Philip José Farmer book covers

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top left: artist unknown (1969); top right: Patrick Woodroffe (1975)
bottom left: Peter Elson (1988); bottom right: artist unknown (1995)

The Men with snakes post at the weekend finished on a note of Freudian melodrama with a picture of Doc Savage battling a giant python. Lester Dent’s brazen hero has appeared a number of times in the work of Philip José Farmer, a writer who’s spent much of his career laying bare the psychosexual forces which give us stories of pulp heroes struggling with (among other things) enormous snakes.

Farmer is famous—notorious, even—for being the first writer to place sex centre stage in science fiction with his story of a human/alien encounter, The Lovers, in 1952. While subsequent writers have broadened the field in their own way, Farmer is somewhat unique in being equally adept at writing solidly successful sf adventure such as the World of Tiers or Riverworld books, yet with a mischievous and intellectual facility that could be upsetting to what used to be a very conservative sf establishment. Farmer was writing about sex at a time when few genre writers wanted to deal with the subject. He also loves pulp fiction in all its manifestations yet isn’t afraid of examining its characters with the objectivity of an anthropologist. Both these impulses came together (so to speak) in the late Sixties with the outrageous pulp pornography of Image of the Beast and A Feast Unknown. More about these in a minute.

Farmer has a particular enthusiasm for Tarzan and Doc Savage and eventually wrote “official biographies” of the pair with Tarzan Alive (1972) and the splendidly-titled Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973). These books saw the beginning of his Wold Newton Universe which sought to connect all the heroes and villains of the late 19th and early 20th century into a vast, incestuous family tree, a scheme which predates similar exercises such as Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by three decades or more. His versatility and delight in pastiche was demonstrated in Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod (1968) which rewrote Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan in the style of William Burroughs. There aren’t many writers with a full-enough appreciation of both these authors to pull off such a challenge.

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Original Essex House editions, 1968 & 1969. Artist/designer unknown although the cover of Blown is based on Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man by Salvador Dalí.

Image of the Beast (1968), its sequel, Blown (1969), and A Feast Unknown (1969) were all written for sf-porn publisher Essex House, an opportunity which unleashed Farmer’s already fertile imagination. These took a while to be reprinted but are now considered among his best works; they’re certainly favourites of mine and I love the simple graphics of the original covers, such a change from the usual airbrushed sf fare. I produced a cover illustration for the Creation Books edition of Image/Blown in 2001 which, while okay, I now feel could have been better. A Feast Unknown is Farmer’s most gloriously excessive novel, and still surprises when read today. Illustrator Patrick Woodroffe, who painted the cover for the first UK printing, thought the book “dangerous” and complained in his Mythopoeikon collection that there was little he could safely illustrate. The story has a thinly-disguised Tarzan (Lord Grandrith) and Doc Savage (Doc Caliban) set against each other by a group of mysterious immortals. The pair discover that violence gives them erections and killing provokes an orgasm, the cue for a couple of hundred pages of eye-popping, ball-busting mayhem. It’s ironic that during the Seventies when general readers were looking for racy thrills in books by Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins, the real hardcore stuff was over on the science fiction shelves with Farmer’s work, Ballard’s Crash, Samuel Delany’s Equinox, aka The Tides of Lust, Charles Platt’s The Gas, and others.

Farmer wrote two equally crazy sequels to Feast in 1970, Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin but unfortunately stripped out the excesses of the former book. I’ve always been disappointed by this and continue to hope that one day the original versions of the sequels will see print. Science fiction may have calmed down a bit (or grown conservative again) since the Seventies but Farmer’s work still exerts an influence. His unveiling of the weird psychosis at the heart of pulp fiction certainly affected the approach I took with the Lord Horror series Reverbstorm, created with David Britton in the 1990s, a series I’ve referred to more than once as a psychopathology of heroic fantasy.

The covers above all come from the official PJF website which also includes my Image/Blown cover design. (And where they also spell my name wrong.)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Men with snakes
The book covers archive

The Adventures of Little Lou

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People ask me now and then what I prefer working on the most, and the answer is always the same—book design. The Adventures of Little Lou, a short novel by Lucy Swan for Savoy Books turned up today from the printers and it’s a good example of why I find this kind of work so enjoyable. For a start, the printers, Anthony Rowe Ltd, always do an excellent job. One of the things which makes CD design aggravating at times is the lack of care from pressing plants when it comes to print quality. But most of all there’s the pleasure of being able to make a book a beautiful object in its own right.

For this title we used gold blocking on the pages again and endpapers patterned with a red marbling design. The gold and red complements the dust jacket, and the scarlet swirls correspond to a number of motifs in the book, from the delirium of the characters’ drug states to the quantities of blood spilled as the story progresses. Lucy’s book riffs on David Britton’s Lord Horror and Meng and Ecker characters in much the same way that some of the New Worlds‘ writers of the late Sixties riffed on Michael Moorcock‘s Jerry Cornelius character, taking prior creations as a starting point for something new. This won’t appeal to a general readership; it’s vicious, offensive, scatalogical, wonderfully imaginative, downright nasty in places, and frequently very funny. But that’s okay, it’s a Savoy book, not another clunker from Jonathan Cape.

My pastiches

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Lord Horror: Reverbstorm #3 (1992).

Following from the post about an art forgery exhibition (and Eddie Campbell discussing his American Gothic cover for Bacchus), I thought I’d post some of my own forgeries, or pastiches as we call them when no deception is intended.

Reverbstorm was the Lord Horror comic series I was creating with David Britton for Savoy in the 1990s. The Modernist techniques of collage (as in the work of Picasso and others) and quotation (as in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land) became themes in themselves as the series developed, so it seemed natural to imitate the styles of various artists as we went along. Pastiche is also a chance to flagrantly show off, of course, and I can’t deny that this was also one of my impulses here.

Issue #3 of Reverbstorm had marauding apes as its theme, from the Rue Morgue to Tarzan and King Kong, so I had the idea of doing an ape cover in the style of the celebrated paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593) which make human heads out of fruit, flowers or animals. Easy enough to have the idea but making it work took a lot of effort and required careful sketching beforehand, something I rarely do. The painting was gouache on board, a medium I’d been using for years and this was about the last gouache work I did before switching to acrylics.

Continue reading “My pastiches”

Reverbstorm

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My discipline here has rather collapsed since returning from Paris. Lots of things that required sorting out and the distraction of a new computer is the excuse. Time for a new announcement, however. Now that The Haunter of the Dark is back in print, work has begun at the Savoy HQ on the eventual reprinting of my comics magnum opus, Reverbstorm. This was the 8-part Lord Horror series I was producing for Savoy with David Britton that sprang directly out of my Lovecraft comics work and is, in some small way, a continuation of it (hence the inclusion of some pages in the final part of HOTD).

Reverbstorm was an attempt by Dave and I to produce a graphic novel (wretched term, but if the boot fits…) that was truly adult, at a time—the early Nineties—when much there was much discussion of “adult comics” but little worthy of the name being produced. Reverbstorm is adult in terms of its often aggressive and challenging content; so are many mainstream comics now. But it’s also adult in terms of style and technique, being laden with quotation and literary and artistic allusion that requires an understanding of some of the key works of the Modernist movement to fully appreciate. Being a Lord Horror work, there’s also plenty of reference to the fascist philosophy that Dave’s character (based on William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw) subscribes to. Mix all this with a great deal of violence and you have a very dark work indeed, one that most readers and reviewers of the time were happy to ignore.

Well Reverbstorm is returning to the world in a definitive form. All the artwork is being scanned and cleaned (and in some cases, amended slightly); the eighth and final part will see its first publication in this new edition and there’ll be some previously unseen or unpublished material also. The series as a whole contains 270 pages of some of my best ever black and white artwork (and some great additional work from Kris Guidio) so I’m very pleased that this volume is set to appear in a form that will do justice to the years we spent creating it. Publication will probably be in autumn 2007 but watch this space for further details.

For more on the Reverbstorm series, read my short essay about its genesis here.

Another Green World: The Codex Seraphinianus

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listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go

e.e.cummings

WHEN CONSIDERING THE CANON of inventive, intelligent works of fantasy it’s probably fair to say that if Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it. Imaginary worlds are as old as the human imagination itself and will be with us for as long as imagination lasts, despite their currently rather devalued reputation as staples of bad science fiction and fantasy. Conveyor-belt proliferation aside, ‘We all love a mysterious country,’ as the dandy Nebuchadnezzar reminds us in David Britton’s Lord Horror. Nebuchadnezzar’s words are a quote from M John Harrison’s ‘Egnaro’, a story that acts as a study of the condition and effect of imagined worlds. (And in Harrison’s story the quote comes from Lucas, a character based on David Britton ? how’s that for a circular reference?) Most invented worlds, however, serve only as the backdrop for a narrative, whatever mythologies or ersatz histories might be created to substantiate their existence. The Codex Seraphinianus is unique in placing its invented world centre stage and, even more uniquely, purporting to be a product of that world itself. Its creation seems the inevitable result of a trend of fantasy writing that delights in invention purely for its own sake, particularly invention that goes to great lengths to seem authentic or authoritative, academic even. The great precursor here is Borges’ story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ which relates the invention of a Britannica-style encyclopedia describing with the greatest detail and authority a completely fictional world. Typically for Borges (as for Harrison), the story is also a commentary upon this kind of invention, as well as upon the effect it can have in our “real”? world. To Borges and Harrison reality is more mutable than people like to think. Luigi Serafini takes the whole game a very difficult step further, by creating a complete work which describes his own fictional world in detail, with numerous colour illustrations and the whole written in a completely invented language and alphabet. I’ve never seen a comment by Borges that refers to the Codex but I’m sure he would have been delighted by it.

The Codex was first drawn to my attention not by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadaluppi’s excellent Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980) (where it would be excluded anyway, since it doesn’t concern a place located on the Earth) but in Metamagical Themas (1985), a book of essays by computer scientist Douglas R Hofstadter. Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction with Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (1979). Metamagical Themas collects his writing Scientific American from the early 1980s when he took over the ‘Mathematical Games’ column previously written by Martin Gardner (Hofstadter’s title is an anagram of Gardner’s). Although Hofstadter’s books tend to focus on scientific and mathematical subjects, like many of the best scientists he’s fascinated by the point at which logic grows fractal and meaning devolves into subjectivity. An essay entitled ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ discusses the nonsense tradition from Ben Johnson through to Samuel Beckett and John Lennon. Towards the end of the piece he describes the Codex:

Codex Seraphinianus is a much more elaborate work. In fact, it is a highly idiosyncratic magnum opus by an Italian architect indulging his sense of fancy to the hilt. It consists of two volumes in a completely invented language (including the numbering system, which is itself rather esoteric), penned entirely by the author, accompanied by thousands of beautifully drawn colour pictures of the most fantastic scenes, machines, beasts, feasts, and so on. It purports to be a vast encyclopedia of a hypothetical land somewhat like the earth, with many creatures resembling people to various degrees, but many creatures of unheard-of bizarreness promenading throughout the countryside. Serafini has sections on physics, chemistry, mineralogy (including many drawings of elaborate gems), geography, botany, zoology, sociology, linguistics, technology, architecture, sports (of all sorts), clothing, and so on. The pictures have their own internal logic, but to our eyes they are filled with utter non sequiturs.

A typical example depicts an automobile chassis covered with some huge piece of what appears to be melting gum in the shape of a small mountain range. All over the gum are small insects, and the wheels of the “car”? appear to have melted as well. The explanation is all there for anyone to read, if they can decipher Serafinian. Unfortunately, no one knows that language. Fortunately, on another page there is one picture of a scholar standing by what is apparently a Rosetta Stone. Unfortunately, the only language on it, besides Serafinian itself, is an unknown kind of hieroglyphics. Thus the stone is of no help unless you already know Serafinian. Oh, well? Many of the pictures are grotesque and disturbing, but others are extremely beautiful and visionary. The inventiveness that it took to come up with all these conceptions of a hypothetical land is staggering.

Subsequent research on my part revealed that, although the estimable Manguel makes no mention of the Codex in his Dictionary of Imaginary Places, he was in fact (perhaps inevitably…) present at the book’s public discovery, an event he describes in A History of Reading:

One summer afternoon in 1978, a voluminous parcel arrived in the offices of the publisher Franco Maria Ricci in Milan, where I was working as a foreign language editor. When we opened it we saw that it contained, instead of a manuscript, a large collection of illustrated pages depicting a number of strange objects and detailed but bizarre operations, each captioned in a script none of the editors recognized. The accompanying letter explained that the author, Luigi Serafini, had created an encyclopedia of an imaginary world along the lines of a medieval scientific compendium: each page precisely depicted a specific entry, and the annotations, in a nonsensical alphabet which Serafini had also invented during two long years in a small apartment in Rome, were meant to explain the illustrations’ intricacies. Ricci, to his credit, published the work in two luxurious volumes with a delighted introduction by Italo Calvino; they are one of the most curious examples of an illustrated book I know. Made entirely of invented words and pictures, the Codex Seraphinianus must be read without the help of a common language, through signs for which there are no meanings except those furnished by a willing and inventive reader.

To Ricci’s further credit, the book is still essentially in print, albeit at a price most people would find prohibitive. Ricci specialises in prestige editions printed on quality paper and materials; whether a book of 400 pages is worth 250+ Euros is a matter for the individual purchaser. A second-hand copy of the 1983 US edition is currently available via Amazon.com for anyone with a spare $1000.

As Hofstadter says, the mind is indeed staggered when considering the labour that went into the creation of this work, particularly for something that, in its wilful hermeticism, subscribes to the Brian Eno recipe for originality: do something that’s so time-consuming or difficult that no one else would ever bother. If this makes it sound like a slightly more involved equivalent of those Guinness Record-competing constructions made of toothpicks, then the comparison is unfair. The Taj Mahal in matchsticks operates on something like the chimps-with-typewriters principle: any number of people, given enough time, application and boxes of Swan Vesta could do as much. The Codex Seraphinianus is rather more special than that. It may be a folly but, like all the best follies, it achieves its own aesthetic apotheosis through accumulation of detail, sheer inventiveness and the ultimate conviction of its own worth; like all the best follies it is also unique. It might even be argued that the Codex Seraphinianus is one of the purest works of fantasy, one that affects no compromise with supporting narrative or histrionic drama but aims straight for the gold.

If Borges’ story sparked the creation of the book (and it’s a good bet that this was the case), Serafini’s pictures, in style and content, seem to owe much to the cartoons and drawings of another master of baroque European fantasy, Roland Topor. Topor was an equally polymathic figure – cartoonist, writer, film maker – who still seems better known in his native France than elsewhere. He’s perhaps best known for his 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique, which was brilliantly filmed by Roman Polanski in 1976 as The Tenant. He also collaborated with René Laloux for the animated feature La Planète Sauvage and can be seen portraying an appropriately unhinged Renfield in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Topor and Serafini share a certain naïve draughtsmanship which nonetheless is in the service of an enthusiastic and deliberately Surrealist (in the original sense of the term) level of invention. Topor’s bizarrely costumed characters created for the apocalyptic Ligeti opera Le Grande Macabre could have stepped directly from the pages of the Codex; the worlds of La Planète Sauvage, their inhabitants and creatures, buildings and habits, could conceivably occupy the same solar system as Serafini’s, although Serafini’s imagination lacks Topor’s viciousness.

The Codex Seraphinianus remains a gauntlet thrown down to anyone considering the creation of an imaginary place. Like Finnegans Wake, it probably signifies a dead end, or at least the farthest point anyone would wish to take such an endeavour while remaining sane; even Henry Darger’s monumental Story of the Vivian Girls is written in English! Those of us who might wish to see more works like it are bound to be frustrated for some time yet. The best we can hope for is a paperback reprint from an enterprising publisher, something to popularise it a little more. Four hundred full-colour pages in an unknown language with no story – any takers?

John Coulthart, 2002. Slightly revised, 2006. First published on the Fantastic Metropolis site.