Yuggoth details

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Yuggoth Cultures (1994) by John Coulthart.

Earlier this week I spent a day scanning this painting—which I’m now surprised to find is 21 years old—so I might at last have a good quality digital copy. There’s been a copy on the website for years but that was a print made at a high-street copy shop that did nothing for the detail and range of colour. It’s quite a large piece—49.54 x 71.39 cm (19.5 x 28.1 inches)—done with acrylics on board. Since 2003 the painting has been used (in another poor reproduction) on the cover of The Starry Wisdom, the controversial collection of Lovecraftian fiction from Creation Books. The painting wasn’t originally intended for that collection, however, and doesn’t quite fit since a number of the portraits don’t feature in the book at all.

Yuggoth Cultures would have been an earlier collection of Lovecraftian fiction and non-fiction that Alan Moore had begun writing for Creation in 1993. Alan’s idea was to take Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth sonnet sequence as the basis for a collection that would explore Lovecraft’s fictional world and also draw together a variety of figures from the same era: fellow writers, occultists like Aleister Crowley and Austin Spare, and Harry Houdini for whom Lovecraft ghost-wrote Imprisoned with the Pharaohs in 1924. Unfortunately the stars were not right on this occasion; Alan took the sole copy of the half-written manuscript to London in order to read selections at an event in Soho but left the papers in a cab. Some pieces survived, having been copied and stored elsewhere—The Courtyard in The Starry Wisdom is one of these—and there was talk for a while of the lost pieces being rewritten but enthusiasm for the project flagged.

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This is Alan’s sketch for the cover, the idea being to have a Lovecraft head made of fungal growths rather like an Arcimboldo painting. The head would be sprouting tendrils whose loops would contain pictures of some of the people featured in the book. Alan’s quick sketch is actually a better approximation of Lovecraft’s strange features than my painted version which isn’t narrow enough. For the record (and because people always ask), the other people on the cover are Alan himself, Austin Osman Spare, Aleister Crowley, Harry Houdini, Robert E Howard (not Al Capone as people often think) and Clark Ashton Smith.

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While searching through the archives I discovered these lettering designs although they’re probably not bold enough to read very well on such a busy painting. Before I started using a computer, designs like this had to be drawn at large size then scaled down using a photocopier.

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Weekend links: Apocalypse not now

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The Kurtz compound prior to destruction. An Apocalypse Now storyboard, one of a number which will be included among the extras on the Blu-Ray release of Francis Coppola’s film when it appears in the UK next month. The film is given a new cinema release on May 27th.

Radio broadcaster Harold Camping, a man denounced by fellow Christians as a false prophet, achieved one thing at least this week by making himself and his followers a global laughing-stock after the Rapture failed to materialise. I would have put money on him blaming those terrible gays somewhere along the way, such complaints being so common among a certain brand of American fundamentalist that you could write their sermons for them. Sure enough, here’s the old fool blathering about “lespianism” and describing the beautiful city of San Francisco as a cesspool. Shall we chalk this up as another victory for the gays, Harold? Related: No dogs go to heaven.

The internet has always been a home for ridicule but occasions like this bring out the wags in droves. The Oatmeal showed us how God is managing the Rapture using a Windows Install Wizard, and also pointed to a selection of sarcastic tweets. Meanwhile, this page has a comprehensive catalogue of previous apocalypse dates; the biggy is next year, of course.

Burroughs himself was no stranger to prosecution. In 1962 he was indicted on grounds of obscenity. Naked Lunch was not available in the US until 1962 and in the UK until 1964. The writer Norman Mailer and the poet Allen Ginsberg had to defend the book in court before the ruling could be reversed. In Turkey, it is now our turn to stand up for the novel.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak criticising the paternalism of the Turkish state in trying to protect its people from troubling novels. Related: William Burroughs publisher faces obscenity charges in Turkey.

An A–Z of the Fantastic City by Hal Duncan. “This guidebook leads readers and explorers through twenty-six cities of yore (Yore, while included, is one of the shorter entries).” Illustrated by Eric Schaller.

• The creepiest Alice in Wonderland of all, Jan Svankmajer’s semi-animated Alice (1988), receives a very welcome re-issue on DVD this month. With Brothers Quay extras and other good things.

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Robert E Howard’s sinister magus from the Conan stories, Thoth-Amon, as depicted by Barry Windsor-Smith. From a portfolio of five Robert E Howard characters, 1975.

What is computer music (or does it matter)? Related: A History of Electronic/Electroacoustic Music (1937–2001), 511 (!) downloadable pieces.

Unearthly Powers: Surrealism and SF: Rick Poynor explores the Tanguy-like strangeness of Richard Powers.

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s search for a kool place.

The Library of Congress National Jukebox.

Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies.

Amy Ross’s Wunderkammer.

Rapture (1981) by Blondie | Apocalypse (1990) by William Burroughs | Rapture (2000) by Antony and the Johnsons.

The Vengeance of Nitocris

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Cover illustration by CC Senf.

In her mind the queen Nitocris was seeing a ghastly picture. It was the picture of a room of orgy and feasting suddenly converted into a room of terror and horror, human beings one moment drunken and lustful, the next screaming in the seizure of sudden and awful death. If any of those present had been empowered to see also that picture of dire horror, they would have clambered wildly to make their escape. But none was so empowered.

Everyone today will be marking the Tennessee Williams centenary by noting his theatre work, of course, or his subversive celebration of outsiders and, yes, the gays. I’ll confine myself to reminding people that Williams’ first published work was a short story entitled The Vengeance of Nitocris in Weird Tales for August 1928, written when he was only 16. The story reads like the work of a teenager but editor Farnsworth Wright evidently enjoyed an atmosphere of lurid Egyptian melodrama which you can appraise for yourself here. Also in this issue was the debut appearance of Robert E Howard’s Solomon Kane, and The Demoiselle d’Ys by Robert Chambers. Seeing the name Nitocris I have to wonder whether Williams chose it after reading HP Lovecraft who used the name twice in earlier stories published in the same magazine, Imprisoned With the Pharaohs (1924) and The Outsider (1926). That last piece was one of Lovecraft’s most popular tales, and it’s easy to imagine its grotesque parable of alienation making an impression on a would-be writer who, as a gay youth, would have looked upon himself as another kind of outsider.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The King in Yellow

Frank Frazetta, 1928–2010

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Conan the Adventurer aka The Barbarian (1965).

How to appraise Frank Frazetta? In November last year I wrote about this Conan portrait for an SF Signal Mind Meld feature on favourite book covers:

The covers that launched a thousand imitators. Lancer’s series of Conan books in the 1960s were the first appearance of Howard’s barbarian in paperback and came sporting cover art by Frank Frazetta. A great example of artist and subject being perfectly matched, these are the standard by which all subsequent barbarian art must be judged. Frazetta’s painting of a brooding warrior lord (which he reworked slightly for its poster edition) is for me the definitive portrait of Howard’s hero, battle scarred and proudly malevolent, with a chauvinistic blur of trophy female clinging at his feet. Other artists can do the muscles and monsters but none capture the physical presence and brute animality of Howard’s characters the way Frazetta does.

I found Frazetta’s work through the great series of fantasy art books which Pan/Ballantine published in the 1970s. I hadn’t read any Robert E Howard at the time, I only knew the diluted version of the Conan character in the Marvel comics series but Frazetta’s work was so powerful it was a spur to search out Howard, especially when I read that the writer had been a pen-pal of HP Lovecraft. I was never as interested in Frazetta’s other staple inspiration, Edgar Rice Burroughs, probably because Tarzan was too familiar from films and TV.

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The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta (1975).

Both Howard and Frazetta defined a milieu which combined an intensity of vision with a projection of their own personalities into the worlds they created. (Many of Frazetta’s protagonists resemble their creator.) Both suffered from having that intensity of vision watered-down by ham-fisted imitators or the vulgarisations of films and comics. Howard’s Conan stories at their best are a blend of heavyweight adventure story with supernatural horror; many of them were first published in Weird Tales magazine alongside other masters of the weird like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. What impressed me about Frazetta’s paintings was the way he managed to capture a sense of eldritch weirdness as well as the more obvious barbaric adventure in a manner which eluded so many of the sword and sorcery illustrators who followed. What’s even more remarkable when you read interviews is that he seemed to do all this instinctively. He’d learned from looking at earlier artists such as J Allen St John, Howard Pyle, Frank Schoonover and Roy Krenkel, and found the means to apply their painting style to his own internal aesthetics and sense of drama.

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Swords of Mars (1974).

Aesthetics is one of the things I always come back to with Frazetta. I used to pore over these paintings wondering how it was that all the details of weapons and decor seemed absolutely right. Nothing was ever over-worked or too elaborate. Where did this invention come from? The other obvious feature is a raw sexiness which pervades everything. I’ve had people tell me that Frazetta must have been bisexual because of the equal care he lavished on his male and female figures. I’ve always disagreed with this. The point about Frazetta’s world is that everything is sexy: the people, the decor, the architecture, the animals, even the monsters; so naturally the men are going to be as sexy as the women. In addition, he wasn’t afraid of giving his men real balls (so to speak) unlike the endless parade of costumed eunuchs filling the comic books. These figures may be dealing death but they’re filled with vigour and life when they’re doing it.

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Bran Mak Morn (1969).

I said everything is sexy; I’ll make an exception for the extraordinary painting of Bran Mak Morn and his tribal horde, a picture of feral nightmarishness that goes beyond mere illustration and makes you feel the artist has shown you an atavistic glimpse of ages past. Robert E Howard would have been thrilled to see his characters brought to life with this kind of visceral intensity. For years Howard’s fiction was dismissed as pulp, now he’s a Penguin Modern Classic. And it’s as a modern classic that I’ll continue to think of Frank Frazetta.

Unofficial gallery site

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Frazetta: Painting with Fire
The monstrous tome
Men with snakes
My pastiches
Fantastic art from Pan Books

Men with snakes

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Laocoön and His Sons attributed to Agesander, Athenodoros
and Polydorus of Rhodes (c. 160–20 BCE).

No jokes about snakes in a frame, please. Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin de Siècle Culture (1986) is a wide-ranging study of the “iconography of misogyny” in 19th century painting. Dijkstra examines the numerous ways that women were depicted in late Victorian and Symbolist art, with one chapter, “Connoisseurs and Bestiality and Serpentine Delights”, being devoted to representations of women with animals, especially snakes. The story of Eve and the Serpent prompts many of these latter images, of course, while scenes with other creatures seem intended to demonstrate the Victorian attitude that woman was closer to the brute beasts than man and could often be found conspiring with them to bring down her masculine masters. Continue reading “Men with snakes”