Tuesday, 21 June 2016

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #24 - The Tourist's Guide to Transylvania: A Traveller's Handbook of Count Dracula's Kingdom

In 1960, the Sierra Club published a tome entitled This is the American Earth, and while that isn't perhaps the most promising of titles, the book was to be a truly seminal tome. Conceived by David Brower, it was packed with photos and sprinkled with concise text pieces, and on the face of it that might not seem a winning combination, but Brower's key insight was that "a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic. The eye must be required to move about within the boundaries of the image, not encompass it all in one glance." And hence, out of the blue, Brower and the Sierra Club had invented the coffee table book. 

The volume was a hit and many more followed in its wake, with more and more publishers realising that there was a market for what were essentially picture books for grown-ups. Obviously lots of these were cynical exercises in recycling stock photographs and public domain art with only a minimum of text necessary. However by the mid '70s, the market was large enough to support more interesting endeavours, with the next milestone being the publication of a collection of Roger Dean's fantasy art in the tome Views (1975 Dragon's Dream). Views was such a success that it led Roger to team up with his brother Mal Dean, to form their own publishing house Paper Tiger, which brought to the world lavish books showcasing the art of the likes of Rodney Matthews, Chris Achilleos and Boris Vallejo. 

Naturally other publishers jumped on the fantasy art bandwagon, for after all most publishing houses had shelves full of cover art just waiting to be recycled. But while Paper Tiger and Dragon's Dream produced properly curated collections with insightful text about the artists, their careers and their techniques, how did one create a book from assorted pieces by divers hands and originally intended for very separate purposes? Well, while some hoped that just the allure of plenty of spaceships and dragons, plus often some naked ladies would be enough, others took a more creative approach...

...And a brilliant example of this was a tome produced by Octopus Books - The Tourist's Guide to Transylvania:  A Traveller's Handbook of Count Dracula's Kingdom. First published in March 1981, this large format hardback purported to be written by one Count Ignatius de Ludes, but was actually created by Stewart Cowley & associates. And while it only had a mere 78 pages, what a 78 pages they were, featuring glorious art from the likes of  Les Edwards, Alan Lee, Terry Oakes, Peter Goodfellow, and Alan Hood. Now I discovered this tome not long after its publication, on the shelves of the local supermarket of all places if I recall correctly, and even then I recognised several of the pictures had graced the covers of various horror and fantasy tomes I had seen or read. However that hardly mattered, as these were the full paintings, uncluttered with titles and taglines, and looking absolutely marvellous on large glossy pages. The pictures really came to life once liberated from diminished paperback sizes - a perfect example of Dave Brower's insight quoted above, and I'm sure I am not alone in that seeing these familiar bits of cover art reproduced in a massively lavishly format was actually a major attraction...

However where the book would have a lasting appeal, was the wonderful text that linked all the art together. For this was indeed a comprehensive guide to the strange land of Transylvania... Or rather the Transylvania of the popular imagination - a land of night (and high electricity bills presumably) filled with all kinds of weird supernatural beings. However, the Transylvania conjured up by the quill of Count de Ludes was a far more exotic place than the mittel-European, demi-Victorian landscape built on the imagery of Universal and Hammer movies. Here trolls and ogres stalked the mountain passes alongside the more expected werewolves, and high castles were as likely to be home to arch mages as vampire nobility. It is a land riddled with dark magic, where past mingles with the present and strange daemons open vistas to eldritch cosmic spaces.

Now obviously the creation of this somewhat idiosyncratic version of Dracula's homeland was born from necessity, as the paintings to be featured in the tome were often pieces that had graced the covers of SF or fantasy novels. However as the old saying goes necessity is the mother of invention, and the resulting guidebook actually delivers a rather unique vision all of its own. The good Count's text is written with the occasional slip of the tongue into cheek and a knowing wink, generally having fun with the concept of writing a tourist guide to a place so full of monstrous beings and occult hazards that no one in their right mind would take a holiday there. However at the same time, there's clearly a good deal of thought and imagination gone into creating this travelogue from an alternative world, and as an older wiser fellow I now can recognise a reasonable amount of research went into it too, with some references to hermetic magic and a large chunks of folklore informing the guide. 

The only real downside is that while the subtitle trumpets the name of Dracula and the dust-jacket prominently features a Count clearly modelled on Sir Christopher Lee (plus he appears on the actual boards of the book as seen below), the actual text only ever makes passing references to Transylvania's most infamous son. However despite this being a bit of an initial disappointment, the wealth of weird and macabre lore presented more than make up for his absence. The Tourist's Guide to Transylvania summons up an entertaining and imaginative realm of dark fantasy, the kind of meeting of magic and gothic than would later be explored in Dungeons & Dragons' Ravenloft campaign setting and darker fantasy RPGs such as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - indeed games masters looking for a blend of fantasy and horror for their game will find much fuel for their imaginations in this tome. 

All in all, this is a rather fun tome to have on your shelves, perfect for some armchair travelling in the darker realms of the imagination. And there are still plenty of copies in decent condition out there - so then if you fancy a trip to the Count's homeland, get searching! 


Anonymous said...

This looks very interesting. One of my favourite documentaries is Calvin Floyd's "In Search of Dracula"(1975). There is an accompanying book, also. This looks in the same vein.

Anonymous said...

Genuinely no pun intended.

Anonymous said...

I bought this book recently. I've no idea how it slipped under my radar until Jim flagged it/blogged it. I can only say they didn't have it in the local library when I was a child. It makes an excellent companion piece to Hamlyn/ Usbourne books.
I wonder how many other wee gems in the same vein (I'm at it again) are put there?