Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lee Brown Coye (1907-1981)-Part Seven

Karl Edward Wagner remembered:
The story ["Sticks"] is really Lee Brown Coye’s and is about Lee Brown Coye, as the Afterword [in Whispers #3] explains. Coye had described the events upon which “Sticks” was based to me, and when Stuart David Schiff decided to bring out a special Lee Brown Coye issue of Whispers, I stole time from my final few months of medical school to write a story inspired by Coye’s experiences. “Sticks” is shot through with in-jokes and references which the serious fantasy/horror fan will recognize. I wrote the story as a favour (1) and tribute to Lee, and I never expected it to be read by anyone beyond the thousand or so fans who read Whispers. To my surprise, “Sticks” became one of my best known and best liked stories. It won the British Fantasy Award and was a runner-up in the World Fantasy Award for best short fiction. The story has been anthologized numerous times and translated into several languages. It was broadcast on National Public Radio on Hallowe’en 1982 and was to have been produced for the short lived television series, Darkroom. Not bad for an in-joke. (2)
Not long after the Lee Brown Coye issue of Whispers was published (in March 1974), Karl Edward Wagner and David Drake made the thirteen-hour drive from North Carolina to Hamilton, New York, to visit with Coye in his studio. Wagner described the sixty-six-year-old artist: "Coye [looked] like one of his own creations, long-bodied; cadaverously thin; brush of age-bleached hair that still showed traces of red; bright, lively eyes . . . ." (3) Eleven years before, in June 1963, Coye and two friends, John Vetter and Art Meggett, had gone looking for the Mann Brook site. In this June of 1974, Coye made a second expedition with Wagner and Drake. According to Coye's biographer, the trio of explorers found that the site had been "completely replaced with fresh forest and was now strewn with 'no trespassing for any purposes' signs." (4) The men turned back, instead visiting a local cemetery.

* * *

Coye received his copy of Worse Things Waiting, the first book published under Wagner and Drake's Carcosa imprint, towards the end of the year. At the first World Fantasy Awards (5), Wagner, Coye, Manly Wade Wellman, and Stuart David Schiff won a triple crown:

  • Worse Things Waiting by Manly Wade Wellman, illustrated by Lee Brown Coye, and published by Carcosa, won for best anthology/collection;
  • Lee Brown Coye won for best artist; and
  • Whispers, edited and published by Stuart David Schiff, won the special award in the "non-professional" category, no doubt in part for its Lee Brown Coye issue of March 1974.

In addition, "Sticks," written by Karl Edward Wagner, based on Coye's experience, and published in Whispers, was nominated for best short fiction. (The award went to "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal" by Robert Aikman.)

* * *

Then in his sixties, Lee Brown Coye continued creating illustrations for small press, fanzines, and Whispers. In 1976, Scribner's issued Dying of Fright: Masterpieces of the Macabre. Coye provided the illustrations for this oversized anthology, edited by Les Daniels. One of Coye's drawings for Weird Tales also appeared in Daniels' book Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media (Scribner's, 1975).

In January 1977, Coye had a stroke and fell into a coma. Over the course of a year, he rallied and was able to draw again. In summer, Carcosa came out with Murgunstrumm & Others by Hugh B. Cave. That book won the award for best anthology/collection at the 1978 World Fantasy Awards. Once again, Lee Brown Coye was named best artist. Karl Edward Wagner was among the judges that year.

Coye's health continued to deteriorate. He had a heart attack in February and again in September 1981. The second one proved fatal, thus Lee Brown Coye died on September 5, 1981, at age seventy-four. His last original art was published in the fanzine Sorcerer's Apprentice in the year of his death. Karl Edward Wagner survived him, but was probably on a downward trajectory by then. His appetites caught up with him in the end, which came on October 14, 1994. Wagner was just forty-eight years old.

Next: Lee Brown Coye in "Sticks"

(1) Note Wagner's use of the British spelling, à la H.P. Lovecraft.
(3) Quoted in Arts Unknown: The Life and Art of Lee Brown Coye by Luis Ortiz (2005), p. 149.
(4) Ditto.
(5) Held in Providence, Rhode Island, October 31-November 2, 1975. Providence was, of course, H.P. Lovecraft's native city.

The World Fantasy Award, since 1975, presented annually at the World Fantasy Convention. Lee Brown Coye won two of these awards near the end of his life, for best artist in 1975 and 1978. Designed by the cartoonist (and last Weird Tales artist) Gahan Wilson, it of course depicts H.P. Lovecraft. Some have called it hideous. They sound like Lovecraft's mother, who helped ruin her son by calling him "ugly" (thereby providing the rest of us with nearly a century of entertainment in his work). I have read some of the suggestions for replacing Lovecraft's visage: a dragon, the One Ring, a wizard's hat, a unicorn. If it's a unicorn, I hope it's one with soft, big, brown, eyes and a long flowing mane and tail, preferably pink or purple, that you can comb. And a rainbow in the background!

The objection to the World Fantasy Award isn't really to the ugliness of the statuette. It's to the man whom it represents. I wrote last year about the idea that science fiction could be dying, if it isn't already dead. One possible cause for the moribund state of the genre is a plague of political correctness, a disease that always proves fatal. It's one thing for political correctness to infect science fiction. After all, science fiction, being about the future, and, at its extremes, about a perfectly ordered future, has a hard time separating itself from things political. But now the disease of political correctness appears to have passed to fantasy, a genre that is ordinarily far less political, and very often not political at all. Moreover, fantasy is often about freedom, the antithesis of the dystopia that the politically correct wish to impose upon all of us.

The controversy over the Lovecraft statuette has to do with the author's supposed racism. There is no question that Lovecraft wrote some pretty disagreeable things in his stories. There can't be any excusing those things. But the people who object so strongly to him and his work should look a little more deeply into the human psyche before spouting off. H.P. Lovecraft was a recluse and a pauper. His father more or less abandoned him. His mother called him ugly and in her neurosis clung to him. If he was not mentally ill, Lovecraft was deeply troubled, emotionally and psychologically (though his mental state improved later in life). He very seldom held a real job and was barely able to function in the real world. Although he married, he also abandoned his marriage and died childless, essentially of malnutrition. In short, Lovecraft was a man who lived in a kind of desperation; he was a man without power. I
n their desperation, people who are abandoned or improperly loved by their parents--who are unable to function in the world--who feel powerless, angry, fearful, or lonely--often lash out. Being or feeling powerless themselves, they tend to pick on those who are either far more powerful than they are (believing those people to be the cause of their problems) or who are weaker than they are, the way some people abuse or mistreat children, animals, and waitresses. H.P. Lovecraft may or may not have been racist. But to impute the power of the racist to him is silly. To believe that he was animated or motivated by racism is to misinterpret his life to the point of incompetence.*

One author has called Lovecraft "a malevolent clown." Well, that "clown" helped create and was the leading theorist of a genre--weird fiction--that is perhaps more popular now than ever. That "clown" created something August Derleth fashioned into "the Cthulhu Mythos," one of the most successful works of the imagination to come out of twentieth-century literature. That "clown" is acknowledged as second only to Edgar Allan Poe in his field. He has countless fans, admirers, and followers. His work has been taken up by prominent and successful authors. His stories have been adapted to movies, television, radio, spoken-word records, comic books, and games. And he has 
a major award (in the words of Ralphie Parker's Old Man) cast in his image. Scores of writers, artists, editors, and publishers have accepted that award over the past forty years without protest. I doubt that so many people are so willing to overlook the sins of a racist or of racism in general. In any case, S.T. Joshi has addressed the controversy far more cogently than I on his blog, called, accurately enough, S.T. Joshi's Blog, at the following URL:

My hope is that the disease of political correctness infecting not just literature but all of society recedes so that we might all enjoy once again a healthier condition.


*Much of the evidence for Lovecraft's supposed racism rests on his story "The Horror at Red Hook," composed when Lovecraft was living in Brooklyn. There is real ugliness in the story to be sure, but it's clear to me that "The Horror at Red Hook" is an expression of extreme desperation and probably also of loneliness, fear, anger, and homesickness.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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