (1988) by Diamanda Galás.
Parts 1 & 2 of Galás’s Masque of the Red Death, a “plague mass” trilogy based on the AIDS epidemic. These remain my favourite records by Ms Galás; on the first she reads/sings passages from the Old Testament accompanied by sinister keyboards, making the Bible sound as steeped in evil and metaphysical dread as the Necronomicon. On Saint of the Pit she turns her attention to French poets of the 19th century (Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval & Tristan Corbière) while unleashing the full power of her operatic vocalizations. Einstürzende Neubauten’s FM Einheit adds some thundering drums. “Correct playback possible at maximum volume only.” Amen to that.

The Visitation (1969) by White Noise.
An electronic collage piece about a ghostly lover returning to his grieving girlfriend. White Noise were David Vorhaus working alongside BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson to create an early work of British electronica and dark psychedelia. The Visitation makes full use of Derbyshire and Hodgson’s inventive tape effects and probably accounts for them being asked to score The Legend of Hell House a few years later. Immediately following this is the drums and screams piece, Electric Storm In Hell; play this loud and watch the blood drain from the faces of your Halloween guests.

Zeit (1972) by Tangerine Dream.
Subtitled “A largo in four movements”, Zeit is Tangerine Dream’s most subtle and restrained album, four long tracks of droning atmospherics.

The Masque of the Red Death (1997) read by Gabriel Byrne.
From Closed On Account Of Rabies, a Poe-themed anthology arranged by Hal Willner. The readings are of variable quality; Christopher Walken’s The Raven is effective (although I prefer Willem Defoe’s amended version on Lou Reed’s The Raven) while Dr John reads Berenice like one of Poe’s somnambulists. Gabriel Byrne shows how these things should be done.

De Natura Sonoris no. 2 (1971) by Krzysztof Penderecki.
More familiar to people as “music from The Shining“, this piece, along with much of the Polish composer‘s early work, really does sound like music in search of a horror film. His cheerily-titled Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima is one piece that won’t be used to sell cars any time soon. Kubrick also used Penderecki’s equally chilling The Dream of Jacob for The Shining score, together with pieces by Ligeti and Bartók.

Treetop Drive (1994) by Deathprod.
Helge Sten is a Norwegian electronic experimentalist whose solo work is released under the Deathprod name. “Electronic” these days often means using laptops and the latest keyboard and sampling equipment. Deathprod music is created on old equipment which renders its provenance opaque leaving the listener to concentrate on the sounds rather than be troubled by how they might have been created. The noises on the deceptively-titled Treetop Drive are a disturbing series of slow loops with squalling chords, anguished shrieks and some massive foghorn rumble that seems to emanate from the depths of Davy Jones’ Locker. Play it in the dark and feel the world ending.

Ouroborindra (2005) by Eric Zann.
Another collection of sinister electronica from the Ghost Box label (see this earlier post), referencing HP Lovecraft and Arthur Machen’s masterpiece, The White People. Spectral presences haunting the margins of the radio spectrum.

Theme from The Addams Family (1964) by Vic Mizzy.
Never the Munsters, always the Addams Family! If you don’t know the difference, you must be dead.

Happy Halloween!

Previously on { feuilleton }
The music of the Wicker Man

The art of Harry Clarke, 1889–1931

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The Masque of the Red Death.

Halloween approaches so let’s consider the finest illustrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, Irish artist Harry Clarke. Aubrey Beardsley once declared “I am grotesque or I am nothing” yet even his grotesquery—which could be considerable—struggled to do justice to Poe. Clarke, the best of the post-Beardsley illustrators, found a perfect match in the Boston writer’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, his edition being published by Harrap in 1919. He could decorate fairy tales with the best of the great Edwardian book illustrators but a flair for the morbid blossomed when he found Poe. Only his later masterpiece, Goethe’s Faust, improved on the dark splendour of these drawings. “Never before have these marvellous tales been visually interpreted with such flesh-creeping, brain-tainting illusions of horror, terror and the unspeakable” wrote a critic in The Studio.

Lots more pictures at Grandma’s Graphics (although none of the colour plates, unfortunately) including many of the Faust drawings. Wikipedia has photos of some of Clarke’s incredible stained-glass windows, as does Bud Plant’s biography page.

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Ligeia.

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The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Architects of Fear

I

1920: the writer sits, at night, an old city asleep outside his window, dim light upon the empty page. He sits and waits for the words. When the words arrive he sets them down, hopelessly he often feels, a pointless task he submits to with resignation. Recurrent illness has been a rebuke against expectation, lack of acknowledgement equally rebukes his ambition. When illness prematurely claims him he dies with an assurance of extinction, certain that his words will be lost along with his breath.

But the words survive. Drawn from the ether of the new century, his sensitised intelligence has crafted a mythology for the time, giving shape to forces that his contemporaries perceive dimly, if at all. A mythology of those vast, impersonal yet manipulative powers coalescing in the air of the coming age, a mythology of conspiracy elevated to the level of metaphysics, a mythology of tyranny and mutation, paranoia and holocaust.

II

The writer is Franz Kafka. When he died in 1924, HP Lovecraft was unknown outside the pages of Weird Tales and of the handful of his stories already published there, none were those that would later make him famous. (‘The Call of Cthulhu’ came in 1926.) Lovecraft is unlikely to have known Kafka’s works, even in the early translations of the 1930s, yet the similarities between the pair persist, not only in their powerful representations of dread and alienation?the one crafted in a spare and affectless style, the other in the baroque vernacular of the pulps?but also for the way they define a sense of their times, and of the world, that subsequent readers have come to regard as visionary.

Jorge Luis Borges (who dedicated his story ‘There Are More Things’ to Lovecraft) identifies in his essay ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ a phenomenon common to writers who possess this kind of singular vision. The writer that forges a new way of seeing, says Borges, creates his own precursors, also forging connections between disparate themes, other writers and so on, that were previously unconnected. When the vision is powerful enough, and its influence proves to be as adaptive as a successful virus, we look for words to describe that influence and the reach of that vision. “‘Kafkaesque’ is the only word in common English use which derives from German literature” writes JP Stern. “Its meanings range from ‘weird’, ‘mysterious’, ‘tortuously bureaucratic’ to ‘nightmarish’ and ‘horrible’, yet we do not associate it with the horror machines of science fiction or Edgar Allan Poe.” Equally, we now have the word ‘Lovecraftian’ which can mean many of the same things, with possibly ‘squidlike and squalid’ (to borrow a phrase from the late John Balance) replacing ‘tortuously bureaucratic’. In Lovecraft’s case we can, of course, associate the word in part with Poe, if only to see where the designation has come from, and note how it builds upon foundations laid by Poe to touch the unique dreads of a new century.

III

When Lovecraft began to hit his peaks in the late 1920s a young William Burroughs was cultivating a lifetime hatred of authority during his tenure at the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico. In August 1931, teenage Bill could have gone to a news-stand in Los Alamos town and picked up the latest issue of Weird Tales, there to read about “the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space which the Necronomicon had mercifully cloaked under the name of Azathoth” from Lovecraft’s ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’. ‘Tam, Son of the Tiger’ by Otis Adelbert Kline received the cover treatment that month, with a mediocre painting by CC Senf. Lovecraft’s lack of faith in the enduring popularity of his works is perhaps easier to appreciate when you realise that none of his stories were deemed worthy of a cover illustration during his lifetime. Yet Kline and his contemporaries—many with names as baroque as the characters in their stories: Nictzin Dyalhis, Pearl Norton Swet, Ronal Kayser, the egregious Seabury Quinn—have been buried by the dust of their rotting magazines, while Lovecraft’s influence proliferates in subsequent books and films and digital media.

Ten years after ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’, however, Lovecraft was dead, and—so he believed—his works forgotten. In 1941, as William Burroughs never tired of reminding people, Robert Oppenheimer and the scientists of the Manhattan Project came to the Los Alamos Ranch School to close it down, bulldoze its buildings and construct in their place a research facility where they could create a monstrous nuclear chaos of their own. The Trinity explosion in the Alamogordo desert in 1945 prompted Oppenheimer to recall some words from an ancient text, a pronouncement from the god Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

IV

“(The Necronomicon was) composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaá, in Yemen, who is said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 AD. He visited the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secrets of Memphis and spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of Arabia—the Roba el Khaliyeh or “Empty Space” of the ancients—and “Dahna” or “Crimson” desert of the modern Arabs which is held to be inhabited by protective evil spirits and monsters of death. Of this desert many strange and unbelievable marvels are told by those who pretend to have penetrated it. In his last years Alhazred dwelt in Damascus, where the Necronomicon (Al Azif) was written and of his final death or disappearance (738 AD) many terrible and conflicting things are told. He is said by Ebn Khallikan (12th cent. biographer) to have been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses. Of his madness many things are told. He claimed to have seen the fabulous Irem, or City of Pillars, and to have found beneath the ruins of a certain nameless desert town the shocking annals and secrets of a race older than mankind. He was only an indifferent Moslem, worshipping unknown entities whom he called Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.”

HP Lovecraft, ‘The History of the Necronomicon’.

“The Cities of Red Night were six in number: Tamaghis, Ba’dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana and Ghadis. These cities were located in an area roughly corresponding to the Gobi Desert, a hundred thousand years ago. At that time the desert was dotted with large oases and traversed by a river which emptied into the Caspian Sea.”

William Burroughs, The Cities of the Red Night.

Burroughs’ cities are brothers to Lovecraft’s Nameless City, and to Irem, City of Pillars, described in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as the rumoured home of the Cthulhu Cult. The Cities of the Red Night are invoked with a litany of Barbarous Names, a paean to the “nameless Gods of dispersal and emptiness” that includes the Sumerian dieties that Burroughs found catalogued in the ‘Urilia Text’ from the Avon Books Necronomicon, and which includes (how could it not?) “Kutulu, the Sleeping Serpent who cannot be summoned.” In Burroughs work the ‘Lovecraftian’ is transmuted, the unspeakable becomes the spoken and the nameless is named at last, beneath the pitiless gaze of Burroughs’ own “mad Arab”, Hassan I Sabbah, Hashish Eater and Master of Assassins. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

V

2005: Nothing is true and everything is permitted but only in the space created by the latest architects of fear, the demagogues of the 21st century, our very own agents of the Control Virus. We see now that Irem, City of Pillars, is named in Sura 89 of the Qur’an (“Hast thou not seen how thy Lord did with Ad? With Iram of the columns? The like of which has not been created in the land?”) and that the Qur’an itself is presented to us by the architects of fear as the new Al Azif, a Necronomicon for an Age of Terror. In ‘The Dunwich Horror’, the Whateley brood, like misegenous backwoods Unabombers, pore over their ancient texts in the hope of invoking titanic forces that would “clear off the earth”. In ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ the cultists wait patiently for their god to return, when all the earth will blaze “in a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom”. So Cthulhu reveals another face as Shaitan, “the Old Dragon” and “Lord of the Abyss”, named in Sura 25:29 of the Qur’an as “the forsaker” who will lead men away from the path of righteousness: “Mankind, Shaitan is al khadhulu.”

At the dawn of a new century, “mad Arabs” in mountain retreats pore over these ancient words before unleashing a new Manhattan Project on America’s City of Pillars, raising columns of smoke and human ash over the city described in ‘He’ and ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. Hatred stalks the city streets as racist tabloid editors gibber and froth at the spectre of swarming immigrant hordes, while African witchdoctors are butchering boys and throwing their bodies into the River Thames. Nuclear chaos is but a breath away, the architects of fear assure us, it’s only a matter of time. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” So we turn for respite to another story from 1931, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, and we read:

“Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed. Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and it is even now only beginning to show signs of a sluggishly revived existence.”

At the dawn of a new century, those with the Innsmouth look have found themselves in the penal colony, waiting for a trial that will never come. Can you feel the heat closing in? Welcome to the Witch House; these are your dreams.

John Coulthart,
Manchester,
Summer Solstice, 2005