Cocteau and Lovecraft

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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.

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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.

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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

Crank book covers

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Cover art by Tony Roberts, 1974. A book I received as a present for Christmas, 1974. Also the first place I encountered the words “Popol Vuh”, before discovering the music of Florian Fricke and co. a few years later.

Yes, “crank” is a pejorative word but it’s used with some degree of affection, as in “harmless crank”. It’s also a convenient umbrella term for the books referred to in the weekend post which embrace diverse subjects, from lost continents and “earth energy” to ancient astronauts and flying saucers.

The prime crank decade was the 1970s, a period when publishers were falling over themselves to cash-in on the massive popularity of Erich von Däniken’s dubious investigations, while also catering to the by-products of the hippy era and the occult revival. Books by Charles Fort, Immanuel Velikovsky and James Churchward (the Mu series) all received reprints, with some appearing in paperback for the first time. The British editions of these books were published by imprints like Corgi, Panther and Sphere who were also publishing large quantities of science fiction, a situation that led to many crank titles being packaged as though they were fiction or fantasy. Sphere was in the vanguard, presenting a wide range of books with the same cover designs, cover artists and Novel Gothic typeface as their SF titles. A cynical move, no doubt, but it also makes the crank books seem more like fiction than their authors might have intended.

This post presents a selection of crank titles with cover art by SF artists but there are many more examples out there. (Watch the skies!) I’ve limited the selection to British publishers but the same syndrome was evident in American publishing, as documented at Absolute Elsewhere. And I’ve included a couple of books by sceptics John Sladek and Dr. Christopher Evans. These were intended to dismantle the claims of L. Ron Hubbard, Erich von Däniken and co. but were still packaged in paperback to resemble the books they were attacking. The major demolition of Von Däniken is Ronald Story’s The Space Gods Revealed but covers for that one have always been relatively restrained.

Missing from this list are three paintings by SF artist Peter Jones for books by Dr. Celia Green. The art may be seen in Jones’s Solar Wind collection but I couldn’t find any of the printed covers, which suggests they had a limited run if they were printed at all. These are odd for being typical fantasy imagery attached to serious studies of lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. Dr. Green is a philosopher and science researcher (she coined the term “out-of-body experience”) so she doesn’t belong on a crank list in any case. Also absent is the most popular British cover illustrator of the decade, Chris Foss, who would have been too busy working through his fiction commissions and creating designs for feature films.

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Cover art by Tony Roberts (?), 1974.

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Cover art by Bruce Pennington, 1974.

Evans was a computer scientist, an occasional contributor to New Worlds magazine, and also the model for the deranged Vaughan in JG Ballard’s Crash. Cults of Unreason investigates crank sects such as the flying-saucer worshippers of the Aetherius Society (hence the cover art), and the Scientologists who caused a stir in Britain in the 1960s when L. Ron Hubbard set up an outpost at East Grinstead.

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Cover art by Colin Hay, 1974.

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Cover art by Angus McKie, 1979.

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Esoterica 49

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“What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.” —Giorgio de Chirico

A few weeks ago I made a list of feature films that might be regarded as having the characteristics of a Thomas Pynchon novel without being based on any of Pynchon’s books. The post prompted several suggestions for other candidates, including recommendations to watch Jim Gavin’s TV series, Lodge 49, an American production that ran for two seasons from 2018 to 2019 before being cancelled due to low ratings. Having now watched the series I can say that I enjoyed it very much, and it is very Pynchonian, unsurprisingly when it not only gestures to the title of Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, but also borrows from its storyline.

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Ernie (Brent Jennings) has just been contemplating a print from the Ars Magna Lucis (1665) by Athanasius Kircher. Near the end of the second series he leaps through an image from the same book.

Lodge 49 presents a unique mélange of alchemy, surfing, secret societies, aerospace engineering, pool cleaning and cryptocurrency, with the added bonus of songs by the much-missed Broadcast being woven into the narrative. The series is consistently funny, humour being another essential Pynchonian ingredient, while the episodes are littered with references to (or correspondences with) Pynchon’s oeuvre: two of the main characters are an ex-surfer and an ex-sailor; the defunct aerospace company, Orbis, is modelled on Pynchon’s Yoyodyne from V. and Lot 49; there’s a trip to Mexico, a visit to an auction, and mention of a Remedios Varo exhibition (Lot 49 again); there are even references to Antarctic mysteries (V.), the Hollow Earth (Mason and Dixon) and the V-2 rocket (Gravity’s Rainbow). And those are only a few of the things I happened to catch as a first-time viewer. This is unusual territory for a small-scale television series, even if American TV has loosened up in recent years to allow a more eclectic range of material.

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Larry (Kenneth Welsh) in the Sanctum Sanctorum with a plate from the Splendor Solis on the wall.

The Lodge 49 of the title is part of a global network of lodges that form the Ancient & Benevolent Order of the Lynx, a cross between a Masonic order and an occult cabal, founded by one Harwood Fritz Merrill, a Scottish alchemist, writer and explorer. (Merrill’s biography and the history of the Order of the Lynx is detailed here [PDF].) Alchemy is a persistent theme in the series but remains in the background for the most part, literally so inside Lodge 49 (Long Beach, California) and Lodge 1 (London) where the walls are decorated with prints of alchemical engravings. It would have been tempting to identify all of these pictures but most of them can be found in Taschen’s excellent Alchemy and Mysticism picture book so it’s easier to direct the curious to the Taschen volume. The prints also seemed to be there more to provide suitable set decoration rather than be significant in themselves, with one notable exception (see below).

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Connie (Linda Edmond) going deeper into the mysteries of Lodge 1. The print is from Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst und Natur: in Alchymia (1615) by Stephan Michelspacher.

More intriguing was the appearance of several paintings which did seem significant although they might equally have been there to generate audience speculation. Film and TV drama is made today in the full awareness that every detail is liable to be screen-grabbed and scrutinised by obsessive viewers, a situation that offers the potential for directors and designers to incorporate details that may have no special significance but are simply there to fuel online chatter. It’s difficult to tell if this is what Gavin and co. were doing, especially when the prematurely truncated series contains so many loose ends and unexplained moments. But paranoia is in part the search for a significance that may not exist outside the mind of the paranoiac so a small degree of concern about being gamed by the creators of Lodge 49 seems warranted here, as well as adding to the general Pynchon factor. Despite all the Pynchoniana mentioned above the series is light on the paranoia that’s a constant in Pynchon’s novels so why not cultivate a little paranoia in the audience itself?

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Le Golem, 1967

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There are always more Golems…

Le Golem is a 110-minute film based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel which hasn’t received as much attention as you’d expect considering the dearth of Meyrink adaptations. The production was for French TV so its obscurity may be a result of unavailability as much as anything else, television being a medium notorious for burying its own history. The DVD I was watching is an official release from INA with no subtitles (merci!), but English subs may be found online.

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Meyrink’s novel isn’t an obvious choice for film or television adaptation despite the popularity of the Golem theme. His story is an uneven blend of mysticism and melodrama related via many digressions and rambling conversations. The title and the Prague setting suggest Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920), with the ghetto monster dominating the proceedings, but Meyrink’s Golem remains in the shadows (if it exists at all), being more of a symbol for the mystical and psychological challenges that beset Athanasius Pernath, the novel’s protagonist. Given all this I’m curious to know who decided to adapt the story when there’s so much about the film that would confuse an audience who hadn’t read the novel. The opening scenes move rapidly from a stylised city of the 1960s to the Prague ghetto of the past while omitting the attempts of Meyrink’s narrator to make sense of his situation. A note on the DVD states that the film was broadcast at 8:30pm on the national channel, ORTF, which makes its peculiarities even more surprising.

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The director, Jean Kerchbron, spent much of his career filming adaptations of classic plays and stories for French television, ranging from adventure serials to Molière and Shakespeare. Writer Louis Pauwels was co-editor with Jacques Bergier of the popular Planète magazine, a journal of fantasy, science fiction and scientific speculation, but had little experience in the film world; Le Golem was his first feature for which he supplied the dialogue and adapted the story with Kerchbron. Pauwels and Bergier are names familiar to Anglophone readers of Fortean literature for The Morning of the Magicians (1960), their discursive treatise on “Fantastic Realism” whose success launched Planète and later gave David Bowie some ideas for lyrics. The pair refer to Meyrink in their book as a “neglected genius” prior to running an extract from one of the author’s later novels, The Green Face. Pauwels and Kerchbron manage to condense the work of the neglected genius without doing too much harm to his story, compressing some sections (a request for an explanation in a later scene is wisely rejected as “too complicated”) while omitting the overly mystical episodes that might have posed problems for a limited budget. Pauwels moves what’s left of the mysticism to Pernath’s philosophical voiceovers. Kerchbron’s direction is lively and much more elliptical than is usual for the plodding television medium. Novel and film only depart near the end when various plot threads are hastily tied together.

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Morning of the Magicians book covers

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Éditions Gallimard, France, 1960.

Yesterday’s post proved popular so it seemed worthwhile taking another look at the book that birthed Planète magazine. The main problem The Morning of the Magicians presents for an art director is how to encapsulate such wildly diverse contents in a cover design. To judge from the examples here, most people seem to have either given up or gone for vaguely symbolic designs which at the most correspond to the contents in a minor way. The biggest surprise for me was seeing the cover of the first edition above, one of those typically sober French titles which gives away nothing of the intellectual fireworks within. Few of these designs have any credits, and this is nothing like a complete list (more editions may be seen at Goodreads). More recent editions have been avoided altogether since they’re pretty terrible.

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Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Italy, 1963. This edition, which runs to 476 pages, includes three translated stories inserted into the text: The Nine Billions Name of God by Arthur C. Clarke, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr, and The White People by Arthur Machen.

A hardback edition showing an alchemist at work.

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Stein and Day, USA, 1964.

You know a cover is failing when it could easily be applied to any number of other titles.

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