Thursday, April 11, 2024

A Graveside Chat with J.B. Lee

Artist J.B. Lee is a prolific painter/illustrator with an impressive portfolio of scary images, influenced by horror authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Joseph Payne Brennan, and others, as well as such classic horror/science fiction TV series as The Outer Limits, Thriller, One Step Beyond, and others. J.B. kindly agreed to talk about his work and provide a number of his creations to be posted here.

AGC: You are clearly a devotee of some of the most seminal television science fiction/horror shows of the 1950s and 1960s — specifically, The Outer Limits, Thriller, and One Step Beyond. Much of your art is done "in the style of" these shows. Could you relate some of your earliest memories of these classics — and elaborate on how they influenced your art and its themes?

JBL: I saw all three of those shows in their original run, maybe not every episode, but enough to make an impression on a kid somewhere between 3 and 9 years old. The first One Step Beyond — or “Alcoa Presents,” as we called it — that I remember was "Emergency Only," and that aired in 1959, three days before I turned three. Maybe I caught it in reruns, I couldn’t say, but I do recall it. But I could read at two and a half, or at least that was when they realized I was reading. L’il Abner gave me away! Remember L’il Abner, the newspaper comic strip? My parents thought I was just making up things the characters were saying until they actually checked one day. That must have been a shock! August Derleth would have italicized that sentence: “The boy was actually reading what it said in those word balloons!”

So, I was quite precocious, and if I didn’t understand everything that was going on, I sure caught enough of it. And I was a kid, so I took everything that was said at face value. When scary John Newland said this was a true story, hey, it was a true story! He’s an adult, so he wouldn’t lie about it! So, yes, that woman foresaw the future, and yes, the ghost really haunted the U-Boat, and you bet that guy’s wife kept hearing an airplane crashing through their house. That was the one that scared me the most — it’s titled "Tonight at 12:17" — not least because we lived near a small airport and planes were always buzzing around. Another gem was "The Captain's Guests," written by Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont, based around an idea he’d resurrect a few years later for the Lovecraft adaptation The Haunted Palace.  That certainly left an impression!

The first Thriller I remember seeing was "The Purple Room," and that’s considered the first “horror” episode, even though it Scooby-Doos us with a fake monster in the end. But there would soon come things that weren’t fake, oh, you bet! Harry Townes’ good look at himself through the cursed eyeglasses of "The Cheaters"… Macdonald Carey striking a deal with John Emery’s terrifying devil in "The Devil's Ticket"… Hans the mannequin coming to life in "The Weird Tailor"… William Shatner, not yet Captain Kirk, vainly fleeing the scythe of "The Grim Reaper." And Boris Karloff as host. He was very different from One Step Beyond’s John Newland; he was rarely sinister, he just invited us to join him and see sinister things. More often than not he was seemingly as scared of what was coming as we soon would be!
From H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu"

The scariest episode of that show, at least to a 5 year old, was "The Return of Andrew Bentley." The undead Bentley skulking around the house was bad enough, but he had a demon familiar with him, clawed, cloaked, with an eyeless maw for a face! When the first pictures from 1979’s Alien began to appear in magazines – just a close-up of the business end of the head – I looked at this eyeless monster and his mouth full of teeth and immediately flashed on Andrew Bentley’s Familiar. And John Newland is in that one as a hero – I didn’t recognize him as the One Step Beyond Man, but I have no doubt that at least subconsciously that made the episode even scarier.

And then came The Outer Limits, and by that time I was old enough to recall every episode. Not perfectly — for many years I thought "The Guests" was titled "Parasite Mansion," and when a Starlog Magazine episode guide revealed it as "The Guests," I found myself baffled, because I knew something scary had been titled "Parasite Mansion," but couldn’t recall what. (It’s a Thriller episode.) I was there from the start, Monday night 9/16/63, watching Cliff Robertson pick up a transmission from the Andromeda Galaxy, and ultimately picking up a radioactive alien from said galaxy in the bargain! I have no doubt that Joseph Stefano’s purple prose for that show helped prime the pump for me to be completely receptive to H.P. Lovecraft’s strange stories about 6 years later. Consider this alien’s line from "The Invisibles": “We were conceived in the nothingness of space, sired by a satyr of cosmic energy, formed by the coming together of sick, nameless nuclei that waited a billion billion years for that precise, ungodly moment.” HPL would sign his name to that! And while The Outer Limits was supposedly science fiction, it was actually the most Lovecraftian of the three shows that powerfully influenced this Monster Kid way back then. For many years certain TOL episodes were the most HPL-ish films we had. Watch "A Feasibility Study," "Don't Open Till Doomsday," "The Guests," "Wolf 359," "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork," everything about those shows is Lovecraftian — the direction, cinematography, monster design, Weird Science. They nailed the atmosphere perfectly.

And it was the atmosphere that I took away for my own work. The bizarre camera angles, the chiaroscuro. Since embracing this monochromatic approach to my monsters, I absolutely believe there is something about black and white that makes things more terrifying — working on your subconscious fear that the light is failing, and you’re about to be left in the dark. “Red is grey and yellow, white,” intoned the Moody Blues all those ages ago, speaking of nightfall. And I say “my monsters,” but they’re someone else’s monsters. I’m like Lovecraft’s weird artist Richard Upton Pickman — he was a skilled craftsman with no imagination at all. Thurber goes on in the story about how the best weird artists have a model conjured up by their imagination, but the irony is that Pickman doesn’t have that. He has his skill and a camera, and he knows where the weird things are. I do the same thing with other people’s imaginations. Someone writes “…a darkness fell out of the clouds like a black meteorite, a darkness grotesquely shaped like a man with carmine eyes like stars for eyes in its bloated blot of a head,” and I show that to you with my craft. Points if you know who wrote that — it’s from the best story about that monster that’s out there, and it wasn’t written by the creator of said critter. In fact, its creator never saw that story! Another tale that someone needs to be putting on film, instead of putzing around with the unfilmable At the Mountains of Madness! Oops, did I say that out loud?

AGC: The works of H.P. Lovecraft and other writers from that "weird tales" era feature prominently in your compositions. Do you feel that those literary works and the visual/narrative styles of the shows mentioned above naturally complement each other? Given the constraints of budget, technology, etc. from the 1950s and 1960s, those black and white television shows oftentimes presented remarkably effective "bears," as they called the monsters in those days. What "bear" out of dark lit would you most liked to have seen back then if you'd had your druthers, so to speak?
From August Derleth's "The Shuttered Room"

One Step Beyond was hampered by its format. It could only do things that might be accepted as “true” by the audience. So dreams, visions, premonitions were its stock in trade, occasionally a ghost. They definitely did Harvey’s "August Heat" as “The Stone Cutter”, though. Didn’t credit Harvey, either, but give that one a look and decide for yourself. I think Charles Beaumont forgot he was writing for OSB, not Twilight Zone, when he did "The Captain's Guests," because there’s a transformation there that might be a little hard to swallow as a real event. Not that I had any problem accepting it, not back then! But Thriller and The Outer Limits had no such constraints. The Outer Limits always tried to explore the human condition with its stories — Joseph Stefano famously said he was allowed to show a genocidal massacre as long as aliens were the ones getting massacred — but Thriller, at least under the hand of producer William Frye, existed for one reason: to scare the viewer. To the devil with morality plays!

That said, I would have given much to have seen The Outer Limits take on Lovecraft’s "The Colour Out of Space." That oft-filmed story begs for the sort of grotesque noir approach TOL became famous for… and their Acme Optical Printer would have been putting in overtime on that show, when the Colour began to spread through the farmhouse and over the farm! But Lovecraft doesn’t have the sort of character depth and interaction The Outer Limits demanded, and Thriller just barely touched on science fiction, so "Colour" didn’t happen. A second-season TOL episode titled "Cry of Silence" proves to be a much more benign take on the same sort of story, and as close as TOL ever came to such a thing. The German filmmaker Huan Vu gave us something pretty close to what I imagine TOL would have presented in his 2010 version of the story, Die Farbe (The Colour). I consider it the best HPL film we have at present.

And Thriller — how I wish we’d had a good Joseph Payne Brennan adaptation from that show! They did two of his stories as "The Lethal Ladies," and they’re good, but neither of them were the sort of weird horror he did so well. I absolutely believe that show could have pulled off his classic "Slime," even in 1960 — no TV show had shadows blacker than Thriller could muster, and they could have used that cinematography to make us think we saw more of Brennan’s shapeless black monster than any costume could present. Failing that, though, I’m sure Thriller’s take on "Canavan's Back Yard" or "The Horror at Chilton Castle" would have been unforgettable, and much easier for the show to accomplish. Worlds of If!

AGC: You are a minister at a Christian church, if I'm not mistaken. Have any of the tenets of your faith played into your appreciation of cosmic horror — or vice-versa?
From H.P. Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark"

JBL: I am the pastor at Hughes Creek church of God, up the hollow where I live. I tell people I pastor "up Hughes Creek" and people say “Oh, you’re the pastor of that great big church with the electronic sign,” only to have me reply “No, I’m the pastor of the little tiny church with no sign, where the paved road ends and the dirt road begins.” Our tenets are somewhat different from much of Christendom — at least American Christendom, I don’t know what people are teaching in the churches of Denmark or Vietnam! We believe there’s one church; the Biblical name for it is "Church of God," but every follower of Christ is in it, regardless of what it says over the door. Hence one of our mottos is “We reach our hand in fellowship to every blood-washed one.” We keep no roll and sign no membership books for the same reason — your membership in the church is between you and God. We don’t believe in a literal millennial reign on the future earth, but a spiritual kingdom of the heart in the here-and-now, where the law of Christ is to be followed: Love God, love people (Matt. 22:37-39). The church and the kingdom are the same thing. We believe the book of Revelation to be almost all symbolic, and that most of it has already occurred. So we don’t expect a literal Great Tribulation, or a literal capital-A Antichrist — a term that doesn’t appear in Revelation, by the way. We don’t believe 666 is the number of the devil, the mark of the beast, and we don’t believe it’s going on your head or your hand in some nightmare future dystopia, and we don’t buy a piece of gum to prevent getting $6.66 in change back at the grocery. So we differ from much of Christianity in our doctrine. If someone reading this does believe in those things and wonders what kind of heretic I am, then I’ll say to them what I’ve said to many others: “You pray for me and I’ll pray for you, and we’ll come into an understanding of the truth together.”

I said all that to say this: traditional Christian-based demonology horror, which revolves around exorcisms and demons and antichrists, never did much for me before I was Christian, and does even less given my beliefs now. I did like the first two Omen movies, 666 or no, and Jerry Goldsmith’s scores for those films are great. And The Car, in which the devil becomes an automobile, is definitely a “guilty pleasure,” as they say. Had a great time with that film at the Kearse Theater in 1977. Alas, the Kearse is gone now, like so much of the Charleston of my youth.

But my favorite horror movie, without question, is Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, and that demon certainly wouldn’t listen to Fathers Merrin and Karras or trouble Regan MacNeil, unless she went to school with Karswell’s kid and he pranked her with the dreaded runes. That fiend isn’t a Biblical demon. Much closer to one of Lovecraft’s menagerie. There’s this bit in the film where one of the investigators shows us all these pictures of demons from different mythologies, reciting their names, and yikes! They all look the same! That was a constant in August Derleth’s Cthulhu stories — someone relating all the mythological fiends that resembled Cthulhu or Ithaqua or whoever the monster of the month was, so we’d believe there was Something To It and all these peoples had seen the same horror. Anyway, the monsters that really scared me, from childhood on, weren’t Biblically based at all. The Zanti Misfits. the Killer Shrews. the Monolith Monsters. the H-Man. So even before my experience with Christ, weird horror, cosmic horror, meant much more to me than traditional demonic stuff. The three greatest horror stories ever written are "The Colour Out of Space," "The Willows," and "The White People." You won’t find much traditional Christian-based horror in any of those.

AGC: Although not at all similar in style, I feel your body of work is in some ways comparable to that of Lee Brown Coye, who rendered many, many of my favorite illustrations of Lovecraftian horrors and related imagery. Are there any artists, either in the horror field or out of it, whom you might claim as influences for your work.
From John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids

JBL: I like Coye’s work, but just not as illustrations! His Wilbur Whateley, for instance, on the dust jacket of The Dunwich Horror and Others — that’s a remarkably creepy guy, but it doesn’t look like Lovecraft’s Whateley boy at all! I grew up watching all the Hanna-Barbera superhero shows on Saturday morning, so of course Alex Toth influenced my stuff. Likewise the comic book artists of the time — Dr. Strange’s Steve Ditko, Fantastic Four’s Jack Kirby, Magnus Robot Fighter’s Russ Manning. My parents were suspicious of comic books, no doubt because of the Horror Comic Panic of the early Fifties, which they’d probably heard about in the magazines and newspapers. That was all over by the time I came along, but my folks didn’t want me reading those “bad books.” So of course they had the magnetism of the forbidden, and when I was 6 I cried and begged and pleaded to get one. The one I wanted — and got — was DC Showcase #39, starring the robotic heroes The Metal Men, and introducing their most tenacious enemy, a walking vat of toxic waste called Chemo. This thing was drawn by the team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, and it scared me senseless. I was afraid to touch any part of the comic where Chemo resided. I’d read so far and then go bury it at the bottom of the toy box, only to eventually come back and go on reading. I had occasional nightmares about Chemo until I was in my mid 20s. I’d be dreaming about some girl I had a crush on in jr.high school, and suddenly Chemo would barge in and Ruin Everything. There’s one for you, Dr Freud! Sometimes a monster is just a monster! It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the old boy would pop up again some night, all these years later. So I’d say Andru and Esposito — and Metal Men scribe and creator Robert Kanigher -- definitely influenced not only my art, but my BENT as well!

There were others, surely. I remember the epiphany I had the first time I ever saw an Edward Hopper – that would have been "Gas," when I was in 10th grade. My goodness, that struck me powerfully. I wrote an essay about it so overloaded with Lovecraftian adjectives my art teacher could only say “I guess you liked it—?” And still others. Piet Mondrian. Was he a synaesthete? I sure think he was. Marc Chagall. Paul Klee. Roberto Matta, exposing the terrifying colliding angles of other dimensions! Frank Belknap Long referred to two Matta works I have never been able to track down, with weird Cthulhuoid names: "Icrogy Fecundated" and "Rghuin Monstrous Triumphs." Somewhere out there those things are waiting to blast me, I’m sure. “Sometimes it’s better not to know…” but I’m determined to know, sooner or later. Brancusi and Calder, bringing the abstraction of dream into the real world with their sculptures and mobiles, not that I’ve ever been very good at that sort of thing. But they sure were! I sometimes refer to the wonderfully designed alien robot in the movie Kronos as the “Brancusi bot.” And that reminds me of William Neal’s biomechanical creatures that were all over the sleeve of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus album, itself an opener of the way as well. Dali of the molten watches, of course. And the EC Comics artists, better late than never. My favorite of that lot was Jack Davis; really liked Bernard Krigstein and Wally Wood, too.

There have been all kinds. I could go on, but I won’t. I’m happy to have lived in a time when so many great works of art are so easy to find. All but Matta’s Icrogy and Rghuin, those mysterious devils! Someday... SOMEDAY...

AGC: You typically post a "NOT AI" disclaimer with your work, which I personally applaud. I think it's safe to say that you have anything but a positive opinion of AI-generated art. Do you foresee AI having longterm negative ramifications for the creative field? What about in the broader world — in business, science, news, etc.?
From Walter C. DeBill's "Where Yidhra Walks"

JBL: I’m sure you know about the recent "Willie Wonka" Experience — they couldn’t use the name Wonka in the thing, so they called him Willy McDuff — in Glasgow across the pond, where all the ads and the script were generated by AI, and that was the beginning of sorrows. Quite a few people believe Disney wrote the script to their film Wish with AI, and if you watch that film you’ll understand why they think that. AI is nothing but a plagiarism engine, shaving real people’s art and writing so it can present its user with an aggregate of the stubble. A musician named Per Thomhav, who releases excellent Tangerine Dreamish electronic music under the name Synth Replicants, bought one of my pieces for the cover of his album Zentropol — which you can buy on Bandcamp, let me add! I was looking at that cover one day and glumly thought to myself “AI could turn out something like that pretty easily.” Especially if my Zentropol cover was used to train it first! That’s the world we live in. Before I learned that the more you play with an AI, the better it gets at its crimes, I fiddled around with ChatGPT a little. I asked it for an outline for a sermon once, giving it the pericope to use, and it spat out a reasonably teachable Bible study with absolutely no practical application to real life. Next, I asked it to write an outline for a horror story about a man possessed by the cold. I don’t know who fed it Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun, but it had definitely been trained on that novel! But I no longer play with it at all. I know a man involved in the mechanics of film-making who considers it the greatest tool he’s ever encountered, but I don’t know how he’s using it. His talents are beyond my understanding. Let’s hope it has some use beyond plagiarism. We are certainly going to find out if it does, because you can’t put the explosion back in the bomb.

But there will always be artists and writers who do it because they want to, no matter what AI does or doesn’t do. Keep creating! Keep expressing yourself! Everyone is an artist until life talks them out of it. Don’t let that happen. Work to show the world the worth of human inspiration. As Phillips Brooks said a long time ago, “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks! Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come in you by the grace of God.” That seems like good advice to me.

AGC: Thanks very much, J.B.!
Another rendering from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark"
From Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore's "The Twonky"
L: From John W. Campbell's Who Goes There?
R: From H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth's The Lurker at the Threshold

See More of J.B. Lee's Cosmic Horrors at
Deviant Art and Art Station

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