Monday, January 26, 2015

Lee Brown Coye (1907-1981)-Part Two

"Sticks," a short story by Karl Edward Wagner, was first printed in Whispers #3, dated March 1974. "Sticks" won for its author the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1975 and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award Best Short Fiction that same year. Since its original publication, Wagner's story has been reprinted more than three dozen times and has been adapted to radio. There can be little doubt that "Sticks" was also the inspiration for The Blair Witch Project, a very popular, much loved, and much hated film from 1999. Wagner himself was inspired by an experience in the life of Lee Brown Coye and wrote his story in tribute to the artist. Thereby hangs a long tale.

The lineage of "Sticks" and The Blair Witch Project can be traced to 1938 and a trout-fishing trip Lee Brown Coye made to the Otselic River valley in his native New York State. By then he was a dozen years into his career as a commercial artist, fine artist, and illustrator. He and his wife, Ruth, lived in Syracuse, a mid-sized city and the seat of Onondaga County. Madison County borders Onondaga County to the east. South of that is Chenango County, where Coye's grandfather had a farm and where Coye himself often went fishing. In the previous year, Coye had illustrated a promotional booklet called Bait, issued by Flack Advertising of Syracuse. As soon as the winter of 1937-1938 ended, Coye was out casting his line into the waters of his native region.

Mann Brook is a short stream that arises from the area east of Crumb Hill in southwestern Madison County. From there it flows to the southeast for about three miles before meeting the Otselic River at South Otselic in Chenango County. In the spring of 1938, Lee Brown Coye was fishing along Mann Brook when he had an extraordinary experience. Following an old railroad grade into a thicket of conifers and scrubby apple trees, he came upon patterns of flat stones laid out on the ground like a maze. Undeterred by the strangeness of his discovery, Coye continued into the scrub only to find something stranger still: an array of lattices or bundles of sticks, branches, and boards, nailed and wired together, and scattered across the landscape. Soon Coye found himself in the yard of an old, decrepit farmhouse. "The lawn and trees and even the house were covered with these structures," he wrote. "I went inside and on the walls in some of the rooms were drawings, in what appeared to be charcoal, of these weird, abstract concoctions. . . . Some of them covered a whole wall; huge, fantastic murals." From there, Coye descended into the dark cellar of the house and was examining some ruddy stains in the grooves of a large stone slab he found there when, out of the darkness, the hand of an unseen assailant grabbed him. From his belt, Coye took a small, iron frying pan and "walloped" whoever--or whatever--held him. He fled from the house and didn't return to the site until a quarter century had passed. (1)

In that quarter century, Lee Brown Coye made a name for himself in the small circles of fantasy and the macabre for his own strange and fantastic art, a showcase for which was the magazine Weird Tales. From 1945 to 1951, Coye created ten cover illustrations for the magazine, then under the associate editorship of his friend, Lamont Buchanan. He also drew scores of interior illustrations, including a regular series called "Weirdisms," which ran from July 1947 to July 1951. Coye's illustrations for Weird Tales and for a series of hardbound anthologies of the 1940s would one day lead him to Karl Edward Wagner and to the protagonist's role in "Sticks." That was still decades away.

To be continued . . .

(1) Quoted in Arts Unknown: The Life and Art of Lee Brown Coye by Luis Ortiz (2005), p. 7.

Weird Tales, July 1945, Lee Brown Coye's first cover for the magazine. This is a color version of Coye's interior illustration for "Count Magnus" by M.R. James from the hardbound anthology Sleep No More (1944). Curiously, the story itself does not appear in the magazine. In fact, Weird Tales did not publish or reprint any stories by M.R. James (1862-1936), despite his prolificacy as a writer of ghost stories. I would like to have posted an image of the original illustration here, but I am unable to find one on the Internet.

Weird Tales, November 1945, a somewhat conventional illustration by Coye.

Weird Tales, March 1946. Not just omens, but ominous omens. Not just evil, but double-evil. Despite the silly blurb, I find this cover to be very powerful, perhaps Coye's best for Weird Tales, and like a vision from a dream. It seems to me that Lee Brown Coye was a true artist, a man who lived in his imagination, or whose imagination spilled out into the real world. His cover for this issue of Weird Tales, though surreal, has a strange reality to it, as if it were painted from life, or perhaps life-in-a-dream. I suppose that was the aim of the surrealists, although I'm not sure Coye would have associated himself with surrealism or called himself a surrealist. 

Weird Tales, July 1947. Too often, vampires are glamorized or sexualized in popular culture. Coye's portrayal is closer to what must be the truth about vampires: that they are revolting creatures of decay and that their moral depravity must be expressed in their bodily ugliness.

Weird Tales, March 1948, the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of a magazine that barely made it past infancy. This must have been a plumb assignment for a Weird Tales artist. It is perhaps significant that Coye got the nod from art editor Lamont Buchanan.  

Weird Tales, September 1948. Note the decaying house in the background, the second of three in Coye's covers for Weird Tales. Luis Ortiz, Coye's biographer writes: "He was already [in 1938, at the time of his fishing trip along Mann Brook] preoccupied with the decaying stillness of buildings . . . ." (p. 48). Coye himself admitted, "I guess that's the morbid side of my personality. I see a lot of pathos in a building . . . . I can't paint happy pictures . . . Bright landscapes just aren't [me]." (Quoted on page 48). 

Weird Tales, January 1949. The cover story is "Four from Jehlam" by Allison V. Harding, a pseudonym attributed to Jean Milligan, the wife of Weird Tales associate editor and art editor Lamont Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan was also the man who recruited Lee Brown Coye to his magazine.

Weird Tales, March 1950. The second of two cover stories by Manly Wade Wellman illustrated by Lee Brown Coye. Wellman's name will pop up later in this long tale.

Weird Tales, May 1951. The cover story, "Notebook Found in a Deserted House" by Robert Bloch, is supposed to have been another inspiration for The Blair Witch Project. I'll read it and let you know what I think.

Weird Tales, September 1951, Lee Brown Coye's last cover for "The Unique Magazine." Note his full name in the signature.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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