Weekend links 444

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Visions Cosmiques—Improvisations Dédiées À L’équipage D’Apollo 8 (1969) by Jean Guillou. No designer credited.

• 50 years ago this weekend Apollo 8 was on its way to the Moon. Jean Guillou’s album of organ improvisations took the mission as its inspiration although his turbulent music seems more suited to the near-disaster of Apollo 13 than the weightless drift of space travel. The album has been out-of-print for decades but may be heard in full here and here. Related: the Discogs listing for the Philips’ Prospective 21e Siècle series of avant-garde music. Most of the other albums in this series remain unreissued, and are now very collectible, not least because of their metallic “Heliophore” sleeves.

• Christmas cheer be damned: the spook season extends from Halloween to the end of the year. At These Unquiet Things, Sarah Chavez offers a list of favourite seasonal vampires, witches and ghosts. For those who prefer something televisual that isn’t more MR James, The Lorelei (1990) is a feature-length supernatural drama written by Nick Dunning. And speaking of the unavoidable James, Sarah K Marr presents an annotated analysis of A Warning to the Curious embellished with her excellent photos of the area of the Norfolk coast where the story is set.

• At Bandcamp: Voltaic Liturgies: “A symbiosis of flesh, machinery and umbral cosmic mysticism” by Primitive Knot and The Wyrding Module; and In The Sunshine We Rode The Horses by Rowan : Morrison (Rowan Amber Mill with Angeline Morrison): “The album explores themes of our beautiful natural surroundings, and how the pursuit of profit guides us to learn ‘the cost of everything and the value of nothing’, paving the way for the scarring of the landscape with fracking, HS2, retail parks, and so on…”

• “Influential Manga Artist Gengoroh Tagame on Upending Traditional Japanese Culture”. Tagame is also a prolific gay porn illustrator, a part of his career the headline avoids although it is acknowledged in Anne Ishii’s interview.

• Mixes of the week: Dream Perception Mix by Moon Wiring Club, Strange Great Snow: A Conjuror’s Hexmas by Seraphic Manta, December’s Reverie by Cafekaput, and Secret Thirteen Mix 275 by CoH.

• On the Scary Thoughts podcast: Erik Davis on philosophical pessimism, cosmic horror, police procedurals, serial killers, gnostic notions, and Louisiana as featured in the first season of True Detective.

• Manuscripts, letters and other documents by HP Lovecraft are now digitised and available for browsing at Brown University Library.

• William Hope Hodgson—The Essex-born Master of Horror: a biographical essay by Peter Berresford Ellis.

• The best ambient releases of 2018 according to FACT.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Donald Sutherland Day.

Sandspiel

Rocket USA (1977) by Suicide | Ticket To The Moon (1981) by Electric Light Orchestra | From Ape to Apollo (1994) Thomas Fehlmann

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.


3: The Yellow Book (1894)

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Cover design by Aubrey Beardsley. The second story in Chambers’ King in Yellow cycle is The Mask.

John Lane’s quarterly periodical almost lived up to its sensational reputation for the first year of its publication, a reputation derived in part from its implied association with scandalous French literature. Aubrey Beardsley was the art editor, and was well aware of these associations. The sight of his bold drawings on bright yellow covers was a shock to many Victorian readers even if the literary contents were more restrained. When Oscar Wilde was arrested in 1895 he was described by the newspapers as carrying “a yellow book”; many readers took this to refer to the yellow book, and there were protests at the publisher’s door. Guilt by unwholesome association led to the dismissal of Beardsley even though he and Wilde had never been close.


4: The King in Yellow (1895) by Robert W. Chambers

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Chambers’ own design for the cover of his story collection.

Of the four stories that comprise the King in Yellow cycle, three concern some form of artistic activity. Prior to writing the stories Chambers had been studying and working as an artist in Paris, an experience that supplies the background to the third tale, In the Court of the Dragon. As an illustrator for Vogue and Life in the 1890s Chambers could hardly have been unaware of the fashion for yellow, especially when the colour is a feature not only of the title of the “poisonous” play and its central character, but is also central to the fourth story in the cycle, The Yellow Sign:

We had been speaking for some time in a dull monotonous strain before I realized that we were discussing The King in Yellow. Oh the sin of writing such words,—words which are clear as crystal, limpid and musical as bubbling springs, words which sparkle and glow like the poisoned diamonds of the Medicis! Oh the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with such words,—words understood by the ignorant and wise alike, words which are more precious than jewels, more soothing than music, more awful than death!

In Chambers’ novel, The Common Law (1911), a disapproving description of an art club shows his familiarity with the avant-garde personalities of the Yellow Nineties:

A near-sighted study of various masters, brilliant, morbid, or essentially rotten, was the basis of this cult—not originality. Its devotees were the devotees of Richard Strauss, of Huysmans, of Manet, of Degas, Rops, Louis Le Grand, Forain, Monticelli…


5: The Boom in Yellow (1896) by Richard le Galliene

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The Yellow Girl (c. 1895) by Dudley Hardy.

Richard le Galliene’s “prose fancy” describes at some length the colour of the decade:

Yellow is becoming more and more dominant in decoration—in wall-papers, and flowers cultivated with decorative intention, such as chrysanthemums. And one can easily understand why: seeing that, after white, yellow reflects more light than any other colour, and thus ministers to the growing preference for light and joyous rooms. A few yellow chrysanthemums will make a small room look twice its size, and when the sun comes out upon a yellow wall-paper the whole room seems suddenly to expand, to open like a flower. When it falls upon the pot of yellow chrysanthemums, and sets them ablaze, it seems as though one had an angel in the room. Bill-posters are beginning to discover the attractive qualities of the colour. Who can ever forget meeting for the first time upon a hoarding Mr. Dudley Hardy’s wonderful Yellow Girl, the pretty advance-guard of To-Day? But I suppose the honour of the discovery of the colour for advertising purposes rests with Mr. Colman; though its recent boom comes from the publishers, and particularly from the Bodley Head. The Yellow Book with any other colour would hardly have sold as well—the first private edition of Mr. Arthur Benson’s poems, by the way, came caparisoned in yellow, and with the identical name, Le Cahier Jaune; and no doubt it was largely its title that made the success of The Yellow Aster. In literature, indeed, yellow has long been the colour of romance. The word ‘yellow-back’ witnesses its close association with fiction; and in France, as we know, it is the all but universal custom to bind books in yellow paper. Mr. Heinemann and Mr. Unwin have endeavoured to naturalise the custom here; but, though in cloth yellow has emphatically ‘caught on,’ in paper it still hangs fire.


6: Il Giallo Mondadori (1929)

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La Figlia di Satana (1933), an Italian edition of an Edgar Wallace crime novel. “I Romanzi Gialli”.

Everything associated with the 1890s was deeply unfashionable by the 1920s, florid Art Nouveau having been replaced by rectilinear Art Deco. Yellow slips at this point from a signifier of artistic and spiritual decadence to symbolise a more material form of corruption: crime. The giallo paperbacks published in Italy by Mondadori were so-named for their predominantly yellow covers. There’s nothing particularly weird or Chambers-related about these novels but their name was later transferred to a type of cinematic thriller being made in Italy in the 1960s. Those thrillers quickly mutated into supernatural horror films, and the giallo label went with them.


7: The King in Yellow (1938) by Raymond Chandler

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The masked figures on the first number of The Yellow Book reminded me at this point that Raymond Chandler had been writing for Black Mask magazine in the 1920s. Chandler’s King in Yellow is a murder mystery which in its magazine version concerns an investigation by detective Steve Grayce into the death of jazz trumpeter King Leopardi:

The King wore yellow silk pajamas, the slip-on kind, with a turned collar. They were loose and thin. Over his breast they were dark with blood that had seeped into the silk as if into blotting-paper. There was a little blood on his bare brown neck.

Steve stared at him and said tonelessly: “The King in Yellow. I read a book with that title once. He liked yellow, I guess. I packed some of his stuff last night. And he wasn’t yellow either. Guys like him usually are—or are they?”

Grayce’s name was changed to Philip Marlowe when the story was reprinted in a collection in 1945. In 1983 Powers Boothe played Marlowe in a series of TV adaptations.


8: True Detective, series one (2014) by Nic Pizzolatto

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True Detective: pages from Dora Lange’s diary.

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And so to the latest TV detectives. What struck me most about the Chambers thread this time round was how little is explained or revealed about the nature of “the yellow king” or Carcosa, and how much of the characterisation is concerned with figurative masks. Camilla’s words from the opening of Chambers’ The Mask—”You sir, should unmask”—are paraphrased by the killer in the final episode, something I missed the first time; elsewhere there’s a great deal of deception in the personal and professional spheres and, of course, Rust Cohle’s undercover exploits. Leaving all the Carcosa business unexplained is a strength; it’s what Chambers does himself in the stories, and it’s just what many of the lesser writers who’ve tried to expand his mythos don’t do at all.

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What next for the King in Yellow? As the old lady says in episode 7: “Death is not the end!” The sinister regent will be back again, all we have to do is wait.

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

Weekend links 221

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Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1946) by Joseph Cornell.

• Having been a Bernard Szajner enthusiast for many years it’s good to see his music receiving some belated reappraisal. David McKenna talked to Szajner about his Visions Of Dune album (which is being reissued by InFiné next month), laser harps, The (Hypothetical) Prophets, and working with Howard Devoto.

• Priscilla Frank posts some big views of Marjorie Cameron’s occult paintings as a preview of the forthcoming exhibition at MOCA Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles.

• Fascinating reading in light of the recent kerfuffle over True Detective, Christopher Loring Knowles on the possible sources of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Those who set up oppositions between the electronic technology and that of the printing press perpetuate Frollo’s fallacy. They want us to believe that the book—an instrument as perfect as the wheel or the knife, capable of holding memory and experience, an instrument that is truly interactive, allowing us to begin and end a text wherever we choose, to annotate in the margins, to give its reading a rhythm at will—should be discarded in favor of a newer tool. Such intransigent choices result in technocratic extremism. In an intelligent world, electronic devices and printed books share the space of our work desks and offer each of us different qualities and reading possibilities. Context, whether intellectual or material, matters, as most readers know.

Alberto Manguel, lucid as always, on the act and import of reading.

• “It’s time to give prog rock’s artist-in-residence Roger Dean his due,” says Amber Frost. No argument there, I did my bit in 2010.

• “Why do the covers of so many self-published books look like shit?” asks B. David Zarley.

• Mixes of the week: FACT mix 455 by Airhead, and Secret Thirteen mix 225 by Clock DVA.

• At Core77: Rain Noe chooses favourite skyscraper photos by Russian urban explorers.

• “O, Excellent Air Bag”: Mike Jay on the nitrous oxide fad of the early 19th century.

Nick Carr goes in search of Manhattan’s last remaining skybridges.

Lauren Bacall at Pinterest.

• Shaï Hulud (1979) by Zed (Bernard Szajner) | Welcome (To Death Row) (1980) by Bernard Szajner | Person To Person (1982) by The (Hypothetical) Prophets

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?”

Continue reading “Intertextuality”

Weekend links 212

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Poster for the recent Ballard-themed Only Connect Festival of Sound in Oslo. Design by Non-Format.

Bulldozer by Laird Barron was my favourite piece in Lovecraft’s Monsters, the recent Tachyon anthology edited by Ellen Datlow that I designed and illustrated. So it’s good to hear that Nic Pizzolato, writer of the justly-acclaimed HBO series True Detective, is among Barron’s readers. True Detective, of course, created a stir for referencing Robert Chambers’ weird fiction in a police procedural. The series is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, and I can’t recommend it too highly.

• Citation-obsessed Wikipedians don’t believe Hauntology is a genuine musical genre, a sentiment which will probably surprise some of its practitioners. Whatever the merits of the argument, I rather like the idea of a musical form that resists strict definition.

• “This year, in order to do things differently, I will make a conscious effort to separate the man from his writing.” Giovanna Calvino, daughter of Italo Calvino, remembers her father.

With ideology masquerading as pragmatism, profit is now the sole yardstick against which all our institutions must be measured, a policy that comes not from experience but from assumptions – false assumptions – about human nature, with greed and self-interest taken to be its only reliable attributes. In pursuit of profit, the state and all that goes with it is sold from under us who are its rightful owners and with a frenzy and dedication that call up memories of an earlier iconoclasm.

Alan Bennett delivers a sermon.

Zarina Rimbaud-Kadirbaks, aka Dutch Girl In London, reviews the Chris Marker exhibition that’s currently running at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

• Exteriorizing the Inner Realms: Christopher Laursen talks to Phantasmaphile and Abraxas magazine‘s Pam Grossman about occult art, past and present.

• The Beast is back: Erik Davis talks to Gary Lachman about his new book, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World.

• The body as factory: anatomy of a New Scientist cover image. Rick Poynor on the recurrent use of a familiar visual metaphor.

• Mix of the week without a doubt is FACT Mix 445 by Stephen O’Malley, a three-hour behemoth.

• Jennifer in paradise: Photoshop developer John Knoll on the story of the first Photoshopped image.

• The trailer for Grandfather of Gay Porn, a documentary about Peter de Rome by Ethan Reid.

Giorgio’s Theme is a new piece of electronic music by Giorgio Moroder.

Agender, a series of androgynous photo-portraits by Chloe Aftel.

• RIP Little Jimmy Scott

Evil Spirits

Chase (1978) by Giorgio Moroder | Call Me (1980) by Blondie | The Apartment (1980) by Giorgio Moroder