The Thing: Artbook

thing01.jpg

It was just over a year ago that I was asked to contribute to The Thing: Artbook, and the thing itself (so to speak) turned up in the post a few days ago. This is a large, heavyweight volume of 400 colour pages, stuffed to the slavering gills with fanged abominations (and more than a few Kurt Russells), a suitably excessive tribute to an excessive film.

thing02.jpg

Publishers Printed In Blood have previewed a fair amount of the artwork over the past year but the variety of interpretations of John Carpenter’s (and, lest we forget, John W. Campbell’s) monsters is quite overwhelming. After wondering how (or if) they were going to order contributions from 375 different artists, the book turns out to be divided into sections based on lines of dialogue from the film, a clever idea when much of the imagery reprises the same scenes or characters. My piece, which you can see below the fold, is in the “Nobody trusts anybody now” section.

thing03.jpg

One surprise was the dedication to Bernie Wrightson who died earlier this year. As for Mike Ploog’s original designs for the film’s creatures, I was hoping there might be more of these but the book does open with a couple of Ploog’s drawings.

thing04.jpg

thing05.jpg

I’ve resisted the temptation to post favourites by other artists aside from this piece by Steve Thomas. This one stood out for me since it’s a riff on the same lettering designs from fire insurance maps that I pastiched myself a few years ago for Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman Histories. Not all the artists produced monster art, there are quite a few contributions like this which present the film via infographics or pastiche.

Continue reading “The Thing: Artbook”

Things

thing01.jpg

Art by Drew Struzan.

One of my current commissions is a piece of art for a book based on John Carpenter’s The Thing, due to be published next year. This was a request I agreed to immediately, having been astonished by the film when it appeared in 1982 (I saw it three times), and having rated it ever since as Carpenter’s best and also one of my all-time favourite horror films. I haven’t started on the planned piece just yet but the commission encouraged me to upgrade my DVD copy of the film to the Blu-ray version, and to also read for the first time John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (1938), the short story that was the origin of Carpenter’s film and also the 1951 adaptation directed by Christian Nyby. Reading the story set me hunting around for other interpretations of Campbell’s alien.

thing02.jpg

UK poster. Art by Les Edwards.

The story was instructive in several ways, the first being how closely Bill Lancaster’s script for the Carpenter film follows the story’s outline. The paperback collection I was reading has an introduction by James Blish which complains about the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby production turning the polymorphous alien into another clone of Frankenstein’s monster. That’s true but the Nyby film still scared me to death when I first saw it aged 11 or so, and it has its merits. Lancaster not only stayed closer to the original shape-shifting premise but also kept many of the character names, plus details such as the blood test and the Thing’s attempt at the end to build a machine to escape from the encampment. The unforgettable opening, however, with the lone helicopter pursuing the dog, is all Lancaster’s.

thing03.jpg

Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1938; artist unknown. “Don A. Stuart” was a pseudonym for John W. Campbell, at that time the newly appointed editor of Astounding. Campbell’s editorship changed the name of the magazine from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction.

It was face up there on the plain, greasy planks of the table. The broken haft of the bronze ice-axe was still buried in the queer skull. Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood, from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow—

Campbell’s description of the ice-bound alien is better than some of his writing elsewhere. I’m used to tempering my judgement when visiting stories written for the pulps but Campbell’s writing is really awful, and a reminder of why I never got very far with the early SF writers. Weird Tales magazine had its share of ham-fisted journeymen (and women) but Campbell’s contemporaries such as Clark Ashton Smith and HP Lovecraft read like the most finessed and mandarin prose stylists in comparison. But The Thing isn’t the first great film to be based on a poor-quality story so we can at least thank Campbell for his scenario, although how much of it was his own has never been clear. The idea of ancient aliens in Antarctica (some of which are amorphous shape-shifters) had already been explored by HP Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness; Lovecraft’s story was published in 1936 by Astounding Stories, the same magazine that published Who Goes There? two years later. This lineage, and the possible influence, makes The Thing one of the foremost Lovecraftian films even without all of its tentacled abominations.

thing04.jpg

Art by Hannes Bok.

The story provided the title of Campbell’s debut collection of short fiction in 1948. I’ve known the Hannes Bok cover art for many years but hadn’t realised until recently that the three-eyed monster on the front was a Bokian rendering of Campbell’s alien. The figure on the back is presumably a human/husky hybrid, while I’d guess the robot relates to one of the author’s other stories.

Continue reading “Things”

Weekend links 131

thingposter.jpg

Japanese poster (1982).

At The Quietus Steve Earles looks back at John Carpenter’s visceral and uncompromising The Thing which exploded messily onto cinema screens thirty years ago. It’s always worth being reminded that this film (and Blade Runner in the same year) was considered a flop at the time following bad reviews and a poor showing at the summer box office. One reason was The Thing‘s being overshadowed by the year’s other film of human/alien encounters, something called E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. To The Thing‘s status as the anti-E.T. you can add its reversal of the can-do heroics of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), an attitude out-of-step with Reaganite America. Carpenter’s film is not only truer to the original story but from the perspective of 2012 looks like one of the last films of the long 1970s, with Hawks’ anti-Communist subtext replaced by bickering, mistrust, paranoia and an unresolved and completely pessimistic ending that most directors would have a problem getting past a studio today.

I was fortunate to see The Thing in October of 1982 knowing little about it beyond its being a John Carpenter film (whose work I’d greatly enjoyed up to that point) and a remake of the Hawks film (which I also enjoyed a great deal). One benefit of the film’s poor box office was a lack of the kind of preview overkill which made E.T. impossible to avoid, and which a couple of years earlier did much to dilute the surprise of Ridley Scott’s Alien. I went into The Thing mildly interested and came out overwhelmed and aghast. For years afterwards I was insisting that this was the closest you’d get on-screen to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. The correspondence is more than merely Antarctica + monsters when you consider this:

Lovecraft’s story was rejected by his regular publisher Weird Tales but was accepted by Astounding Stories in 1936 >> The editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell, published his own Antarctica + monsters story (under the pen-name Don A. Stuart), “Who Goes There?”, in the same magazine two years later >> Charles Lederer wrote a loose screen adaptation of Campbell’s story which Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby filmed as The Thing from Another World.

This isn’t to say that Campbell copied Lovecraft—both stories are very different—but I’d be surprised if Lovecraft’s using Antarctica as the setting for a piece of horror-themed science fiction didn’t give Campbell the idea.

More things elsewhere: Anne Billson, author of the BFI Modern Classics study of The Thing, on the framing of Carpenter’s shots, and her piece from 2009 about the film | Mike Ploog’s storyboards | Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack music, of which only a small percentage was used in the film.

• The week in music: 22 minutes of unreleased soundtrack by Coil for Sara Dale’s Sensual Massage | Analog Ultra-Violence: Wendy Carlos and the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange | A Halloween mixtape by The Outer Church | Herbie Hancock & The Headhunters, live in Bremen, 1974: a 66-minute set, great sound, video and performances | Giorgio Moroder’s new SoundCloud page which features rare mixes and alternate versions | A video for Collapse by Emptyset.

One of the main themes of the book, and what I found in The Arabian Nights, was this emphasis on the power of commodities. Many of the enchanted things in the book are lamps, carpets, sofas, gems, brass rings. It is a rather different landscape than the fairy tale landscape of the West. Though we have interiors and palaces, we don’t have bustling cities, and there isn’t the emphasis on the artisan making things. The ambiance from which they were written was an entirely different one. The Arabian Nights comes out of a huge world of markets and trade. Cairo, Basra, Damascus: trades and skills.

Nina Moog talks to Marina Warner

John Palatinus, “one of the last living male physique photographers of the 1950s”, is interviewed. Related: the website of Ronald Wright, British illustrator for the physique magazines.

• “A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.” Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic.

Huge Franz Kafka archive to be made public. Related: Judith Butler asks “Who owns Kafka?”

• Geoff Manaugh’s Allen Ginsberg Photos & Ephemera, 1994–Dec 1996.

Magic mushrooms and cancer: My magical mystery cure?

Clark Ashton Smith Portfolio (1976) by Curt Pardee.

Jan Toorop’s 1924 calendar.

artQueer: a Tumblr.

• All The Things You Are (1957) by Duke Ellington | Things That Go Boom In The Night (1981) by Bush Tetras | Things Happen (1991) by Coil | Dead People’s Things (2004) by Deathprod.

Snowbound cinema

uk_snow.jpg

A satellite view of snow across Great Britain on January 7, 2010.

Walking the snow-laden streets this week felt like a considerable novelty when we rarely have snowfalls of any depth here and what there is never lasts much longer than a day. The current low temperatures which began just before Christmas may be inducing a national trauma but the genuinely wintery weather makes a change from the dreary weeks of rain and cold which usually prevail until April.

Whilst trudging through the crusted ice I found myself remembering favourite films which make the most of winter landscapes. Here’s a short list to follow the earlier winter-themed posts.

McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
Several Westerns before this one had featured winter scenes but I think Robert Altman’s was the first to be set at the height of winter in a snowbound town. Memorable for Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography, Leonard Cohen’s lugubrious songs, Warren Beatty’s doomed businessman stomping around wrapped in furs muttering “Pain, pain, pain!”, and the finale when he’s hunted down by a trio of assassins.

The Shining (1980)
Has anyone not seen this film? Despite the artificial snow, Kubrick’s direction and John Alcott’s photography communicate authentic chills, both meteorological and metaphysical.

timberline.jpg

Yes, it’s a genuine Christmas postcard from Oregon’s Timberline Lodge which became the model for Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. Writer Tom Veitch sent me this some years ago.

The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s grisly Antarctic horror is the film I still find to be his best. Like his earlier Assault on Precinct 13, this is another siege situation borrowed from Howard Hawks only this time the enemy is within. Until someone films At the Mountains of Madness, this is the closest you’ll get to Lovecraft’s polar nightmares.

Runaway Train (1985)
Few people know this: escaped convicts Jon Voight and Eric Roberts find themselves on the titular train with rail worker Rebecca De Mornay, and it’s a long ride through frozen landscapes as they try to escape the law and the train itself before it crashes. Andrei Konchalovsky directs a story by Akira Kurosawa rewritten by Edward Bunker (who has a cameo) and others. The result is a strange blend of hardboiled drama and existential symbolism with a great score by Trevor Jones.

Fargo (1996)
One of the Coen Brothers’ best. Watching this again over Christmas along with many of their other films, it was amusing to see Steve Buscemi transform from Fargo‘s vicious and splenetic kidnapper to the mild-mannered character he plays in The Big Lebowski. Despite the statement at the beginning of the film, Fargo isn’t a true story but its existence became tangled with some curious real-life events.?

Update: I was reminded on Twitter about Altman’s bizarre future Ice Age drama, Quintet, which I should have mentioned above. Not as successful as the earlier film but its setting certainly suits the weather.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Bruegel in winter
Winter panoramas
Winter music
Winter light
Kubrick shirts
At the Mountains of Madness
Images by Robert Altman

Fantazius Mallare and the Kingdom of Evil

mallare1.jpg

Fantazius Mallare by Wallace Smith (1922).

Ben Hecht (1894–1964) is remembered today as a notable Hollywood screenwriter. He won the first screenplay Oscar for Underworld in 1927, wrote the great screwball comedies Nothing Sacred and His Girl Friday (based on his play with Charles MacArthur, The Front Page), and worked with directors such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, among others. His work as a novelist is inevitably overshadowed by these achievements, not least the two curious books he wrote when he was in his twenties, one of which ended up being prosecuted for obscenity.

A novel of decadence and mystic existentialism, Fantazius Mallare is a story of a mad recluse—a genius sculptor and painter who is at war with reason. Rather than commit suicide, his doting madness dictates that he must revolt against all evidence of life that exists outside himself. He destroys all of his work and then seeks out a woman who will devote herself to his Omnipotence. What follows is a glorious trek into a horrifying enlightening insanity.

Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath was first published in 1922 in a limited run intended for private distribution, most of which ended up being seized and destroyed by the authorities. The book is generally described as being a decadent work after the manner of Joris-Karl HuysmansÀ rebours although this is a lazy comparison. Huysmans’ Des Esseintes is far more effete than the morose Fantazius Mallare, his exploits more cerebral. Huysmans’ prose is also more considered:

It was obvious that the decadence of this family had followed an unvarying course. The effemination of the males had continued with quickened tempo. As if to conclude the work of long years, the Des Esseintes had intermarried for two centuries, using up, in such consanguineous unions, such strength as remained.

There was only one living scion of this family which had once been so numerous that it had occupied all the territories of the Ile-de-France and La Brie. The Duc Jean was a slender, nervous young man of thirty, with hollow cheeks, cold, steel-blue eyes, a straight, thin nose and delicate hands.

Hecht meanwhile begins like this:

Fantazius Mallare considered himself mad because he was unable to behold in the meaningless gesturings of time, space and evolution a dramatic little pantomime adroitly centered about the routine of his existence. He was a silent looking man with black hair and an aquiline nose. His eyes were lifeless because they paid no homage to the world outside him.

When he was thirty-five years old he lived alone high above a busy part of the town. He was a recluse. His black hair that fell in a slant across his forehead and the rigidity of his eyes gave him the appearance of a somnambulist. He found life unnecessary and submitted to it without curiosity.

mallare3.jpg

What follows is a work of vigorous grotesquerie and misanthropy that might almost seem parodic if the sincerity of the author’s cynicism wasn’t so evident. Before heading for Hollywood, Hecht worked as a journalist in Chicago and his eye for hypocrisy gave him much to be cynical about. Des Esseintes collects works of art to assuage his weariness with the world; Fantazius Mallare has no time for such preciousness:

Rising from his chair Mallare attacked, one by one, the canvases and statues. Goliath watched him in silence as he moved from pedestal to pedestal from which, like a company of inert monsters, arose figures in clay and bronze. The first of them was a man four feet in height but massive-seeming beyond its dimensions. Mallare had entitled it “The Lover.”

Its legs were planted obliquely on the pedestal top, their ligaments wrenched into bizarre muscular patterns. Its body rose in an anatomical spiral. From its flattened pelvis that seemed like some evil bat stretched in flight, protruded a huge phallus. The head of the phallus was enlivened with the face of a saint. The eyes of this face were raised in pensive adoration. At the lower end of the phallus, the testicles were fashioned in the form of a short-necked pendulum arrested at the height of its swing. The hands of the figure clutched talon-like at the face and the head was thrown back, as if broken at the neck. Its features were obliterated by the hands except for the mouth which was flung open in a skull-like laugh.

mallare2.jpg

Hecht’s book was illustrated by Wallace Smith (1888–1937) whose careful delineations seem to owe something to Harry Clarke. Smith didn’t spare the salacious details and artist and writer ended up being fined $1000 each when the books were seized. Book fanzine It Goes on the Shelf throws some interesting light on this incident in a review of a Hecht biography:

…my interest in Hecht is mostly that he wrote a book, Fantazius Mallare, illustrated by Wallace Smith. Smith was said by Ronald Clyne to have gone to jail for the Mallare artwork, but apparently this was an exaggeration—he and Hecht were, however, fined $1000 each for “obscenity”; and $1000 was quite a lot of money in 1924. The particular points I was curious about were where the rest of the Wallace Smith artwork is—he could hardly have developed that style in the handful of drawings that have been published; and what happened to the copies of Fantazius Mallare seized by the US government—the book did not seem to be as scarce as would have been expected if they had seized even half of the 2000-copy edition. MacAdams was able to answer this last question to some extent—after the obscenity conviction, the publisher made another 2000 copies and sold them ‘under the counter’. However, MacAdams and I discovered that we both have copies of the original numbered edition, and that mine is #587 while his is #1900 and something—so what did the goverment seize?

It should be noted that Hecht and Smith went to a great deal of trouble to have themselves convicted of obscenity. They had wanted to create a test case of the federal obscenity law and have a show trial in order to turn public opinion against it by ridicule. Hecht also intended to enter a million-dollar civil suit for defamation of character against John Sumner and his infamous Society for the Suppression of Vice if Sumner attacked his book. The famous Clarence Darrow was to have been their attorney. The plan was to send review copies of Fantazius Mallare to all of the literary lights of the time, and then have Darrow call these people as expert witnesses at the trial. Alas, the scheme foundered on the unforeseen pusillanimity of the literary establishment—only HL Mencken agreed to appear as a witness. In the end there was no trial because Hecht and Smith endered a plea of nolo contendere.

mallare4.jpg

Their treatment failed to impress DH Lawrence. In a review for Berkeley’s The Laughing Horse he wrote:

These drawings are so completely without irony, so crass, so strained, so would-be. There’s nothing in it but the author’s attempt to be startling…. The word penis or testicle or vagina doesn’t shock me. Why should it? Surely I am enough a man to be able to be able to think of my own organs with calm, even with indifference. It isn’t the names of things that bother me; nor even ideas about them. I don’t keep my passions, or reactions, or even sensations IN MY HEAD. They stay down where they belong….

…all these fingerings and naughty words and shocking little drawings only reveal the state of mind of a man who has NEVER had any sincere, vital experience in sex…. If Fantazius wasn’t a frightened masturbator he knows that sex contact with another individual meant a whole meeting, a contact between two natures, a grim recontre, half battle and half delight, always, and a sense of renewal and deeper being afterwards….The great gods pulse in the dark, and enter you as darkness through the lower gates. Not through the head.

Fantazius Mallare seems to me such a poor, impoverished, self-conscious specimen.

According to The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural Smith largely abandoned drawing after this episode, following Hecht to Hollywood where he became a minor screenwriter and novelist. Hecht was undeterred and wrote a sequel which appeared in 1924, The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare, like its predecesor also produced in a limited run.

The Kingdom of Evil continues the journal of the mad recluse Mallare, who has decided to live beyond reality, now an empty, repugnant memory. It is Mallare’s desire to find a world in which he belongs, and out of his madness he creates the monstrous Kingdom of hallucination: “Luminous and strange, its roofs careening like wing-stretched bats it lay encircled by hills—a Satanic toy, a thing of unearthly marvels. Its painted streets beckoned to Mallare. Its demons, horrors and lusts waited for him…”

The lusts aren’t so lavishly depicted this time, Hecht no doubt wanted to avoid another $1000 fine. This is a shame as the second book is longer but less interesting despite flights of fancy such as the following, which reads like a description of some of the horrors seen in Harry Clarke’s Faust illustrations:

Julian turned away quickly. But he remained without moving. Around us in every direction were dreadful, nauseating figures; two-headed things with faces drooping at the ends of wilted stalks; creatures with boneless limbs and bodies like pouches; creatures with swollen and pendulous heads riveting them to the earth; animate snail-like masses of flesh, hair-matted and mucous-covered; thick, serpentlike bodies that struggled to stand erect; half-formed heads that raised themselves above appalling disfigurements. I could not believe them alive at first and thought they must be matter that had erupted fungus fashion out of the earth. But staring I detected amid these obscene and tumorous shapes, horrifying human fragments—the arm of a man, the perfect breasts of a woman; human eyes staring out of putrescent and formless growths, human lips red and grimacing in swollen smiles. Around us they crept, emitting sounds, clawing at the air with fingers and stumps—a convulsive debris of faces, limbs and fetal distortions moving like foul bags of life.

Julian fled. I stood unable to move until one of them, tall as a man, its bulbous head rising out of a discolored sack of flesh, turned its face toward me. For the moment I looked at it a horror contracted my skin. I saw stamped upon this hideous growth and half-hidden by a cowl of skin a face I knew-a face with melancholy eyes and wide brooding mouth; a man’s face, perfect and thinking, its hair falling in a black slant across its brow.

“My face!” I screamed.

The artist engaged to try and match the prose was Anthony Angarola, a poor substitute for Smith despite the lasting praise of HP Lovecraft (see this earlier post). Angarola’s work resembles an imitator of S Clay Wilson pastiching Harry Clarke, if such a thing is possible, and it’s likely that it was this book that gave Lovecraft a good look at Angarola’s work. HPL would have baulked at the sexual content of Fantazius Mallare had he seen it.

The world hadn’t heard the last of the misanthrope, however, as he returned in a bizarre film adaptation, The Scoundrel, in 1935, giving Noël Coward his first starring role:

This odd morality play is set in the hellish environment of a decadent and pseudo-intellectual NYC publishing house, and is written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was inspired by Hecht’s earlier novel, Fantazius Mallare. This unique fantasy film sets an acerbic atmosphere of backbiting and meaningless existence for literary types. The film’s climax leaves the realistic publishing world and enters a metaphorical world of spiritual values. Unfortunately this stagy but cleverly sophisticated story turns into a pretentious mess. However, the film was able to collect an Oscar for Best Original Story.

Both books are out of print at present but you can read Fantazius Mallare online here. Kingdom of Evil is harder to find but the pair have been reprinted often enough so there are plenty of secondhand copies around.

Update: A scan of the first edition of Fantazius Mallare is now available at the Internet Archive.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive