Picturing Vermilion Sands

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First UK edition, 1971. Art by Brian Knight.

Vermilion Sands (1971) is a story collection by JG Ballard which maintains a cult reputation even while being overshadowed by its author’s more popular (and notorious) novels. Most of the stories were written in the 1960s, and a couple of the pieces are among Ballard’s earliest works, but where many of his other short stories can read like the work of a writer with bills to pay, the tales of Vermilion Sands are much closer to Ballard’s core interests, filled with symbolic resonance and literary allusion.

Vermilion Sands, the place, is a near-future resort with a desert climate and an unspecified location, where the Côte d’Azur meets Southern California but the ocean is a sea of sand. The inhabitants are the idle midde-class types who populate all of Ballard’s work, and each story has a different artistic or cultural theme. Ballard was more receptive to visual art, especially painting, than many authors, particularly the SF writers of his generation for whom art was less interesting than science and technology. There is science and technology in these stories (some of the latter is now inevitably dated) but it doesn’t dominate the proceedings. The stories derive less from scientific speculation than from Ballard’s desire to create a future he would have been happy to inhabit himself, an alternative to the grim dystopias which proliferate in science fiction. The background furnishings also reflect the author’s ideal, owing much to the Surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, a pair of artists whose works are often referenced in Ballard’s fiction. Given all of this you’d expect that cover artists might have risen to the challenge more than they have. What follows is a look at the more notable attempts to depict Vermilion Sands or its population, only a few of which are covers for the book itself.

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The art of Karel Thole, 1914–2000

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The Disciples of Cthulhu (1976).

A disagreement I have with the burgeoning world of Lovecraft art is the relentless focus on monsters—and I say this in a week when I’ve been working on a new commission of exactly this: six pictures of Lovecraftian creatures. Lovecraft famously emphasised atmosphere as the paramount ingredient in a weird story, and atmosphere in his fiction is often generated by his descriptions of landscape and architecture; Angela Carter’s insightful essay in the George Hay Necronomicon (1978) was entitled Lovecraft and Landscape. Architecture often receives considerable attention in the stories: The Call of Cthulhu, The Dreams in the Witch House, The Haunter of the Dark, and At the Mountains of Madness all concern invented (or reimagined) architectural settings. Given this, you’d expect architecture to be more represented in Lovecraft art but this is seldom the case. When it comes to Cthulhu, a creature whose myriad representations must be reaching some kind of critical mass, artists will lavish great attention on tentacles, claws and flourished wings but the Cyclopean stones of R’lyeh are invariably reduced to a tentative backdrop.

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I mostri all’angolo della strada (The Monsters on the Street Corner, 1966).

Hence the attraction of the wraparound cover by Karel Thole for I mostri all’angolo della strada, a Lovecraft story collection with one of the few cover designs I’ve seen that attempts to communicate anything of the writer’s preoccupations with angled space. Thole was a very prolific Dutch artist, producing many covers for Italian publisher Mondadori, and painting covers for Mondadori’s SF magazine, Urania, for over 20 years. The first paintings of Cthulhu I saw were those by Thole (above) and Bruce Pennington in Franz Rottensteiner’s The Fantasy Book (1978); Thole’s monster doesn’t have the required scale (and Pennington’s cover is a favourite) but for me it still carries a Proustian charge. The art for I mostri all’angolo della strada was featured in The Cosmical Horror of HP Lovecraft (1991), one of the first attempts to anthologise Lovecraft-related illustration past and present. The book contains many excellent reprints together with dubious material from European comics. Thole’s street scene—a curious combination of Escher, De Chirico and Art Nouveau—stood out among page after page of slavering abominations. I’d like to see more art that follows this direction; less of the monsters, more of the monstrous architecture.

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Colui che sussurrava nel buio (The Whisperer in Darkness, 1963).

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