Monday, February 23, 2015

Lee Brown Coye (1907-1981)-Part Four

Like that mysterious, long-ago denizen of the Chenango County backwoods, I am collecting scattered sticks and tying them into patterns.

After The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, some viewers who were familiar with weird fiction noticed a similarity between the plot of the movie and that of Karl Edward Wagner's story "Sticks," from 1974. Similarity I think is too mild of a word in this case. My guess is that the makers of The Blair Witch Project knew of "Sticks" and were at the very least inspired by the story. It might be more accurate to say that The Blair Witch Project is essentially an adaptation of "Sticks," a free adaptation perhaps, but an adaptation nonetheless. That's not to take anything away from The Blair Witch Project. By itself, the movie is a fine work of the imagination, not so much in the story as in the way it is told. Moreover, we should remember that "Sticks" itself is an adaptation of a tale told by Lee Brown Coye about a supposedly real experience he had in the spring of 1938 along Mann Brook in central New York State. Coye's experience is not so remote from Wagner's composition of "Sticks," however, for Coye apparently didn't write down or publish an account of it until 1963, after a quarter century had passed. Karl Edward Wagner fictionalized Coye's tale a little more than a decade later.

In the early 1960s (1), Lee Brown Coye began writing a newspaper column called "Chips & Shavings" in The Mid-York Weekly, then published in Hamilton, New York. (2) According to his biographer, Coye wrote about "folklore, unusual bits of history, and people" in his column. (3) In a series of five columns from August 22 to September 26, 1963, Coye recounted his experience along Mann Brook a quarter century before, of patterns of stones and stick lattices around an abandoned house in the scrub woods of Chenango County, and of a hand that had reached out of the dark and grasped the startled artist, who, like a Lovecraftian protagonist, fled the cellar of the house for his safety and sanity. (4)

Coye had tried to relocate the house along Mann Brook in June 1963. His companions on that trip (or those trips) were John Vetter, a Virginia bookseller and a collector of Lovecraftiana, and Art Meggett, a friend of Coye and a member of the Hamilton planning commission. The men came up empty. Later in the year, Coye wrote in a letter to August Derleth, "[T]he Mann Brook site that I saw has been washed out completely and my recent trip there produced nothing but a body [presumably his own] completely covered with black fly bites." (5) In the same letter, Coye wrote that "an old fishing friend of mine who is a bit addicted to whiskey and can't remember too well, has a recollection of seeing the same contraption [the stick lattices] about 1947 on a nearby stream." (6) Absent any evidence, the veracity of Coye's tale rests on his own telling of it as a real event.

The story of how Coye's tale became "Sticks" and The Blair Witch Project probably hinges on the intervention of John Vetter, Coye's companion on the Mann Brook expedition(s) of 1963. A fan and collector of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Vetter first contacted Coye in early 1962 looking to acquire his illustrations for "The Shunned House" and "The Colour Out of Space." (7) Although Coye had created those and other illustrations for three anthologies edited by August Derleth in the 1940s, Coye and Derleth had never met. Vetter, on the other hand, was in contact with Derleth and persuaded Coye to write to him. (8) With his enthusiasm "raised to a high pitch," Coye did so on May 29, 1962. (9) In early 1963, Derleth invited Coye to create the dust jacket designs for Who Fears the Devil by Manly Wade Wellman and The Dunwich Horror and Others by H.P. Lovecraft, both for Derleth's own Arkham House. They were Coye's first work for Derleth, and he received the grand sum of fifty dollars apiece for them. Over the next seven years, Coye drew cover or interior illustrations for ten more books published by Arkham House. You can see them in part three of this series, here.

Not long before Coye received his first offer from August Derleth, in November 1962, John Vetter approached Amazing Stories and Fantastic editor Cele Goldsmith with the idea of a short story based on Coye's Mann Brook experience. Miss Goldsmith expressed interest in such a story for Fantastic. Vetter offered that Derleth might be the one to write it. He offered further that he had already told the tale to Derleth, who had "showed some initial enthusiasm." (10) Vetter had even suggested a title for the story, "Sticks and Stones." According to the afterword of Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks," published in March 1974, "Derleth intended to write Coye’s adventure as a Lovecraft novelette, but never did so." (11) Instead, Derleth and Coye stayed busy turning out books and illustrations for Arkham House, and the story remained unwritten. August Derleth met his end on July 4, 1971. If the story of Lee Brown Coye's sticks was going to be told, it would have to wait for another writer. That writer was of course Karl Edward Wagner.

To be continued . . .

(1) The date is unclear by all accounts I have found, but it appears to have been in early or mid 1963, almost certainly before the July centennial celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg, about which Coye wrote in "Chips & Shavings."
(2) The previous author of "Chips & Shavings" was Reed Alvord, a man who ought to have a biographical sketch written about him somewhere on the Internet. The Mid-York Weekly is now published in Utica, New York.
(3) Arts Unknown: The Life and Art of Lee Brown Coye by Luis Ortiz (2005), p. 134.
(4) Mann Brook arises in Madison County and flows to the southeast and into Chenango County. The location of the house is unknown, but it seems likely to me that it was in Chenango County rather than in Madison County. Update (Oct. 3, 2015): The hand reaching out of the dark was not in fact in the columns Coye wrote in the Mid-York Weekly. In that, Luis Ortiz was mistaken. After looking at the murals on the interior of the house, Coye simply fished Mann Brook back upstream. He asked a local farmer who might have made the sticks and the murals, but he came away without any answers. It makes a better story that Coye was grabbed as in "Sticks," but it simply wasn't true.
(5) Quoted in Ortiz, p. 134.
(6) Ditto.
(7) Coye had illustrated "The Shunned House" for Who Knocks? Twenty Masterpieces of the Spectral for the Connoisseur, edited by August Derleth and issued in 1946. Coye's illustration for "The Colour Out of Space" appeared in The Night Side: Masterpieces of the Strange and Terrible, also edited by August Derleth and issued in 1947 as a kind of sequel to Who Knocks?.
(8) Vetter also persuaded Coye to make the rounds of the New York publishers of science fiction. So on a Friday the Thirteenth--July 13, 1962--Vetter and Coye set off for the offices of Amazing Stories and Fantastic, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Ace Books, Ballantine Books, and Avon Publications. Thus was Lee Brown Coye's career as an artist of fantasy and science fiction revived, a decade after his last illustration for Weird Tales was published.
(9) A quote from Coye's letter in Ortiz, p. 127.
(10) According to Ortiz, p. 130.
(11) Quoted in "The Terror of the Absurd: Karl Edward Wagner's 'Sticks'" by Al Harron, on the website The Cimmerian, October 13, 2009, accessible by clicking here. The Speculative Fiction Database does not list an "afterword" in its table of contents for the issue of Whispers in which "Sticks" was first published (Mar. 1974). It isn't clear to me from the website of The Cimmerian just who was the author of that afterword, and I don't have any copies of Whispers. Presumably it was Wagner himself.

I am greatly indebted to Luis Ortiz and his book Arts Unknown: The Life and Art of Lee Brown Coye by Luis Ortiz (2005) for the facts in this article.

Lee Brown Coye's drawing of the stick lattices he saw on Mann Brook in 1938, from his "Chips & Shavings" column in The Mid-York Weekly, August 22, 1963. Scanned from Arts Unknown: The Life and Art of Lee Brown Coye by Luis Ortiz (2005), p. 50.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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