Formula 29X – Pel Torro
One of the many hundreds of books penned by the Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe under a rather odd pseudonym. Other pen names included Bron Fane, Olaf Trent, Othello Baron, Elton T. Neef, René Rolant, Deutero Spartacus and Oben Leterth. This is the first UK paperback edition from 1963 published by Badger Books which was retitled Beyond The Barrier of Space for all subsequent reprints.
Inside its musty, age-speckled pages is a cautionary tale involving the titular personality changing formula and its exploitation at the hands of an unscrupulous government. The excellent cover art is uncredited unfortunately, although I’ve found this to be the case for most pulp novels of this vintage. My copy is a little torn and dog eared but otherwise in surprisingly good condition for its advanced years.
I have recently been expanding my collection of old Sci-Fi and horror novels, mainly through the wonder of eBay’s iPad app. It’s a ridiculously easy way to track down books which are in some cases over fifty years old for good prices, a little too easy at times! My passion of late has been centred around imprints such as Daw, Badger and Digit which published many hundreds of titles in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. These publishers apparently employed teams of writers who would commonly work under a variety of pseudonyms to produce novels at an unbelievable rate. One such author has the dubious distinction of writing a total of eighty nine titles during the most productive period of his tenure, a startling figure which relates to delivering a completed book every twelve days… for three years!
It was also standard practice to provide the writers with cover art before the novel was even written, thereby creating an interesting situation where the cover painting is almost more important than the writing contained within the book. These paintings were often much better than the stories themselves and were always inventive, audacious and impossibly lurid. I will post a selection of the best art from my collection in the coming weeks to illustrate this point.
A few days ago, I was flipping through a rather excellent book which presented an overview of the history and development of Sci-Fi art through the years when I came across one of the most intriguing covers I had ever encountered. The book which caught my attention is called Slan by A.E. Van Vogt and was first published in 1947 by Arkham House. I know little about the story other than it was originally written and serialised in a magazine at the end of 1940.
The cover painting by Robert E. Hubbell depicts one of the Slan, a super-evolved human being who sports a particularly fetching outfit as he looks toward a distant, bustling metropolis. But what is he viewing this city of the future through? It looks an awful lot like a white iPad to me, albeit minus the home button. Maybe the Slan is testing an early prototype for Apple. It’s also clearly running some kind of augmented reality app which is capable of highlighting the nearest restaurants or places of interest. I have long held a suspicion that Jonny Ive’s team has access to a time travel device when marvelling at his bold industrial designs and this seems to be a clear indicator that I may well have been right all along.
On Tuesday, I had two completely unrelated incidents involving spiders. In each case, the itinerant arachnid was harmlessly removed from a place of potential danger to a safer location where he could get on with the important task of catching flies without fear of being stepped on or drowned. I thought no more of these occurrences at the time but would later find out that they held some kind of unexpected significance as part of an unlikely connection.
Later that evening, I drove to Sheffield to watch The Handsome Family who were playing in the intimate confines of The Greystones pub. The Handsome Family are husband and wife duo Brett & Rennie Sparks from Albuquerque who have released a string of beautifully odd records over the past two decades. I have a huge soft spot for their work despite them being rather lazily shoehorned into the Alt. Country bracket by people who feel the need for such labels. I can’t say I’m a fan of the whole banjos & Stetsons thing but then I never really go for bands who operate within the rigorous confines of any genre without attempting to subvert its inherent clichés.
There were two things that struck me when I first heard their music some years ago; Brett’s voice, rich and sonorous like a piece of deeply polished furniture of undefinable age housed inside a huge bell. Then there were Rennie’s lyrics which were more akin to short stories bristling with the imagery of death, suicide, nature and other abstractions which describe the minutiae of the human condition. They most certainly fall into my ‘Genre Cliché Subverters’ category.
They play a spellbinding set culled from an impeccable back catalogue in front of an audience who are politely seated in rows. I don’t like sitting down when watching bands and so I stand at the back of the room. Brett is in an unpredictable mood, over-enunciating words through his greying beard and playing his guitar like it’s some kind of strange object which he has just unearthed. There is an indefinable psychedelic quality to their delivery tonight. Between songs, Rennie speaks of the mundane and the fantastic, usually in the same sentence. I’m happy that they play my two favourite songs; Weightless Again and The Bottomless Hole but also a handful of tracks from their new LP Wilderness. Owls describes the interior of an old house and its titular inhabitants who keep stealing medication belonging to the narrator. They finish with the magnificent Glow Worm which tells the story of a journey to the centre of the earth on a huge ship and the wonders which are encountered along the way.
If you haven’t yet discovered this band then you really should give them a try, even if like me you have an aversion to the aforementioned banjo/Stetson combination. They are a resolutely anomalous duo who write wonderfully mysterious songs filled with the kind of prose that puts most contemporary authors to shame. They have a new LP out at the moment called Wilderness which is a highly recommended introduction to their world and can be obtained physically via Carrot Top records (here). A digital download version is also available through iTunes and various other online outlets. In addition to this release, a book of essays and art by Rennie has been produced which brings me neatly back to the spiders…
I spoke to Rennie briefly before the show at their tiny merchandise table and bought a copy of the book which she duly signed as we chatted. It was dark, there were others waiting behind me and so I put the volume directly into my bag as I headed out to the bar. When I arrived home later that evening, I opened the book to see what she had written and the connection was completed. Here’s the inscription;
The Man With Only One Head – Densil Neve Barr
Originally published in 1955, this is the first UK paperback edition published by Digit Books in 1962 and features a fantastic cover painting which is signed ‘Osborne’ in the bottom left corner. Densil Neve Bar is the pseudonym of Douglas Norton Buttrey.
The story has a classic ‘last man on earth’ theme except the twist is that the protagonist isn’t alone, rather he is the last fertile man remaining after the appearance of a radioactive fog. He is subsequently labelled ‘The Father of the New World’ whilst an epidemic of illicit copulation ensues which results in adultery becoming a capital offence.
A great example of 1950s pulp Sci-Fi and social satire.
This story begins many years ago, back in the mid 1990’s to be precise. It concerns a few like-minded music obsessives – namely Messrs Cox, Chaplin and myself who would convene on a monthly basis to play each other a carefully curated selection of tracks from recently acquired LPs. It was a perfect method of discovering new bands or obscure LPs prior to Internet ubiquity and a far more sociable supplement to the countless solitary hours spent in various record shops around the country searching endlessly through piles of musty vinyl. As the years passed, these gatherings became more and more infrequent as they were gradually overtaken by the relentless tide of work, relationships, children and the other trappings of adulthood. And then, they were no more.
At the end of last year however, I decided that the time was right to resurrect these meetings on the rare occasions when our schedules were in alignment and an inaugural session was duly arranged following the customary bunfight required to set a date. In a break from the past, we all agreed on a new format which required the compilation of a playlist based around a theme which would be left as open to interpretation as possible. It was a huge success and so we decided to hold a follow up. Last Friday we held the second of these revived gatherings after a six month break, our suggested theme being ‘Rural Weird’.
For this get-together, I decided to produce a mix which would hopefully provide a fitting soundtrack to the vision in my head. My inspiration initially came from seminal British folk horror films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw as I attempted to conjur up a time and place which never really existed. After several weeks of editing down the hours of source material and field recordings I had gathered, I eventually had fifty minutes of bucolic audio nostalgia featuring the occasional unsettling detour. I’m rather pleased with the end result which seemed to lull my friends into a suitably wistful reverie on playback and so I have decided to include a download link below. I hope you enjoy the fruits of my rather pleasurable labour.
Download the Rural Weird Mix here.
It’s been a very stressful past few months for me. My job has abruptly come to an end following months of travelling into a sparsely populated office for no reason other than a rapidly dwindling hope that the situation would change. It hasn’t. A fog has descended as I attempt to come to terms with the harsh realities of the situation, a fog which has spread daily as I await the solution that never comes.
During this time, I have tried to occupy my mind as best I can by reading prodigiously and devoting almost every waking hour to music. The rationale behind this thinking is as follows; if I don’t allow the problem access to my conscious thought processes then I can somehow stave off the inevitable. I suppose it’s working in a limited kind of way, my mood has yet to descend into complete hopelessness this far. During this psychic war of attrition, I have discovered the work of Lee Noble which has become both a mirror to this backdrop of uncertainty and a perfect means of escape. I don’t know much about Lee Noble other than the fact he’s from Los Angeles and I’ve no desire to find out any more information to be honest because as things stand he exists in a tiny bubble of anonymity just for me, disconnected from any accepted notions of reality and the rest of my record collection.
It all started late last month when I picked up a copy of his new album Ruiner and subsequently tried to listen to it in the car on one of my pointless trips to the office. It didn’t work quite frankly and sat there on my iPhone for a few days until it was picked up by a particularly intriguing shuffle session as I sat at my desk, headphones in situ. After checking the screen, I was astonished to discover that this was the same album and immediately switched over to play it in its entirety. I think I listened to Ruiner for the rest of that long, wet afternoon and continued my submersion on returning home in the evening. As night fell, I knew I had to hear more and was gripped with an urge to obtain every release I could find. I am occasionally subjected to these impulses when a hitherto unknown band moves into my consciousness and fucks with my emotions at such a base level. After a quick visit to his Bandcamp page (here) and a few other online stores, I had several more albums in my library which I proceeded to immerse myself in as the days passed in a blur dwindling optimism.
Lee Noble plays guitar and sings. He also adds daubs of vintage analogue synths and the occasional drum machine but this doesn’t even begin to describe what he does with these basic elements. His songs are more like oddly proportioned structures constructed in an attempt to capture the gauzy, billowing audio emissions he creates. Or maybe they’re more like the formation of freak weather systems, the sound of barometric pressure charts. Each release has a gloriously murky quality to it, Like the patina of age and wear you’d find on a cassette which has spent the past twenty five years sitting in a musty box in the garage. But this doesn’t come across as a sonic shortcoming, it sounds to my ears like a perfect counterpoint between abstraction and poignancy. His vocals are submerged beneath this moiré, embedded in the fabric of the mix. It’s almost impossible to decipher any of the lyrics but I find this to be a far more intriguing proposition than having his thoughts served up as a series of easily digestible sound bytes. It feels like he’s speaking to me directly about the things which are currently spinning around in my head and that’s really all I need to know.
As I sit here writing these words on a drab Saturday afternoon, I truly can’t think of a more fitting soundtrack than Lee Noble’s impossibly beautiful, achingly melancholic music. Sometimes the word ‘music’ just doesn’t go far enough.