copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
A magazine artist’s task is to sell the magazine. The primary sense is vision, followed either by touch or hearing, and, of course, visual arts appeal to sight. Their images attract and captivate. There are many reasons that they do so, such as the artist’s use of intensity, color, shape, size, line, space, and a host of other principles and techniques. Not one of the least of these techniques--and the subject of this post--is the artist’s use of the incongruous, the incompatible, the inconsistent, the inappropriate, the absurd, the odd, the strange, the bizarre, the mismatched, the contradictory, the abnormal, the peculiar, the unusual, the anomalous, the fantastic, the irregular, the atypical, the uncharacteristic, the improbable, the unusual, and, of course, the horrible.
In an earlier post, “The Horror of the Incongruous,” we suggested that one of the reasons that horror fiction appeals to readers is that it represents a catalogue of the damned--of phenomena and incidents that fall outside the known, the understood, and the accepted.
We like our world to be neat and tidy. Therefore, we create categories, labeling them according to their contents, and thus, in a neat and tidy manner, classify and divide our world. This classification and division of our collective human experience we (rather arrogantly) call “reality.” Anything that doesn’t fit our schema is damned as “illusory” or “fantastic.” (In The Book of the Damned, Charles Fort explains the way in which data that don’t fit the neat and tidy schema of the sciences is “damned” by their practitioners.) If we designate the categories of human experience “the applecart of reality,” horror fiction, we may say, upsets this applecart. It makes us suppose, as Hamlet was bold enough to assert, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in. . . [our] philosophy.”
We like to think that we know it all, because omniscience puts us in control of our lives and our destinies, enabling us to be the masters of our own fate. Horror fiction, by acquainting us with shadows, suggests that we are not yet fully the illuminati we long to be. Therefore, we are not as fully in control as we would like to be. We are dependent upon forces and powers--and--perhaps, beings--unknown as well as known that are far stronger than we. What’s worse, according to horror fiction, not all of these forces and entities are benign and benevolent; some are hostile and lethal. In short, the bogeyman is real, and he’s far more powerful than you and me--and he’s not only after us, as Stephen King has reminded his fans, but he’s gaining on us.
Since horror fiction pops the balloon of human pomposity, it’s iconoclastic (and, one might add, realistic).
But wait a minute. I thought this post was about horror art, you might be thinking. Well, literature is art, of course, but, by “art,” perhaps you were thinking visual art--drawings, paintings, and the like.
So was I.
However, to talk about visual art that depicts horror themes and images (in order, let us remember, to sell horror fiction), one must first understand what is at the root of all evil (or, at least, horror’s dramatization of evil and its consequences and how such evil may, at times, at least, be vanquished--for a time, at least). In horror fiction, the wickedness, like the horror that it produces, often derives from this uneasy sense that all may not be as neat and tidy with the world as we thought and that “reality” may not be itself all that real.
What attracts--what appeals to--one person may not attract or appeal to another, for we all have out own interests and tastes. Therefore, this post can address only certain art that has attracted and appealed to its author, yours truly. In discussing those artists’ work that I do address, I have chosen from among illustrators and painters who have worked largely, if not exclusively, in the horror genre or who have illustrated mostly the fiction of horror writers, and I have excluded computer graphics in an old-fashioned preference for pen and ink or oils.
Specifically (in this post, at least), I am considering Margaret Brundage and Virgil Finlay. (The art of Rene Magritte and H. R. Giger is considered in other posts.) Alas, even with such a small sample, I am considering only one work by each. Otherwise, this post would be a book unto itself.
Art by Margaret Brundage
Okay, Margaret Brundage, then.
Her work features scantily clad women threatened by hideous monsters--a staple theme of early horror fiction in which scantily clad women were deemed irresistible not only to all red-blooded men but also to all monsters, regardless of the color of their blood. (Think The Creature from the Black Lagoon or King Kong or even Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.)
Author L. Sprague de Camp summarizes her work’s theme as depicting “naked heroines being tortured, raped, and disemboweled,” and Forrest J. Ackerman describes her art as portraying “titillating pulchrinudes” of “naked ladies being sacrificed, semi-clad heroines being menaced by all manner of monstrous beings.”
In cover after cover of Weird Tales, Brundage reiterated this theme, seldom painting much else. In her artwork, men don’t have to compete merely with other men for the captivating women whom Brundage depicts, but they must also compete with such monstrous rivals as black gods (or their oversize idols, at any rate), shadow people, witches, and decapitated skulls. A woman’s virginity, in the late 1930’s and the 1940’s and 1950’s, was a commodity that needed to be protected from and defended against the various monsters (symbolic of rapists and lesbian seductresses) who threatened it, Brundage’s art implies, offering, at the same time, both a chance for a bit of voyeuristic ogling and sexual fantasies that stopped just short, presumably, of the rape that the images imagined as real threats, allowing virtuous adolescent readers--who tended, by far, to be males--to become the champions of these ladies in distress.
Every boy (and even a few lesbian seductresses) might be a potential rapist, her art suggested, but they can also choose to be a Sir Galahad and protect and defend a lady’s virtue. If they chose the former course, the result would be horrible, indeed, but, if they chose the latter course, the result would be chivalrous. Sex was no more horrible, in itself, than temptation; the horror lay in the choice that a boy made in relation to sex and the temptation that scantily clad women posed. The adolescent reader of the Weird Tales that Brundage illustrated could be saint or sinner or, in the parlance of horror fiction, the hero or the monster. As with so many other choices that confront a boy, the decision that he makes with regard to sexual temptations is an intersection of sorts, between good and evil, right and wrong, heroism and horror.
Art by Virgil Finlay
Next, Virgil Finlay.
His art is executed in clear, fine lines and with sharp contrasts between light and dark shapes and spaces. He also devotes much space to stippling and crosshatching to add shades, shadows, and borders. His art, much of which adorned the cover of Weird Tales, contains more than a few scantily clad, or even nude, feminine figures. However, his women are not potential rape victims. Instead, they are enchanting enchantresses or sexy sorceresses or mystical maidens. More varied than Brundage’s art, Finlay’s work is known more for his technique than for its theme. It is the quality of his work that attracts the eye more than its theme per se, although, since he often illustrated horror, many of his pieces depict images typical of the genre: disembodied eyes, fantastic landscapes, skeletal or demonic figures, skulls, giants, sword and sorcery themes, mystical and magical phenomena, scantily clad women, and blood and gore--just what the largely male adolescent readers of Weird Tales enjoyed.
Art by Frank Frazetta
Theme and technique in the service of metaphor is a good, albeit basic, description, if not definition, of art, visual, literary, and otherwise. In some artists’ work, such as that of Brundage, theme is dominant over technique, whereas, in other artists’ work, such as that of Finlay, theme is second to technique. A literary parallel is H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, which tend to emphasize theme over technique, as opposed to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, which emphasizes technique over theme. As both Brundage’s and Lovecraft’s work, on one hand, and Finlay’s and Poe’s, on the other hand, indicate, both theme and technique are sufficient, even of themselves, to attract and captivate an audience’s interest. On occasion, as in the art of Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, or Julie Bell (or Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, or William Faulkner), both theme and technique both attract and captivate--rather like Dracula’s daughter or the sirens of old.
For those who might enjoy pursuing their own research of other artists who have been pleased to depict horrors imaginable, if not unimaginable, other artists who have made a comfortable living illustrating Weird Tales and other magazines or individual works within the genre include:
- Margaret Brundage
- Hugh Rankin
- Virgil Finlay
- J. K. Potter
- Frazier Irving
- Steven Stahlberg
- Hannes Bok
- Jason Beam
- J. Allan St. John
- C. C. Senf
- Lee Brown Coye
- Frank Frazetta
- Boris Vallejo
- Julie Bell
We may take up a few others in future posts.