The Tower of Cthulhu

The sketch made by H.P. Lovecraft, of a statue of the Great Cthulhu, and sent to his correspondent R.H. Barlow in May 1934, always amuses me. Far from the fearsome Old One (first written about in The Call of Cthulhu, 1928), it seems to me a middle-aged man, sitting on the toilet, upon whom it suddenly dawns that there’s no more loo paper. Existential dread indeed, but it’s hardly the sort of creature to inspire madness and a quick demise, as so often happens to Lovecraft’s protagonists.

Robert E. Howard’s heroes are made of sterner stuff than Lovecraft’s. When confronted with the supernatural, they may be afraid or disgusted, but it seldom heralds the end of the story. More often, it’s an opportunity to kick the tale into a higher gear. In The Tower of the Elephant (Weird Tales, March 1933), in which Conan gets confronted with a cosmic being:

Smoke and exotic scent of incense floated up from a brazier on a golden tripod, and behind it sat an idol on a sort of marble couch. Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness. Too large for the human body, it had no attributes of humanity. Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. The eyes were closed, as if in sleep.

This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer. This was Yara’s god; where then should the gem be, but concealed in the idol, since the stone was called the Elephant’s Heart? (…)

Tears rolled from the sightless eyes, and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own.

Not only is an encounter with a Great Old One an opportunity for more action for Robert E. Howard, he goes one better, completely reversing the reader’s expectations. Yag-kosha is a victim, not the threat, in this story, and it’s the sorcerer Yara who is the real monster. Howard takes Lovecraft’s theme of cosmic horror and subverts it. But I wonder: did Lovecraft send him a similar drawing to the one he sent Barlow, before The Tower of the Elephant was written? Was it Sad Cthulhu, hunched on his perch, which inspired the image of the tortured Yag-kosha?

It’s all there – the humanoid body, the wings, the head’s not dissimilar when you think of it. Perhaps Howard simply ‘filed off the serial numbers’ by replacing the octopus-like head with an elephant’s. Or, perhaps, the evil sorcerer’s mutilation of the Great Old One went further than his body and eyes alone? Could Yag-kosha have had a multitude of tentacles around his mouth, of which only one survived Yara’s torture? Were the debased Yag-kosha and Great Cthulhu kinfolk?…

(RvS)

Dig Me No Grave

We’re working on a story that’s set in the mountains. For research I’m rereading Trespassers on the Roof of the World, which deals with the earlier European attempts to reach Lhasa. These early travellers were sometimes foolhardy and unwise, sometimes overly optimistic and underprepared, but one thing that comes across in the narratives is a sense of Adventure, this kismet-like drive to reach that remote city that stood symbol for everything forbidden and mysterious.

It also brought the story “Dig Me No Grave” by Robert E. Howard to mind, which appeared in Weird Tales of October 1936, less than half a year after the author’s death. It’s contains more than a share of pulpy ‘Eastern mysticism’.

This illustration by Virgil Finlay, one of the mainstays of pulp illustrators, shows why he was so well liked; he had a knack of getting to the heart of the matter, and distilling a representative image from a story that would be alluring and intriguing. Sometimes the allure lay in a carefully rendered buxom woman, sometimes in a dynamic layout. This image has no spaceway pinup, nor a dynamic layout. In fact, it’s the way in which Finlay so very carefully controls the elements that makes the image work.

We see two men, standing around the (death)bed of a third, surrounded by black candles, symbols of sinister rituals. That we’re dealing with “Oriental Mysticism” will be clear from the man behind the altar, who is Asian, wearing something like a Tibetan monk’s habit, a circle painted on his forehead. All Orientalist tropes of the time, conveying the clichéd inscrutability. This contrasts with the man on the left, who we can take for a Westerner; and an educated one at that – noble forehead, aquiline nose, you get the idea, and clothing just short of elbow patches. He seems to have dressed hastily, as his tie is at an angle.

So, there’s an atmosphere of terror on one side, but also of the calm before a storm. This is done by using the trappings of black magic, but keeping the composition very quiet and organised. The illustration is built up from evenly spaced verticals, formed by the men and the candles, and a few horizontals, being the altar and the corpse. There are a few sets of diagonals. First, that of the shrouded body, which is parallel to the top of the illustration, binding the corpse to the space, and the Westerner’s tie is parallel to the papers he’s holding; we can assume that whatever he has read is the cause of his haste and unrest.

That these papers contain a formula to awaken the man’s dead friend would be a fair guess, and that the other man is to preside over the ceremony is also clear. I can’t really remember how the story exactly goes; it’s been decades since I read it. The illustration is enticing, though, and gives a lot of direction of what the reader can expect. It certainly makes me want to pick up the story and read it again. Luckily, I can just reach out to my bookcase for the excellent collection of horror stories by Robert E. Howard.

(RvS)

Pickman’s Model’s Model

The second of July was the birthday of Hannes Bok (1914-1964), one of science fiction and fantasy’s finest illustrators. Much as I’d like to claim Bok as “one of ours”, he’s not actually Dutch – his real name was Wayne Francis Woodard, and Hannes Bok was a rendition of Johan S. Bach. His drawings and paintings vary between heightened or stylised realism and abstracted grotesque, and originals are much sought after.

Years ago, when I was studying for my BA, I had to do a paper about a subject of my choice, as long as it was linked to the material we’d dealt with. I wrote about some illustrations from the heyday of pulp magazines. One that I still like is the illustration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model, by Hannes Bok, which appeared in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in December 1951.

Like other illustrators of his time, Hannes Bok used pointillism to construct his drawings. However, his are distinctive because they’re more stylised than those of, for example, Virgil Finlay. He could draw realistically, but often chose instead to emphasis a mood, concept or atmosphere. This gives his illustrations a certain mythological quality, which makes him a good choice to illustrate this story by H.P. Lovecraft.

The story is about an artist (based on fellow writer and artist Clark Ashton Smith) who has dedicated himself to depicting monstrous creatures, making magnetic, life-like works of art. Pickman disappears mysteriously, and those looking for him discover that Pickman’s creatures were so lifelike because he was modelling them from life, and one of his models got the better of him.

Hannes Bok manages to illustrate a key scene from the story without giving the plot away, and the key is in the story’s title. “Pickman’s model” can be interpreted as either the subject of Pickman’s art, or a three-dimensional figure of a monster. Until the last five lines of the story, we assume that Bok’s illustration is of a carved statue of a creature holding a tiny human. Only at the very end do we realise we’re looking at the real thing, an effect Bok achieved by limiting detail and simplifying the anatomy of both figures.

The drawing has great depth, yet lacks any suggestion of colour differentiation; creature and human are shaded alike. Only the eyes glow, or cast light, and light is reflected on the creature’s knee, foot and outlining his victim. There’s a sense of claustrophobia: it is looking at us, breaking the fourth wall, while its victim’s head sags. The creature is set in black, with no visible background. Yet we feel the size of the room, as the creature’s posture is that of one squeezed into a small space; a monster in a human-scaled room where it does not belong.

A quick Google search finds several different illustrations of this pivotal moment. Some artists undoubtedly handle their paint better than Hannes Bok ever could. But it is his piece that most catches the eye, and has lingered to disturb the imagination of new generations.

(RvS)