Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

posterLast night I went to a Sin City double feature where I watched the original followed by the sequel in 3D. Very entertaining and well made, the 3d enhances the unique visual style of the original and yet, and yet… My biggest feeling after seeing the movies, and 300 as well (I haven’t seen 300: Rise of an Empire, but can’t wait after reading this wonderful review) is that of colossally wasted opportunities. Brilliant visuals and great actors are completely thrown away on shallow, ugly-minded content.

The Sin City movies are based on the comics by Frank Miller, a series of hard-boiled cinema-noir tales rendered in striking monochrome. Ground-breaking when they first came out, they followed the interwoven stories of a set of fantastically realised characters including Marv the lunky thug who Miller described as ‘Conan in a trenchcoat’ (Mickey Rourke in the movies), the tormented con trying to go straight Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen in Sin City, Josh Brolin in Sin City 2) and exotic dancer  Nancy Callahan (based on screen time, played largely by Jessica Alba’s bum in both movies). The films cleverly maintain the intricacies of the comics by weaving together a handful of linked tales in each. Of all the main characters the one you end up gunning for the most is Marv, largely because he’s refreshingly untainted by the self-absorbed wee-small-hours-in-the-morning soul-searching of everyone else and is often downright funny – humour or any sense of irony is in woefully short supply in Frank Miller’s movies.

Marv - played by Mickey Rourke

Marv – played by Mickey Rourke

The most impressive thing about the films is the visual look and feel. Partly taken from the comics themselves, partly channelling the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s with a massive dose of German Expressionism thrown in, almost every shot is fantastically composed and lit in dramatic monochrome. As a stroke of genius, the comic’s use of spot colour is replicated – a woman’s red dress, eyes glowing green etc. Rendering blood in white most of the time or, in one case, bright yellow, allows for lots of gore without the screen being filled incessantly with red (though in the second film blood reverts to its natural colour more often than not). Clever little touches include rendering props in white outline to add to the comic-book feel. This is particularly well done with glasses, dehumanising the characters at the point when their passions turn them into (usually) raging killing machines. The films back to back add up to a triumph of design and composition that still takes your breath away even after four hours and both films. Little Miho’s attack on the Roark Mansion at the end of Sin City 2 is particularly impressive, even in its silliest moments.

Little Miho - played by Jamie Chung

Little Miho – played by Jamie Chung

The problem with the Sin City movies, and 300, lies in the script. Part of the issue is that a certain type of comic dialogue doesn’t translate into film. Miller’s writing is an odd mix of film-noir internal monologue and the kind of portentous exchanges that used to dog Marvel Comics in the 1970s, where characters just made grandiose pronouncements at each other, instead of having conversations (“Now you two will be next to freeze and burn in the grip of Equinox the Thermodynamic Man!”). As every tale is ultimately one of vengeance against an utter, unredeemable villain set in the run-down foulness of Sin City’s slums then all the internal monologues follow the same pattern – a) Struggling to keep a grip/go straight, b) Her beauty hooked me in c) They beat me up d) We killed everyone in a murderous yet satisfying rage – rinse and repeat. Compared to the wit and intelligence of Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, whose wise-cracking scripts the movies are clearly referencing, this is like being hit over the head repeatedly with the sledgehammer used on Marv during one interrogation scene. On top of this the relentless violence and misogyny are extremely wearing. There’s been an interesting debate going on over here in Jane Dougherty’s blog about what makes a true ‘kick-ass heroine’. In Sin City it’s clear – prostitutes in thongs and fishnets with their tits hanging out and a machine gun in each hand. It’s essentially Chicks with Guns (I refuse to add a link, you can look it up yourself) meets the South Park episode Major Boobage – a 14-year old boy’s idea of what a ‘strong woman’ should be.

Dwight - played by Josh Brolin

Enough has been written on Frank Miller’s politics so I won’t re-tread old ground here. 300 nailed his beliefs to the mast in lurid primary colours when it recast the brutal and cruel slave-based Spartan state as champions  of some warped Tea-Party view of the American Constitution, as did his comments on the Occupy Movement. His comics are clearly capable of ground-breaking design and intelligence, yet none of that comes through in the films which end up being sub-Tarantino grindcore without any humour or wit. What I’d really like to see, for example, is the same stunning 300 bravura style being applied to the Oresteia of Aeschylus – that would be something worth seeing – or a Sin City with a script that captured all the smartness and sophistication of a Bogart/Bacall movie. At the moment all we seem to have is a tedious parade of boobs, bums and blood narrated by a crowd of self-absorbed bores. Except Marv. Marv is cool – he should have his own TV series.

Back to the PC


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email
What PC users looked like in 1984.

What PC users looked like in 1984.

The PC vs. Mac debate has been raging for so long and so much of it is wrapped up in pointless sabre-rattling between shouty geeks that I had a good long think before writing this. In the end I thought it might be of use to some writers who have become disenchanted with Apple and are looking at switching to PC (or Linux, which I know nothing about) but are worried that they might lose much of the functionality, experience and overall seamlessness that defined the Mac until recently.

The first computer I ever owned was a BBC B 32, bought in 1983. As the name suggested it had a whopping 32k memory, though that dropped to 8 if you wanted more than four colours on the screen. I wrote an 80,000 word thesis on it, though I had to keep swapping bits of it to and from a ‘floppy disc’. After University I worked for two years at the Metropolitan Police in London, some of the time on the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System (HOLMES) and some of the time trying to write programs in COBOL to track the whereabouts of the Queen when she went on her daily rounds. I came across my first Mac there, a funny little post-box of a machine that looked pretty cool and had this mouse-thing on the end of a wire. I was impressed enough to ask for one in my next job as Lecturer in English Literature at Hokkaido University of Education in Hakodate in North Japan.

Look that state of the art rig. Elite ran like a dream.

Look that state of the art rig. Elite ran like a dream. Steam Train to Brighton Simulator ran as fast as a steam train to Brighton.

In those days the lines were drawn between po-faced head-banging PCs and wildly creative and bohemian Macs. Programmers and computer people in big businesses used Microsoft while us arty lot used Macs. As Apple’s famous ad put it, we were the weirdoes who challenged convention by throwing big hammers at screens, and doing graphics and design with fonts and other cool things PC users only dreamed about. Media types favoured Apple and whenever a Mac appeared in a movie (such as Star Trek IV) we all jumped up and down and went ‘woo hoo’. Steve Jobs briefly left Apple and it all went a bit pear-shaped and PC like with multiple machines and the OS being licenced out to third part computer manufacturers. Then he came back, shouted at everyone, and just as we left Japan the iMac appeared in a range of brightly coloured boiled sweet colours.



I ended up working as a producer for a Media Agency in the New Forest. I sat in a long room with programmers down one side and designers down the other. The coders used PCs and the artists used Macs, which was pretty much the standard. I got a PC but as I wasn’t that much of an Apple obsessive I just got on with it. Occasionally we’d get sucked into Mac vs PC flame wars, egged on by the very funny, if a bit smug, ‘I’m a Mac and I’m a PC’ ads that Apple ran. I got used to using a PC to the extent that I used the Mac less and less. When I switched jobs I was given a Mac again and kind of fell in love with Apple once more, in some respects it was like falling face-down into a bed of flowers after wrestling with the PC for so long. For writers and creatives Apple still seemed the system of choice, but then things started to change and I grew increasingly uneasy with the route the Macs seemed to be going. It’s a familiar argument that I won’t re-tread here, but a slow accumulation of niggles topped by a final great big pain in the neck has sent me back to the PC.

It started when my MacBook died. I decided to buy a Mac mini to carry on with my 3D stuff, but as a exercise I had a look at what kind of PC the same amount of money would get me. I found that instead of a low end machine that would struggle with the 3D packages I was using (Maya and Houdini), a couple of hundred quid more would give me a serious customised 3D PC workstation. So if the only reason to by the Mac was blind loyalty why waste money on something not up to the task? So I got a PC.


At the same time, with the arrival of the iPhone and then the iPad, Apple seemed to be moving away from machines designed to create towards an ecosystem that is designed primarily for consumption, building what other people refer to as a walled garden. In the old days Microsoft were seen as the straight jacket, forcing users to do things their way (remember the infuriating Word Paper Clip assistant?) while Mac users ran barefoot through the grass with the wind in their hair, free to do what they wanted and limited only by their imaginations. Now the tables seem to have turned. App-based computing Apple-style seems to be to be 90% focussed on the customer as passive consumer of entertainment. Basically it is extremely difficult to build or create something on an iPad – it’s great for watching movies, playing games or browsing the web, but you can’t code on it much and it’s a bugger to write anything longer than an email. Interestingly enough I’m now seeing the effects of this in Education, where I work. Governments and school districts who went iPad happy when they first came out are now cancelling orders and selling their tablets on because they realise there’s not a whole lot of scope for creativity in the damn things, and yet they (and the phones) are where Apple now seem to be mainly focussed.

My user experience of iOS Mavericks.

And then came Mavericks and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Whirling beach umbrellas after nearly every keystroke. Every [umbrella] time [umbrella] I [umbrella] want to [umbrella] open [umbrella] a f[umbrella]king file. I did an experiment and booted up my PC and Mac at the same time – PC – 7 seconds, Mac – 35 seconds. Pages, Keynote and Numbers turned into something that looked like an 8 year old had designed them in an exercise book and iTunes wiped out about 23 albums I’d bought from the store with no apparent way of getting them back. I’d had enough:

So as an exercise I made a list of all the programs I use on the Mac and PC to write & generally do creative stuff and this is what I came up with:

Scrivener. Best writing software out there – PC version available with slightly reduced functionality but none that I care about so no problem there.

Houdini. Best 3D software. Stuff off a shovel on the PC.

Mathematica. Takes three minutes to open on the Mac, 3 seconds on the PC. Again because I designed the PC as a number cruncher it’s in its native environment whereas it struggles on the slower but more expensive Apple Machine.

Pixelmator. For image processing – not on the PC so I took out a £7/month subscription to Photoshop which will hardly break the bank

Mellel. Word processor – this is the hardest one to lose as it’s such a fantastic piece of software and allows for the kind of precise layout you need for a Createspace paperback. I’ve swopped in Adobe InDesign on the same principle as Photoshop.

MarsEdit. Blogging software. Again you can’t get it on the PC so I’m writing this on Windows Live Writer and there’s not a massive amount of difference.

Filemaker. Database software. PC and Mac versions are identical and you get installers for both so no change there either.

The only things I’ll miss are Mellel and OmniGraffle. Everything else I can either use on the PC or find close, or even better, substitutes. In a way I feel a bit sad because I always admired Apple and cut my teeth on Macs in the early days when they really were innovative and cool. But at the end of the day computerators are tools for writing and doing movies and stuff, and when I get to the point when I have to fight the system to get the simplest [umbrella] thing done then I know it’s time to look elsewhere.

Samurai Jack


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email


I came back from Japan with a five year old and a three year old with heads full of Sailor Moon, Anpanman and Miyazaki Hayao, so inevitably when we signed up for cable back in the UK we turned to Cartoon Network. When I was a kid TV cartoons were pretty dire. I grew up a fan of Filmation (responsible for, among other things, the animated Star Trek) and have a lot of affection for their peculiar style of ‘minimal’ animation, wonderfully sent up here in Cheapo Cartoon Man. By comparison most of the stuff my kids were watching was brilliant – imaginative, stylish and very funny, especially series like Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog. Among all of these my favourite by far was Samurai Jack.


Living in Japan for ten years made me a bit jaded and snooty about the portrayal of that country’s traditions and cultures in the West. Despite Cyberpunk dreams there are no corporate samurai or ancient traditions of bushido lurking under the surface of the Chiba/Tokyo sprawl. The average Japanese man or woman regards practitioners of martial arts pretty much in the way we look at Morris Dancers, and most are more concerned with struggling through their stressful office jobs, getting their kids to a decent school and paying off the mortgage. The biggest shock was the attitude to the films of Akira Kurosawa, who I’d always thought of as the backbone of Japanese culture. ‘He makes boring, pretty films for foreigners’ summed up the general attitude, a comment borne out by the fact that all of his later films were funded by people like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.


So at first I didn’t bother watching over the shoulders of the kids when Samurai Jack was on, until eventually they persuaded me to sit through one episode and I was completely blown away. While heavily influenced by Anime it had its own unique aesthetic and an insane premise which is best explained in the opening words of each episode:

Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!

By dumping a medieval samurai in a cyberpunk future ruled by the evil demon Aku the producers, led by Genndy Tartakovsky, could go to town with their imaginations, setting the honourable though slightly dim hero against ancient gods, alien assassins, killer robots, bounty hunters, deranged Scotsmen and all manner of odd foes. Every other episode was a clear tribute to a genre film or TV series, whether it was 300, My Neighbour Totoro or The Matrix. Most of the stories had Jack (a name given to him by a gang of bizarre street punks on his first arrival in the future) hunting for the portal to take him back to his own time in the hope he could change history by slaying the demon Aku. Others saw him tackling specific foes or setting off on bizarre quests (including finding himself a new pair of Japanese clogs when the old ones are stolen).


Not only were the 30 minute episodes a fascinatingly eclectic bunch of adventures, but the editing and visual style also stood out a mile from other cartoons. To begin with the designers took the decision to avoid outlining, relying instead on minimal and often abstract designs and colour to distinguish between shapes on the screen. This gave the cartoon a visual elegance you don’t usually see in animation, and some of the scenes, clearly influenced by Chinese and Japanese ink paintings, are actually quite beautiful. Samurai Jack also drew heavily on the styles of editing used in Japanese movies and Spaghetti Westerns. Unusually for cartoons the producers were not afraid to have long periods without speech, relying instead on images, close ups and subtle sound effects. Split screen, rapid cutting and sudden slow motion also allowed for the ratcheting up of tension during action shots. Most of Jack’s foes are robots, which got around the problem of gore during the often pretty violent battle sequences.


As animation, and a loving tribute to science fiction, fantasy and Japanese popular culture Samurai Jack is one of the best cartoon series I’ve seen. Not every episode is spot on, and sometimes the extended fights. where Jack dismembers yet more robots, drag a little, but there are very few bum notes in the four seasons that were made. To my mind the best episodes are number 6 in Season 1 (don’t read the description on iTunes, it has a major spoiler), Episode 5 Series 3 in which Jack confronts the ancient Egyptian Gods and the two parter from the same Season (11 and 12) which tell of the birth of the evil Aku (voiced by the Japanese actor Makoto Iwamatsu who played the shaman alongside Arnie in Conan the Barbarian). All the episodes are available from Amazon or on iTunes.

Soviet Space Art


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email
Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Last week I was working in Russia. I attended a conference in Tver, halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg where I was set on fire. I was also asked to be one of the judges for a final graduation film for one of the students at the All Russian Cinematography University (VGIK for short). As a thank-you present I received a set of 25 posters from the Soviet space race, mostly dated from the early 1960s. Funnily enough on the plane there and back I watched the movie Gagarin: First in Space, a Russian biopic of the first spaceman released in 2013. It’s a fascinating yet oddly unsatisfying movie, largely because its an unashamedly hagiographic portrait of the man. Others have commented that it feels like a Soviet Realist propaganda film of the era, where the bold Cosmonauts can do no wrong in their dedication to the cause. Gagarin, who in real life was clearly a complex man frustrated by the fact he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a rocket after his one flight, comes across as so too good to be true you want to punch him. It’s not The Right Stuff, and lacks all that movie’s acerbic portrayal of inter-astronaut rivalry, political shenanigans and down-right ludicrous training scenes (which it clearly tries to copy). It also suffers from Realistic Space Movie syndrome, whereby crises tend to be involve people shouting things like ‘There’s no signal from KP-3′ at which point everyone goes white as a sheet and runs round panicking and pointing at ticker tapes until someone says, ‘There is a signal from KP-3′, everyone breaks down into tears of relief and the audience go ‘Huh?’.

In the name of peace and progress!

In the name of peace and progress!

Having said that, overall it’s a great slice of Soviet space history with some very cool effects showing the Vostok I capsule whizzing over the earth. It also shows two things that were never mentioned at the time. Firstly Gagarin’s capsule didn’t separate properly before re-entry and they had to rely on atmospheric friction burning off the back half of module before the whole assembly destabilised. Secondly Gagarin ejected from the capsule before it hit the ground. This was planned all along but hushed up because for the flight to be recognised as a proper space flight the astronaut was supposed to accompany the vehicle from point of take off to point of landing.

Anyway – film aside, the posters, produced in the set Space Will Be Ours! by Kontakt Publishers of  Moscow are a wonderful record of the optimism and enthusiasm of the space age seen from the Soviet perspective. I’ve chosen my favourites and here they are for you to enjoy:


Soviet Art017medium

Soviet citizen be proud! The way to the distant stars has been discovered!

Soviet Art004Medium

Long live the Soviet people – the space pioneers!

Soviet Art012medium

Long live the first woman cosmonaut!

Soviet Art020medium

We are born to make dreams come true!

Soviet Art024medium

We are creative, friendly and clever. We’re making Space peaceful forever!

Soviet Art019medium

Let’s conquer Space!

Soviet Art014medium

Long live the first cosmonaut, Yu. A. Gagarin!

Soviet Art013medium

For the glory of Communism!

Soviet Art011medium

Long live Soviet science! Long live the Soviet man – the first cosmonaut!

Soviet Art008Medium

Space is going to serve the people!

Soviet Art002Medium

The distance to the furthest planet is not that far!

Soviet Art001Medium

We’ll pave the way to distant worlds, and solve the mysteries of the Universe!


Paperhouse (1988)


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email


Movies and dreams have always been closely linked. Cinema history is full of movies of dreams, from the films of Georges Méliès and the 1911 cartoon of Little Nemo in Slumberland to the world of Freddy Kreuger and Nightmare on Elm Street. There are two basic approaches – adding dreams inside films as part of the plot, or giving the entire movie the structure and imagery of a dream. Hitchcock’s Spellbound belongs to the former category, where the solution to the mystery hinges around the interpretation of Gregory Peck’s dream, as designed by Salvador Dali. On the other hand the short animation Destino, another Dali-inspired movie started as a collaboration with Disney in 1946 but only completed in 2003, is a dream from start to finish. Other examples of dream-obsessed Surrealists turning to cinema to realise their visions include the classic Un Chien Andalou (1928) , and Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930). Dreams can be ineffably creepy, especially because we are largely passive witnesses to images and ideas bubbling up from the dark places of the soul, with little control over their jump cuts and bizarre shifts of perspective. Three films stand out for me as truly unnerving nightmares transferred to the big screen, Eraserhead (1977), Phantasm (1979) and Paperhouse (1988).

paperhouse-movie-posterOf these three Paperhouse slipped pretty much unnoticed under the radar, like so many small budget British films, despite getting overwhelmingly positive reviews and scaring the bejesus out of its audience (including me) when it first appeared. Given that it was up against Rain Man and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and could only muster Ben Cross of Chariots of Fire for its Big Name Star, it’s perhaps not surprising that it more or less vanished without a trace. Thankfully it can be picked up on Amazon for the princely sum of £5.63

The film is based on the 1958 children’s novel Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, a typical middle-class kid’s book redolent of long summer afternoons, ginger beer, tuck and beastly Latin prep. Having found a magic pencil in her great grandmother’s workbox the eponymous heroine draws a house, which subsequently appears in her dreams. Every time she changes the picture the enhancements also turn up in her increasingly sinister visions. The film takes the story, uproots it from its winsome Arthur Ransome world and drops it into anxiety-ridden Thatcherite Britain. The heroine, now Anna, lives with her disinterested mother in an expensive London flat while her father swans off elsewhere on expensive business trips. Resentful of his absence, Anna is a difficult child who tells lies and bunks off school to hide in derelict stations with her friend. Having drawn a house in class she faints as she succumbs to glandular fever and finds herself on a lonely moor standing in front of her house. As the illness takes hold and she is confined to bed she revisits the scary world of the house and discovers it has an inhabitant, Marc, who can’t walk.


The OMG moment comes when Anna’s doctor reveals that she’s also tending a boy called Marc who is not only paralysed but is also dying. From then on, like a scary version of Fawlty Towers, every single thing Anna does to save the situation only makes it ten times worse. In a fit of logic only a fever-addled teenager could produce she decides to add Dad to the picture, wielding a hammer. Deciding she’s made him look bonkers she scribbles his face out. In the book menacing rocks called THEM sporting big eyeballs close in on the house for no particular reason. They are positively cosy compared to the hammer wielding blind maniac who turns up to chase Anna and Marc round the Paperhouse bellowing ‘Do you know me?’ as he finally attempts to beat Anna flat on a landscape riven by chasms of lava. This is because by now Anna’s managed to set fire to the drawing of the house in the real world, along with her bedroom. To be honest, not only is Anna stubborn and awkward but she can’t draw for toffee. At that age my daughter was churning out endless pictures of Sailor Moon and Pocahontas, both of whom would have been far more use than mentally deranged Freudian dad.


Visually the film is a stylised treat – completely dominated by the freaky child-designed house – all brooding lopsided windows on the outside and empty spaces filled with purposeless machines inside. The film peters out towards the end when an all-together too realistic lighthouse replaces the wonky Paperhouse as a refuge against the encroaching horrors and the film tails off into a slightly unconvincing encounter with forces beyond mortal ken on the edge of a seaside cliff.

Paperhouse is an unsung classic that transposes a cosy tail of school chums defeating evil à la Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series to the altogether grim and alienating world of late 1980s London where harassed, absent or disinterested adults leave their kids to confront nightmare fears by themselves. The overwhelming sense at the end of the movie is that grownups are, on the whole, untrustworthy or generally useless and on no account should you let them into your dreams. At just over a fiver it’s well worth a watch and I won’t deny that the beginning of the movie gave me the inspiration for parts of Thumb.



The King of Elfland’s Daughter – 1977


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email


For years the TV program Top of the Pops and the Sunday Top 40 on Radio One had a stranglehold on popular music in the UK. Bands sank or swam depending on where they were in the charts and how much exposure they got on the BBC on a Thursday evening. Rankings depended entirely on singles sales, which were often fiddled (a scandal erupted when it transpired that major record labels were bribing stores to return false numbers). It was a system that lead to the most bizarre anomalies when dire novelty records like Father Abraham and the Smurfs rubbed shoulders with Generation X and The Stranglers. It also led to serious bands being unfairly associated with gimmicky one-off singles. A good example is The Strawbs, a folk rock band responsible for the glorious concept album Grave New World, but chiefly remembered for the frankly rubbish Pub Piano Oompah number Part of the Union. Steeleye Span suffered the same fate, being eternally associated with songs like All Around My Hat, a bouncy ditty that cemented them in the public mind as semi-comic manglers of traditional folk, an image that their appearance on the kids’ program Crackerjack did little to dispel. Folk Rock was always open to the charge that it was little more than a cider-quaffing Morris Dancers who’d found some electric guitars in the attic and decided to see if they could still play them with one finger in their ears. And yet, on the album side, there was a rich and magnificent tradition of entirely serious Folk Rock banging out interesting and complex concept albums – Jethro Tull being the chief movers, but also Steeleye Span. In 1977 two of the band, guitarist Bob Johnson and fiddle player Peter Knight, released The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a concept album based on Lord Dunsany’s 1924 classic fantasy novel.

Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany

The horrors of the First World War sparked off a massive crisis in Western culture. At the supposed apex of human civilisation, in a world achieving wonders of science and commerce and brimming with Imperial self-confidence, four years of bloody carnage laid waste to Europe and destroyed the Enlightenment certainties of Reason as the guiding principle in human destiny. It sparked off a rejection of faith amongst artists and intellectuals, one symptom of which was the birth of English Literature as a university subject. Christianity, marshalled in the support of slaughter (‘God is on our side’) had clearly failed to provide moral guidance, perhaps art and poetry could act as a substitute. Not surprisingly the medieval nostalgia of the Pre-Raphaelites, previously a response against the urban inhumanity of the Industrial Age, returned in spades. W. B. Yeats’ poetry mixed references to ancient Irish legends, Eastern mysticism and a lyrical Symbolism of stunning beauty. His friend, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, set out to achieve in short-story form what Yeats attempted in verse. His tales are gorgeously melancholy evocations of time, loss and longing set in distant faerie realms and suffused with the same elegiac lyricism as Yeats’ early poems. Even the titles possess their own resonant and lingering beauty – “Time and the Gods”, “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” and the classic “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth”.


The Symbolist illustrator Sidney Sime's frontispiece to the 1924 limited edition

The Symbolist illustrator Sidney Sime’s frontispiece to the 1924 limited edition

The King of Elfland’s Daughter was Lord Dunsany’s second novel, and tells of the Kingdom of Erl, whose inhabitants, bored with their mundane lives, hanker for a magic lord to rule them. Alveric, son of the present lord, sets off to wed the King of Elfland’s daughter Lirazel, who lives in the Realm of Fairy, ‘beyond the fields we know, in the palace that is only told of in song’. Armed with a magic sword made of thunderbolts he journeys to Elfland, causes general mayhem and elopes back to Erl with Lirazel. There then follows a protracted back and forth in which both Lirazel and Elfland are lost and rediscovered, leading to a crescendo of nostalgic lyricism in which the rustic beauties of the English countryside are sealed forever in the lost dream world of Fairy. To get a sense of the layered beauty of Lord Dunsany’s prose – here’s a quote:

To those who may have wisely kept their fancies within the boundary of the fields we know it is difficult for me to tell of the land to which Alveric had come, so that in their minds they can see that plain with its scattered trees and far off the dark wood out of which the palace of Elfland lifted those glittering spires, and above them and beyond them that serene range of mountains whose pinnacles took no colour from any light we see. Yet it is for this very purpose that our fancies travel far, and if my reader through fault of mine fail to picture the peaks of Elfland my fancy had better have stayed in the fields we know. Know then that in Elfland are colours more deep than are in our fields, and the very air there glows with so deep a lucency that all things seen there have something of the look of our trees and flowers in June reflected in water.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter concept album was recorded at the same time as Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (released in 1978). It’s similar to it’s louder, brasher cousin – Christopher Lee narrated condensed quotes from the novel to link the songs, and even sang one of the tracks – ‘The Rune of the Elf King’. In many ways it’s also a fantastic tribute to the novel, and an ambitious addition to the catalogue of Prog/Folk rock concept albums of the 1970s, but it also suffers from some of the same fundamental problems of Jeff Wayne’s album – chiefly because of the incongruity between the subject matter and the demands of rock and roll. Synthesisers and howling rock guitars might fit in with the image of Martian tripods wrecking the home counties with their heat rays, and we can almost (but not quite) forgive the casting, and outrageously ludicrous performance, of Thin Lizzy’s front man Phil Lynott as an English country vicar. In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, however, the disparity between Dunsany’s style and the sometimes Spinal Tapesque delivery results in a brave but often very frustrating attempt to turn the classic tale into a rock opera. The problem is exacerbated by Christopher Lee’s stately and magnificent readings, which entirely capture the lyrical wonder of Dunsany’ descriptions and make the transition to the songs even more jarring. To be fair, some of the tracks that follow fit well. The first number, ‘The Request’ is a marvellously anthemic plea from the Men of Erl to their Lord and has huge promise. The last track, ‘Beyond the Fields We Know‘, sung by Mary Hopkins is also a powerful and moving conclusion to the tale. In between the quality comes and goes. Frankie Miller, singing Alveric’s part, has the unfortunate tendency to end lines with a good old rock and roll hoarse-throated belt, which makes him sound more like Conan meets Little Richard than a fey, dreamy Dunsanian hero. Other songs are shot through with whimsy, some of which works (‘The Coming of the Troll’ is wonderfully daft) and some of which is just embarrassing (‘Too much Magic’ has novelty Top of the Pops single written all over it). In the end you feel a bit like one of Dunsany’s protagonists, witness to a brief gleam of beauties from beyond the fields we know, caught in that instant between twilight and lost memory among the harebells, before the disappointment comes crashing back as the rock and rollers gatecrash the party.

The King of Elfland - Christopher Lee.

The King of Elfland – Christopher Lee.

Yet despite its faults, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a lovely album. Constantly undermined by the disparity between the vision and the music it still somehow manages to retain enough of the lyrical beauty of the story to hook you in. This is almost entirely due to Christopher Lee’s narration whose gravitas shows a real love of the material. What it really needed was musicians closer in spirit to the original, and in my opinion Steeleye Span’s take on Folk Rock wasn’t really the right medium. The Enid (who did their own fairy themed album, Aerie Faerie Nonsense), Sally Oldfield or perhaps even Mike Oldfield before he went commercial and crap, would have made a better job of Dunsany. Nevertheless as a slice of bizarre music history, showing what happens when classic fantasy feeds into a concept album, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is definitely worth a listen.

At the moment the album is available as a CD through Amazon. The reproduction’s not great – sound levels vary and there’s noticeable distortion, especially on the last track, but that was a fault of the original mixing, not the reproduction.

More Grotesque – the world of Bosch and Bruegel


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email


Good, spiritual angels battle fallen angels that look like the animated contents of someone's larder.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, complete with typically grotesque devils.

This is the second post in a short series about the Grotesque, that sub-genre of Horror and Fantasy that’s characterised by physical distortion, dream imagery and the ordinary made monstrous. In this article I’m going to talk about the Grotesque during the Renaissance, specifically in the works of artists like Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The history of the Grotesque is really odd because during this early period it was positive, whereas in the 19th and 20th century, in the hands of writers like Dickens and Kafka, and artists like Goya, it became relentlessly negative, dark and horrific. So why the change, and how can the Grotesque, which we associate with revulsion, be seen as the imagery of fun and playfulness?

Part of the problem is one of definition, and the difficulties of imposing modern ideas on the past. Language changes for a start, in Jane Austen’s day nice meant precise, rather than the modern meaning of blandly pleasant. Similarly grotesque has shifted in meaning, from a reference to amorphous decorative arts to the ugly and distorted. Secondly people often make simple value judgements, calling things grotesque because they don’t understand what they’re looking at. In the past grotesque was a lazy response to things that didn’t fit in with Western ideas of art and beauty. Nazi art critic Robert Scholz  typically referred to Modern Art as degenerate and ‘grotesque’.

Waiting for The Who to come on. Woodstock 1560 in Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Waiting for The Who to come on. Woodstock 1560 in Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

We run up against this problem time and time again with the paintings of the 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch, who was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s and 70s after being largely dismissed as a crude oik compared to contemporaries like Botticelli. In the Psychedelia age, swimming in LSD and suffused with ideas poached from Freud, Bosch’s paintings seemed the work of a visionary genius who’d somehow tapped directly into the world of dreams, especially his famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510. The middle panel, in which naked hedonists frolic on piles of enormous fruit and crawl in and out of strange alchemical vessels, is Woodstock as it Should Have Been, while the famous hell scene on the right (with its Portrait of the Artist as Weird Boat-Shoed Tree Trunk Thing) is the ultimate Bad Trip. Again, this is imposing modern Freudian theories on the past, twisting the original to fit a modern template of Nightmares from the Id instead of trying to put the artwork into its historical context.

Symbolism incomprehensible to us but probably as clear as a bell to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of 's Hertogenbosch

Symbolism incomprehensible to us but probably as clear as a bell to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of ‘s Hertogenbosch

Bosch’s imagery still has plenty of people scratching their heads because he was drawing on images and symbols from Dutch proverbs, Renaissance alchemy and the ideas of the mystical sect he belonged to, which had its own esoteric symbolism. We might look at a fish devil with an iron cauldron hat eating sinners and then pooing them out of a glass bottom, and wonder what this guy was on. Members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady in ’s-Hertogenbosch (the town where Bosch lived and worked) probably nodded sagely because they got the references and appreciated the moral lesson behind the image. Bosch’s paintings were also part of a wider, popular response to an increasingly ossified and corrupt Church of Rome and this is where the link between the Grotesque and the Carnival in Renaissance culture appears.

In the late Medieval and early Renaissance world established Christianity was a pretty unforgiving, ascetic and heavy-handed political tool run by a Church more or less in cahoots with the State. For the peasant it was all about putting up with misery and knowing your place in the Great Chain of Being (God and the angels at the top, King and Nobles in the middle, then you at the bottom, somewhere between Rats and Turds). The spiritual man denied the flesh and sought to achieve grace through a purity of soul and heart. The loutish villein wallowed in filth, understandably obsessed with the sinful cravings of the body – such as hunger, thirst and lust. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s delightful painting The Land of Cockayne shows the peasant idea of heaven – a place of endless food and booze where cooked chickens run round in easy reach and one poor guy has passed out, spoon in hand, after eating through a hill made of pudding. So the lower orders fixated on everything below the navel, while the Church and the Spiritual focussed on everything above. For most of the year the aristocratic Head ruled the peasant Stomach, Privates and Bum, except on the day of Carnival.

The Land of Cokayne by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The tradition of Carnival that Bosch and Bruegel knew stemmed from the Roman Saturnalia. Part of the festivities involved the inversion of the natural order. For one day the roles of slave and master were reversed (to a degree) and a King of Fools elected. This later turned into the festivals before Lent, where everyone feasted before giving up chocolate or the medieval equivalent in the run-up to Easter. For a brief period of time the world was turned upside down, and all the gross physicality of peasant life was celebrated at the expense of the ascetic. The glorification of eating, drinking, fornicating and passing out on the toilet was an 24-hour raspberry aimed at the Church, who were reasonably happy to tolerate a brief orgy of vice because it allowed people to let off steam before the chains went back on. Bruegel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) sums this up perfectly. At the bottom of a panorama of village life filled with people playing, eating and boozing two figures are having a joust. The guy on the right, gaunt and miserable with a bucket on his head, represents the Pope armed with what looks like a flagellant’s bat (for a bit of flesh-mortifying). His opponent, fat and jolly, rides a wine barrel, has a pie for a helmet, is armed with a BBQ skewer and has an eye-watering cod piece.

Detail from the Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Detail from the Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

So in this context the Grotesque, with it association with exaggerated bodily functions, the destruction of the natural order and pagan amorphism, is an exuberant (albeit short lived) revolt against the asceticism of the Church and all its self-controlled pieties. Medieval religion would keep us all neatly compartmentalised in a chilling framework in which the soul and spirit triumphed over our nethers. Bosch and Breugel’s grotesque and funny depictions of daily life were part of a resistance to this grim world-view rooted in, and valorising, all those aspects of popular peasant life that the Bishops sneered at.

A reasonably restrained illustration by Gustave Doré from Gargantua and PantagruelThe Carnival Grotesque of Bosch and Breugel reached its apotheosis with the publication of Françoise Rabelais’s book Gargantua and Pantagruel, a five-book epic tale of absurd gluttony, excess and toilet humour first published (and then banned) in the early 16th century. Despite (or perhaps because) he was a monk Rabelais turned the crude nonsense knob all the way up to eleven. Here’s a representative quote:

The occasion and manner how Gargamelle was brought to bed, and delivered of her child, was thus: and, if you do not believe it, I wish your bum-gut fall out and make an escapade. Her bum-gut, indeed, or fundament escaped her in an afternoon, on the third day of February, with having eaten at dinner too many godebillios.

And on it goes, and on and on, like a not very funny edition of the UK comic Viz. After reading the first joke once it soon gets unbelievably repetitive – with endless grotesque absurdities liberally spattered in manure, vomit and fart humour. As a great work of humanist literature it’s perhaps not on a par with, say, Don Quixote, but it’s a perfect example of the Carnival Grotesque, where the earthy peasant world gets a brief chance to laugh in the face of sour-mouthed spiritualism, and fling a few choice turds at the vestments.

In the next article in the series I’ll have a go at explaining why this exuberant and comical grotesque culture switched into a far darker genre of madness, nightmares and monsters as the centuries progressed. In the meantime if you want to find out more about the Carnival Grotesque the definitive book on the subject is Mikhail Bakhtin’s brilliant study Rabelais and His World.


Patrick Woodroffe


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

The Radio Planet by Ralph Milney-Farley, Ace Books

I’d already planned on doing an article on the fantasy artist Patrick Woodroffe when the news came in that he’d passed away and so, sadly, this has become my personal tribute to his powerful and often frightening imagination. Patrick Woodroffe was one of a small group of painters and sculptors working in the 1970s whose book covers stood out in a genre increasingly dominated by the Precisionist realism of Chris Foss and his many imitators. Woodroffe, like his contemporaries Ian Miller and Rodney Matthews, produced canvases that were an intriguing, and often disturbing, combination of fairy tale whimsey and twisted dream imagery. In his book Mythopeikon, published by Dragon’s World in 1976, he cited both Salvador Dali and the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artists (Hieronymous Bosch and Peter Breughel the Elder) as among his main sources of inspiration. He was also working very much in the tradition of the Bohemian artisan creative of the 60s and 70s – local painters and sculptors scattered throughout the English countryside producing work that cleverly mixed together ideas from nature, folk lore, fairy-tale images and nursery rhyme nonsense shot through with doses of Freud and LSD. The narrative accompanying his early watercolour Masked Ball sums up this zeitgeist pretty accurately and could easily have been the sleeve notes from a Gong or Amon Düül album:


“I’m a tiger!” says the girl with the platinum hair. Her borrowed pelt invites caresses. The Rainbow Man, meteordynamic, spirit of the storm, spins in at the double doors.”

The grim realities of the late industrial Victorian age gave rise to a peculiarly English type of fantastic nonsense, epitomised by the writing of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. It’s little wonder that the collapse of the wartime social consensus in the 1960s, and a Cold War marked by the long shadow of the Bomb, encouraged the same. Like the Pre-Raphaelites they identified with, 60s and 70s art ‘rebels’ in England turned back to the imagery of child-like carnivals mixed up with a large dose of Freud and the odd tab of Acid.  At its worst it could be self-indulgent and narcissistic, but at its best, as in the paintings of Patrick Woodroffe, it had a wonderfully lunatic vibrancy that cheerfully stuck two fingers up at The Man, and the harsh media landscapes of American Pop Art. Filled with imagery from nurseries and picture books (especially smiling sun and moon faces) his non commercial works manage to tread the very fine line between infantile fantasy and full-blown freaky nightmare that characterises grotesque art.

Patrick_Woodroffe_EverlastingCovenantHis 3D painting I’m Coming to Get You is a perfect example. With its benign sun and field of chirpy faces it looks like it belongs next to someone’s cot, but I wouldn’t want it in the house because I know it would give me nightmares for weeks. The fact that a lot of his work was in 3D doesn’t help – all it means is that it looks like all those strange creatures are emerging into our world where they really don’t belong. The Everlasting Covenant is just as bad, and the fact that it’s from a quote from Genesis doesn’t help much.

Patrick Woodroffe’s commercial cover art for publishers like Corgi stood out from the rest because of its sheer vibrancy, and the fact that he could give a book cover an incredible sense of place and character, even the images that don’t have strong single figure. The monstrous blue harlequin he created in 1975 for the cover of the Avon edition of Jack Vance’s The Gray Prince is a perfect example. Clearly influenced by Italian Renaissance portraiture the creature gives off a fantastic vibe of sinister, opulent evil combined with real tragedy. His triptych for Piers Anthony’ s Battle Circle trilogy (Sos the Rope, Var the Stick and Neq the Sword) has the same wonderful sense of both place and person.

Jack Vance, The Gray Prince, Avon Books

Patrick Woodroffe’s figure work was often exaggerated or distorted, not from lack of skill but rather from the overall fantastic aesthetic he brought to the image. His covers were characterised by bright, vivid colours, a meticulous attention to textural detail and the desire to fill each painting with a wealth of information which rarely overloaded the picture. His covers for the Quartet Corum: The Prince with the Silver Hand series, which he acknowledged were influenced by the fruit and veg portraits of the Milanese painter Arcimboldo, match the baroque intensity of the books themselves and act almost as an emblematic index to the tales of the Eternal Champion.

Sos the Rope

Inevitably given his interests and background, his spaceships were less assured. He also painted covers for such classic hard-boiled detective novels as Dashiell Hammett’s The Big Knockover and Red Harvest which, while unusual, look completely out of place in the context of the stories themselves.


Patrick Woodroffe’s website is as quirky and original as the artist. His recent work saw a return to Flemish inspired wooden box triptychs filled with smiling suns and brightly coloured surreal iconography mainly inspired, it seems, by his own naturalist folk art take on Christianity. The dark scary edge has gone from most of the works and even to a grumpy old atheist like myself they represent a joyful and quite beautiful portfolio of works. It’s a real tragedy that Patrick Woodroffe passed away as his art would often lighten up a tired and derivative shelf of covers in W. H. Smiths in the 1970s and he rarely failed to do justice the fantasy books he illustrated.

The Grotesque


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email
From Hieronymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights

From Hieronymous Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the Grotesque in literature and art. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me for years (in fact I wrote my Masters thesis about it during the time of the Old Republic). I thought I’d kick off by trying to understand what makes something in writing or painting Grotesque, as opposed to fantastic or horrific. It’s probably a good idea to begin with the origins of the word itself.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero's palace.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero’s palace.

At the height of the Italian Renaissance explorers and enthusiasts of Classical Antiquity punched holes in the roof of Golden Dome at the then-buried villa of the Emperor Nero. Inside they found the ancient halls decorated with intricate patterns that combined human, plant and animal forms. They called this re-discovered style of decoration ‘grotesque’, from the Italian word for cave – grotta. Nowadays the word grotesque is used to mean something unpleasantly distorted to the extreme, but it also refers to a specific type of art or literature that hovers on the border between horror and fantasy, yet which really belongs to neither. It’s a rarely-explored sub-genre that lumps together Hieronymous Bosch with Charles Dickens, Kafka and Mervyn Peake. For some reason, during its long history it’s also transformed itself from something associated with peasant carnivals – an exuberant overdose of gluttony, sex and bodily functions that gleefully stuck two fingers up at the established church  – to an art form linked to 20th century alienation, Freudian nightmares and body horror, Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915) being the classic example.

Peter Kuper's comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

Peter Kuper’s comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

There hasn’t been a vast amount written about the Grotesque in art, but what does exist offers a handy list of characteristics peculiar to the style, which give clues as to why it is both transgressive and disturbing.

1) Normal boundaries between people, animals and things are broken down. The frescoes in Nero’s hall display the decorative end of a spectrum that, at the other end, has Bosch building horrific monsters out of creatures combined with everyday objects. The helmet with human legs and a bird’s beak  at the top of the page is a classic example. God only knows what it’s supposed to be but it’s the stuff of nightmares, simply because those items are not supposed to be together like that, let alone threatening a bloke being kissed by a pig in a wimple.

2) People are described as objects, objects start to appear human. This is a favourite of Charles Dickens and, to a lesser extent, Mervyn Peake. The latter’s Grey Scrubbers who scour the flagstones of Gormenghast’s kitchens in Titus Groan take on the characteristics of the floor they clean – with little pebble eyes and mouths like the cracks between the stones. Gormenghast castle itself, on the other hand, becomes an almost living, breathing entity. Dolls that come to life are favourite and guaranteed to inject toe-curling terror into any tale. Lucy Clifford’s The New Mother (1882) with her glass eyes, doctor’s bag and articulated wooden tale is the grotesque escaped doll turned monstrous parent par excellence.

3) The body itself starts to disintegrate and becomes an object of disgust and alienation. Gregor Samsa turns into an enormous bug in ‘The Metamorphosis’, though his reaction, instead of being OHMYGODI’VETURNEDINTOAF*****GCOCKROACH, is to wonder how he’s going to get out of bed and get to work. In other tales, most famously Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ (1836), bits fall off and take on a life of their own. In Gogol’s tale the hero’s nose escapes and ends up as a senior civil servant

In Gogol's The Nose the hero's nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

In Gogol’s The Nose the hero’s nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

4) Scale becomes distorted, combined with sudden and disorienting shifts of perspective. Giants figure prominently in Grotesque tales, as do images of (chiefly) men lost in vast nightmarish landscapes. Orson Welles captured this rather well in his 1962 version of The Trial when in one scene Josef K (played by Anthony Perkins) steps through a door only to have it grow to an immense size when he’s on the other side.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles' film of Kafka's The Trial.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial.

5) The Grotesque is associated with the perspective of children. This is a characteristic of the later Grotesque and there is a suggestion that writers like Kafka or Dickens suffered from an ‘arrested childhood consciousness’ which made them feel that they were in a world with rules made for everyone else (i.e. adults) and in which they were helpless and child-like victims. I’ll talk about this in detail in a later post but it’s worth quoting Kafka’s ‘Letter to his Father’ (1919) where he hits this particular nail on the head:

Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.

So The Grotesque is a very physical art form that plays on disorientation and alienation – very different from fantasy or classic horror which makes a clear distinction between the normal and the fantastic or supernatural. Later on I’ll look at some examples of Grotesque art, starting with the early, more positive imagery linked to the idea of the carnival or satire, and then delving into the truly nightmarish worlds of Dickens, Kafka, David Lindsay and others.

The Folio Society and The Easton Press


Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

The Folio Society Fahrenheit 451

I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful books. Growing up in an arty/literary family meant that every member more or less had their own personal library covering at least one wall of their room. My parents collected  The Folio Society books in particular, so I was introduced them when I was about 7 years old. That one picture I could never bear to look at as a child was the illustration to ‘Count Magnus’ in the Folio collection of The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, so I hid the book behind the fire place so no-one could jump out and wave it in my face at an unexpected moment. I’ve since gone through phases of collecting The Folio Society books over the years, but they rarely published any SF or Fantasy, so a while back I turned across the pond to The Easton Press, who also specialise in swanky editions for collectors. They not only ran a Masterpieces of Science Fiction series but would also bring out occasional runs of other famous books, such as E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. For those of you who might be interested in these editions I thought it might be interesting to talk about the differences between the two companies and their approach to publishing classics (and SF/Fantasy).

If we’re completely honest there is a strong element of snobbery behind both companies. The Easton Press in particular seems to be targeting that dying breed, the wise old intellectual Republican patriot who fancies an oak-lined library filled with Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. It may be hard to believe in the wake of the ignorant nonsense flooding the GOP at the moment, but there is a tradition of the learned establishment thinker or Harvard career academic of the 1950s for whom leather-bound copies of Plato’s Republic etc. are important pieces of cultural capital to be treasured. The books are designed to look like they belong in a dimly lit library with ladders, squishy armchairs and balloon snifters of brandy. They’re bound in real leather with raised bumps across the spine and 24 carat gold lettering. The pages are also edged in gold and you get a silk bookmark to keep your place in First Lensman or Newt Gingrich’s The Essential American (signed in crayon by the writer). Each book contains at least one colour illustration, often by a classic artist (Kelly Freas for Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Mugnaini for Fahrenheit 451). They are hefty tomes and it sometimes takes real effort to open one. You could stun a goat with some of these. The quality of the type varies, sometimes it’s nice and clear, sometimes it looks like it’s been lifted straight from the pages of Planet Stories.


From the Author’s library. Three volumes from The Easton Press Lensman Series rub shoulders with The Folio Society Gormenghast Trilogy.

The nice thing about The Easton Press is that they produced a fantastic Masterpieces of Science Fiction series of about 75 volumes covering most of the major works plus a few unexpected and interesting titles. Frustratingly they printed the first three in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, but not the fourth, so my Citadel of the Autarch is a scrappy paperback stuffed next to cowhide and gold splendour like a poor relation at a wedding. The Masterpiece series is no longer in their catalogue, which is a shame but they also occasionally bring out collections of classic stories (a three volume anthology from Astounding Stories with all the original covers and illustrations, the complete Tom Swift etc.) as well as the aforementioned Lensman books. Although the size of the books varies, overall The Easton Press goes for high-quality uniformity and the kind of construction that means the tomes will last for thousands of years in whatever vault you bury them in. They aren’t cheap, Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (if you’re into that kind of thing) comes in at an eye-watering $395. Sadly their catalogue seems reduced these days but it’s worth keeping an eye out for their sometimes quirky SF and Fantasy releases.

From The Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

From the Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

The Folio Society, on the other hand, is still going strong and looks like it’s got the largest catalogue it’s ever had. It was forged in the same crucible of snobbery as The Easton Press, appearing in 1947 as a reaction against the rise of the post-war mass market paperback, though its target audience was more the metropolitan intellectual elite (Bloomsbury set or Guardianistas, depending on how old you are). For many years they were happy to advertise themselves with a quote from that grand old dame of reactionary pomposity Malcolm Muggeridge claiming that The Folio Society books were so much better than the tawdry pap bought by commoners in airports on the way to their grubby little holidays in Ibiza or wherever. Thankfully they’ve shed the earlier taint of elitism, mainly by producing books that are real works of art. Unlike The Easton Press, whose conformity of production gets a bit dull after the fortieth cowhide brick thumps onto the mat, The Folio Society designs each volume (or series) from the ground up, making sure that all the elements – binding, illustrations, typography and general look and feel fits in with the book. For example, their Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is a slim evil looking thing in black and red, while the three-volume Steven Runciman History of the Crusades is done in wonderful sand, blue and gold covered boards with fantastic reproductions of medieval art inside.

A nightmare for the obsessively  tidy - every Folio book is unique.

A nightmare for the obsessively tidy – every Folio book is virtually unique.

I’ve already written about their edition of the Oxford Bestiary elsewhere but it’s worth pointing out the sheer variety of production, though it plays merry hell with any attempt to keep your books tidy. The Folio Society has always faced the dilemma of finding the right balance between printing nice editions of classics that will sell, and bringing out lesser known and therefore less commercially viable works. They’ve managed to find the right balance and sometimes you end up with a completely unusual and rare left-field choice bought purely because the book looked so lovely – in my case Saint Exupéry’s record of his time flying across the Sahara in the 1930s in Wind, Sand and Stars. One of their greatest coups was the Northanger Novels series printed in the 1960s, the once and only reprinting of seven rare Gothic novels mentioned in Jane Austen’s classic tale, including such marvellous titles as Horrid Mysteries and The Castle of Wolfenbach.

Jack Schoenherr's classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

Jack Schoenherr’s classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

The Folio Society books aren’t always as sturdy as The Easton Press volumes, and sometimes sheer bulk makes them impractical to read in bed. In fact you need a lectern for some. Their Gormenghast Trilogy is beautifully designed but appears to be created to look like three large bricks prised out of the wall of the Tower of Flints. In the past their choice of translations also seemed a bit dodgy – they appeared to favour Victorian translations of writers like Herodotus (possibly because they were out of copyright and therefore cheap) and while they had that tendentious charm of fusty 19th century classics authors there are far better versions available. Having said that they’ve just released the definitive Lattimore and Grene translations of The Complete Greek Tragedies in a five volume set, so all is forgiven. Right now they have more SF and Fantasy in their catalogue than ever before. Without the ghost of Muggeridge to hold them between finger and thumb at arms length with a peg over his nose, Bradbury, Huxley, Ballard, Wyndham and Asimov are all there in their own wonderfully unique editions.

One of Alex Wells's specially commissioned illustrations for The Folio Society's Foundation Trilogy

One of Alex Wells’s specially commissioned illustrations to The Folio Society’s Foundation Trilogy

In the end I prefer The Folio Society, even if The Easton Press has produced some brilliant editions of Golden Age SF. It’s exciting getting a Folio Society book because each one is unique. They also are very responsive to their customers – they replaced a couple of flawed copies I received without question. They also listen to feedback. I might be kidding myself but I once sent them a letter suggesting they print Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy and a year later there it was. The Folio Society books are marginally cheaper than The Easton Press ones, averaging at around £30 a book. In the past they weren’t that much more than ordinary hardbacks, but the gap seems to have widened. They run sales though, and you have to be quick because all their editions are limited and out of print copies of some books are hard to find.

1 2 3 4 5 11 12