Sax Rohmer, writing in The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu (1913):
Imagine a person tall, lean and feline, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect. Imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu-Manchu.
Rohmer’s yellow peril tales were regularly serialized in America by Collier’s Weekly beginning in the 1910s. These editions were visualized by Collier’s excellent team of in-house illustrators: first Joseph Clement Coll, then John R. Flanagan. Both artists worked in pen and ink, delineating the lurid stories in a style somehow reminiscent of J.C. Leyendecker’s Arrow shirt collar advertisements as well as the future genre of comic book superheroes.
John Coulthart has reprinted a suitably weird anecdote about Lovecraft told by Frank Belknap Long. It was originally published in a 1982 issue of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine. An interviewer asked Long about a visit he and H. P. Lovecraft made to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York some six decades earlier.
Frank Belknap Long: You mean the time we visited the Egyptian tomb? Well, the Metropolitan apparently still has it. This was way back in the 1920s. The tomb was on the main floor in the Hall of Egyptian Antiquities, and we both went inside to the inner burial chamber. Howard was fascinated by the somberness of the whole thing. He put his hand against the corrugated stone wall, just casually, and the next day he developed a pronounced but not too serious inflammation. There was no great pain involved, and the swelling went down in two or three days. But it seems as if some malign, supernatural influence still lingered in the burial chamber—The Curse of the Pharaohs—as if they resented the fact that Howard had entered this tomb and touched the wall. Perhaps they had singled him out because of his stories and feared he was getting too close to the Ancient Mysteries.
The chamber in question is the Tomb of Perneb, which is of course still on display at the Met. It had opened to the public in 1916, roughly a decade before Lovecraft and Long visited. Met archaeologist Caroline Ransom Williams wrote of the unveiling:
People were formed in line two abreast all the way back to the Fifth avenue entrance to get into the chambers. Glass positions electrically lighted illustrate the former position and the taking down of the tomb. There are two cases of the objects found in the course of the excavations including the greater part of Perneb’s skull. A model of the entire tomb makes clear the position of the burial chamber.
Lovecraft had just finished writing “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” around this time. It was the last story he wrote in Providence before moving to New York in 1924, where he lived for two years. The story was ghost-written for Harry Houdini and published under Houdini’s byline in the May 1924 edition of Weird Tales.
In my opinion the high point of television as a medium—even an artform—was the British detective programming of the 1980s through the mid-1990s. I am thinking obviously of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, but also programs that ran for only one or two series like Campion with Peter Davison and A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.
In the United States these programs were broadcast on public television as part of the Mystery! anthology produced by WGBH in Boston. The episodes were introduced in a wrap-around segment by host Vincent Prince, and later Diana Rigg. Anyone who watched Mystery!—especially if they were growing at the time, like me—will inevitably remember the opening credit sequence designed by illustrator Edward Gorey.
At the time that Mystery! premiered in 1980 Gorey was coming off of his greatest commercial success, the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which he designed. (I was born three days after it closed in 1980, but my parents saw it.)
In 1979 Gorey bought a 200-year old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He had been living in Manhattan where he attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. After the death of NYCB founder and choreographer George Balanchine in 1983, Gorey moved permanently to Cape Cod. He lived the last seventeen years of his life there and it remains a museum and gallery of his art.
His work on Mystery! is represented in a collection of storyboards and animation cells from the title sequence and a poster for the tenth anniversary in 1990. I think Joan Hickson and Edward Hardwicke appear surprisingly recognizable in the artist’s style.
Lord Dunsany, the Anglo-Irish writer of weird fiction, employed a number of wax seals of his own design in the early twentieth century. They are all strange and whimsical. Douglas A. Anderson recently posted photographs of half a dozen or so at A Shiver in the Archives. See two examples above.
Another interesting seal used by Dunsany appears on a letter he wrote in 1918. He had drafted a playful warrant, or certificate, admitting his cousin Mary into “The Most Singular Order of the Crocodile and Cart.” It is sealed with a caricature of Dunsany in profile with the epithet “Edvardus Avunculus.” He refers to it as his Avuncular Seal.
In 1927 the weird fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft devised for himself a coat of arms. It was done in the spirit of fun, influenced by his friend Wilfred Blanch Talman, “who has transmitted enough of his enthusiasm” for heraldry to motivate the undertaking. To my knowledge Lovecraft never assumed the arms in any practical sense but he approached the design with a high degree of genealogical seriousness. Anyone who has read his letters knows that he was a repository for family history so this is not surprising.
The personal arms represent a quartering of those granted to various paternal and maternal ancestors, what Lovecraft calls his “four main streams of blood.” In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, he explains the quarters:
The upper two, left to right, are Lovecraft & Phillips, which I have always known. The lower left is Allgood—family of my father’s mother—of which I had the verbal description, but I never saw drawn out till Talman interpreted the language with his facile pen. The lower right is Place—family of my mother’s mother—which I had never seen in my life until yesterday afternoon when when we looked it up at the library…the crest and motto are Lovecraft.
The letter is in the collection of Brown University Library.
Jacques Offenbach’s grand-opera of Les contes d’Hoffmann premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1881. Adapted from several outré fantasies by the Prussian Romanticist E.T.A. Hoffmann, the plot is framed by a prologue set in a German beer hall, Luther’s Tavern.
An illustration of the set design for the 1881 production reveals an enormous cask dominating the back wall.
It is a visual reference to the Heidelberg Tun, an enormous wine barrel housed in the cellars of Heidelberg Castle in Baden-Württemberg. There have been four containers bearing that name since 1541. The Calvinist pastor Anton Praetorius cited the first Tun as proof of the superiority of the Reformed faith since it was a product of Calvinist Heidelberg. He wrote a poem in its honor. The current Tun was built in 1751. It holds roughly 58,000 gallons. Throughout the nineteenth century the Tun was an attraction on the Grand Tour. It is mentioned in Raspe’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Irving’s The Specter Bridegroom, and Melville’s Moby Dick. In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain jokes about its ubiquity, “Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt.”
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the subject of a recent post. It is a gorgeous, opulent film. Obviously Coppola, together with art director Thomas Sanders and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, gave a lot of thought to what was happening in the arts both in England and Mitteleuropa at the fin-de-siècle when the film takes place. As a result the scenery, costumes, and mis-en-scène are full of interesting references.
In this post I want to examine the influence of certain nineteenth century and Pre-War artworks on the production design.
Particularly during the first half of the movie we see a visual “dialogue” between Transylvania, represented by the imagery of Symbolism and the Vienna Seccession, and England, represented by Pre-Raphaelite imagery.
An example of the former is Dracula’s castle, which is depicted rising out of an outcrop in the Carpathian mountains, modeled on František Kupka‘s 1903 painting The Black Idol (Resistance).
At various points Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) is depicted sleeping either in his sarcophagus or boxes of earth wearing a golden robe inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting The Kiss, which includes a similar pattern of whorls and rectangles.
On Twitter, Richard Wells called attention to a scene when Dracula scatters his vampire brides, causing two of them to withdraw, twisted together in a spidery form. According to Wells the choreography by Michael Smuin was inspired by “Virgil And Dante Looking At The Spider Woman,” an illustration from Gustave Doré’s 1861 edition of Dante’s Inferno.
The scenes involving female characters Mina Murray (played by Winona Rider) and Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) take place in and around the garden of an English country house, evoking the lush floral backgrounds of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Two works by Arthur Hughes, painted concurrently in the 1850s, The Long Engagement and April Love, seem to be referenced. In his book The Victorians, A. N. Wilson reads into The Long Engagement,
an emotional predicament stemming directly from an economic situation. The prosperity which had created the vast bourgeoisie with its gradations from lower to upper middle class had also created a code. You could not marry, and maintain the position in society to which you aspired, until you had a certain amount of money in the bank.
Mina is temporarily separated from her fiancé Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) for precisely this reason. He is traveling to Transylvania to represent his firm in a real estate deal with Count Dracula in the hopes of advancing his career before they marry. The young lovers say goodbye in a shot composed similarly to The Long Engagement. Mina is later seen pining for Jonathan through a pergola like the female figure in April Love.
Another depiction of Mina during her separation from Jonathan places her at a table against the window of a solarium looking out into the garden. Although the angle is different the staging is reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s 1851 painting Mariana. The subject is a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure whose engagement was broken after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Millais portrays her looking out the window longing for the return of her fiancé.
But it is Lucy who is the most overt Pre-Raphaelite character in the film. Her pale skin and red hair are the defining features of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s models Elizabeth Siddal and Alexa Wilding. Her transformation into the monster, the femme fatale, the belle dame sans merci, is a standard Pre-Raphaelite narrative.
In the same scene, when Lucy joins Mina in the solarium, she is shown wearing an off-the-shoulder gown, seated amidst potted flora in a pose reminiscent of Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, which he painted in the 1860s and 70s. Notice roses of the same pink-white hue on the table in Rossetti’s painting and embroidered on the pillow behind Lucy.
This figure of Lilith, a demon from Hebrew mythology associated with seduction and the murder of children, foreshadows Lucy’s fate as the “bloofer lady.”
At The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Stephanie Chatfield considers whether Bram Stoker based the character of Lucy on Rossetti’s tragic wife Elizabeth Siddal. As I wrote in my book Victoriana, when Siddal died in 1862: “Rossetti buried Lizzie with the manuscripts of his unpublished poetry sealed in her coffin. This romantic gesture came to a ghoulish end, however. He later ordered her body exhumed to retrieve the poems.” Did this story of an open grave inspire Stoker? Chatfield writes,
In his notes made while working on Dracula, Stoker never mentioned the Rossetti/Siddal incident, so we can not definitively confirm that Lucy Westenra was inspired by Siddal. However, Bram Stoker lived in the same neighborhood as Rossetti and he was a friend of Hall Caine, who at one time was Rossetti’s secretary. Stoker dedicated Dracula to Caine, with a nickname used by Caine’s grandmother (“to my dear friend Hommy-Beg”). Stoker may not have included the story of Siddal’s exhumation in his notes, but due to his closeness with Caine he had to have heard an account of it at some point and he had probably read Caine’s book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882).
The belief that Stoker used Siddal as inspiration is bolstered by his 1892 short story The Secret of the Growing Gold. The ‘growing gold’ is the hair of a dead woman, the very tresses that had been her most striking feature in life. Her hair grows persistently and with a purpose; her intent is to haunt her husband and avenge her own death. The similarity between Stoker’s story and the claim that Siddal’s hair continued to grow and fill her coffin after death is unlikely to be a coincidence.
The last artwork I will mention is not Victorian or Edwardian. In Dracula’s castle the ancient Count lives among the relics of his past. A portrait of Dracula as a young man is adapted from a self portrait by the early Lutheran painter Albrecht Dürer, circa 1500.
As a voracious consumer of mystery novels I have a certain fondness for The Shadow. Introduced in 1930 by pulp publishers Street & Smith as the host of their radio program Detective Story Hour the character was developed in a series of novels by Walter B. Gibson, writing under the name Maxwell Grant. The Shadow had a corresponding but not-entirely-overlapping identity in pulps, radio (where he was voiced most famously by Orson Welles), and film—but it was Gibson’s stories that set the standard. Costumed in trench coat and fedora with a crimson scarf half covering his face, The Shadow became a template for comic book heroes like Batman.
Deadlinereports that Condé Nast, which owns The Shadow, has contracted advertising executive turned writer James Patterson to revive the character “in a series of books that will also aim to be adapted for the screen.” The new series will evidently update the setting from the 1930s to “the modern age,” no doubt forgoing the ambiance of grotesquerie and chinoiserie. Suffice it to say, the project does not appeal to me.
Gibson wrote literally hundreds of Shadow stories, which are enough to keep any reader busy. I collect the reprints published two-titles-to-a-book by Nostalgia Ventures/Sanctum Books. Last year Sanctum announced that their reprints would end with Volume 151 because “Condé Nast would not renew rights.” Now we know why. Happily all but three of Gibson’s titles had already been reprinted.
When I first saw the Coppola adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the cinema as a (precociously gothic?) twelve year old in 1992, it made a memorable impression. I remembered one scene in particular well enough to notice that it was abbreviated in subsequent home video releases. It is a crucial scene early in the film: London solicitor Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) has just arrived at the castle of Count Dracula (played by Gary Oldman). They sit together over Harker’s late dinner. The conversation takes a dangerous turn when Harker responds lightly to a story about the Count’s ancestors.
Dracula draws a sword and exclaims, “It is no laughing matter. We Draculas have a right to be proud. What devil or witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood flows in these veins? Blood is too precious a thing in these times. The warlike days are over. The victories of my great race are but a tale to be told. I am the last of my kind.”
Harker stands and apologizes: “I have offended you with my ignorance, Count. Forgive me.” If you watch the film on video the scene ends here, rather awkwardly. But in the original screenings it continued.
Dracula gasps, perhaps realizing that he has alarmed his guest. He says, “Forgive me, my young friend, I am unaccustomed to guests and my heart grows weary with many years of mourning over the dead.” On video the scene transitions with a dissolve at the moment Dracula gasps and appears to speak (see the 3:35 minute mark here).
The missing dialogue I think obviously improves the scene: it gives us deeper insight into Dracula, it resolves a conflict that is otherwise left hanging, and it puts Harker somewhat at his ease before plunging him back into danger.
After years of seeing the complete scene truncated in both “Theatrical” and “Extended” cuts on DVD, and omitted from deleted footage reels, I finally found the missing thirty seconds (see the 12:54 minute mark here). Interestingly the scene runs longer than it did in the original theatrical cut. Dracula bids Harker “Drink….drink” and leaves the room. Both the theatrical and video edits seem to have been made to avoid Dracula’s departure since the next scene finds Harker and the Count sitting together again in another room.
All of this goes to show that the original instincts of Coppola and the film editors was correct and the scene played best in the 1992 cut.
In my library I have two first editions of Walter de la Mare’s 1921 collection, The Veil, and Other Poems, one signed and numbered, both published by Constable and Company.
This is my favorite of de la Mare’s many volumes of poetry, full of uncanny imagery and imagination. Nowhere do these two themes converge more elegantly than they do in “The Imagination’s Pride,” which begins:
Be not too wildly amorous of the far, Nor lure thy fantasy to its utmost scope. Read by a taper when the needling star Burns red with menace in heaven’s midnight cope. Friendly thy body: guard its solitude. Sure shelter is thy heart. It once had rest Where founts miraculous thy lips endewed, Yet nought loomed further than thy mother’s breast.
O brave adventure! Ay, at danger slake Thy thirst, lest life in thee should, sickening, quail; But not toward nightmare goad a mind awake, Nor to forbidden horizons bend thy sail— Seductive outskirts whence in trance prolonged Thy gaze, at stretch of what is sane-secure, Dreams out on steeps by shapes demoniac thronged And vales wherein alone the dead endure.
C. S. Lewis regarded this as de la Mare’s best poem, and the chronological high point of his career. In a 1927 letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote, “De la Mare’s poems I have had for a long time and I read them more often than any other book. I put him above Yeats and all the other moderns, and in spite of his fantasy find him nearer than any one else to the essential truth of life.” But three years later he expressed disappointment in de la Mare’s volumes Desert Islands and The Connoisseur, which he thought lacked “the real spirituality” found in The Veil.
In 1930, Lewis wrote to Greeves,
My idea is he really bade good bye to the best part of himself in the lovely poem ‘Be not too wildly amorous of the far.’ The peculiar kind of vision he had was of a strangely piercing quality and probably almost unbearable to the possessor: only a man of great solidity, of real character, sound at the bases of his mind & braced with philosophy, could have carried it safely. But De la Mare was not such a man. It was quite likely really leading him to madness, & he knew it. Hardly knowing what he did, and yet just knowing, he sent it away. I am told he lives in the midst of the silly London literary sets. His read day is over. Do you think this a possible theory?
Like Lewis himself, de la Mare was an Anglican Christian. He was educated at St Paul’s Cathedral School and buried in the crypt of St Paul’s, where he had been a choirboy.
By the 1960s Lewis was able to look back at de la Mare’s body of work with a more rounded perspective. In his 1966 collection On Stories he wrote of de la Mare’s “intensely sophisticated art,” comparing him insightfully to friend and fellow-Inkling Charles Williams.