The King in Green

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Hastur (1999) by John Coulthart.

Going through some of my old Lovecraft art this week it occurred to me that this drawing hadn’t been made public in its original colour form. Hastur appears as a murkier black-and-white illustration in the Great Old Ones series I produced in collaboration with Alan Moore for The Haunter of the Dark. The drawing was one of several improvised pieces made using coloured pencils on tinted paper. Some people may regard this and similar works as “Gigeresque” but I only apply that label to close imitations of HR Giger’s biomechanical style. This type of improvised drawing or painting predates Giger—Max Ernst’s decalcomania paintings being familiar examples—and you see similar fields of organic or mineral forms in the work of other Surrealist or Fantastic artists. If you have some ability with a pencil or paintbrush it’s relatively easy to produce a lot of this kind of work; the challenge is to do something more than create a mass of writhing abstraction.

Previously on { feuilleton }
In the Key of Yellow
Intertextuality
Lovecraft’s Monsters
The Court of the Dragon
The King in Yellow

In the Key of Yellow

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My Easter weekend was profitably spent watching True Detective again, a series I enjoyed even more the second time around. For the past year I’ve been pondering off and on the connections the series makes with the suite of weird tales that Robert Chambers published in 1895 as The King in Yellow, and also the relationship between Chambers’ book and the chromatic preoccupations of the 1890s. The influence of Chambers on later writers such as HP Lovecraft is well established; this post traces some of the less obvious connections and correspondences.

1: À Rebours (1884) by JK Huysmans

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It begins, as many things do, with the bible of the Decadence. Neither Huysmans’ novel nor its dissipated central character, Des Esseintes, have much to say about the colour yellow but the first edition came packaged in a yellow wrapper, a common feature of French novels of the period. This detail is significant in light of the following connection.

2: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

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The decade that came to be called the Yellow Nineties opened with the publication of Oscar Wilde’s only novel. The influence of À Rebours may be felt most strongly in the chapters where Dorian indulges his senses and a passion for precious stones. Then there’s this famous section describing the unnamed novel that Lord Henry gives him to read:

His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.

Two things are connected here that coalesce in Chambers’ stories: the colour yellow, and the idea of “a poisonous book”, compellingly readable and thrilling in its capacity to corrupt. The “repairer of reputations” in Chambers’ story of the same name (the first in the King in Yellow cycle) also happens to be a Mr Wilde. Yellow is still only a detail at this point, but not for long.

Continue reading “In the Key of Yellow”

Intertextuality

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): in the upper half there’s the big sun from Bob Peak’s poster for Apocalypse Now, in the lower half a radical reworking of Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead.

In 1990, shortly after the first season of Twin Peaks had finished showing in the US, Video Watchdog magazine ran a feature by Tim Lucas which attempted to trace all the various cultural allusions in the character names and dialogue: references to old TV shows, song lyrics and the like. This was done in a spirit of celebration with Lucas and other contributors welcoming the opportunity to dig deeper into something they’d already enjoyed. This week we’ve had a similar unravelling of textual borrowings in a TV series, only now we have the internet which, with its boundless appetite for accusing and shaming, can often seem like something from the grand old days of the Cultural Revolution.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): a more subtle allusion to Apocalypse Now.

The latest culprit ushered to the front of the assembly for the Great Internet Struggle Session is Nic Pizzolatto whose script for True Detective has indeed been celebrated for its nods to Robert Chambers and The King in Yellow. It’s also in the process of being condemned for having borrowed phrases or aphorisms from Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2011). See this post for chapter and verse.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): It’s not very clear but that’s a boat from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

If I find it difficult to get worked up over all this pearl-clutching it’s because a) it shows a misunderstanding of art and the way many artists work, b) True Detective was an outstanding series, and I’d love to see more from Pizzolatto and co, and c) I’ve done more than enough borrowing of my own in a variety of media, as these samples from my adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu demonstrate, a 33-page comic strip where there’s a reference to a painting, artist or film on almost all the pages, sometimes several on the same page.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Ophelia by Millais.

Cthulhu is a good choice here since Pizzolatto’s story edged towards Lovecraft via the repeated “Carcosa” references. You’d think a Lovecraft zine of all things would know better than to haul someone over the coals for borrowing from another writer when Lovecraft himself borrowed from Robert Chambers (and Arthur Machen and others), while “Carcosa” isn’t even original to Chambers’ The King in Yellow but a borrowing from an Ambrose Bierce story, An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1886). Furthermore, Lovecraft famously complained about his own tendencies to pastiche other writers in a 1929 letter to Elizabeth Toldridge: “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany pieces’—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?”

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The Court of the Dragon

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50 Rue de Rennes (1900) by Eugène Atget.

I live in the Court of the Dragon, a narrow passage that leads from the Rue de Rennes to the Rue du Dragon.

It is an “impasse”; traversable only for foot passengers. Over the entrance on the Rue de Rennes is a balcony, supported by an iron dragon. Within the court tall old houses rise on either side, and close the ends that give on the two streets. Huge gates, swung back during the day into the walls of the deep archways, close this court, after midnight, and one must enter then by ringing at certain small doors on the side. The sunken pavement collects unsavoury pools. Steep stairways pitch down to doors that open on the court. The ground floors are occupied by shops of second-hand dealers, and by iron workers. All day long the place rings with the clink of hammers and the clang of metal bars.

Unsavoury as it is below, there is cheerfulness, and comfort, and hard, honest work above.

Five flights up are the ateliers of architects and painters, and the hiding-places of middle-aged students like myself who want to live alone. When I first came here to live I was young, and not alone.

In the Court of the Dragon (1895) by Robert W. Chambers.

Drawing the King in Yellow for the Karl Edward Wagner story in Lovecraft’s Monsters (see yesterday’s post) sent me back to the Robert W. Chambers story collection where the strange and terrible regent first appears. Despite having written in the past about the covers for Chambers’ book I hadn’t read the stories for some time. Chambers’ blending of Bohemian romance, fantasy, horror, and early science fiction is just the thing to point to when people ask for a definition of weird fiction, writing that comes from a period before the straightjacket of genre definition had fastened itself about imaginative writing.

Chambers’ collection contains ten stories but only the first four are weird tales: The Repairer of Reputations, The Mask, In the Court of the Dragon, and The Yellow Sign. Of the four, In the Court of the Dragon is the weakest, although my re-reading caused some surprise when I realised that the story takes place in a location in Paris which the great photographer of the city, Eugène Atget, had memorably fixed five years after the book was published. Chambers was American but pursued a career as an artist in Paris before he took up writing; the description above can be taken as his own experience of the city.

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Undated postcards showing wider views.

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Atget is a photographer whose work I’m always happy to return to, especially his views of the streets and courtyards of a Paris now cleaned and tidied, if not altogether redeveloped. His view of the dragon balcony in the Rue de Rennes features everything I like about his street scenes: an unpeopled vista, weathered cobblestones, curious architectural detail, and the hazy distance of the courtyard itself. Chambers’ story may not communicate quite the same atmosphere but the pair for me are now inextricably linked. This place couldn’t have survived, could it?

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Well, yes and no. The dragon is still there on the wall at 50 Rue de Rennes but the court was apparently redeveloped in the 1950s. Behind those blue doors is a tidy little park for the use of the locals, a common feature in Paris although tourists seldom see more than a glimpse of these places when gates are opened.

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The satellite view below shows the park, the red A marking the position of the blue doors. Nothing in Paris looks like Atget’s photos any more—that’s a part of their fascination—so these kinds of changes are no surprise. But I’m pleased to discover that the dragon still exists. Next time I’m there I’ll have to pay homage.

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Fourth collage from the La Cour du Dragon chapter of Une Semaine de Bonté (1934) by Max Ernst.

The King in Yellow at the Internet Archive.

Update: Added a couple more pictures.

Update 2: Thanks to Herr Doktor Bimler for reminding me of Ernst’s collage novel, Une Semaine de Bonté, whose second chapter takes its title from the court. Considering this is a favourite book I really ought to have remembered it. Two of the collages show the entrance to the court but the dragon isn’t seen, its presence having been transferred to creatures lurking at the edges of the picture, and the Doré demon wings that many of the characters are sporting.

Update 3: Laurent drew my attention to this post which includes more photos and historical detail. Thanks, Laurent!

Previously on { feuilleton }
Atget’s corners
Rue St. Augustin, then and now
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
The King in Yellow

Lovecraft’s Monsters

Lovecraft's Monsters

Graphic for the title page and ends of chapters.

I don’t usually post things so far away from publication, but editor Ellen Datlow put these pictures on her Facebook page a few hours ago so I may as well do the same here.

Back in February I bought a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet, something I’ve been using with regularity for the past few months. The Alas Vegas Tarot cards I designed in the summer were the first major attempt at getting used to working with it; Lovecraft’s Monsters, a forthcoming fiction anthology for Tachyon is the second, and I now feel very comfortable working with it. More than that, I’m increasingly pleased with the way it’s possible to combine the drawing techniques I’ve been using for years with the additional possibilities provided by working in Photoshop. As always, it’s the end result that counts but arriving at an end result can be easy or difficult. Some of these illustrations look no different than they would have done had I used ink on paper but they took half the time to create, a considerable benefit when a deadline is looming.

The stories Ellen Datlow has chosen for this collection all present different aspects of monstrosity seen through the lens of Lovecraft’s fiction and his cosmic menagerie. Some are full-on extensions of the Mythos, others are more allusive; all the pieces bar one have been published before but I’d not read any of them so for me this was fresh material. Having spent the past few years saying I was finished with Lovecraft’s fiction I was excited to be working on this book. The stories are good, and I welcomed the challenge of having to illustrate such a variety of material.

Larger copies of all the pictures can be seen here.

The star-headed thing at the top of this page is another amalgam of elements plundered from Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur and other sources. I’ve leaned rather heavily on Haeckel in the past, something I wanted to avoid here; this serves as a kind of visual punctuation separating the stories.

Lovecraft's Monsters

Cthulhu.

The drawing I’ve called Cthulhu is a piece for the introductory pages. Having already produced a lot of Cthulhoid art I didn’t want to repeat myself. The initial idea was of a tiny human figure faced with something enormous and nightmarish; that could be a vast eyeball or it could be a mouth or some other organ/aperture, the vagueness was intentional. Lovecraft continually impresses upon his readers how difficult things are to describe or apprehend but you seldom find this quality in art based upon his stories. Cthulhu especially has devolved into little more than an outsize man-in-a-rubber-suit à la the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In The Call of Cthulhu the figure on the mysterious statuette is described as having a humanoid shape but Lovecraft doesn’t describe the appalling reality in any detail at all. When Cthulhu is struck by a ship at the end of the story it breaks apart and is then seen recombining, the implication being that the creature is corporeally amorphous.

Lovecraft's Monsters

Only the End of the World Again by Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman’s entry concerns a werewolf private detective in Innsmouth. Lovecraft’s decaying fishing village and its inhabitants turn up in several of the stories so care was taken to avoid repetition.

Lovecraft's Monsters

Bulldozer by Laird Barron.

A great story about another detective, a Pinkerton agent this time, hunting his quarry through the Old West. Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal is mentioned so I used some of Louis Breton’s illustrations from the third edition.

Continue reading “Lovecraft’s Monsters”