Artist Lee Brown Coye stands out amongst his fellow pulp illustrators as the man whose art was too weird for Weird Tales. Where Virgil Finlay used his master engraver’s style to depict the stirring beauty of adventure and Hannes Bok infused his fantastical scenes with Art Deco elegance, Coye’s work was stark and unrepentantly grotesque. As recounted in Feral House’s Pulp Macabre: The Art of Lee Brown Coye’s Final and Darkest Era, the artist was an outsider among outsiders during the first years he created images to accompany the lurid stories created by genre luminaries like H. P. Lovecraft and Manly Wade Wellman. It would take reappraisal by a new generation of weird fiction fans to allow Coye’s capacity for drawing pure nightmare fodder to blossom to its fullest.
Coye spent his entire life in Central New York State, earning his living from a variety of art-related jobs: teaching, illustrating for a diverse set of publications, and creating works for the public in the form of murals and dioramas. He was a prolific artist with a career that spanned more than five decades and found him working in a variety of styles and media. What has earned him an enduring place in the hearts of fans, however, is his ghoulish work for pulp magazines. Using the anatomical knowledge he gained from working as a medical illustrator, Coye created some of the most authentically corpse-like bodies and hideously deformed monsters ever committed to the page. His style is stark: in a few expressive lines, Coye creates mutilated figures that convey the shock and horror of the often-purple prose they accompany. There’s also a sinister sense of humor to Coye’s illustrations. Although they are graphic and unflinching, the strange proportions and cartoonish excesses stay on just the right side of Halloween chills.
Pulp Macabre is a celebration of the rediscovery of Lee Brown Coye’s work in the 1970s by young fans of the horror/science fiction/suspense hybrid stories that have come to be dubbed “weird fiction.” Dredged up during the Age of Aquarius and its fascination with the far-out and the psychedelic, renewed interest in H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tales inspired people born nearly twenty years after his death to seek out similar strange thrills. As fate would have it, Coye’s bizarre drawings would fall right into line with the stripped-down, contemporary illustration style of the seventies, and independent publishers were quick to seek out the hideous fruits of his imagination. So beloved was Coye’s artwork that he was honored as Best Artist at the inaugural World Fantasy Awards in 1975.
To mince no words: Pulp Macabre is a beautiful book. From the slightly deckled edges of its pages to the simplicity of the layout that allows plenty of breathing room around the reproductions of Coye’s still startling images, it’s hard to imagine a more reverent tribute to the artist’s work. Editors Mike Hunchback and Caleb Braaten do a wonderful job of framing the illustrations with biographical information on Lee Brown Coye and the publishers who worked with him, interviewing family members and colleagues to provide a fuller understanding of what motivated and inspired the artist.
To get a deeper understanding of what went into developing Pulp Macabre, we spoke to editor Mike Hunchback about Coye’s place in the canon of pulp illustrators and the significance of this kind of entertainment in 2016.
Heathen Harvest: When did you first become aware of Lee Brown Coye’s artwork, and can you tell me a bit about why it resonated with you?
Mike Hunchback: I first saw Coye’s artwork in the pages of an old issue of Weird Tales that I picked up while looking at under-the-table magazine boxes at the Chiller Theatre convention in New Jersey about fifteen years ago. But it was the discovery soon thereafter of Stuart David Schiff‘s Whispers fanzine that got me crazed. There’s a “Coye issue” of Whispers that’s one of the most major of all fan publications for me. The reason his work resonated with me rather profoundly is that I could instantly tell what it was: artwork that, while being done for commercial illustration, was still raw and intensely personal. Coming from the worlds of horror, art, and experimental entertainment fandom, I often gravitate to artists brave enough to involve “outsider” or low-tech sensibilities in their work. Coye is really outstanding and an ahead-of his-time master in this sense. Now, decades after his passing, it’s easy to see that aspect of his art. Looseness, roughness, and rawness are go-to elements in commercial artwork nowadays, but Coye was brave and committed enough to be many, many years ahead of the trend. It’s that kind of intensity that I’m most drawn to; throw in a passion for darkness, and I just go nuts. I think that we live in an interesting but lousy time for innovation. People increasingly want their interests proven and validated by others, yet every major movement in any medium was started by an innovator. It’s fucking with our artistic evolution.
HH: At what point did it become clear that you wanted to focus on Coye’s later, post-“Weird Tales” work?
MH: Not long after I got that issue of Whispers, I started realizing the tendency of his later work to be wilder, freer, and more over-the-top in both style and content. This stemmed from the fans-turned-small-publishers that were commissioning this work in the last decade of Coye’s life. Learning about the involvement of grassroots-level fans in weird fiction in general soon had me even more obsessed!
HH: The quality of the art reproductions in “Pulp Macabre” is incredibly crisp. What was involved in assembling the collection of art that’s in the book?
MH: Great question; the answer is talent and technology. Almost none of the images you see in Pulp Macabre come from original art, but instead are taken from previously published materials. It took a fine gentleman by the name of Robert Barr to pull that off. Robert got involved in digitally rendered image reconstruction because he was a serious fan of pulp art and he wanted to clean up some pulp magazine illustrations for his own enjoyment. Most of that art is so rare that just getting a chance to see these images is difficult, let alone filling a book with them. Robert did Centipede Press‘ Coye book and was a fan of my blog years back, so we just asked him. The guy is incredible and should be a leading name in graphics reproduction.
HH: You worked with Coye’s son and grandson in the development of the book. What were the reactions from Coye’s family like upon hearing that you were producing this detailed tribute to his work?
MH: The rest of Coye’s family are largely from the same area that Lee haunted, and Lee is a bit of a local celebrity up there. Much to the credit of the Coye family, they’re always ready to engage with his fans. They’ve been doing that for a long time! I got to talk to Rob (Coye) on the phone a lot (readers might dig his dark late-eighties/early-nineties post-punk band Grisly Fiction), and his father, Robert, stayed with me for an event we did for the book. I’m pleased to say we’ve all become friends, actually.
HH: What has the reaction to the book been like? Do you feel you’ve contributed to elevating Coye’s profile?
MH: The reaction among pulp fans has been extremely, heart-warmingly positive. I’m an outsider in their world, which can be a roadblock to breaking through, but when I met Chet Williamson (author and nineties Weird Tales contributor), he told me he loved Pulp Macabre. Between that and Stephen Bissette—who is a huge Coye fan—saying it’s the definitive Coye book, I really feel like I’ve “made it!” Perhaps even better has been the strong positive reaction from younger counterculture kids who have no idea about Lee Brown Coye or anything pulp-related.
As to the second part of your question, in fandom there’s this notion among so many zine-born writers to “protect” lesser-known artists they like, almost as if they own the work themselves. Of course, I hate that crap. So, against my tendency to not pat myself on the back, I’ll mention that I spent a lot of time exposing people to Coye’s art and writing about him online. When I started all this, an internet search yielded one lone result to Colgate University where a lot of Coye’s art was donated by his family; now there’s so much more! I’d like to think I played some small, small part in that, which makes me quite proud.
HH: You’re a Lovecraft enthusiast, and Coye illustrated a number of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. What do you think it is about Lovecraft and his work that contribute to his continued popularity and cultural relevance?
MH: Like most work that becomes popular after an artist’s death, I think there are two main contributing factors. First, Lovecraft wrote stories that were out of time and had to do with exciting concepts that others in his genre shied away from. Furthermore, he did so with an artistic commitment—one that shows a reader that he cared greatly for his own work. In this respect, Lovecraft and Coye are similar, to say the least. People working in the pulp field often looked down at their own work, thinking it was part of a low-brow, trashy culture. Second, it takes some form of distribution to make this work popular. Fandom has mastered this far more than any major industry, and in my view, this is exactly where “popularity” becomes normalized. For example, in any decent horror fanzine, a Hollywood horror movie has the same chance of getting discussed as something made for $100 that has no release. The hardcore fans then tell others that are impressionable as far as their passion for genre goes, the film gets more coverage, and soon homemade copies are floating around and being traded. Then in twenty years, you have Hollywood remakes of that film!
HH: Lee Brown Coye was among the first recipients of the World Fantasy Award, which has been closely linked to the “Weird Tales“ tradition since its inception. In recent years, the award has garnered controversy because of changing attitudes towards H. P. Lovecraft and his perceived racism. How do you feel about the removal of Lovecraft’s portrait from the World Fantasy Award statue?
MH: The “Wait a second—Lovecraft was a racist!?” controversy rears its head fairly often, and I’ve found it important to wait it out as much as possible. The people without a remotely accurate understanding of where we come from in America (as well as who we are as Americans) are largely transient in any scene anyhow.
As discussed in Pulp Macabre, which was written and published well before the most recent version of this controversy blew up, the World Fantasy Convention had everything to do with Lovecraft and Weird Tales fandom from its inception. On one hand, I’m simply saddened to see the statue’s replacement because of one lone petition; on the other hand, I’m furious. My anger isn’t because I feel for Lovecraft, but because I feel for Americans culturally. With anything labeled “racist,” I think it’s important to define the term “racism” and then to prioritize your actions based on achieving change. Things don’t register as racist simply because they make us feel icky.
If avoiding possession of a portrayal, artistic or photographic, of someone proven to be racist is an important duty of those who wish to avoid being racist, then how come no one’s setting fire to their cash? Start with your wallet, geniuses—it’s full of portraits of slave-owning presidents. The point is, we’ve already figured that out subconsciously; we’ve used basic logic to determine how we deal with this. We can still find the actions of slave-owners (one heckuva form of racism) abhorrent even though the image of racists is given high prominence in our lives. The funny twist-ending to this is that, as Americans, we literally fund death and slavery every single day by shopping where and how we all do, myself included. It’s truly mind-blowing to me that our insistence on protecting our fat, bloated way of life has gotten so bad that nowadays we play a game of “who’s more racist?” Is it Donald Trump for saying idiotic, racist crap? Or is it Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Barack Obama for voting for war, sending troops, and authorizing bombings? Even most people I know in my weirdo circles seem to think it’s the former. It’s because we’re so programmed to react to racism in the form of speech or online content that we now have more of a need to fight that than we have a need to do something as simple as realize that our actions result in enslavement and death for people far away.
It’s painfully obvious to me that we should take an artist’s work for what it is and not for who the author was. The fact is we love to make things about ourselves nowadays. “Discovering” that dead people are racist or sexist or—hell—were not our peers in our current politics is a hilariously frequent recurrence as far as activities that make us feel progressive and more significant individuals. It really comes down to a form of self-preservation. Now that so much American self-preservation has to do exclusively with protecting our interests and not our lives, we’ve come down to fighting intellectual battles on our own soil, the privilege to do so won at the cost of using slave labor and dropping bombs in other countries. America: the place where we’re ignorant to our part in genocide, but are keen to ban the bust of an eighty-years-dead author as racist.
HH: Are there other artists on your radar for future projects?
MH: You know, there are a couple of projects I’m working on regarding artists, but in the name of actually finishing them and securing some sort of publisher, I’d better not name them yet. Somebody smart whose name I forgot once said that humans talking about a thing takes the place of actually finishing the thing. Instead, I’ll name two people that I wish I could do books on: Milton Luros and Cele Goldsmith Lalli. The former was an absolutely wonderful pulp magazine illustrator who’s not discussed very often. He eventually got involved in the adult film industry and became both an early mogul in that industry as well as a staunch “let’s go to court” defender of it. The latter is one of the most fascinating figures I’ve ever encountered in the Pulps; she was the editor of Fantastic Stories of Imagination and Amazing Science Fiction Stories. She’s attributed by many to be solely responsible for getting Lee Brown Coye out of his self-imposed genre-related retirement. Plainly put, she was just a genius when it came to magazine publishing and deserves an enormous amount of credit in that department. The magazine greats—people like Goldsmith, Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Gaines, Farnsworth Wright, Dorothy McIlwraith, Uncle Bob Martin—are some of my favorite geniuses. The recipe for success always lies with an editor making the decision to follow their heart and follow their own tastes—something severely lacking in almost every kind of medium today. It takes the bravest people to do that.