Illustrating Zothique

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Cover art by George Barr, 1970.

A few years ago I wrote a short piece about Virgil Finlay’s illustrations for a Zothique story by Clark Ashton Smith, The Garden of Adompha, so this post may be regarded as a more substantial sequel. If Smith remains something of a cult author then Zothique is the pre-eminent cult creation from his career as a writer of weird fiction. Most of Smith’s stories can be grouped together according to their location: Atlantis, Hyperborea, Averoigne in medieval France, the planet Mars, and so on. Zothique was a more original conception than his other worlds, being the last continent on Earth in the final years of the planet, an idea which had precedents in earlier novels such as William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land but which hadn’t been used before as a setting for a cycle of stories. The distant future suggests science fiction but, as with the Zothique-influenced Dying Earth of Jack Vance, science and technology is long-forgotten and sorcery rules the day. The poetry that Smith wrote before he took to writing short stories had a distinctly Decadent quality—”like a verbal Gustave Moreau painting“—and Zothique is a richly Decadent world, with the entire planet in a state of decay along with its barbarous, demon-worshipping peoples.

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Weird Tales, September 1932. Art by T. Wyatt Nelson.

All the Zothique stories had their first printings in Weird Tales, a magazine that ran illustrations with most contributions, but unless you’re a pulp collector many of the illustrations have been difficult to see until very recently. One of the pleasures of looking through fiction magazines is seeing how their stories might have been illustrated when they were first published. Popular tales eventually find their way into book collections but their illustrations tend to be marooned in the titles where they first appeared unless the artist is of sufficient merit to warrant a collection of their own.

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Weird Tales, March 1933. Art by Jayem Wilcox.

The examples here are all from recent uploads at the Internet Archive which now has a complete run of Weird Tales from 1923 to 1954. The illustrations also run in order of publication with links to the relevant issues, although I agree with Lin Carter’s ordering of the stories. Smith never organised them himself, and the later reprints from Arkham House and others tend to scatter them through separate volumes. When Lin Carter edited the Zothique collection in 1970 he put the stories into an order that follows the very loose chronology running through the cycle.

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Weird Tales, January 1934. Art by Clark Ashton Smith.

One surprise of this search was discovering that Smith himself had provided illustrations for several of the stories. Some Smith enthusiasts like his drawings and paintings but I’m afraid I’m not among them, his sculpture work is better. It’s doubtful that these would have been printed at all if they weren’t the work of the author.

Continue reading “Illustrating Zothique”

Weekend links 162

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Untitled drawing by Sophie Penrose.

• “…many arts producers – much more so than the artists themselves – were over-fearful of the prospect of prosecution, when in nearly all incidents there were no reasonable grounds for bringing charges.” Julia Farrington of Index on Censorship on self-censorship by artists and art institutions in the UK.

• “Tons of tones – some dissolved in beats, some beatless treatments – in a continuous mix of current ambient and electronic goodies, pouring more than a score of ambi-valent shapes and etheric waves into an occluded reverb-trail echo-veil mood-stream.” Ambivalentine, a mix by Albient.

• “I was followed by a bee, a golden bee. For three years, every day, the golden bee followed us.” Forty years ago Penthouse magazine talked to Alejandro Jodorowsky. This month Dazed magazine asked the polymath twenty questions.

• “…investigators were stupefied to find the spymaster’s quarters full of pink leather whips, cosmetics, and pornographic photographs, framed in snakeskin.” Erik Sass on Colonel Redl and a gay spy scandal in the Vienna of 1913.

• “With no one to sponsor him, Marino Auriti’s dream museum became the stuff of legends.” Stefany Anne Golberg on Marino Auriti’s Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo.

• The Crime Epics of Louis Feuillade: YouTube links and more. Related: YouTube’s Vault of Horrors.

Werner Herzog: 50 years of potent, inspiring, disturbing films.

• The doors of perception: John Gray on Arthur Machen.

• Some Sort of Alchemy: Albert Mobilio on Sun Ra.

• British Pathé’s film of ghost hunters in 1953.

• “Escape your search engine Filter Bubble

• RIP Jack Vance

Bumble Bee Bolero (1957) by Harry Breuer | The L S Bumble Bee (1967) by Peter Cook & Dudley Moore | Ant Man Bee (1969) by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band | Be A Bee (2009) by Air

The Garden of Adompha

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…the growths of that garden were such as no terrestrial sun could have fostered, and Dwerulas said that their seed was of like origin with the globe. There were pale, bifurcated trunks that strained upwards as if to disroot themselves from the ground, unfolding immense leaves like the dark and ribbed wings of dragons. There were amaranthine blossoms, broad as salvers, supported by arm-thick stems that trembled continually.

And there were many other weird plants, diverse as the seven hells, and having no common characteristics other than the scions which Dwerulas had grafted upon them here and there through his unnatural and necromantic art.

These scions were the various parts and members of human beings. Consummately, and with never failing success, the magician had joined them to the half-vegetable, half-animate stocks on which they lived and grew thereafter, drawing an ichor-like sap. Thus were preserved the carefully chosen souvenirs of a multitude of persons who had inspired Dwerulas and the king with distaste or ennui. On palmy boles, beneath feathery-tufted foliage, the heads of eunuchs hung in bunches, like enormous black drupes. A bare, leafless creeper was flowered with the ears of delinquent guardsmen. Misshapen cacti were fruited with the breasts of women, or foliated with their hair. Entire limbs or torsos had been united with monstrous trees. Some of the huge salver-like blossoms bore palpitating hearts, and certain smaller blooms were centered with eyes that still opened and closed amid their lashes. And there were other graftings, too obscene or repellent for narration.

Thus Clark Ashton Smith in The Garden of Adompha, one of the stories in the author’s Zothique cycle which was first published in Weird Tales in April, 1938. Zothique was Smith’s contribution to the Dying Earth subgenre, sixteen stories set on the last continent in the final days of the Earth, and a home to no end of sorcery and cruelty. I’ve always enjoyed this subgenre, especially in the hands of Jack Vance whose later Dying Earth stories show the influence of Zothique, so these are some of my favourites among Smith’s prodigious output. The Garden of Adompha is a particularly grotesque piece, concerning the sequestered garden of the title to which King Adompha has undesirables removed. Once there his wizard, Dwerulas, drugs the victims and grafts parts of their bodies to the garden’s hothouse plants. Virgil Finlay’s cover painting downplays the horror somewhat, and Dwerulas’s supine prey, Thuloneah, looks like a very typical American girl, but then for a story that reads like a pulp equivalent of Octave Mirbeau it’s surprising it made the cover at all.

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Re-reading some of Smith’s stories over the past week, The Garden of Adompha among them, there’s been the additional pleasure of searching for illustrations from their original publication. I knew that Virgil Finlay had painted this cover, one of the few cover features Smith received from Weird Tales, but Alistair Durie’s Weird Tales (1979) collection only has a monochrome reproduction. The always reliable Golden Age Comic Book Stories not only has a copy of Finlay’s original painting but also the interior illustration which looks like a litho drawing rather than the artist’s more usual scratchboard. The most recent book collection featuring the story was The Collected Fantasies Of Clark Ashton Smith Volume 5: The Last Hieroglyph (2010) from Night Shade Books. (I would have linked to the publisher’s page but their site seems to be broken.)

Update: Golden Age Comic Book Stories changed its name then vanished altogether. The picture links here have been updated.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Vathek illustrated
The Vengeance of Nitocris
The House of Orchids by George Sterling
Haschisch Hallucinations by HE Gowers
Odes and Sonnets by Clark Ashton Smith
The King in Yellow
Clark Ashton Smith book covers

Covering Viriconium

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The Pastel City (New English Library, 1971). Illustration by Bruce Pennington.

There are writers’ writers, of course, and M. John Harrison is one of those. He moves elegantly, passionately, from genre to genre, his prose lucent and wise, his stories published as sf or as fantasy, as horror or as mainstream fiction. […] His prose is deceptively simple, each word considered and placed where it can sink deepest and do the most damage.

Neil Gaiman in the introduction to the Bantam/Spectra edition of Viriconium (2005)

This is a lengthy post of potentially minority interest for which I make no apologies. It’s often been a function of the writing here to think aloud while communicating an enthusiasm; as enthusiasms go this one runs deeper than usual. I love these books indecently. If they were people I’d want to sleep with them even though doing so might mean contracting some debilitating illness. When you’re employed as a book designer and illustrator it’s impossible to avoid taking a professional interest in the packaging of your favourite books. M. John Harrison‘s Viriconium books—three novels and a collection of short stories—present challenges that the illustrators and art directors of the past have invariably failed to meet. This post looks at prior cover designs while a subsequent post will suggest some solutions to the challenges. But first it’s necessary to say something about Viriconium itself.

In the distant future of the Earth, when the human race has flourished then lapsed into a state of terminal decay, only one city of note remains: Viriconium, the Pastel City, surrounded by the wastes and fens of a ruined world. Or so we’re told in the first book of a series which begins as outright fantasy and moves by an astonishing feat of authorial dexterity closer to our world and our time. (A shorthand description might describe a series that starts out reading like Jack Vance and ends up closer to Bruno Schulz.) It becomes apparent that Viriconium stands for all the cities that have ever been, and with its avenues, rues and strasses often seems to be a composite of them all. Aside from the unspecified future its fixture in time is indeterminate: one story may concern events which are in the distant past of another while the streets and quarters never remain anchored enough for any kind of map to be drawn. Areas of continuity rise like towers from a sea of vapour. Even the city’s name slips its mooring: the origin is Viroconium Cornoviorum, a Roman town in Shropshire, and Viroconium, a poem by Mary Webb. In the later books we’re told the city is also called Uriconium or Vriko but whether these variants lie in the past or future of Viriconium is unclear. The indeterminacy was deliberate, a riposte to what Harrison calls “fauxthenticity”, and the tendency of genre readers to reduce the subtleties of fiction to the schematics of role-playing games, spaceship diagrams and books with titles like The Science of Middle-Earth. It’s this indeterminacy and a refusal to offer neat resolutions (or that awful term “closure”) that no doubt explains why Harrison’s books often seem to attract more praise than actual readers.

The most remarkable aspect of the books presents the greatest problems in design terms. In the fourteen years that Harrison worked on his series he used its mutable qualities to pull the entire project to pieces without actually destroying it or turning the whole thing into a self-regarding postmodern game. The early books critique the lazy assumptions of the fantasy genre while the later books recast the earlier stories as myths or half-remembered dreams. The first two books may use the apparatus of the fantasy genre but that doesn’t mean the tired imagery of fantasy illustration necessarily suits their covers. The very last story, A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium, is set in the north of England in our own time. Changing the name Viriconium to London throughout the text, which Harrison has done when the story has been published elsewhere, dissolves the remaining genre trappings. The process is akin to watching those Buddhist monks who construct elaborate mandalas of coloured sand only to sweep them away when the work is finished. All this makes the Viriconium books unique, it’s one of many reasons why I hold them in such high regard and it’s also why they frequently irritate those who want simpler fare. The problem of appealing to a reactionary readership may explain why many of the following covers have failed to honour the content of the books.

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The Pastel City (Doubleday, 1972) Illustration by Wendell Minor.

Dustjacket summaries do none of the books any favours but for the unacquainted they help give a flavour of each volume. They also show how the presentation gradually shifts emphasis. Here’s the Doubleday edition:

An intriguing fantasy in which past and future blend uniquely on an Earth far different from any known to man.

There, in the Empire of Viriconium, a world of chivalry, of magic and strange powers, two Queens clash in bloody warfare for control of the Pastel City and all of its domains. The armies of the defender, Queen Methvet, are led by Lord tegeus-Cromis and the rest of a legendary band of knights, while their attackers are the vicious and cunning Northmen who serve the rival Queen Moidart.

More is involved than a struggle for a throne however, for in their lust for victory the forces of Queen Moidart have unleashed creatures from Earth’s dim past whose terrible potential they little realize until too late. And as Lord Cromis and the rest of his band seek to meet the challenge of these nightmare apparitions, their quest leads them on a perilous journey across many weird lands to a deadly climax in a buried city where a solution is revealed that is as old as time itself.

It’s apposite that a series about an indeterminate city begins with some confusion evident from the outset. The Pastel City in its first UK printing was described on the cover as a fantasy yet compared to Dune which is generally regarded as science fiction; the Doubleday edition is labelled science fiction yet the cover illustration shows a mailed and armoured warrior; the narrative is situated somewhere between the genres in what used to be called science fantasy. While the story concerns the distant future many of the props are the familiar material of heroic fantasy: horses, swords, feuding queens, an axe-wielding dwarf. What technology remains is either defunct or barely functioning. The ruin and decay of Harrison’s world is part of the pleasure, as is the vacillating and ambivalent nature of the characters, a quality which increases as the series develops. None of the publishers dare to reflect this ambivalence in the cover art. Unaware readers would be led to believe from subsequent editions that these books contain the determined and super-efficient heroes they’d find in other books. Compared to what follows the first two covers aren’t so bad; Bruce Pennington gives us one of his flying saucer apocalypses while Wendell Minor’s avoidance of a genre scene is an approach that might have been deployed a lot more often later on.

Continue reading “Covering Viriconium”

The art of Ed Emshwiller, 1925–1990

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Another item brought to light during the Great Shelf Re-ordering and Spring Clean is this 1950 Lancer paperback of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, a slim collection of six short connected stories, and another favourite book. Despite the sf label this is far more a work of fantasy (science fantasy, if you must), being tales of the bizarre and occasionally grotesque inhabitants of the last days of the earth. Magic is the order of the day, not advanced technology, although Vance hints that the book’s elaborate spells may be a higher ordering of mathematics capable of manipulating reality. I like the simple cover layout of this edition, and Ed Emshwiller’s illustration manages to be sparing yet fully representative of a key scene.

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French sf portal Noosfere has recently revamped its artwork showcase and has a substantial collection of Emshwiller’s cover paintings. I’d prefer to see more of his earlier style but the collection includes some striking designs.

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Sunstone (1979).

Emshwiller was a very prolific illustrator but from the 1960s on also developed his own style of experimental filmmaking, some examples of which can be found at YouTube. I’d actually seen Sunstone—a very early piece of computer animation—years ago without registering the credit. In addition there’s also Thanatopsis, a strange b&w short which is remarkably similar in tone to some of the films which William Burroughs and Antony Balch were making at around the same time.

The genre artist | Jack Vance profiled in the NYT

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

Previously on { feuilleton }
The King in Yellow
Ballantine Adult Fantasy covers
Clark Ashton Smith book covers
Revenant volumes: Bob Haberfield, New Worlds and others
The World in 2030
The art of Virgil Finlay, 1914–1971
Towers Open Fire