One of the more obscure artists from the Golden Age of the illustrated book, finding this volume by René Bull (1872–1942) makes up for my earlier dismissal of his Arabian Nights where the illustrations tend towards the comical. This volume dates from 1913, and shows Bull to be a fine exponent of Edwardian Orientalism. Browse the rest of it here or download it here.
Japanese poster (1982).
At The Quietus Steve Earles looks back at John Carpenter’s visceral and uncompromising The Thing which exploded messily onto cinema screens thirty years ago. It’s always worth being reminded that this film (and Blade Runner in the same year) was considered a flop at the time following bad reviews and a poor showing at the summer box office. One reason was The Thing‘s being overshadowed by the year’s other film of human/alien encounters, something called E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. To The Thing‘s status as the anti-E.T. you can add its reversal of the can-do heroics of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), an attitude out-of-step with Reaganite America. Carpenter’s film is not only truer to the original story but from the perspective of 2012 looks like one of the last films of the long 1970s, with Hawks’ anti-Communist subtext replaced by bickering, mistrust, paranoia and an unresolved and completely pessimistic ending that most directors would have a problem getting past a studio today.
I was fortunate to see The Thing in October of 1982 knowing little about it beyond its being a John Carpenter film (whose work I’d greatly enjoyed up to that point) and a remake of the Hawks film (which I also enjoyed a great deal). One benefit of the film’s poor box office was a lack of the kind of preview overkill which made E.T. impossible to avoid, and which a couple of years earlier did much to dilute the surprise of Ridley Scott’s Alien. I went into The Thing mildly interested and came out overwhelmed and aghast. For years afterwards I was insisting that this was the closest you’d get on-screen to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. The correspondence is more than merely Antarctica + monsters when you consider this:
Lovecraft’s story was rejected by his regular publisher Weird Tales but was accepted by Astounding Stories in 1936 >> The editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell, published his own Antarctica + monsters story (under the pen-name Don A. Stuart), “Who Goes There?”, in the same magazine two years later >> Charles Lederer wrote a loose screen adaptation of Campbell’s story which Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby filmed as The Thing from Another World.
This isn’t to say that Campbell copied Lovecraft—both stories are very different—but I’d be surprised if Lovecraft’s using Antarctica as the setting for a piece of horror-themed science fiction didn’t give Campbell the idea.
More things elsewhere: Anne Billson, author of the BFI Modern Classics study of The Thing, on the framing of Carpenter’s shots, and her piece from 2009 about the film | Mike Ploog’s storyboards | Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack music, of which only a small percentage was used in the film.
• The week in music: 22 minutes of unreleased soundtrack by Coil for Sara Dale’s Sensual Massage | Analog Ultra-Violence: Wendy Carlos and the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange | A Halloween mixtape by The Outer Church | Herbie Hancock & The Headhunters, live in Bremen, 1974: a 66-minute set, great sound, video and performances | Giorgio Moroder’s new SoundCloud page which features rare mixes and alternate versions | A video for Collapse by Emptyset.
One of the main themes of the book, and what I found in The Arabian Nights, was this emphasis on the power of commodities. Many of the enchanted things in the book are lamps, carpets, sofas, gems, brass rings. It is a rather different landscape than the fairy tale landscape of the West. Though we have interiors and palaces, we don’t have bustling cities, and there isn’t the emphasis on the artisan making things. The ambiance from which they were written was an entirely different one. The Arabian Nights comes out of a huge world of markets and trade. Cairo, Basra, Damascus: trades and skills.
Nina Moog talks to Marina Warner
• “A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.” Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic.
• Geoff Manaugh’s Allen Ginsberg Photos & Ephemera, 1994–Dec 1996.
• Clark Ashton Smith Portfolio (1976) by Curt Pardee.
• artQueer: a Tumblr.
Frontispiece, 1815. Engraved by Isaac Taylor after a drawing by Isaac Taylor Jr.
After some time Vathek and Nouronihar perceived a gleam brightening through the drapery, and entered a vast tabernacle carpeted with the skins of leopards; an infinity of elders with streaming beards, and Afrits in complete armour, had prostrated themselves before the ascent of a lofty eminence, on the top of which, upon a globe of fire, sat the formidable Eblis. His person was that of a young man, whose noble and regular features seemed to have been tarnished by malignant vapours; in his large eyes appeared both pride and despair; his flowing hair retained some resemblance to that of an angel of light; in his hand, which thunder had blasted, he swayed the iron sceptre that causes the monster Ouranabad, the Afrits, and all the powers of the abyss to tremble; at his presence the heart of the Caliph sank within him, and for the first time he fell prostrate on his face.
Vathek by William Beckford
The inevitable follow-up to yesterday’s post. Vathek was, we’re told, written in three days and two nights in the winter of 1782 when William Beckford was only 21. The novel is an Orientalist fantasy that’s grotesque and arabesque in the original sense of those terms, very much influenced by The Arabian Nights and similar tales. Here’s HP Lovecraft with a description:
Vathek is a tale of the grandson of the Caliph Haroun, who, tormented by that ambition for super-terrestrial power, pleasure, and learning which animates the average Gothic villain or Byronic hero (essentially cognate types), is lured by an evil genius to seek the subterranean throne of the mighty and fabulous pre-Adamite sultans in the fiery halls of Eblis, the Mahometan Devil. The descriptions of Vathek’s palaces and diversions, of his scheming sorceress-mother Carathis and her witch-tower with the fifty one-eyed negresses, of his pilgrimage to the haunted ruins of Istakhar (Persepolis) and of the impish bride Nouronihar whom he treacherously acquired on the way, of Istakhar’s primordial towers and terraces in the burning moonlight of the waste, and of the terrible Cyclopean halls of Eblis, where, lured by glittering promises, each victim is compelled to wander in anguish forever, his right hand upon his blazingly ignited and eternally burning heart, are triumphs of weird colouring which raise the book to a permanent place in English letters. No less notable are the three Episodes of Vathek, intended for insertion in the tale as narratives of Vathek’s fellow-victims in Eblis’ infernal halls, which remained unpublished throughout the author’s lifetime and were discovered as recently as 1909 by the scholar Lewis Melville whilst collecting material for his Life and Letters of William Beckford. Beckford, however, lacks the essential mysticism which marks the acutest form of the weird; so that his tales have a certain knowing latin hardness and clearness preclusive of sheer panic fright.
Jorge Luis Borges noted some of the influences in his 1943 essay On William Beckford’s Vathek:
…I believe that Vathek foretells, in however rudimentary a way, the satanic splendors of Thomas De Quincey and Poe, of Charles Baudelaire and Huysmans. There is an untranslatable English epithet, “uncanny,” to denote supernatural horror; that epithet (unheimlich in German) is applicable to certain pages of Vathek, but not, as far as I recall, to any other book before it.
[Guy] Chapman notes some of the books that influenced Beckford: the Bibliothéque orientale of Barthélemy d’Herbelot; Hamilton’s Quatre Facardins; Voltaire’s La Princesse de Babylone; the always reviled and admirable Mille et une nuits of Galland. To that list I would add Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione: etchings, praised by Beckford, that depict mighty palaces which are also impenetrable labyrinths. Beckford, in the first chapter of Vathek, enumerates five palaces dedicated to the five senses; Marino, in the Adone, had already described five similar gardens.
Byron admired the novel enough to take the name “Giaour” for one of his poems, and it’s no surprise to read that Clark Ashton Smith penned additions to The Third Episode of Vathek. Beckford’s fantasy is very much a precursor of Smith’s equally lurid and sinister stories.
Given all this, it’s a surprise that more illustrators haven’t been attracted to the book. This may in part be a hangover of Victorian prudery: some of the novels of the Gothic period remained shocking to later sensibilities while Beckford’s scandalous reputation (Byron called him “the great Apostle of Paederasty”; to Hilaire Belloc he was “one of the vilest men of his time”) wouldn’t have made his name popular among the collectors of costly illustrated editions. Of the pictures here, the 1815 volume has a frontispiece showing Eblis perched on a hemispherical throne like the one John Martin later gave to Milton’s Satan. More of the uncredited edition from 1923 can be found at the Internet Archive while VTS has plates from the Marion Dorn edition. Mahlon Blaine not only put more effort into his illustrations but the content is also far more suited to his temperament; a shame there aren’t more of the drawings online. And it’s a shame too that Harry Clarke never tackled Beckford’s novel. Many of his contemporaries produced illustrated fairy tale books, as Clarke himself did with Charles Perrault’s stories. But none would have been able to match Clarke if he’d adapted Vathek with the same vigour he brought to Faust.
The Caliph and the Giaour (c. 1800) by Richard Westall.
The illustrations are by Willy Pogány, the forty-four fairy tales were collected and translated by Ignácz Kunos. This wasn’t the first edition of Kunos’s book which dates back to 1889, but Pogány’s edition must be one of the most heavily illustrated, with drawings in a variety of styles throughout. The tipped-in plates look like woodcuts which is a style I’ve not seen from Pogány before. Elsewhere there are many comic demons and monsters rather like the kinds of things Sidney Sime used to enjoy inventing. And many Orientalist motifs, of course The Internet Archive copy isn’t dated but other sites give a date of 1913. This copy is also poorly hand-painted in places. Sacred Texts has the illustrations sans daubings.
• HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the art exhibition that caused such a fuss last year at the Smithsonian Institution, opens at the Brooklyn Museum, NYC, on November 18th. Among the events associated with the show is a screening of James Bidgood’s lusciously erotic Pink Narcissus. David Wojnarowicz’s video piece, A Fire in My Belly, is still a part of the exhibition so the New York Daily News reached for the outrage stick to prod some reaction from people who’d never heard of the artist or his work before. Will history repeat itself? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Watch this space…
Magic is not simply a matter of the occult arts, but a whole way of thinking, of dreaming the impossible. As such it has tremendous force in opening the mind to new realms of achievement: imagination precedes the fact. It used to be associated with wisdom, understanding the powers of nature, and with technical ingenuity that could let men do things they had never dreamed of before. The supreme fiction of this magical thinking is The Arabian Nights, with its flying carpets, hidden treasure and sudden revelations…
Marina Warner, whose new book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, is reviewed here and here.
• Those Americans who adore big business but loathe the idea of gay marriage will be dizzy with cognitive dissonance at the news that 70 major US companies—including CBS, Google, Microsoft and Starbucks—have signed a statement saying the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is bad for business. Mark Morford at SFGate says this now means that real homophobes don’t Google.
Illustration by Virgil Finlay for A. Merritt’s The Face in the Abyss. From a 1942 Finlay portfolio at Golden Age Comic Book Stories.
• The Mute Synth as created by Dirty Electronics & designed by Adrian Shaughnessy.
• Phil Baker reviews two new Aleister Crowley biographies at the TLS.
• The Most Amazing Room In Queens, NYC.
• Brian Eno on composers as gardeners.
• Alan Turing is Alan Garner’s hero.
• Paintings by Guy Denning.