It’s taken a while for Maya Deren’s less familiar films to drift into YouTube’s Sargasso Sea so I hadn’t seen this one until now. The Witch’s Cradle (1943) isn’t really a film like Deren’s other short works, more a collection of fragments for something that was left unfinished. But the Surrealist tenor of the piece means that the diverse shot sequence and unusual imagery can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Pajorita Matta is the woman wandering like a Cocteau heroine through the darkened rooms of one of Peggy Guggenheim’s galleries where we catch glimpses of sculptures and a Max Ernst painting, Blind Swimmers (1934). Prior to this there are brief shots of Marcel Duchamp with this fingers tangled in a cat’s cradle, and later on we see that Pajorita Matta has a pentacle drawn on her forehead, a precursor of Deren’s subsequent occult explorations in Haiti. Disjointed as it is, I prefer this to the solo films that Deren produced after her collaboration with Alexander Hammid, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), most of which were filmed dance performances. The Witch’s Cradle offers another taste of enmeshed mystery.
Design by David Pelham (1972).
Continuing an occasional series. Pity the poor designer who has to create a new cover for Anthony Burgess’s novel when David Pelham’s Penguin cover—created in haste forty years ago—is more visible than ever. Pelham’s design is a familiar sight on these pages but it’s also an increasingly familiar sight elsewhere, having become the primary visual signifier not only of the novel itself but also the novel’s entanglement with Stanley Kubrick’s film. Burgess came to resent the cult power of the film and the way it inflated the status of one of his early novels whilst overshadowing the rest of his work. The book still overshadows his other novels but what’s interesting now, fifty years after it was published, and forty years on from Pelham’s cover design, is seeing the novel clawing back some of the territory ceded to the film, in part because of that memorable cog-eyed face. What follows is a look at some of the subsequent reworkings of Pelham’s design.
Artwork by Philip Castle, design by Bill Gold (1971).
It’s necessary to mention the original poster art first since the fat title typography gets reused more than any other part of the film’s publicity. The poster was also indirectly responsible for Pelham’s cover design when Kubrick denied Penguin any use of his promotional material:
Barry Trengove had designed a delightful cover for the Penguin edition of A Clockwork Orange and then the movie came along. While the Penguin marketing department was desperate to tie in with the film graphics, the director of the movie Stanley Kubrick wasn’t at all interested in tying in with the book. Consequently I was given the task of commissioning an illustration that gave the impression of being a movie poster. Sadly I was subsequently let down very badly by an accomplished airbrush artist and designer (whose name I will keep to myself), who kept calling for yet more time and who eventually turned in a very poor job very late. I had to reject it which was a hateful thing to have to do because we were now right out of time.
Well there I am, late in the day and having to create a cover for A Clockwork Orange under pressure. Already seriously out of time I worked up an idea on tracing paper overnight, ordering front cover repro from the typesetter around 4.00 am. I remember that my type mark-up was collected by a motorcycle messenger around about 5.00 am. Later that morning, in the office, I drew the black line work you see here on a matt plastic acetate sheet, specifying colours to the separator on an overlay while the back cover repro was being pasted up by my loyal assistants who had the scalpel skills of brain surgeons. I had wonderful assistants, absolutely wonderful.
Then more motorcycle messengers roaring around London in large crash helmets; and some days later I would see a proof. In those days, that was quick! Since those times I have often been amused to notice that my hurried nocturnal effort of so long ago appears to have achieved something of iconic status, for I’ve seen this cog-eyed image on fly-posters in Colombia, on t-shirts in Turkey, and put to a variety of uses in Canada, Los Angeles and New York. Because I did it, I spot it. Its like walking into a room where a party’s going on and, although the room is buzzing with conversation, if somebody simply mentions your name in conversation you immediately pick it up because it’s so familiar.
A scarce item, allegedly from 1972 (although it may be from a year later), which surprisingly uses the book design with the film poster titles. According to a film memorabilia site “This rare alternate style R-Rated poster was designed for wild posting exclusively in New York and Los Angeles”. In the US the film was given an X rating on its first release meaning that many theatres wouldn’t have shown it. Following a few edits it was reissued with an R rating. On the back of the 1972 Penguin paperback there’s notice of a copyright restriction against selling that edition in the US so Pelham’s design wouldn’t have been familiar there until much later.
Illustration by Robert A. Graef (1932).
If the predatory octopuses of the Sargasso Sea are too mundane for you, how about an extra-dimensional Kraken named Khalk’ru which has to be placated with human sacrifice? This creature is the prime menace in A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage (1932), a novel I’m afraid I haven’t read despite its quite evident tentacular delirium. The story is a Lost Race adventure with the unlikely setting of a warm valley in Alaska where the usual heroic outsider encounters the diabolical Kraken worshippers. Merritt’s work is out of copyright in Australia so the text of the book can be found at the Australian Project Gutenberg. There you’ll discover that chapter four is entitled Tentacle of Khalk’ru.
A handful of covers and illustrations follow.
Virgil Finlay (1941).
If William Hope Hodgson’s The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’ represents the Sublime of tentacular sea fiction then The Lost Continent, a 1968 Hammer film based on Dennis Wheatley’s 1938 novel Uncharted Seas, is the correspondingly Ridiculous end of the subgenre. The Lost Continent is an irritating film for Hodgson enthusiasts since it’s still the most Hodgsonian film out there, at least where the Sargasso side of things is concerned.
Illustration by SR Boldero (1960).
Despite its Wheatley origins the similarities to Hodgson’s sea stories are no coincidence: Wheatley chose two Hodgson titles—Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder and The Ghost Pirates—for the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult series that Sphere Books published in the 1970s. In the introductions Wheatley notes that Hodgson was a favourite writer whose work he discovered in the 1920s; he also mentions having collected a set of Hodgson first editions. Wheatley could have justifiably claimed that the “Weed-World” as a location wasn’t unique to Hodgson but Uncharted Seas also features the giant crabs, marauding octopuses and besieged castaways familiar from The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’ and the short stories.
Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1945. Illustration by Lawrence (Sterne Stevens).
Following last week’s revelation of Lovecraftian horror, I thought it might be worth demonstrating just how much the tentacle-menacing-a-ship scenario is owned by William Hope Hodgson. The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’ (1907) is one of Hodgson’s lesser novels, overshadowed by the cosmic horrors of The House on the Borderland and The Night Land, but it’s a memorable work all the same. The narrative fits into his cycle of Sargasso Sea stories: a small band of 18th-century sailors, survivors of the wreck of the ‘Glen Carrig’, drift across the Atlantic into the weed-strewn “cemetery of the oceans” where they have to fight off giant octopuses and the predations of “weed men”, humanoid creatures with tentacular hands. As will be seen below, it’s the attack on a wrecked ship trapped in the weed that many of the illustrators have chosen to focus on.
Illustration by Lawson Wood (1911).
This was something I hadn’t seen before: an illustration for a story with a scenario very similar to ‘Glen Carrig’ where the sailors journey under canvas in their lifeboats. Another tale of the sinister Sargasso:
This is the fifth message that I have sent abroad over the loathsome surface of this vast Weed-World, praying that it may come to the open sea ere the lifting power of my fire-balloon be gone, and yet, if it come there, how shall I be the better for it? Yet write I must, or go mad, and so I choose to write, though feeling as I write that no living creature, save it be some giant octopus that lives in the weed about me, will ever see the thing I write. (more)
Les Canots du “Glen Carrig” / La Maison au bord du monde / Les pirates fantômes (1971). Illustration by Philippe Druillet.