Hazardous design

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Cover design by Elizabeth Story.

Our present viral moment reminded me that I hadn’t written anything about Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor, a collection of essays by Canadian science-fiction writer Peter Watts whose interiors I designed for Tachyon last autumn. Watts has a special interest in biology, and several of the pieces in the collection are partly or wholly concerned with pandemics; needless to say, when I was adding a biohazard symbol to one of these pages six months ago I didn’t expect such a situation to be the event that defined the coming year, although for anyone who’s read enough SF (or horror, for that matter), potentialities like this tend to lurk in the back of your mind. Watts’ essays are mostly blog entries—much more substantial ones than the brief things I usually file here—together with a few articles from print sources. The contents range from polemics about police violence and the creeping surveillance state to personal entries covering his late brother, his father’s closeted sexuality, his beloved cats, and a near-fatal experience with a flesh-eating virus. There are also film reviews, scientific speculations and musings/warnings about global calamities, especially the climate variety. His writing is consistently witty, engaging and thought-provoking. The book was a pleasure to read as well as work on.

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As with other interiors I’ve designed for Tachyon, I took the design cues from the cover, which in this case was the work of Elizabeth Story. The internal graphics are a combination of writhing tentacles and hazard/warning signs, the latter being taken unaltered from public information sets or adapted to suit the content of the piece. In a way they’re a sequel to the Tarot symbols I designed in 2006 based on graphics from the international symbols commonly used in public buildings. The bespoke designs were fun to create, and required some ingenuity in places: how do you show global warming in a simple, wordless symbol? My solution was to put a globe in a frying pan. There are 50 essays in all so the examples shown here represent a fifth of the book.

For an idea of Watts’ writing together with his thoughts about the pandemic, his most recent post is here. He’s not the only person who’s been saying we should expect more events like this one in the future.

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The Righteous One

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Another week, another new book cover. Author Neil Perry Gordon was in touch earlier this year asking if I could create something for his latest novel set in New York City. Gordon’s previous novels have been historical narratives about the city’s Jewish community; The Righteous One (subtitled “A Cobbler’s Journey into the Dreamworld and Beyond”) follows suit but is slightly different in having more of a fantasy theme:

The Righteous One is the story of Moshe the cobbler, a gentle, sixty-year-old tzaddik—a righteous and saintly Jew—who is called upon to rekindle his divine connection to the Almighty in order to destroy the notorious New York gangster and rasha Solomon Blass, a man who uses his power of foreseeing events via his vivid dreams to advance his own financial interests.

For a guide to the visual content I was given this illustration from Camille Flammarion’s L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (1888), a picture whose antiquated appearance has often led it to be taken as a much older engraving. It’s also one of those occult or mystical illustrations you see reproduced in many books about magic or the supernatural without any reference to its origin.

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Neil’s request was for his book cover to show a similar barrier between the worlds with his cobbler character being caught between the wake world and the dream world. An engraved style wouldn’t have suited a story set in New York City (even the NYC of the recent past) but I also didn’t want the cover to look like a piece of typical fantasy art filled with Photoshop mists and translucent layers. The final design is modelled on the bolder art styles of Tarot cards, hence the flattened perspective, simplified colouring and distinct outlines. I spent some time researching old New York for this one as I wanted the buildings and street lamps to look accurate. Did you know those old “bishop’s crook” lamps come in a variety of different shapes? I didn’t until working on this.

The Righteous One will be published next month as a Kindle paperback.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Les Terres du Ciel

Weekend links 465

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The Star (1970) from The Aquarian Tarot by David Palladini.

• Artist David Palladini died in March but I only heard the news this week. His poster for Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu has been a favourite of mine ever since the film’s release, while some of his other works have featured here in the past. Still popular among Tarot users is the Aquarian Tarot (1970), a deck published a few years after Palladini had helped with the production of the Linweave Tarot. From the same period as the Aquarian deck is a set of Zodiac posters, all of which exhibit Palladini’s distinctive blend of Art Nouveau and Deco stylings. In addition to posters, Palladini produced book covers and illustrations, and even a few record covers. A book collecting all of this work would be very welcome.

Erotikus: A History of the Gay Movies (1974? 75? 78?): Fred Halsted presents a 90-minute history of American gay porn, from the earliest beefcake films to the hardcore of the 1970s, some of which Halsted also helped create. Related: Centurians of Rome [sic]: Ashley West and April Hall on the bank robber who made the most expensive gay porno of all time.

Peter Bradshaw reviews Too Old to Die Young, a Nicolas Winding Refn TV series described as “a supernatural noir”. Sign me up.

Naomi Wolf’s Outrages establishes the context for [John Addington] Symonds’s desperate efforts to justify his own sexual feelings. Since he was born in 1840, he was 15 when the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass appeared, the same year that legislation in Britain streamlined the laws against sodomy and ensured that men found guilty of it served long prison sentences. With intelligence and flair, Wolf uses the various responses to Whitman to show the levels of intense need in the decades after the publication of Leaves of Grass for images and books that would rescue homosexuality from increasing public disapproval.

Colm Tóibín reviews Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love by Naomi Wolf

• Record label Dark Entries has discovered 40 more reels (!) of music by Patrick Cowley dating from 1974 to 1979.

• “Is Stockhausen’s Licht the most bonkers operatic spectacle ever?” asks Robert Barry.

• Sex, Spunk, Shoes and Sweet Satisfaction: A Q&A with artist Cary Kwok.

• Tripping his brains out: Eric Bulson on Michel Foucault and LSD.

• Paul O’Callaghan chooses 10 best Dennis Hopper performances.

• “More obscene than De Sade.” Luc Sante on the fotonovela.

• Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst (1928).

• The Strange World of…Gong

Neonlicht (1978) by Kraftwerk | Brüder Des Schattens, Söhne Des Lichtes (1978) by Popol Vuh | Lichtfest (2017) by ToiToiToi

Weekend links 455

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• At Expanding Mind: Tarot expert Mary Greer talks with Erik Davis about Tarot artist Pamela Colman Smith, the Golden Dawn, the art of illustration, Jung’s active imagination, Smith’s musical visions, and the recent study of Smith’s life and work, Pamela Colman Smith: the Untold Story.

• Almost five years have passed since the last album from Earth (if you discount the Bug vs. Earth collaboration Concrete Desert) but the band will release a new album, Full Upon Her Burning Lips, in May. Cats On The Briar is a taster.

Charles Bramesco on Sergei Bondarchuk’s astonishing 7-hour adaptation of War and Peace. I watched the whole thing last weekend: all superlatives are justified.

• The History of the Future: James Conway on leaving Australia for a life in Berlin and publishing. Related: Where is Rixdorf?

• At Spoon & Tamago: Keisuke Aiso‘s artworks, including the Ubume sculpture that became the face of the Momo Challenge hoax.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 282 by Tourist Gaze, and Big Sister’s Scratchy Singles Vol 1 by radioShirley.

Alexander Rose on the 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight.

Rebecca Cole and Janise Elie go in search of the Brocken spectre on Burley Moor.

M. John Harrison: Critical Essays, edited by Rhys Williams and Mark Bould.

Forest of Resonating Lamps – One Stroke, Cherry Blossoms by teamLab.

• Tour de France: Jonathan Meades selects 13 exercise-bike Classics.

• At Greydogtales: The Cthulhu Mythos for Beginners.

The Black Tower (1987), a short film by John Smith.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jean Rollin Day.

Ishmael Reed doesn’t like Hamilton.

Babylonian Tower (1982) by Minimal Compact | The Tower (Black Advance) (2007) by Mordant Music | The Tower (Empty Fortress) (2007) by Mordant Music

Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

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Cover design by Jim Tierney; photo by Richard Corman.

When so many current biographies are recounting the lives of those about whom we’ve already heard a great deal (see the new biography of Oscar Wilde by Matthew Sturgis), a book exploring the career of a previously undocumented yet worthwhile figure is especially welcome. Such is the case with Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s life of the elusive Edward Gorey: artist, writer, illustrator, book designer, book creator, bibliophile, theatre designer, cat lover and balletomane.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Gorey’s small books have long been one of the more curious fixtures of American culture: many of them look like children’s books but aren’t (unless the child is Wednesday Addams); others look like comic books but they aren’t comics either. The books are sometimes (but not always) Surrealist fables; or brief accounts of irreducible mystery; or sombre inexplicabilities; or camp ripostes to the pieties of Victorian morality; infrequently spiced with black humour and with lurches into outright horror. Gorey delivered his miniature tales in an idiosyncratic drawing style that combines a cartoon-like stylisation with the density of shading found in old wood engravings, a blend that would prove influential as his popularity grew. As Dery notes in his book’s introduction, without Edward Gorey’s work there would be no Lemony Snicket, while Tim Burton would be a skeletal shadow of his present self. (Given the latter’s current output, this might do him some good. But I digress.)

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The Doubtful Guest (1957).

In Britain, however, Gorey remains a cult rather than cultural figure, still overshadowed by better-known contemporaries such as Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Until the publication of the Amphigorey story collections Gorey’s books were produced in small editions with such a limited availability you were more likely to encounter his art on the cover of another author’s book than within the pages of his own. I became aware of Gorey’s work by gradual osmosis. The first substantial piece I read about him was his entry in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984), in which Core’s mention of an art style “recollecting Victorian engravings” marked Gorey as an artist to be investigated. Two years later he received a longer entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan. (Camp and horror: how many other artists sit so easily in both worlds?) But Gorey is absent from many books about 20th-century illustrators, and despite the sequential nature of his work you won’t find him in histories of comic art.

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Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1979).

In a way it’s fitting that the work of a man who was adamant in his determination to avoid being pinned down should be so difficult to find. But it’s also a shame that the work of an ardent Anglophile should be hard to find in the country that fuelled his imagination. Among Gorey’s literary favourites Dery lists Jane Austen and Agatha Christie together with Ronald Firbank, Saki, and EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. (The latter trio are all present in Core’s book on camp, which no doubt makes Gorey camp to the core. Whether he would have approved of being labelled as such is another matter.) I wasn’t surprised by the mention of Saki when so many of Saki’s story titles (The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope) sound like Gorey books, while many of the stories themselves are like Gorey scenarios in prose. Not all Gorey’s work is camp or comic, however; the 32 drawings that comprise the wordless masterpiece of The West Wing (1963) are closer to David Lynch or the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, the latter an author that Gorey illustrated on several occasions. Dery emphasises how Gorey’s love of silent cinema contributed to The West Wing and other pieces, especially the serials of the Surrealists’ favourite filmmaker, Louis Feuillade.

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