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

White Lady by David Rudkin

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Amy: Dad? What’s a parable.

Gil: Parable? A sort of story, with something in it…strange. To help you remember it. And think. About something important.

I first heard about David Rudkin’s White Lady (1987) from Grant Morrison during a conversation about Penda’s Fen, Morrison having been a Rudkin-head as far back as the original screening of that TV film in 1974. This was at a time when you couldn’t call up details of somebody’s entire career in a couple of seconds, so all I knew of Rudkin’s television work aside from Penda’s Fen was Artemis 81 (1981) and his adaptation of The Ash Tree (1975) by MR James, one of the BBC’s Christmas ghost stories.

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Vampyr (1932).

All of those films feature sinister, possibly supernatural events taking place in the English countryside, and this theme is continued in White Lady, a 45-minute drama which Rudkin wrote and also directed. In dramatic terms the film is a minimal piece concerning a divorced father trying to set himself up as a farmer while also taking care of two young daughters. In the fields surrounding the farm pesticides are being used, although we see little direct evidence of this. More overt are the disturbing interjections and animated graphics which show photographs and X-rays of laboratory animals suffering from pesticide exposure. Rudkin’s dialogue tells us at the outset that this is a parable, hence the deadly effects of the pesticide being embodied by the White Lady of the title, a spectral figure who carries a scythe.

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The first time I saw this I thought the scythe was a heavy-handed device, despite its obvious farming connections; watched again I realise that Rudkin would have been alluding (if only for himself) to the scythe-bearing ferryman in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), a film Rudkin subjected to very close scrutiny in 2005 for the BFI’s Film Classics series. In his book Rudkin notes a shot in which a sleeping figure is menaced by the shadow of a scythe on a wall; that shot is recapitulated in White Lady.

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It’s unfair to compare this to the eerie, intellectual masterpiece that is Penda’s Fen, but White Lady is still worth a look for anyone interested in Rudkin’s dramas, especially with it being his sole directing credit. If the dire warnings of genetic mutation haven’t come to pass there’s relevance in our present concern about the effects of nicotinoids on bee and bird populations. The White Lady still has plenty of work to do.

White Lady: part one | part two

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Design as virus 14: Curse of the Dead

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Curse of the Dead (1966).

Continuing an occasional series. This photograph, reproduced in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), intrigued me for years. Gifford’s book is a very good collection of stills from horror films of all kinds, ranging from the earliest days of cinema to the 1970s. The pictures are mostly black-and-white, and are often far more stimulating than the films they would have been promoting. The text generally refers to the films depicted but in the case of this picture there’s only a single credit, Curse of the Dead (1966), a film I’d never heard of. These kinds of mysteries have been banished for good now we have resources like IMDB where you can learn immediately that Curse of the Dead is a Mario Bava film whose original Italian title was Operazione Paura. (It’s also known, with the usual hyperbole, as Kill, Baby…Kill!) “An 18th century European village is haunted by the ghost of a murderous little girl” says the summary. Bava’s films were always visually impressive so it’s really no surprise to find it was one of his.

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The first repeat usage I know of is this cover from the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult series published by Sphere books from 1974–77. Sphere used Wheatley’s name to sell a lot of reprints but the series was substantial and featured a number of titles that would have been appearing in paperback for the first time. Unfortunately the best thing about the covers was the uniform design of the horoscope circle against a coloured background. The quality of the illustrations was very uneven so it’s probably for the best that the artists and photographers went uncredited.

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Then there’s one of Dave McKean’s title pages for Arkham Asylum (1989), the heavily symbolic Batman book he created with Grant Morrison. There’s only a portion of the picture but I’d say it’s a good guess he used the Gifford book since at least one of the panels in his earlier Violent Cases was based on another of the Gifford photos.

This isn’t all, I’m sure I’ve seen the Gifford picture used on a record sleeve but there’s little way of discovering which one unless somebody recognises the photo. If anyone knows, please leave a comment. And despite all of this I still haven’t seen Bava’s film even though I’m told it had a strong influence on Twin Peaks. This account at The Horror Digest is slightly disappointing when a colour equivalent of the Gifford still lacks the particulated creepiness of the black-and-white version. More surprising is finding yet another film featuring the arms-out-of-the-walls motif. This obviously requires further investigation.

Update: Thanks to Irv in the comments for finding the following singles so quickly. The Decorators sleeve was the one I remembered. (See it larger here.) Kicks were an Australian band. Odd that these were both released in the same year.

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Twilight View (1980) by The Decorators. Design by Malcolm Garrett.

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The Secret (1980) by Kicks.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Design as virus 13: Tsunehisa Kimura
Design as virus 12: Barney’s faces
Design as virus 11: Burne Hogarth
Design as virus 10: Victor Moscoso
Design as virus 9: Mondrian fashions
Design as virus 8: Keep Calm and Carry On
Design as virus 7: eyes and triangles
Design as virus 6: Cassandre
Design as virus 5: Gideon Glaser
Design as virus 4: Metamorphoses
Design as virus 3: the sincerest form of flattery
Design as virus 2: album covers
Design as virus 1: Victorian borders

Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin

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This is a post I’d been intent on writing for the past four years but kept putting off: why go to great lengths to describe another television drama which people can’t see? And how do you easily appraise something which haunted you for twenty years and which remains a significant obsession? My hand has been forced at last by a forthcoming event (detailed below) so this at least has some fleeting relevance, but before getting to that let’s have some facts.

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Penda’s Fen was a TV play first screened in March 1974 in the BBC’s Play For Today strand. It was shot entirely on film (many dramas in the 1970s recorded their interiors on video) and runs for about 90 minutes. The writer was David Rudkin and it was directed by Alan Clarke, a director regarded by many (myself included) as one of the great talents to emerge from British television during the 1960s and 70s. The film was commissioned by David Rose, a producer at the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, as one of a number of regional dramas. Rudkin was, and still is, an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter whose work is marked by recurrent themes which would include the tensions between pagan spirituality and organized religion, and the emergence of unorthodox sexuality. Both these themes are present in Penda’s Fen, and although the sexuality aspect of his work is important—pioneering, even—he’s far from being a one-note proselytiser. Alan Clarke is renowned today for his later television work which included filmed plays such as Scum (banned by the BBC and re-filmed as a feature), Made in Britain (Tim Roth’s debut piece), The Firm (with Gary Oldman), and Elephant whose title and Steadicam technique were swiped by Gus Van Sant. Penda’s Fen was an early piece for Clarke after which his work became (in Rudkin’s words) “fierce and stark”.

The most ambitious of Alan Clarke’s early projects, Penda’s Fen at first seems a strange choice for him. Most scripts that attracted Clarke, no matter how non-naturalistic, had a gritty, urban feel with springy vernacular dialogue (and sometimes almost no dialogue). David Rudkin’s screenplay is different: rooted in a mystical rural English landscape, it is studded with long, self-consciously poetic speeches and dense with sexual/mythical visions and dreams, theological debate and radical polemic—as well as an analysis of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. But though Penda’s Fen is stylistically the odd film out in Clarke’s work, it trumpets many of his favourite themes, in particular what it means to be English in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Howard Schuman, Sight & Sound, September 1998

Spencer Banks is the principal actor in Penda’s Fen, playing Stephen Franklin, an 18-year-old in his final days at school. The BBC’s Radio Times magazine described the film briefly:

Young Stephen, in the last summer of his boyhood, has somehow awakened a buried force in the landscape around him. It is trying to communicate some warning, a peril he is in; some secret knowledge; some choice he must make, some mission for which he is marked down.

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The magazine also interviewed Rudkin about the film:

“I think of Penda’s Fen as more a film for television than a TV play—not just because it was shot in real buildings on actual film but because of its visual force…

“It was conceived as a film and written visually. Some people think visual questions are none of the writer’s business—that he should provide the action and leave it to the director to picture it all out. For me, writing for the screen is a business of deciding not only what is to be shown but how it is to be seen…

Penda’s Fen is a very simple story; it tells of a boy, Stephen, who in the last summer of his boyhood has a series of encounters in the landscape near his home which alter his view of the world…
Continue reading “Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin”

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.