Lee Brown Coye created illustrations that, at first glance, look whimsical and cartoonish. Spend more than a few minutes staring at his black-and-white drawings, however, and the seemingly-innocuous work will begin to reveal itself as something much more spine-chilling. Take, for example, his 1973 work "Murgunstrumm," originally used as the cover for a collection of horror short stories by writer Huge B. Cave's. The scratchboard image depicts a giant, frog-like creature with big fangs and a hunchback emerging from a doorway with a lantern, as if he's greeting a late-night guest. The character is almost cute, appearing like the cantankerous comic relief in a children's book by Brian Jacques. But look at Coye's complementary "Murgunstrumm's Workroom," and you'll see a disemboweled woman on a medieval-looking torture bed, clearly the late-night guest awaiting the creature's visit.
"This content wasn't designed for mass acceptance—it existed to delve deep into the possibilities of unrestrained horror and fantasy," write Caleb Braaten and Mike Hunchback, co-editors of the text Pulp Macabre: The Art of Lee Brown Coye's Final and Darkest Era (out now via publisher Feral House and record label Sacred Bones). The book showcases Coye's prolific output of illustrations for publications like Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, as well as artwork used for stories by cult writers like August Derleth, Ray Bradbury, and H.P. Lovecraft.
Coye may not be a name-brand artist, but he made work that brands itself into your brain. His style and sensibilities have been admired among the horror fan community for decades, and hopefully
Pulp Macabre will continue to widen his fanbase, burning images of well-dressed demons and fiendish souls into the minds of art lovers who maybe didn't get down with B-grade horror flicks and underground fanzines. VICE interviewed Braaten and Hunchback via email to discuss Coye's legacy, and they described him as the type of guy who would literally walk into a local bar with a human head in a jar of formaldehyde.
VICE: Do you remember where you originally saw Coye's work?
Caleb Braaten: I'm certain that the first time I saw Coye's work was when Mike [Hunchback] and I were working together at Academy Records in Brooklyn. It must have been about eight years ago or so. If memory serves me, Mike was working on some art at the time for his band Hunchback. I think one of the options was a Coye piece and he was trying to find the rights to use it. He showed me the piece and I was blown away.
Mike Hunchback: I saw his stuff in the pages of a Weird Tales issue I bought at Chiller Theatre in New York. But seeing the cover of Whispers #3 really broke my mind. I was a devotee immediately after that. We ended up using that image for the cover of Pulp Macabre.
How would you describe Coye's style to someone unfamiliar without using the terms "pulp" or "macabre"?
Hunchback: Well, as you know, terminology is the stage that comes only after a phenomenon exists. Coye was one of those guys who was doing something that took decades for other people to catch up to. He was far ahead of his time creating work with a purposeful "outsider" or "naïve" slant to it, to use the terms applied to later, similar work done in everything from Underground Comix to punk show flyers.
What was your original goal with Pulp Macabre? What do you hope readers get out of the text?
Braaten: In my mind the goal of this book was to bring some attention to a marginalized artist who we feel was truly unique. Someone who deserves to be recognized outside of the pulp niche. I hope that we have turned at least a few more people on to this beautiful work.
Hunchback: My greatest hope was to reach kids that were into strange art. Pulp fans already know Coye and he's huge to fans of Weird Fiction. But I felt younger kids who are into everything from Mike Diana comics to bizarre cartoons kind of need to learn about this monumental artist. Creating a book that would reach them due to content and affordability was a big goal.
What do you find most compelling about the artist? Is there something in particular about his illustration/aesthetic style that excites you most?
Braaten: I love the stark beauty he finds in the shadows. I love that he can infuse humor into his horror.
Hunchback: The thrill of horror and the macabre wears off extremely quickly when it's interpreted too seriously. If it's not balanced with either humor or romance, it just gets boring. There's both a loneliness and a sense of humor to Coye's work that makes him extremely unique, and that's what makes his horror illustrations pieces of art.
While serving a purpose in aiding an already-authored story, Coye was also making personal artwork that, to me, always has a wink of pointing at the grand absurdity of human existence to it. You don't typically find that in what's assumed to be simple, cheap illustration work. Coye found that he could up the dark content in his art enormously if he went away from an approach of realism.
Was there a specific way you guys wanted to organize the book?
Hunchback: We wanted it to be chronological, but strict chronology worked against having the chapters each represent a book or title. So the book sort of compartmentalizes each book illustration assignment and looks at the people and circumstances surrounding it.
Did Coye have a cult following prior to his death?
Braaten: He did in the 70s and that's how he got back to illustrating. He found fans in people like Stuart David Schiff and David Drake.
Hunchback: The real focus of the book is how the fan community not only got Coye drawing again, but also fostered the most incredible period of his art in the 70s. Coye was known locally for many different kinds of art projects, but overall he was certainly associated with Weird Tales and later the publisher Arkham House.
Based on your research, what can you tell me about Lee Brown Coye as a person? Besides working with cadavers and having an interest in human anatomy, what were his personality and interests like? Was he a dark guy?
Hunchback: You know, we have this modern connotation to the word "dark" wherein it implies that someone might be capable, or prone to, violence. Coye was literally the kind of guy who would walk into his local bar with a human head in a jar of formaldehyde (a gift from a friend in the medical field), order shots for it, then pour the shots into the jar. As sick as that may seem to the internet generation, this morbidity never spilled over into violence against other people; it was all a part of a deep fascination with human life and physicality, with a slyness as to whether or not it mattered and how. Coye was largely an enjoyable person to be around; he cared for his family and friends greatly.
'Modern Nero' (1974-1975)
What was the illness Coye suffered in the 70s? Was it the stroke that ultimately killed him? How exactly did that first brush with mortality affect his artwork?
Hunchback: He was affected by his illnesses greatly. Among them are the strokes and bursitis, with some addiction problems regarding the medication he was given. But it was a heart attack that resulted in his passing in 1981. The strokes made him fight hard to reclaim his drawing ability and, combined with the sense of mortality they surely inspired, were definitely a motivator for someone with Coye's mindset.
Why do you think Coye should be remembered? What about his art makes him unique?
Hunchback: Coye should be remembered for not only his art but his spirit and how it can relate to anyone. We live our lives trapped in each day, thinking we'll get to do something that really matters to us later, later, always later. Coye is an inspiration because he defined his own success. So many of that era's popular artists were simply doing what was asked of them, thinking they could do personal work in private, or later. Not Coye. Though it was painful in every way, Coye struggled to put his artistic self first. It should be no shock that those are the people that eventually get books written about them.
'Pulp Macabre' is out now through Feral House publishers and Sacred Bones Records. Order the book here.
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