We’re REH Awards Finalists!

Exciting news: we’re on the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards shortlist of finalists – Angeline in The Venarium – Emerging Scholar category for her Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy talk, and for the blog (see below); and both of us are up for The Costigan – Literary Achievement with The Red Man and Others!

It’s a strong year for finalists, and we’re also happy to see among others The Cromcast, one of our favourite podcasts, and Jason Ray Carney, torchbearer for what Sword & Sorcery can be, both as editor of Whetstone, and for an excellent essay that explores a sometimes under-appreciated aspect of Conan: his compassion.

Angeline’s shortlisting for Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy reflects that, in 2022, disability and neurodivergence are an inextricable part of the fantasy conversation, but also that we’ve always been part of the speculative fiction landscape. You can read a bit more about the talk elsewhere on our blog.

We’re also very happy that our short story collection The Red Man and Others has been shortlisted, and that the adventures of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien resonate in a world where a lot of us feel like scrappy but wily underdogs! Hopefully enough of the voting members will like it, as we definitely wouldn’t mind hanging one of these wooden plaques in our home library!

The blog articles Angeline got shortlisted for in the Emerging Scholar category are:
They Were Always Here: How the female readers of Weird Tales were as active, and into Conan, as the men. 
They Were Always Here 2: Editor Doroty McIlwraith, and further female readers of Weird Tales. 
They Were Always Here: Tigrina: How Weird Tales reader Tigrina became a heroine in her own right – in the queer community. 
C.L. Moore: How this early female S&S writer got ignored. 
Solomon Kane (2009) Revisited: Review of the 2009 film. 
Conan the Barbarian (2011): Review of the 2011 film. 
Once Upon a Time in Hyrkania: How a Red Sonja film could be done – as a Spaghetti Western
Worms of the Earth: A disability synchronicity between REH’s story and the Tod Browning’s 1932 film “Freaks”
The Tower of Cthulhu: Was REH’s Yag-kosha a Lovecraftian Old One? 
Swordswomen!: “Swordswomen are unrealistic, as they’d be no match for a man!” Really? 
On Representation: Gatekeeping and representation in fantastic fiction
Flashing Swords 6: A Deeper Cut: By his diatribe against feminists and trans people, editor Robert M. Price finds himself on the wrong side of history. 
Chariots of Ire: Wheelchairs, D&D, Fantasy and disability. 
Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy: Blog post accompanying the OctoCon talk. 
Control Your Shelves: On textual purity, ‘death of the author’ and genre gatekeeping.
The Editor’s Axe: How Sword & Sorcery’s racist heritage still defines its present. 
Fled & Done: Sword & Sorcery: Is there a viable future for S&S outside of the genre ghetto? 

Flogging off Vincent

I just saw this Guardian article about the items that can be found in the gift shop of The Courtauld Gallery, currently hosting a Vincent van Gogh exhibition. You can buy your usual prints, postcards and fridge magnets, but also tat that ranges from overpriced…

…to outright tasteless.

Immediately I thought back to that episode of Doctor Who featuring Vincent van Gogh, in which he’s taken to the present, and finds out that his work is enjoyed by millions, and that he’s become a very important artist indeed!

We hadn’t watched Doctor Who for years, and were visiting friends who were fans. “It’s really good,” they promised. My immediate thoughts on watching this episodes were all four-letter words. In the first place because it was not unlike the basic idea of my own Vincent van Gogh story, which had appeared in a Dutch magazine (and formed the basis for my novelette Hastur’s Canvas), but also because it was so incredibly bad. On finishing, an uncomfortable silence descended on our friends’ living room. Luckily, there was a strange migration of bluebottle flies over their ceiling to divert our attention.

Throughout the episode, Van Gogh was portrayed as an almost childlike genius, almost the archetypal idiot savant. Anyone who studies Van Gogh will come to the realisation that his work was not the product of genius alone, but of hard work, based on a very clear idea of what he wanted. His self-portraits for example are a conscious rejection of photographic representation, and look at his painting of the Church of Auvers in detail to see how deliberately and sublimely the painting is constructed. His paintings are also loaded with meaning: when he painted sunflowers, it wasn’t just because he loved flowers.

That Doctor Who episode therefore rankles me. I’m sure that Van Gogh knew that he was ahead of his time. What good does it do to plop him in the future to show that his work will catch on? TV-Vincent gets emotional: they love him after all! I imagine that he’d be annoyed instead, and would rather have had some recognition in his own time. He’d possibly complain about the way the paintings are hanging frame by frame, without context or order, reducing them to pretty pictures. He’d grumble about the entrance fees for the museum, and the millions paid for paintings that then disappear into private collections.

Most of all, he’d leave the gift shop cursing, angry about the way in which his work had been turned into a commodity, and he himself into an empty caricature! Sure, in Hastur’s Canvas I am putting him through the wringer, and portray him as a difficult man. But I like to think that, Lovecraftian goings-on or not, I still treat him with respect, and paint an honest portrait of someone who really was a very good artist, well ahead of his time.


A Valentine’s Day Playlist

When you find absolutely the most perfect song for your characters and their relationship… If Kaila (from The Red Man and Others) were to have a Valentine’s song for Ymke, it’d be Jocelyn Pook’s track “Upon This Rock”. More on this song here.

I am your dervish, your fragile Dervish
I am both a stranger and I am myself.
I am in love.

And what would Ymke sing for Kaila? Perhaps this staple of northern Dutch dialect music, Ede Staal’s “Het Hogelaand”, here sung by Marlene Bakker (with apologies for the sound quality). Read about it here.

It’s a nice evening in May; a cow is coughing in the grassland.
I’m dating for the first time, and feel the sparks from your hand.

It’s a wistful song, full of homesickness, and I imagine Ymke can’t sing it without thinking of the farm she left behind up north, and without crying. But then – she did find those sparks coming from Kaila’s hand.

And what about Sebastien, then? Kaila will tease him mercilessly for it, but we’re guessing that he’d be listening to The Cure, feeling awfully sorry for himself. Sebastien has a push/pull relationship with Kaila and Ymke, yet he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go – or rather, anyone else to run to. It wasn’t meant to be like that either: we started out with Kaila and Sebastien as a duo for our Fantasy stories, but then Ymke stepped over from her own story into theirs, and it became Kaila and Ymke, and Sebastien found himself sidelined in his own adventures. That’s why we chose The Cure’s track “Homesick” (from Disintegration):

Doesn’t he have a secret love, then? Well, there’s this woman he met, before Kaila crossed his path. It’s a story that’s yet to appear. While most of the lyrics of Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s “Remnants of a Deeper Purity” don’t really match, the feel of the song is spot on!

She was so beautiful to watch drifting out into oblivion
A moonfaced memory with eyes down turned
Are you the one the one I’ve been dreaming of?

We love these songs ourselves, and the albums they come from have been on repeat while we are writing. But of course, Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien are parts of ourselves, so perhaps it’s not so strange that the songs that’d chime with them, are those that we love ourselves!

Illustrating Hastur’s Canvas

As I wanted Hastur’s Canvas to be a nice book to have, to hold, and to give as a present, I very quickly decided that there would be illustrations. It is my Lovecraftian take on Vincent van Gogh’s last years, with the mysterious and immortal alchemist Von Buntes as pivotal figure, and so there’d be plenty of scope for showing artwork by Van Gogh and his contemporaries, and from Von Buntes’ wanderings.

The illustrations are a mixture of ‘made from scratch’ and ‘hardly altered’. They’re done in pen, ink and paint first, then the elements have been further completed and combined in Photoshop. When doing the art for The Red Man and Others I’d already got a good idea of what Amazon’s presses were capable of, so I prepared the illustrations with this in mind.

These illustrations were mostly done by hand. The one on the left is a variant on Aubrey Beardsley drawings. I wasn’t happy with the view behind the window, and the cloth below the book, so I redid these and edited them in digitally. I’ve long left the times behind that I wanted it to be right on paper; “I’ll fix it in post,” is where I’m at. I also left out the big black shape of the habit; why waste ink when it can be done quickly in the computer. When doing the final edit I also lengthened the candle a bit and did a general tidy up – with almost unlimited magnification in Photoshop, you see each sloppy or unfinished line very large on your screen. On the right hand side another view of the alchemist Von Buntes, surrounded by an assortment of Toulouse-Lautrec(ish) figures.

The Von Buntes figure was later re-combined with the painting of TL’s cousin I used as a model, and I also played around a lot with the levels and contrast to get the right atmosphere. It shows really well how much you can still tweak an illustration after scanning.

These two sheets show where I did less ‘own’ drawing, and did more in the computer. On the left elements to be combined with a Billy Bunter illustration from a 1920s The Magnet, and on the right a “Vincent by Beardsley”, a little gnome I combined with one of Vincent’s drawings of a cypress tree, and the elements I needed to alter a south sea painting by Paul Gauguin.

A detail of the original Bunter illustration, and my version. In the text, Von Buntes had a stint in the UK and inspired a long-running line of stories around a magical boarding school. As I reduced the Bunter figure much in girth, there was a fair bit of texture of the chair to be cloned over in the ‘empty’ areas. It turned out quite a bit of work filling in Bunter’s clothing with the hatching of the original, as the direction and suggestion of volume needed to be right. I’m very happy with how the little dog came out!

And here’s the original Gauguin and what I did with it. The poor girl find herself with a fish-like head, like Lovecraft describes the inhabitants of Innsmouth, and the statue in the background has been conveniently replaced by one of Cthulhu. Again, quite a bit of playing around with the colour values, as a straight ‘desaturating’ gave a fairly bland effect. By changing the girl’s face, I tried to steer away from the ethnic caricatures which are inherent in Lovecraft’s text.

It was a lot of fun to do these illustrations, and working so closely with the source material highlighted to me how incredibly good these artists were! Undoubtedly, Van Gogh was a dauber, but what a dauber! If I’ve done my job right, it may not be immediately apparent that all artwork has been -at least- tampered with; even the cover looks like a Van Gogh, but is a mash-up of four different paintings. Perhaps the reader will then see something that raises their suspicion, and then browses back to the other art to see what’s actually going on. If not, then it’s still a very handsome little book! And until Valentine’s day, at a discount too via Amazon UK and US!


The Grey House

The stories in AaNX 1: Emerging From Darkness are our first ventures in a sandbox we call, for lack of better, Night Watch World. It’s our world, but technology progress has pretty much come to a standstill at the start of the 20th century, while the Spanish Flu hit badly, over and over again. There are ghosts too, and vampires.

One of the stories, Reel Number Seven, has Laurence Olivier on the set of Wuthering Heights (1939). It’s a different film than the one we know, though. It’s got Olivier’s then-girlfriend Vivien Leigh as Cathering Earnshaw, instead of Merle Oberon, and it’s a silent film. For the visual impression of this Wuthering Heights we’ve been very much inspired by the 1925 German film Zur Chronik von Grieshuus.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in our fictional silent version of Wuthering Heights (1939)

Zur Chronik von Grieshuus was made when German silent film was at its most powerful, at the Babelsberg Filmstudio near Berlin, a stone throw away from where Fritz Lang was shooting Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache. It was scripted after Theodor Storm’s novella by Thea von Harbau. It’s set in the 17th century, and is about the son of a feudal landowner who falls in love with the daughter of one of the serfs, after which his brother has him disinherited and stripped of his title. It indeed maps really well on Wuthering Heights’ intrigue, and though the plot is a bit of a potboiler, the visuals were just what we needed for a silent version of Emily Brontë’s volatile story of love and revenge!

Pulp Fiction As It Should Be

Today we received Phantasmagoria #20. It’s a doorstopper of a magazine; graphic novel size, but at a whopping 300+ pages, filled with speculative fiction, interviews, art, and reviews. It’s slanted towards horror and ‘weird’, and as close to a modern-day Weird Tales as you can get. It’s produced in Northern Ireland, and while specfic is particularly underappreciated by the local mainstream, it’s yet another sign that the genre is very alive in this strange, complicated, little country.

We’re very proud, therefore, to find Phantasmagoria reviewing our The Red Man and Others. The review highlights exactly those things we found so important in creating Ymke, Kaila and Sebastien. In writing their further adventures, we of course hope to retain these qualities, but meanwhile we’d like to leave you with some extensive quotes from the review…

I was first struck by the book’s cover; the title The Red Man is nicely juxtaposed with the artwork of two women in a loving embrace. This beautifully threw down a gauntlet to me as a reader and I wasn’t disappointed. This pulpy beast challenges among many things those in authority who abuse their power but also the false nature of religion and the ease with which common people suffer under its influence – these are issues relevant to our modern world.

Identity, sexuality, and disability are present, normalised in the authors’ world, and a key construct to the tale. Our characters overcome prejudice through their strengths and abilities, The Red Man is their tragic tale of self-discovery and loss.

Kaila is an effective warrior who is also crafty and cunning in nature – I took to her quite easily and enjoyed her toughness and sense of humour. Ymke is well read and wishes to become a scribe, but to do so uses the corrupt system to her advantage. Sebastien is simply trapped in a day-to-day existence of thievery. Their wide-ranging skills, such as Sebastien’s cold reading, perfectly illustrate what they require to defeat their foe. Their plan brings to many a much-needed hope and light at the end of the dark tunnel.

(…) In producing this work, the authors present us with tales of strong women, sharp tongues and razor swords. Rich in action, our female protagonists are allowed to be bold, and equal to men. They thus cross boundaries and break tropes. This is pulp fiction as it should be, and it’s delivered well.

The Red Man and Others can be found via Amazon – and comes at a discount until Valentine’s Day!

Bits of Business

We’re currently writing a new story with Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien. We’ve been looking at quite a film noir films, and read some Dashiell Hammett books too: it’s a murder mystery, though “who done it” isn’t really that important. For us, the important thing for now is to have fun writing it.

When watching any noir film, you will find a lot of stylising, in the dialogue as well as the visuals: the world is created from shadows, angles and smoke. It’s not a real world, but one that looks more or less like ours, but shunted in a certain direction. The characters too are slanted towards the role they have to fulfil in the story. One-note characters? Perhaps, sometimes, but memorable. And you accept them, within the context of that world.

The Third Man: Shadows, shadows, and rain.

We started our Fantasy story out as our take on film noir, but as we write the way we do, it soon became something different. And still fun. In particular the incidental characters we introduce we try to bring to life with just a few sentences; the way they look, and talk. We figure that they’re very much like the characters in the Hammer horror films of the ‘50s and ‘60s: even those who only have a walk-on part and a few lines are memorable. Their actors are given something to do, or given the freedom to make something of them.

Take any of the bit parts in these films, and look out for the “bits of business” – something they do, say, wear that makes them into a character, and not just a prop to move the action along. Michael Ripper is the undisputed master of the Hammer bit parts. You’ll recognise him immediately, “him with the boggly eyes,” and whether he’s got a tiny part in the background, or something more substantial, he always does something with it. And of course, all these actors move around in a world that is not quite realistic, but recognisable and functional: within the film’s narrative, the villages and castles as they appear are as they have to, or should, be.

Michael Ripper in Brides of Dracula: “Mother of God..it’s a corpse… I thought you was a deadun!”

Going back a bit further in time, we find the same in the Universal horror films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, set in a shadowy mid-Europe. This area too is instantly recognisable; traditionally clothed peasants stumble round with torches and pitchforks, after Frankenstein monsters and werewolves. It looks vaguely 19th century, and frozen in time: decades pass without any impact on the rural society, and only when foreigners, Americans, come do we get an idea of the modern world outside. These modern people, more often than not, soon fall in line with the local culture, rather than bringing innovation to them. And of course, going even further back, German Expressionist films like Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Der Golem and to an extent Nosferatu and M all presented worlds that were somewhat like our own but different.

In our story we cast freely from these, and other films. The elderly maid from James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein plays a pivotal part, and the character’s name even is Una. We’ll change that in the next rewrite, and by the process of writing, making a whole of the book, she’ll wander further away from actress Una O’Connor (who, incidentally, grew up in our own Belfast). Her character in Bride is of course broad, and played for laughs. But let’s be honest: are there not those people in our own lives who need just a little magnifying to become caricatures? And then, when you write them as characters, combine them with other sources, let them act in your story, then underneath those “bits of business” they turn out to have depth after all!

Una O’Connor clucking in Bride of Dracula

Hammer’s downfall came in the ‘70s, when their business model stopped working, and in an attempt to be relevant they moved Dracula to the modern world. It didn’t work; the spell was broken. By and large Fantasy since then has been attempting to portray a “plausible realism”. Don’t get me wrong, we adore the production design of the first Conan film; Ron Cobb designed a thoroughly lived-in world with a history and existence beyond the frame. Since then, directors like Guillermo del Toro has dipped his toes into ‘shifted reality’, as have Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Tim Burton – the latter with increasing “style over substance.” Only now we’re coming full circle again with Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of MacBeth and David Lowery’s The Green Knight. Here, style is the substance, or at least part of it: it literally is the stuff dreams are made of.

The Tragedy of MacBeth: return to form

Ymke’s Journal

They flash by in seconds in our trailer for The Red Man and Others, and yet I had so much fun making them, that I thought it was about time to give these drawings another airing. The trailer shows Ymke writing the (1st person) story of The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, in which she meets Sebastien and the future love of her life, Kaila. Ymke’s literacy sprang from ownership of a single, lavishly illustrated book, so we figured that as an adult, she wouldn’t be able to resist illustrating her diary, and would include drawings of the others.

The captions were written with a real old-fashioned quill pen, while I used a steel nib for the drawings themselves. I imagine Ymke would have different nibs too. In this first picture we see Ymke coming from the Otaswald, here much reduced to a single tree, towards the city of Otasring, perched on top of a huge rock. On the top left you can see, with its four statues, the archway which plays a role in the denouement of the story, and also Kaila standing on the watchtower at the front.

For decades, I’ve had a book about the Crusades, full of medieval artwork, and it lay next to my drawing table when I created these illustrations. When looking at these drawings, you’ll see a lack of proper perspective and scale; this is partially because artists only began striving for realistic depictions in the Renaissance, while earlier it was more about communication and symbolic importance. Want to show Kaila waiting? Draw her bigger. In a medieval image of people sitting at a table, you may notice that the table is drawn as if from above, while the goods on it are shown from the side. There’s a certain pragmatism about this, as the medieval artists asked themselves: “What do I want to show? And which angle shows it best?”

Here we see Sebastien, in his role as the returned Uncomplaining Child (the grift on which the story turns). Size here denotes importance: This is all about Sebastien being worshipped, so he literally towers over his flock. He’s got his holiest expression on. Kaila and Ymke look on in the background, each with their ‘attributes’ – Ymke has a book, and Kaila her sword. Kaila seems to be less sure than Ymke that this is all going to end well. Or perhaps Ymke is distracted.

Medieval artists weren’t great at doing action scenes. At least, Ymke isn’t. I imagine that Ymke has thought of drawing flames licking at the base of the wheel, but found it too complicated. With this series, I also had to allow myself mistakes, and force myself to a certain naivety. Lots of details that come from medieval art here: The horse with its bound tail, the cart with decorations, and of course, the Wheel. The clothes of Ymke and Sebastien are variants on clothing worn in Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen films.

I like this one quite a lot! That’s Kaila, right there! She’s got a chainmail vest, much as seen in Die Nibelungen, but she’s decorated it with ‘plaques’. Let’s face it – she’s a metal chick, so she would sew patches on her clothes! The helmet is one of those ridiculous Wagnerian affairs, also seen in Lang’s film, and of the type that would be worn in the arch-Teutonic city of Otasring. However, Kaila rejects the suggestion.

This also illustrates something we always try for with our stories: to create a world and lives that continue beyond the page. In this drawing with the header, you can see Ymke’s love, and her pride in having bagged Kaila! And we can imagine Kaila reading the story, laughing over this picture, and being unable to resist adding her own commentary! In their lives before they met, they have each had their own struggles, their own stories to tell, but now whenever either tells a story about their adventures, the other will be there to laugh, interject and disagree, whether they’re sitting in a pub or poring over Ymke’s journal. And we like to think that it’s those differing perspectives, in both their blend and their contrast, that make our stories work.

You can find Sebastien, and the adventuring couple Ymke and Kaila, in The Red Man and Others. It’s on discount until Valentine’s day!


Nominate us for a Hugo!

For the first time in our sojourn as writers, we find ourselves with Hugo eligible stories, so please allow us to set out our stalls, praise our wares, and beg your consideration and indulgence!

With One Eye, Bright as a Star (Short story, 3200 words)
In the stark northern Dutch countryside, an old man teaches his grandson to be a man, but the forging of their fragile bond is interrupted by a confrontation with the supernatural – and the family secret.
(Published in The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, Air and Nothingness Press, January 2021).

For All the Dead (Short story, 6800 words)
“The sea gives and the sea takes away.” Raised in a remote Dutch fishing village, in the shadow of a storm that took most of its men, Hanne’s heard this truism all her life. But as a new storm rolls in, Hanne issues the sea a terrible challenge. Find more background here, and reviews here.
(Published in Beyond the Veil, Flame Tree Press, October 2021)

Caught in Wax (Short story, 3600 words)
In an Amsterdam divided by poverty and disease, where the First World War never happened and the vampires scream from the rooftops, a band of misfits puts together a show to raise the dead.
The Chill Inside (Short story, 2200 words)
Anton, a medium who heals hearts and hides his own lost love, welcomes a skeptical guest to his circle, giving him an epiphany he’ll never forget.
Reel Number Seven (Short story, 6100 words)
It is the early days of cinema, when the pictures are silent and the cameras cranked by hand. A terrible incident disrupts the filming of “Wuthering Heights”, and Lawrence Olivier must go to desperate lengths to save his film, and bring his lover Vivien to the screen.
(These three stories form AaNX 1: Emerging From Darkness, Air and Nothingness Press, December 2021)

Hastur’s Canvas (Novelette, 14500 words)
Paris, 1886.
Drawn by the bright light of the Paris art world, Vincent van Gogh finds himself caught in the web of the mysterious count DeBontés, whose dark shadow reaches throughout history. Vincent, however, is not so easily corrupted.
“Constructed with all the care of a good hoax. Lovecraft would approve.” – Bobby Derie, author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos

And if you nominate nothing else, please consider nominating Air and Nothingness Press’ editor Todd Sanders for the Editor (Short Form) category! There is an excellent interview with Todd on HorrorTree.com, but we’d also like to share our own experiences.

When Todd chose With One Eye, Bright as a Star for The Wild Hunt, we appreciated Todd’s prompt handling of contract and payment, and his communication throughout the editing process. Even our authors’ copies, neatly wrapped and sealed with an AaNP sticker, showed Todd’s attention to detail. The book itself is beautiful: smaller than your usual paperback, with immaculate interior design, and a heavy stock cover with french flaps. Todd has experimented with the form throughout AaNP’s twenty-five years, and when he has an idea, he makes it happen, such as his take on the old Ace Doubles.

When Todd requested stories for a Steampunk collection, we were game and immediately began Reel Number Seven: a take on Wuthering Heights, a perennial favourite of ours. We transplanted the Olivier version to the silent film era, with a dash of the German Expressionist Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (if you have a good quality DVD, please send it over!). Well over word count, we started again with Caught in Wax, loosely inspired by Rem’s goth days in Amsterdam; the warehouse building in which the trio of outcasts have their concert is real, though now converted into luxury flats. Our strange story intrigued Todd: it wasn’t quite what his anthology needed, but he was curious about its background. Meanwhile, we took the opportunity to strengthen its structure.

Though Caught in Wax was not selected for the anthology, Todd was eager to use it, and asked if we had similar stories. We sent him the other story, and his reply: “So how did you guys get so good?” encouraged us in an otherwise deeply trying autumn. He told us his idea for a newsletter-type mini-collection, and asked if we could tie these stories together with something small, set in the same universe. We already had an idea based on a fragment written and discarded years ago, and set to work. Meanwhile, he shared with us the first rough newsletter layouts. We felt very much collaborators in the project, and were even able to make suggestions. When we handed in the last of the stories, The Chill Inside, a contract followed immediately, as did arrangements for payment.

Todd Sanders produces beautiful books with great stories. The reader gets something really special; in a world of mass market paperbacks and print on demand, he has found a niche producing books that offer a sense of occasion so rare for some of us, as reading becomes a snatched pleasure amid life’s pressures. This is what he set out to do as a one-man publisher 25 years ago, and he still maintains this quality. However, why we want to highlight his work as an editor in particular is because of his impeccable and generous work with his authors: he keeps them informed throughout, from submission to authors’ copies, he edits with consideration, and he is very punctual with paperwork and pay!

Too often, small time press can make for a disappointing product and a frustrating experience for the writer. For Todd, Air and Nothingness Press is a labour of love; he extends this his readers and authors.

Vampire: the Scourge of Amsterdam (1919)

As I looked through the Dutch newspaper archive for information on Nosferatu‘s Dutch premiere for a blog post, I stumbled upon something that I, fairly knowledgeable on horror film history, didn’t know about: an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was produced in the Netherlands in 1919, a full three years before Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922!

As the advertisement from the Flora cinema in The Hague proclaims:
The Scourge of Amsterdam

Mysterious film play in 6 acts. Freely adapted from the novel “Drasula” from Bram Stoker.
Does this word not sound like the midnight call of the death bird? Take heed to voice that thought; otherwise the images of life will bleach to shadows. The child Belia’s was the vampire who lived off – and fed from the blood of mankind. Ghostly shapes arise from the midnight fog and creep up to their prey.
Do reserve Your seat early!!

This certainly sounds like something the Dutch cinema-going audience can’t have been used to, and a review from the national newspaper the Algemeen Handelsblad of 11 April 1919 supports this, if not without a critical note.

Vampire, the scourge of Amsterdam, the plague, the spectral mystery. The bloodsucking ghost with horrific rats as escort and coffins full of cursed earth as luggage; see here the appealing-sensational image of the film.
It is true that with the excessive demand for increased sensation and emotions, the audience is making it difficult for the scenario writers. Scary absurdities, death leaps and dangerous stunts, unnatural happenings “that should not be” and “easy girls” are still popular, in film as in the theatre; serious works of art in contrast get low receipts. And that’s the pity with this film.
The subject, with a somewhat less Grand Guignol-like treatment, could have made for an engaging story. The director certainly chose the appropriate settings for it: the vampire seems completely at one with the crumbling castle near the German city of Bremen which he haunts, and the dark-romantic forest that surrounds it. Once this harbinger of sorrow and plague moves to the quiet-complacent old city of Amsterdam, with its picturesque homes and streets and the so appropriate clothing of almost a century ago, he stands out by contrast.
For a first rate work one could also not wish for better players: the eminent Louis Bouwmeester as the professor who matches his wits with the vampire, the young man and his wife (the lovely Mientje Kling), and the vampire himself all give a splendid and gripping performance. But we are convinced that within a somewhat less overdone framework they would contributed to an even better whole.

I haven’t seen any mentions of it in the usually dependable reference books, and have found only a few vague allusions online. From the available information, a tantalising picture emerges of a film all but forgotten, and almost certainly lost.

The female lead was played by the Dutch actress Mientje Kling, who started as a theatre performer and then worked in silent movies for the Film Fabriek Hollandia, the main Dutch film production company, and Theo Frenkel’s Amsterdam Film Compagnie. After her marriage she mainly worked in radio.
Louis Bouwmeester is a surprising member of the cast: he was one of the great Dutch actors of the late 19th century. He was a Dutch Henry Irving if you will – especially interesting as Irving employed Dracula’s author Bram Stoker, and may have inspired the Count. Like Irving, Bouwmeester excelled in meaty dramatic roles; we can get a sense of his acting from a celebration of his 60 years on the stage.
The director of Vampire, Theo Frenkel, was Louis Bouwmeester’s nephew, and actually worked in the UK using his uncle’s surname. Family ties will account for his uncle’s appearance in his film, and we can imagine that the elder Bouwmeester was offered the part of the vampire, but agreed to the smaller but still pivotal part of the Professor.

The few photographs I could find of the film can be matched up with scenes from Stoker’s book, if you squint: Harker escaping from the castle (though it resembles an Amsterdam rooftop); the vampire bringing a baby to his brides, but here surrounded by several people I assume are his servants; then with windswept hair at a seaside graveyard, but as Amsterdam and Bremen are both harbour towns it’s difficult to judge whether it is from before or after he boards the Demeter. Only the shot of him and Mina behind the window – note the similarity with lead actress Mientje’s name – seems completely right, though Mina seems more welcoming of the vampire’s attentions than we usually see. It is somewhat curious that there are no photos of Louis Bouwmeester as the Professor, though his name will surely have been intended as a box office draw. Perhaps the old man’s generosity towards his film-making nephew did not include promotional pictures?

Even more strangely, while the vampire is visible in several of the images, we do not have a name for the character, or even for the actor. The review mentions Bremen as the origin of the vampire, which reminds me of the late-Medieval, early-Renaissance alchemist Dietrich von Buntes, who was said to never appear outside in daylight, or to eat, and who was known as Die Wampür von Bremen. Bram Stoker, when researching his novel, likely stumbled on contemporary accounts of Von Buntes, as an early draft of Dracula perfectly describes the figure we also find in Vampire – the Scourge of Amsterdam, with the moustache, eye-glasses, peculiarly arched nostrils and lofty domed forehead.

When Bram Stoker’s widow got wind of W.F. Murnau’s Nosferatu, she successfully claimed copyright infringement, which led to the destruction of the film. It is only through some copies that were sent to the USA that we can still enjoy this gem of early horror cinema. Murnau had been careful, though unsuccessfully so: the names of Stoker’s characters were changed, and the stiff, bald, ugly Orlok bears no resemblance to Dracula as we know him from the book. Had Murnau and his fellow filmmakers been alerted by what happened just a few years earlier in the neighbouring Netherlands? Frenkel didn’t hide that his Vampire was an adaptation of Dracula (the mention of Drasula in the advertisement will have been the work of a non-fan typesetter). Had he naively tried to sell the film to his contacts in the UK? What’s clear is that Florence Stoker was very quick with her ‘burn it all’, as after this first advertisement and write-up in the Dutch newspaper, there is no further mention of the film. Lost films are still being found, mislabelled in archives, or in the hoards of elderly film collectors. There is still hope, then, that Vampire, the Scourge of Amsterdam will turn up again.

Meanwhile, Dietrich von Buntes remains an enigmatic figure, about whom there is plenty to read in the book I recently edited, Hastur’s Canvas, mainly dealing with Von Buntes’ time in Paris in the 1880s, in which he tried to win Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh for the causes of the Elder Gods. You can read more about it here, and order it via Amazon UK and US. Von Buntes had an extraordinarily long life, weaving his way through history, not only showing up in Paris, but also making his mark in England, and eventually in India during the First World War. It would be tempting to imagine him on Dutch soil in 1919, involving himself with a movie about a vampire which was, in a roundabout way, inspired by the legends about himself. A fanciful thought, of course, but just the kind of irony that would appeal to an immortal alchemist.