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The Adventures of Lord Horror Across the Media Landscape
b y B r i a n S t a b l e f o r d
Other Dimensions No. 2 (USA)1993
Left: the very first Lord Horror illustration by Kris Guidio (1986)
|LORD HORROR BEGAN life as the eponymous central character of a novel by David Britton,
which was eventually published in 1989 although it had been written
some years earlier. In the meantime, and subsequently, Lord Horror
has appeared in numerous comic books and also become manifest
as a strident, if slightly inconsistent, vocal presence haunting
a number of record releases. If his history is to be properly
understood, however, the story must begin some years earlier.
David Britton is co-proprietor with Michael Butterworth of Savoy Books, a publishing company established in the late 1970s. Its early products included a number of previously unpublished books by Michael Moorcock, new editions of novels by Henry Treece, M John Harrison, Nik Cohn, and Jack Trevor Story, a number of books on rock music and a few miscellaneous nonfictional oddities. Two erotically explicit novels by SF writers Charles Platt and Samuel R Delany (The Gas and The Tides of Lust) were also included in the Savoy list.
The stock carried by Britton's bookshops was and is of a kind which is generally available in similar shops throughout the British Isles. Britton's principal shop, however, happens to be in Greater Manchester, which for many years boasted a Chief Constable named James Anderton who was notorious (or famous, depending on one's point of view) for his muscular Christianity and outspoken illiberalism. Anderton formed a local Obscene Publications Squad (the only one in Britain save for the one based in London) to mount a concerted attack on the sale of pornography in his region; in pursuit of this crusade Britton's Manchester shop was regularly raided during the 1980s and various materials were rather indiscriminately seized therefromincluding some of the Savoy Books titles.
Britton's and Butterworth's response to this hounding was to issue a plush anthology called Savoy Dreams in 1984, which included fiction and non-fiction by many Savoy authors intermingled with newspaper clippings, some exhibiting the kind of bizarre horror stories which regularly appear in British tabloid newspapers and others detailing the exploits of James Anderton. The book's chief dedicatee was one-time rock idol PJ Proby, by then living in alcoholic obscurity in Alderley Edge, and it included a reprinted comic strip drawn by Kris Guidio which featured the Los Angeles band The Cramps. A long article entitled Savoy Under Siege: A Report from Prison detailed Anderton's persecution of the companya persecution which had eventually resulted in Britton's imprisonment. In the late '80s Savoy continued to realise some of the dreams pre-visioned in this remarkable book. The company diversified into records and comics, although it continued to publish occasional books.
The first Savoy Records release, in 1986, was a twelve-inch single credited to The Savoy Hitler-Youth Band, featuring 'Lord Horror' on vocals. The record's sleeve featured a caricature of James Anderton, his head exploding amid a tattered halo of hateful obscenities; the lettering on the other side overlaid photographs taken during the liberation of Dachau. The songwhich superimposed the lyric of Bruce Springsteen's Cadillac Ranch on a version of New Order's Blue Mondaywas actually sung by Bobby Thompson, of Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes. The cover illustration was sufficient to get the record banned, and a new phase in the conflict between Britton and his bête noire was joineda conflict uninterrupted by the subsequent retirement of Anderton.
The novel of Lord Horror, which was issued by Savoy after being rejected by all the leading British publishing houses (Britton, according to his habit, proudly reprinted the ruder rejection slips), is a complex work which includes among its many characters a chief constable named 'James Appleton', whose viciously anti-Semitic dialogue is derived by substituting the word "Jew" for the word "homosexual" (and various equivalent terms) in public pronouncements which had been made by James Anderton. The members of the Obscene Publications Squad might conceivably have been unaware of this when, on 31 August 1991, they seized 150 copies of the book as well as 4,000 copies of the earliest Savoy comics (which employ characters from the novel), but seize it they did. Savoy's appeal against that seizure was the first court case concerning the supposed obscenity of a novel since the failure of the British courts to uphold the banning of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn in the late 1960s.
The character of Lord Horror is (rather remotely) based on William Joyce, who broadcast German propaganda to the British public throughout World War II. Joyce's exaggeratedly plummy British accent encouraged his listeners to refer to him as 'Lord Haw-Haw' , a joke which quickly became a significant element of the folklore of the war (the ability to turn an authentically sinister source of anxiety into irreverent comedy is, of course, an important method of psychological defence). Joyce had lived in England and Ireland for many years before the outbreak of World War II, had been active in Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, and had fraudulently obtained a British passport, but he was an American and his defection to Germany in 1939 was not, technically, an act of treason. The fact that he was hung by the British in 1946 was a triumph of vengeful ire over more refined ideals of justice, which is ironically echoed in the nasty and heavy-handed way in which the creator of Lord Horror has been treated by the British criminal justice system.
Britton's Lord Horror proudly wears the glamour of Fascism, and exhibits the prejudices and aspirations fundamental to Nazism. This characterisation is calculated to excite revulsion and anxiety; the plot of the novel endeavours to achieve its revelations by means of shock tactics. Lord Horror is a horror story, an alarmist fantasy, and a provocatively shocking text. The narrative is sometimes very funny and sometimes utterly repulsive, seeking by means of such huge swings of mood to enhance its overall effect. The imagery of the story borrows on the one hand from comic-strip art and on the other from the philosophical Weltanschauung of Schopenhauer, attempting through such odd juxtapositions to heighten the reader's sense of the awful absurdity of the polite veneer which hides the politics of genocide.
Lord Horror deals with unpleasant subject-matter: race-hatred; the glamour of Fascism; the psychology of oppression and repression. The author's method of dealing with these subjects is one whose roots are to be found in the sarcastic fantasies of the French and English Decadent movements and in the theatricality of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. The novel's central charactersLord Horror, his associate 'creep boys' Meng and Ecker, and the Führer of whom they are in searchare gaudy grotesques and their adventures constitute a phantasmagorical black comedy. Their actions, attitudes, and aspirations are satirically exaggerated to the point of ludicrous caricature. Britton's Hitlera quaintly pathetic figure quietly pursuing his research in the philosophy of Schopenhauer while his unheeded masculinity, symbolised by the incredibly expansive Old Shatterhand, entertains extremely inconvenient delusions of grandeuris not monstrous as a person, but the monstrousness of his career and its legacy are exhibited in no uncertain terms.
The first Lord Horror comic, also issued in 1989, is something of a patchwork, including several illustrations by Kris Guidio of scenes from the novel (including one involving 'Appleton') as well as a strip story describingamong other thingsthe character's encounters with The Cramps and Mikhail Gorbachev. The simultaneously issued first issue of its companion comic, Meng & Ecker, carries on its first page the warning that "Artistic ideas expressed in these adventures may not coincide with your beliefs but that's the price you pay for free speech, playmates!". This statement took on an extra dimension of irony when the appeal court which failed to order the destruction of the novel ordered that Meng & Ecker 1 was indeed obscene and should be destroyed.
In one of the vignettes contained in this first comic-book collection Meng and Ecker drop in on a science fiction convention and offer a brief commentary on the career of L Ron Hubbard. In another they try to locate Oscar Wilde in Blackpool but fail, although the reader sees him operating a Punch and Judy stall in which one of his puppets is Lord Horror. The puppet Horror displays a "sing-along moral code" which begins with a definition of judges as 'Men bought and paid for by the system. Will say what they are told. Will kill you to make a point.' What effect this had on Judge Gerard Humphries, who confirmed the destruction order, only he can know; it is also possible that he might have been influenced in his decision by the cover illustration, which shows Meng (dressed, as usual, in flamboyant drag) brandishing a knife in one hand and James Anderton's severed head in the other.
Subsequent issues of Meng & Ecker (nine issues and a collection, The Adventures of Meng & Ecker) follow much the same unrepentantly gross and somewhat higgledy-piggledy pattern as the first, but the Lord Horror series issued alongside them took a very different track. Nos. 3 to 7 (all issued in 1990) constitute a five-part graphic novel called Hard Core Horror, the first one of which is subtitled The Romance of Lord Horror and Jessie Matthews. (Jessie Matthews was a singer and actress who became the principal British matinee idol of the thirties and eventually ended her career by playing the anchor role in the long-running radio soap Mrs Dale's Diary). This parodic tale of absurdly star-crossed lovers is played out against the background of Mosley's Fascist movement and the outbreak of World War II, with some interpolated commentary by Horror's brother, James Joyce (also, allegedly, a writer of some note).
The strip story serialised in Hard Core Horror features some extraordinarily vivid work by Guidio, which evolved from relatively modest beginnings into displays of an extraordinary quality and intensity. The initially unfocussed strip story is supplemented in its first three parts by similar text storieswhich constitute a serial of sortsprinted in white on a black background. In the fourth part, however, the text moves to the front of the book while Guidio's pictures appear in the latter part, mostly as full-page panels, without any accompanying text. The war has begun and the imagery of the Holocaust has already begun to appear, becoming progressively more horrific, and now the focus of all the text materials becomes much sharper and more intense. In the fifth and final part the Holocaust has moved to centre stage, depicted in drawings of a new and distinctive style by John Coulthart, which have empty blanks where an accompanying text might have beenand in photographs. A few introductory texts carry information about the actual 'Lord Haw-Haw', while the single brief textual insertion in the middle of the illustrative material is pertinently extreme. Lord Horror's last appearance, inside the back cover, is as a menacing silhouette; the back cover itself depicts a soberly staring Hitler and carries a quote from Dryden: "To die for faction is a common evil, but to be hanged for nonsense is the Devil."
Like Lord Horror, Hard Core Horror is a potpourri of the absurd, the irreverent, and the horrific, stirred with a certain gleefully-calculated malice, but like the novel, the graphic novel has a fundamentally serious purpose, which is ultimately clarified to a much higher degree. It is an accomplished and brilliantly disturbing work of art. Part three includes, for interested parties, a schematic map of Lord Horror's relationships with other literary works which is not entirely tongue-in-cheek, while the back cover credits describe the various elements, in turn, as A Savoy Venus and Tannhäuser Production, A Savoy Gustave Flaubert Production, A Savoy Ionesco Psychodrama Production, A Savoy Deuteronomy Production, A Savoy Parallax Production.
The second part of Hard Core Horror reprints comments from my 1989 review of the novel which might equally well be applied to the graphic novel, including the judgement that "As intoxicants go, this is bathtub gin toughened up with a strong dose of absolute alcoholnever mind the bouquet, just try to stop your head falling off... it belongs right up there on the top shelf with all the other great works of combatively offensive literature which you would not like your wives and servants to read." When I made that remark (referring to a comment made by the barrister appointed to the task of prosecuting D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover by way of testing the limits of the Obscene Publications Act) I did not realiseindeed, I could not have imaginedthat I would end up in court as an 'expert witness' attempting to save Lord Horror from condemnation under the same act.
LORD HORROR'S CAREER as a recording artist continued with the release in 1990 of a version of The Cramps' Garbageman, credited to The Savoy Gustave Flaubert Salammbo Orchestra with Lord Horror as vocalist. The cover art for the 12-inch single, depicting a crucified Horror, was taken from parts three and four of Hard Core Horror. As with the Savoy Blue Mondaywhich is a remarkably effective and shamelessly aggressive dance trackthe arrangement of the Garbageman backing track is very striking, commencing with an astonishing drum-roll and proceeding with explosive force.
Garbageman contrasts strongly with the debut single by Meng & Ecker (here impersonated by female vocalists borrowed from Primal Scream and the Happy Mondays), whose A-side is the flippantly obscene Shoot Yer Load. It also contrasts somewhat with the next Lord Horror release, this time accompanied by The Savoy King Cocaine Band which presents a version of Iggy Pop's Raw Power. On this occasion Horror's voice was again provided by the enthusiastic but eventually breathless Bobby Thompson; the backing track again makes extravagantly innovative use of percussion sounds.
All three of the Lord Horror singles are reprised on the CD album Savoy Wars, and are undoubtedly its most impressive tracks. The A-side of the Meng & Ecker single is also included, along with several tracks originally released as 12-inch singles featuring PJ Proby and one other item. The one song originally credited to Proby which is peripherally connected with the Lord Horror corpus is Hardcore: M97002, a remarkable drum-driven crescendo with a determinedly obscene lyric. The track's title incorporates the number under which Britton served his second prison sentence in 1993a sentence which followed a series of raids made on his shops after the successful appeal made in July 1992 against the seizure of Lord Horror. Although it would be libellous to suggest that these raids were made in reprisal, their timing is certainly suspicious; it might, of course, be similarly inappropriate to state flatly that Hardcore: M97002 ought to be regarded as a kind of counter-reprisal. The original version contrived to kick up another storm of tabloid controversy by virtue of the sleeve's flippantand presumably untrueclaim that the female voice echoing Proby's drunken oaths belonged to Madonna.
The odd track out on Savoy Wars (also released, in three different versions, on a CD single) is Reverbstorm, an original work written by Paul Temple whose upbeat xylophonic dance track sounds almost poppy enough to be a hit. The lyric is reprinted in Reverbstorm 1, the first of a new series of comic books starring Lord Horror, this time mostly drawn by John Coulthart (six of a projected eight have so far been released up to Spring 1999).
John Coulthart had earlier supplemented Guidio's work in the unusually restrained and quaintly charming one-off comic-book Monoshock, and the pen-work in Hard Core Horror 5is entirely his, but his work in Reverbstorm has grown more phantasmagorically effective with every issue, as he has gradually moved away from modes of depiction inherited from Guidio. An astonishing sequence of full-page illustrations in Reverbstorm 4, prefaced by one bearing the legend "Show me heaven..." depicts a host of strange monstersone of which was identified in Reverbstorm 1as "the Soul of the Virgin Mary"involved in acts of violence and extravagant consumption against various industrial cityscapes. These extraordinary works of art are not entirely without parallel in the world of modern comic-book illustration but their extreme grotesquerie also warrants comparison with the works of Bosch and Breughel, particularly with the latter's visual accounts of the Temptation of Saint Anthonywhich, via Flaubert and Gustave Moreau, became an important icon of the 19th-century Decadent Movements.
Reverbstorm is more of a patchwork than Hard Core Horror, but its main connecting thread reunites a noticeably uglier Lord Horror with avatars of Jessie Matthews and James Joyce in a contemporary setting. Each volume so far published follows the precedent set in the later volumes of Hard Core Horror of removing the greater part of the text to a separate section, allowing most of the illustrations to stand alone, save for the supplementary quotes eclectically plucked from a wide range of sources. The texts vary very markedly, although they all partake of Britton's distinctly surreal style, even more crowded with bizarre juxtapositions than Coulthart's artwork. The text of Reverbstorm 4, which deals with the creation of Meng and Ecker by the experimentally inclined Dr. Mengele, includes a notable passage which provides a thumbnail sketch of the ideological background against which Lord Horror's adventures ought to be set:
It may be worth noting that the publications on sale in virtually every newsagents in the land, running no risk of confrontation with the law, include numerous 'true crime' periodicals which feed and carry forward a widespread public fascination with serial murder, rape and mutilation, as well as several devoted to weapons technology. It is surely irrational to imagine that imagery of these kinds somehow becomes more dangerous when it is transplanted into a wholly imaginary and highly-stylized context. For the most part, Hard Core Horror, Meng & Ecker and Reverbstorm do opt not to glamourise violence; to the extent that their imagery is consistent and coherent it implies that violence is horrible and ridiculousbut insofar as Lord Horror's gloating razor-attacks can be considered a kind of glamourisation, they are surely infinitely less seductive than the ads and features in magazines which celebrate the killing power of weaponry with clinical detail and quasi-masturbatory glee. The battle to save the comic books from condemnation is being fought again and we must hope that it is eventually won; it would be no trivial matter were it to be lost.
The opportunity to participate alongside Michael Moorcock and social psychologist Guy Cumberbatchwho also gave evidence in favour of the book in the appeal against the Lord Horror destruction orderwas very welcome, all the more so as I had never been in a court of law before. It was an interesting experience.
During a trial which took place in 1953, after which six books by the pseudonymous Hank Janson were condemned as obscene and ordered to be destroyed under the provisions of an earlier law, the presiding magistrate became annoyed with the counsel for the defence because he wanted the members of the jury to read the books before pronouncing them obscene; the magistrate thought this an unnecessary waste of time. My knowledge of this remarkable incident, and my awareness of the extent to which men of the law respect precedent, helped me to be less astonished when His Honour Judge Humphries began the proceedings by inquiring of the counsel for the defence (Geoffrey Robertson QC) as to whether it was necessary that he and the two presiding magistrates should actually have read the book. Judge Humphries seemed rather annoyed when the defence counsel suggesteddiplomaticallythat he ought not to reject the appeal without first reading the book (it would, of course, be dangerously close to libel were I publicly to entertain the hypothesis that the reason why the court overturned the destruction order on the book, while upholding it in respect of the comic book, had less to do with the eloquent arguments of the defence than the confidence with which the three adjudicators could claim familiarity with the contents of what they so ardently desired to condemn).
It is, alas, the case that few would-be censors are capable of intelligently reading or viewing that which they wish to censor. They can count the swearwords or enumerate the acts of violence but questions of meaning remain obstinately outside the scope of their enquiry. While giving evidence in the court and observing the behaviour of those sitting in judgement I was forcibly struck by the gulf of incomprehension which separated Judge Humphries and his stubbornly silent fellows from the testimony of the witnesses and, by implication, from the world at large. When Guy Cumberbatch attempted to argue that Meng & Ecker 1was no more obscene than the best-selling weekly Viz, it was obvious that His Honour had never heard of Viz. Cumberbatch valiantly attempted to counter this ignorance by producing a copy from his briefcase and offering it for the judge's perusal, but to no avail (in the Janson appeal, counsel's observation that the titles under consideration were no more obscene than hundreds of others openly on sale in any bookshop or newsagents drew the response from one of the presiding judges that clearly they too ought to be bannedit was the resulting barrage of prosecutions that led to the revision of the law and the introduction of the present Obscene Publications Act).
At present, the situation seems to be that all the Savoy comics remain vulnerable to seizure at the whim of the police, and that most of the Savoy records are overtly or covertly proscribed by many shops (it hardly needs to be added that they are not to be heard on legally operated radio stations anywhere in the UK). I understand that when the police were instructed to return the copies of Lord Horror seized in the 1991 raid they gave back only 6 of the 150 copies taken, claiming that the rest had been distributed in connection with the court case. The Savoy Wars have not yet achieved a temporary ceasefire, let alone a permanent peace.
The censorious mind works from the assumption that unpleasant things are better hidden away. It presumes that what can be kept out of sight can be kept out of mind, and that this will work to the public good. This is a sad and a bad mistake. The kind of xenophobia which led, in Hitler's Germany, to the attempted extirpation of those Jews and Slavs unlucky enough to find themselves within the borders of the expanding Reich is by no means extinct. It is clearly visible in recently reunited Germany, in recently disunited Yugoslavia, and in the notion which William Joyce unwisely tried to adopt. If books and comic books which rudely, crudely, and bravely assault complacency with every sharp-edged rhetorical weapon that comes to hand are to be suppressed, the likelihood of that xenophobia continuing to fester unconfronted and unopposed will surely be increased. Sometimes, in respect of certain issues, we need to be challenged, to be provoked, to be shocked, and to be horrified. That is what horror fictionin all mediais supposed to do. David Britton is not a soothing writer; his various works are invariably discomfiting and frequently annoyingthat is the reason why, in my view, they are worth defending, and worth searching out.
As William Randolph Hearst once said: "News is what somebody wants to stop you printing; all the rest is ads." In spite of being entirely imaginary, the adventures of Lord Horror are news. Like most news nowadays, they are not good newsbut nor are they bad art. •
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