Eldritch idols

 

hpl22.jpg

I wouldn’t usually bother writing about new additions to the growing mountain of plastic ephemera generated by 21st-century culture but these items warrant wider attention. Legacy of Lovecraft is a set of six Lovecraft-related action figures made by 52Toys in Japan which include a figure of Lovecraft himself. There was a time when this alone would have been surprising but 20 years have now elapsed since the idea of a Sigmund Freud action figure went from being an unlikely joke to something you could actually buy. Today we’re more likely to be surprised if something with a substantial cultural footprint hasn’t generated any merchandising spin-offs.

hpl21.jpg

I saw the Lovecraft figure last month in a post at Tentaclii but didn’t notice at the time that it was part of a range which includes Cthulhu, a Deep One, Dagon, and The King in Yellow. The latter isn’t a Lovecraft creation, of course, but Robert Chambers’ stories are Mythos-adjacent. And despite the box art the figure isn’t clad in yellow either, but this provides an opportunity for enterprising owners to create some suitably tattered garments. All the figures come with small complementary items: Lovecraft has a forbidden tome, Cthulhu a tiny ship to torment, and so on. (The nameless “Investigator” comes with two extra items, a lamp and a Cthulhu statue.) The King in Yellow intrigues me the most for being a curious combination of Lovecraftian tentacles with an abundance of gnashing teeth that look like something out of Junji Ito’s comics. If I was going to buy any of these this is the one I’d get first. At around £25 each they’re not cheap but then I’ve spent similar amounts on Japanese CDs in the past.

hpl20.jpg

hpl18.jpg

hpl19.jpg

Continue reading “Eldritch idols”

Art on film: Providence

providence01.jpg

Art by René Ferracci.

Continuing an occasional series about artworks in feature films. Most people know HR Giger’s work via his production designs for the Alien films; a much smaller number of people also know about his designs for Jodorowsky’s unmade film of Dune, but hardly anyone knows that his art first appeared in a major film two years before Alien was released. This isn’t too surprising when the film in question, Providence, directed by Alain Resnais, has been increasingly difficult to see since 1977; the film isn’t mentioned in any of Giger’s books either, a curious omission for an artist who spent his career logging every public appearance of his work.

Providence began life as a collaboration between Resnais and British playwright David Mercer, with the resulting script leading to a Swiss/French co-production that was filmed in English. The film has an exceptional cast—Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, Elaine Stritch, David Warner—marvellous photography by Ricardo Aronovitch, and a sumptuous score by Miklós Rózsa. If you’re the kind of person who regards awards as designators of quality then it’s worth noting that Providence won 7 Cesar Awards in 1978, including the one for best picture. Yet despite all this, and despite being regularly described as a peak of its director’s career there’s only been a single DVD release which is now deleted. I’d been intending to write about the film for some time but first I had to acquire a decent copy to watch again; this wasn’t an easy task but I managed to “source” a version that was better than the VHS tape I used to own.

providence13.jpg

For most of its running time Providence is a film about artistic invention, more specifically about the process of writing. Clive Langham (John Gielgud) is an ailing author spending a sleepless night alone in his huge house, “Providence”, wracked by unspecified bowel problems, painful memories and fears of impending death. To distract himself from his troubles he drinks large quantities of wine while mentally sketching a scenario for a novel in which the people closest to him are the main characters. In this story-within-the-story Langham’s son, Claude (Dirk Bogarde), is a priggish barrister whose primary conflicts are with his absent father, his bored wife, Sonia (Ellen Burstyn), and a listless stranger, Kevin (David Warner), who Sonia has befriended and seems attracted to even though Kevin won’t reciprocate. While Claude cajoles and insults the pair he also conducts an affair of his own with Helen (Elaine Stritch), an older woman who resembles his dead mother. The scenario is elevated from being another mundane saga about middle-class infidelities by its persistently dream-like setting, and by the interventions and confusions of its cantankerous author. If you only know John Gielgud from his later cameos playing upper-class gentlemen then he’s a revelation here, boozing and cursing like the proprietor of Black Books. Between spasms of illness and self-pity Langham shuffles his playthings around like chess pieces, revising scenes while trying to keep minor characters from interfering; “Providence” isn’t only the house where Langham lives but also the watchful eye of its God-like author. Meanwhile, his characters bicker and chastise each other, paying little attention to the disturbing events taking place in the streets outside: terrorist bombings, outbreaks of lycanthropy, and elderly citizens being rounded up for extermination.

Continue reading “Art on film: Providence”

Victor Valla book covers

valla01.jpg

Lancer Books, 1971.

Victor Valla’s cover for The Dunwich Horror has appeared here before, and his cover for The Colour Out of Space is very familiar, but I hadn’t gone looking for anything else of his until this week. There isn’t much to be found on genre titles, just the rest of these covers plus a handful of undistinguished paintings for Gothic dramas and Dracula novels. His Lovecraft and Derleth covers are the kind of thing I always like to see more of, however, being less illustrations of story details than renderings of the feelings the story generates when you read it. This is especially the case with The Colour Out of Space, a story that suggests far more than it shows, and whose central motif—a colour alien to the Earth—is impossible to depict at all. In the 1970s it was easier to get away with this on paperback covers; Lovecraft was still a niche author and there wasn’t the legacy of imagery there is today. Incidentally, the Richard Lupoff book below isn’t as anomalous as it may seem if you know that Lupoff later wrote a novel, Lovecraft’s Book, with HPL as one of the main characters.

valla02.jpg

Lancer Books, 1971.

valla10.jpg

Beagle Books, 1971.

valla05.jpg

Beagle Books, 1971.

valla03.jpg

valla06.jpg

Beagle Books, 1971.

valla07.jpg

Beagle Books, 1971.

valla04.jpg

Beagle Books, 1971.

valla08.jpg

Beagle Books, 1971.

valla09.jpg

Beagle Books, 1971.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive
The illustrators archive
The Lovecraft archive

Cocteau and Lovecraft

cocteau.jpg

This one arrives via Tentaclii, via ST Joshi’s news page. Jean Cocteau paying homage in pencil to HP Lovecraft is both unlikely and almost too good to be true. But the drawing, circa 1951, is from a Beverly Hills gallery where other Cocteau artwork is up for sale so it can be accepted as the genuine article.

Cocteau’s enthusiasm for Lovecraft’s fiction doesn’t seem to be news either, even though this is the first I’ve heard of it. Another of Joshi’s links is to this newspaper feature from 1954 in which Cocteau together with various notables of the time are asked to choose their books of the year. While the other contributors list the kinds of titles you’d expect, Cocteau has a book about Atlantis by Denis Saurat, books about parapsychology and “les soucoupes volantes” (flying saucers), plus the first French collection of Lovecraft’s stories, translated by Jacques Papy. I knew that Cocteau had a mystical side—you’d expect nothing less from the director of Orphée—but this combination of Lovecraft and full-on crankery is a surprise. He lived just long enough to see the first publication of Pauwels and Bergiers’ Ur-text of the 70s’ crankosphere, The Morning of the Magicians, so I can imagine him lapping up that one as well.

gessner.jpg

As for the doodle, this is Cocteau’s version of a sea-monster illustration from Conrad Gessner’s Historia Animalium (1551–1558), a five-volume study which includes a number of fantastic creatures among its descriptions of the animal life known to 16th-century Europeans. Gessner has a page or two about the so-called “sea bishop” which includes this illustration together with another one I adapted myself in 2010 for the Neil Gaiman story in Lovecraft’s Monsters. Good to know that Cocteau and I were on the same page, as it were.

deep-one.jpg

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Lovecraft archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Cocteau drawings
Querelle de Brest
Halsman and Cocteau
La Belle et la Bête posters
The writhing on the wall
Le livre blanc by Jean Cocteau
Cocteau’s sword
Cristalophonics: searching for the Cocteau sound
Cocteau at the Louvre des Antiquaires
La Villa Santo Sospir by Jean Cocteau

Virgil Finlay’s magazine illustrations

finlay1.jpg

The Time Machine by HG Wells; Famous Fantastic Mysteries, August 1950.

This one will be popular, I’m sure. One of the recent uploads at the Internet Archive is a massive collection of Virgil Finlay’s interior illustrations from the magazines that published most of his work—Weird Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Amazing Stories, etc, etc—together with the astrological illustrations he created later in his career, plus other material, including a few pieces that never appeared in print. Pencil drawings, lithographs and hundreds of meticulous renderings in ink on paper or scratchboard; 1888 illustrations in all. Whoever put the haul together has been much more thorough than I’d have expected. Rather than a stash of random drawings you get 10 separate folders (best appreciated in the cbz format; see the note below) with each illustration tagged with the name of the story it was illustrating, and the date of publication. The contents are a mix of reproductions from later reprints, together with cropped pages from magazine scans. Taken together, this must comprise almost all of Finlay’s published work excluding his magazine covers and other paintings.

finlay3.jpg

Earth’s Last Citadel by Henry Kuttner and CL Moore; Fantastic Novels Magazine, July 1950.

Virgil Finlay (1914–1971) can be a frustrating artist for anyone who admires his work. He was massively prolific, and maintained a high level of quality for almost 40 years; but his interior illustrations were often printed on pulp stock, the kind of paper that offers the worst kind of print reproduction, and which darkens and eventually crumbles into dust unless it’s carefully stored. Descriptions of his illustrations often note that his drawing style evolved to compensate for the deficiencies of the printing but much of his artwork was very finely rendered, and I’m not sure his minute stipple effects would have printed any better (or worse) than the traditional cross-hatching which he used from time to time. His drawings have at least been well-served by reprint collections, where the white art paper makes his striking compositions leap off the page. Inevitably, the best of these—Gerry de la Ree’s seven-volume collection from the 1970s, and a four-volume set from the 1990s—are all out of print. The sheer quantity of illustrations also presents a problem for any reprint collection: what to include…or leave out? All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this accumulation of his interior art may be unauthorised, and even frowned upon by some, but it benefits Finlay by keeping his work in circulation and showing the full range of his career.

finlay5.jpg

The Faceless God by Robert Bloch; Weird Tales, May 1936.

With 1888 illustrations to choose from, picking out a representative selection is a hopeless task, so what you see here are a few favourites. I said that Finlay maintained a high level of quality but there are unsuccessful Finlays, especially in the early years when his style was still evolving. (It should be noted that he was in his early twenties when he was creating pieces such as these. His errors are a lot less grievous than mine were at the same age.) One of the hallmarks of the Finlay style is a frequent use of photo-reference, especially for faces, and it’s the disjunction between faces and bodies which occasionally jars. Disparities between the size or angle of a head and a body are common in photo-collage but you don’t expect to see them in a drawing. Occasionally the disparities worked for him, as in his illustration for The Faceless God by Robert Bloch, a drawing that so impressed HP Lovecraft that he responded with a short poem praising both picture and artist. The reference images used for his later work are much more seamlessly integrated, and in the 1940s and 50s he seemed to be using posed models as frequently as the illustrators for the big American magazines.

finlay4.jpg

The Man Who Mastered Time by Ray Cummings; Fantastic Novels Magazine, March 1950. Remove the fungi from this illustration and you’d have an almost abstract image.

Regarding cbz or cbr files: these are simply folders filled with jpegs or pngs which have been zipped then given a new suffix. They can be browsed using a suitable comics-reader application; I use Simple Comic for the iMac and ComiCat for the tablet. The files can also be opened with any unzipping software to give you access to the images inside. I find these files so much easier to use than pdfs, especially for image-heavy publications, that I’ve taken to exporting pdf pages as jpegs then zipping a folder of the images into a cbr. One of the advantages of the cbr format is that the readers allow you to extract an image without unzipping the whole file. The only drawback with the Finlay files is that ComiCat doesn’t let you see the file name the way that Simple Comic does.

finlay6.jpg

Full Moon by Talbot Mundy; Famous Fantastic Mysteries, February 1953.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive
The Lovecraft archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Virgil Finlay’s Tarzan
Virgil Finlay’s Salomé
The monstrous tome