Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Curwen Legacy

The talented Jason McKittrick brings us this portrait of Joseph Curwen from Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward". There's so much to like about this. The work is an actual oil painting, not a textured print, and the custom plaque is a wonderful touch.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Aetheric Compass

Traveling through non-Euclidean space can be dangerously disorienting. Thankfully, Eric Elliot has provided us with this handy aetheric compass to assist in mapping traversals.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cthulhu Fhtagn! Clarke Edition.

Andy Clarke brings us this this unusual Cthulhu idol. It's a very different take from most depictions, most notably the lack of tentacles. What makes it even more impressive, at least in my eyes, is the fact it was crafted from paper mache, toothpicks, and hot glue. Browse through the rest of his gallery and you'll see some really inventive props created just for the hell of it, including a neat little "haunted boardgame".

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

1930 Telegram

From "combomphotos" on Flickr, some high resolution scans of a blank telegram from 1930. The set includes both the front and back.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Stop Motion Nightgaunt

In an alternate universe not too far from our own, George Pal's 1978 production of "The Call of Cthulhu" is still hailed as a classic. After his attempted production of "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" fell apart because of rights problems with the estate of Lester Dent, Pal was searching for a possible franchise. Following up on a suggestion from writer Phillip Jose Farmer, who had drafted one of the Doc Savage screenplays, he discovered the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

It was a classic example of the right story at the right time. Pal was still bitter about the studio's effort to "camp up" his Doc Savage film and decided "The Call of Cthulhu" would be a serious drama. Suprisingly, the studio agreed, thanks in no small part to the box office success of period efforts like "Chinatown" and "The Sting". Michael Rennie, David Suchet, and Michael York were signed to star, but it was veteran character actor George Coulouris who would garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting actor in the role of "Old Castro".

Despite it's relatively modest budget the film boasted incredible animated sequences produced by Ray Harryhausen and Gregory Jein. For over a year after principal photography ended the pair slaved away in a small studio bringing "Cthulhu" to life using a new filming technique. In traditional stop motion animation the puppets are moved a fraction of an inch each time a frame of film is clicked off. When projected at normal speed those individual frames blend together to produce the illusion of a living creature, but the results can be jerky and look artificial. Harryhausen and Jein used small rods to actually move the puppet while the film was being exposed, producing a far smoother and more realistic blurring effect. The puppet footage was then combined with additional rotoscoped effects and the live action plates in one of the new, high registration optical printers developed for Star Wars. The result was an epic sequence that helped redefine the capabilities of stop motion animation.

That exercise in alt history is my hopefully entertaining way of introducing this old school animation puppet of a nightgaunt from Richard Svensson. It has a very Harryhausen-esque feel, and I mean that as a high compliment. You can see it in action over here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Dragon Age

Among other things, Greg Aronowitz of BarnYard FX was the production designer for the "Dragon Age: Redemption" web videos starring Felicia Day. He's blogged a detailed look at the creation of the props and set pieces for the series. Even with a relatively small budget he was able to create some impressive props.

If you have time I'd suggest browsing through the entire blog. There's an incredible level of talent on display. One of the things I really like is his dedication to avoiding the "generic fantasy" look of most low-budget productions. The lore of the game helps with some of that, but he designed a goodly number of custom-made props that really shine.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Dragon Embryo

"Magna est veritas" brings us this well preserved dragon embryo. Made from polymer clay over an aluminum foil armature. The flaking skin effect is produced by a layer of liquid latex.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Demon Pig

Jonas Laberg wanted to surprise some young girls with a special holiday treat made from sweet, delicious marzipan. The result is an evil demon pig so disturbing he decided it was best to surprise them with something else. Click through on the link for a full gallery of the pig's creation.

I bring this to you in the spirit of the Christmas, and because I can't be the only one thinking it would make an awesome gift. It's amazing how lifelike the marzipan looks. Sweet Jebus, can you imagine how cool it would be to sculpt up some Lovecraftian-style specimens from this stuff for Halloween?

Via Boing Boing.

Update: I'm warning you now that this link is totally over the top, but it ably demonstrates the horrific possibilities of marzipan. Go forward at your own peril.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Necromancer's Amulet

Mark and David Green bring us this nicely done necromancer's amulet.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bottled Beasts

From "das Zny", his first bottled specimens.

I think the contamination problem is coming from the cloth identification tag. As he points out, bacterial growth inside a specimen intended for show isn't necessarily a bad thing. Creatures made from polymer clay will shrug it off, but any acrylic paints applied to the creature will eventually be destroyed.

The best way to prevent contamination is to give the jar and anything going inside a good washing with hot soapy water. Follow that up by adding a few grains of sodium metabisulfite to the preservative fluid and you'll have a sterile environment that won't support any unwanted growth. It's safe, easy to use, and you can pick it up on Amazon for pocket change. A one pound supply will be enough for a lifetime's worth of bottled specimen props.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Curious Case of the Manufactured Manuscripts

An interesting look at the history of created books. The author has an intriguing theory that the Voynich Manuscript may be a historical example of the kind of prop tomes frequently discussed here.

Via Eric Hart's Prop Agenda.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hospital and Asylum Restraints of the 1920s

Last week I was lucky enough to score a near mint condition copy of a hospital and doctor's supply catalog from 1922. Reading through it over the weekend I was struck by how sophisticated the technology actually was. With the exception of modern electronics and automation I expect a doctor from nearly a century ago would recognize everything in a modern hospital or clinic. Dressings, surgical tools, examination's all the same, at least to the untrained eye of a layman.

Here's a page of patient restraints, including prices. There's no doubt gear like this could be cruelly misused, but the devices seem genuinely humane. The restraint sheet is a far cry from the infamous "Utica Crib" that was used at the New York State Lunatic Asylum just down the road from my home. Click through for the high resolution version.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Slime

Allen Hopps of Stiltbeast Studios is an incredibly creative guy. One of the things I like about him the most is that he's able to see the prop possibilities behind the simplest of materials. In this video he demonstrates how simple school glue and borax produces a polymerized goo that can be used to create everything from slime and ectoplasm to zombie makeup and icicles. It's so cheap to make that you can whip up a gallon for less than the price of lunch at a fast food joint.

I made some small batches of this stuff years ago as a kitchen science project with the kids, but it never clicked just how useful it could be.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Angell Box

"Much of the material which I correlated will be later published by the American Archaeological Society, but there was one box which I found exceedingly puzzling, and which I felt much averse from shewing to other eyes. It had been locked, and I did not find the key till it occurred to me to examine the personal ring which the professor carried always in his pocket. Then indeed I succeeded in opening it, but when I did so seemed only to be confronted by a greater and more closely locked barrier. For what could be the meaning of the queer clay bas-relief and the disjointed jottings, ramblings, and cuttings which I found? Had my uncle, in his latter years, become credulous of the most superficial impostures?"

Jason McKittrick brings us this recreation of the late Prof. Angell's mysterious box from "The Call of Cthulhu". This is one of those projects that successfully uses a collection of props to tell a story. Each little bit, from a journal entry to a notation on a photograph, helps build up the narrative. That kind of narrative by accretion requires both quality and quantity to have an impact. I can just imagine the hours of work that went into pulling this off.

This shot illustrates one of the difficulties in putting together a set like this. You not only have to create items like the bas-relief and idol that are included with it, but all of the supplementary props pictured in the photographs. It's a huge effort, whether you do it physically or via Photoshop.

You can see more pictures of the complete set in it's listing on Ebay. Given the time it took to put it together I expect it will go for a goodly sum.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Travelling Spellbook

Russian leathercrafter "Shattan" brings us this beautiful spellbook. It's a personal bias, but I bet it would be spectacular after an aging treatment. Wear and tear along the edges, accumulated grime in the crevices, flakes of the gilding worn off...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Oracle

K.M. Kotulak brings us this intriguing amulet. I believe it's polymer clay with a glass taxidermy eye.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


David Gagne over at Dark Artifacts brings us this tutorial on upgrading a prop skull with new acrylic teeth. I believe the base skull is one of the Bucky-style 3rd class medical models from the Anatomical Chart Company.

"Acrylic teeth, the kind used to make dentures, come in little plastic trays, separating the top, bottom, front and back teeth. Very pratical; you don't have to guess which tooth goes where (although mouth anatomy is fairly simple).

I bought mine on ebay; it cost about 20$ including shipping from china, and I have 6 complete sets of teeth."

I never would have thought to source choppers like this. In hindsight it's obvious the ones used for dentures had to come from somewhere. It just never occured to me that full sets of human teeth were so cheap and easy to get.

These would be ideal for all kinds of gaffs and faux specimens. In the past commenters have mentioned how creepy it is to see a non-humanoid creature with human teeth. You could create some very disturbing dentition with a full set or mix and match incisors, molars, and canines for a more inhuman look.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Not of This Earth

Professional gaff artist Takeshi Yamada brings us this alien skull.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Down to the Depths

The talented Rev. Marx brings us the third installment of his prop diving helmet build. It's particularly impressive because he's using such humble materials to craft it.

"I knew I would need some ventilation, so I searched around the shop for a suitable vent cover. I looked all through my plastic parts bin and found nothing useful. I tried out a couple of plastic bottle caps, but couldn't find anything that looked right. Then, I noticed something that had been sitting on my worktable the whole time. I had always intended on adding some of those cheap l.e.d. touch lights to the front breast plate to serve as headlights. I had one torn apart to get ready to paint the casing when I noticed that the casing itself would make a good vent cover. I cut out a small piece of chromed wire mesh from a drawer divider (used for separating silverware in a kitchen drawer) and fixed it with hot glue to the inside of the plastic casing."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Necronomicon, Petrie Edition

Brandon Petrie brings us this nicely done Necronomicon. The stylized geometric motifs are a nice callback to traditional Islamic bookmaking.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cthulhu Fhtagn! Necropolis Edition.

Angela Rose from Necropolis Studios brings us this clay Cthulhu idol. Sadly, it appears to no longer be in production. Copies should be available before the end of the month.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Trust No One

Another wonderful Lovecraftian tableau from Florian Mellies. This one is set in the 1950s, a woefully underused time frame in the Mythos.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Real Adventure Journal

Jason Rippetoe sent over this real-life example of an adventurer's journal. From 1868, the notes and ephemera of Charles Shepherd's journey through Tsarist Russia.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Miskatonic Merkur

Marcos Saintout sent over this cool little mockup of a Merkur II with Miskatonic expedition markings.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wings Over Antarctica: The Waffling

Based on feedback from the comments and some emails I'm having second thoughts about revising the Miskatonic Antarctic patch.

As I said before, I'm pretty sure Lovecraft meant the aircraft used by the Dyer expedition to be the Dornier Do-J "Wal". On the other hand, the specific mention of securing the landing skis almost certainly identifies the plane as the Dornier Do-B "Merkur II".

From a realism standpoint I think the scale tips in the Merkur's favor. The story specifies that the plane has a range of at least 800 miles and a ceiling of 24,000 feet. The Do-B can hit those targets with relatively minor modifications, like swapping out the BMW VI engine for a BMW VII with a supercharger.

Ironically, the BMW VII is the same engine Wolfgang von Gronau used on the modified Dornier Wal he flew around the world shortly after Lovecraft wrote the story. With a pair of them the plane easily had a range of 1000 miles, but it's service ceiling was only 11,500 feet. The problem with climbing higher was the Wal's tremendous weight. Even with superchargers the engines didn't have the performance to hit the 24,000 ceiling "At the Mountains of Madness" demands.

Frankly, I don't think Lovecraft cared a whit about the flight ceiling issue, but getting the Wal to meet the criteria he sets out would take some major work. The story contains several mentions that the plane was lightened for Dyer and Danforth's final flight, but I can't see the aircraft's performance more than doubling just by stripping the interior. Beyond that we could speculate the expedition aircraft were already considerably lighter than the stock Wal. The easiest approach would be to cut the plane's weight by replacing some of the steel frame with aluminum. That's still a pretty radical move, but given Pabodie's canon expertise in lightweight aluminum frame construction it's not beyond the bounds of belief.

Ultimately, what plane was used seems to come down to taste. Rely on logic and historical accuracy and it's the Merkur II. Trust in Lovecraft's original intent and it's probably the Wal. I can see equally valid reasons for embracing either.

So what do you think? I've already invested a considerable amount of time developing prop photographs and imagery using the Wal. I'm willing to put the same effort into redoing all of it with the Merkur II.

Update: I want to thank everyone who has weighed in, both in the comments and via email. Even the ones pointing out that I'm being a bit obsessive. Heh. I'm in no rush to make a final decision and ultimately it only really matters for the next run of swag. That won't be happening until after the first of the year, so there's plenty of time to fiddle with things.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Spawn of Cthulhu

The incredibly talented Simon Lee brings us the spawn of Cthulhu. He has a real gift for capturing the look of tortured flesh, and I mean that as a high compliment. His technique is very reminiscent of Berni Wrightson's best work.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


The Miskatonic University pennant makes a cameo appearance in this article on custom headlamps by Amanda Kooser.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stop! A Head.

The invaluable CoastConFan posted a link to these goatskin shrunken heads in the comments for yesterday's post. As he pointed out, for less than $20 bucks these would make an ideal base for crafting your own tsantsa. They're a bit goofy as is, but could be turned into real showpieces with a little bit of remolding and some patination.

(My apologies for the horrible joke in the title, but it's one near and dear to my heart. One of the reasons I went into broadcasting is because of the "Stop! A Head." bit by Steve Dahl and Garry Meier. It originally happened in the summer of 1981 when I happened to be visiting relatives in the Chicago area, and to this day it's one of the funniest and most horrific things I've ever heard on radio.

A nasty car accident in the city resulted in a gruesome decapitation death during rush hour. Making the whole thing even more terrible was the fact that rescue workers couldn't find the victim's head. As soon as the news broke Dahl and Meier speculated about where the missing head might be, and eventually launched a scavenger hunt with prizes to locate it.

Years later I learned the bit was a set-up, but to this day I'm in awe at the sheer hilarious perversity of it.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Trophy

From Kumo-No-Kuchi, a classic-style shrunken head. I'm a sucker for tableau displays filled with adventuring gear.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dem Bones

Bryony Tidball brings us this fossilized dragon. Yet another example of how the real history of our planet is being hidden from view.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wings Over Antarctica, Part Trois

I had originally planned to show the new Miskatonic Antarctic expedition logo tomorrow, but things went better than expected and I was able to finish the roughs early. These are still subject to change, but they're pretty close to being ready. Other than replacing the Dornier Wal with the Dornier Merkur II the changes are relatively minor.

First off, the black and white line art. This would be used for documents, letterheads, envelopes, and such. If it goes over well I'll do a version with slightly heavier line widths and a little grain for a print reproduction.

Next, the color version of the logo. This will be used for small items like the patches and pins. The outer ring has been changed from light grey to Miskatonic red. It's a good tie-in to the University logo and makes the whole design a lot snappier.

Here's a variant of the color logo with more of an Art Deco feel. It takes advantage of countershading to provide dimensionality and uses more muted colors. This is what I'd like to use for larger reproductions like T-shirts.

I still need to work out a stencil version, but these should cover most uses. As always, your thoughts are appreciated.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bottled Wyvern

"JaciJ" brings us this example of a preserved wyvern fetus. It's a good example of how viewing angle can have a huge effect on how a preserved specimen looks.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wings Over Antarctica, Part Deux

Yesterday I wrote about the history of the Miskatonic University Antarctic expedition logo. Today I want to discuss why the second version of that design used the Dornier Do-J "Wal" as the expedition aircraft, and what ultimately made me change my mind about that identification. If you're not into historical research, or are easily bored, I'd suggest skipping to the end.

The text of Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" provides few hard details about what model of aircraft was flown by Dyer's party. That's understandable given that he was more concerned with crafting a thrilling weird tale than a treatise on aviation. Complicating things is the fact that the information he does share is somewhat confusing. Again, that's not unexpected. Lovecraft was a master at incorporating historic and scientific details that would give his stories a sense of believability, but he never let the real world get in the way of the story. Surprisingly, the vague details in the story point to a single specific aircraft. Here is what he tells us:

"Four large Dornier aƫroplanes, designed especially for the tremendous altitude flying necessary on the antarctic plateau and with added fuel-warming and quick-starting devices worked out by Pabodie, could transport our entire expedition from a base at the edge of the great ice barrier to various suitable inland points, and from these points a sufficient quota of dogs would serve us."

"Later, when not using all the other planes for moving apparatus, we would employ one or two in a shuttle transportation service between this cache and another permanent base on the great plateau from 600 to 700 miles southward, beyond Beardmore Glacier."

"Danforth and I, studying the notes made by Pabodie in his afternoon flight and checking up with a sextant, had calculated that the lowest available pass in the range lay somewhat to the right of us, within sight of camp, and about 23,000 or 24,000 feet above sea-level."

"We were now, after a slow ascent, at a height of 23,570 feet according to the aneroid; and had left the region of clinging snow definitely below us."

"It did not seem necessary to protect the plane with a snow banking for so brief a time and in so comfortable an absence of high winds at this level; hence we merely saw that the landing skis were safely lodged, and that the vital parts of the mechanism were guarded against the cold."

"At a very high level there must have been great disturbance, since the ice-dust clouds of the zenith were doing all sorts of fantastic things; but at 24,000 feet, the height we needed for the pass, we found navigation quite practicable."

Put that all together and you have the Dyer expedition's airplane - a Dornier model available in late 1929 to early 1930 with a flight range of at least 800 miles and a maximum flight ceiling at or above 24,000 feet. Oh, and it has to have landing skis. There's a good deal of wiggle room about the plane's flight characteristics based on the conjectural modifications carried out by Dornier and Frank Pabodie, but the presence of landing skis narrows it down to only one plane: the Dornier Do-B, most likely the "Merkur II" variant.

All of the other general aviation Dorniers at the time were flying boats that wouldn't need skis to touch down on ice and snow. In fact, the addition of skis to the aircraft, most likely attached to the wingtips, would have been downright dangerous. A block of ice or dip in the terrain could have catastrophically ripped apart the wing.

That leads to an obvious question. Why did I insist that the expedition used the Dornier Do-J "Wal" up until now, when Lovecraft's mention of landing skis conclusively identified the aircraft?

The answer is that I deferred to the expertise of some of the best Lovecraft scholars in the world. The identification of the Wal as the Dyer party's aircraft appears in S.T. Joshi's The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft and again in The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories , credited to Jason C. Eckhardt. From the former:

"More exactly, as Jason C. Eckhardt ("Behind the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraft and the Antarctic in 1930," Lovecraft Studies No. 14 [Spring 1987]:31-38) points out, Dornier Do-J "Wal" airplanes, a twin-engine, single-wing flying boat used primarily for passenger service."

"The Dornier-Wal planes were capable of carrying 7000 pounds of cargo. Eckhardt, basing his calculations on those supplied by Byrd, has conjectured that the total cargo of the Miskatonic Expedition may have come to about 21,000 pounds (12 men = 2400 lbs.; 36 dogs [80 lbs each] = 2880 lbs.; human food = 2160 lbs.; dog food = 3888 lbs.; gasoline = 9000 lbs.; miscellaneous cargo = 1300 lbs.), well within the capacity of the four planes."

That's the citation I relied on. Eckhardt's scholarship makes perfect sense, and is an example of the kind of historical research I delight in, but it ignores the presence of landing skis on the aircraft. I want to make clear that I'm not pointing a finger of blame at either Eckhardt or Joshi, who I have an immense amount of respect for. I just think the seemingly trivial issue of the skis has more importance than they do.

What complicates matters even further is that I think Lovecraft intended the planes to be Wals. We know that Roald Amundsen's expeditions to both the North and South polar areas were among his inspirations for "At the Mountains of Madness". The Wal seems perfect for polar exploration, as Amundsen demonstrated during his historic attempt at reaching the North Pole in 1925. The tough aluminum hull was ideal for operations on ice or water, the dual engines provided a comforting measure of redundancy in case of trouble, and the sheer carrying capacity of the plane allowed for extended operations.

More intriguingly, the Wal's long distance flying characteristics were front page news in the months leading up to Lovecraft writing ATMOM. He penned the tale in February and March of 1931. On August 26th, 1930 Wolfgang von Gronau and his crew completed an epic flight across the Atlantic and landed in the Hudson at New York City. His plane was one of the pair used by Amundsen on his expedition, refurbished and repaired since it's previous adventure. For the rest of the year von Gonau made regular appearances in the news as he and his crew were feted at events across the United States and Europe.

Given all that I don't think it's too much of a stretch that the gleaming silver hull of the Wal was what Lovecraft pictured in his mind as the story of the Dyer expedition flowed out of his pen. It's a distinctive, beautiful plane with a sterling record of exploration and long distance flight that's perfect for the needs of the story.

Then Lovecraft adds landing skis and...poof...reality replaces the Wal with the Merkur II.

Later this week I'll go over a few of the modifications the stock Merkur II would need to bring it in line with Lovecraft's story. Ironically, most of them are the same ones our old friend Herr von Gronau was secretly carrying out on a brand new version of the Wal at the same time ATMOM was being written. Following that I'll have the new logo for the Miskatonic Antarctic expedition featuring the Merkur II.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wings Over Antarctica

The history of this blog is intimately tied to my love for H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness". Most of the early material was based on a desire to bring that story to life, ultimately culminating in the "Dyer Materials" prop set. Along the way I produced my first product in September of 2008, the original "Wings Over Antarctica" expedition patch.

Saying it was a quick and dirty effort would be kind. The rather generic plane based on the DC-3 is a glaring anachronism and the layout is what you would expect from an amateur just getting familiar with Adobe Illustrator. On the bright side, the outline of Antarctica is consistent with what was known in the late 20s.

A few months later the second version of the "Wings Over Antarctica" design debuted.

This was a definite improvement. The font was a weighted version of Futura released in 1927. The generic DC-3 knockoff was replaced by the Dornier Do-J "Wal" flying boat based on a reference in S.T. Joshi's extensively footnoted version of "At the Mountains of Madness" in "The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft". It's a visually interesting aircraft and it's reinforced hull could easily handle landing on water, ice, or snow.

All in all, the second iteration was a pretty well designed and historically accurate effort.

Except it wasn't.

As much as I like it there are two problems with the second version of the patch, and the design as a whole. The first is the lack of separation between the black outline of the Dornier Wal and the dark blue background of the design. On a computer screen it looks fine. In real life it's muddy.

The actual patch shouldn't have come out nearly as well as it did, but I was saved by a quirk of the manufacturing process. An embroidered patch isn't just a flat representation of the original artwork, but a three dimensional reproduction. The threads used to recreate the design are physically raised from the backing cloth and have a perceivable texture caused by the orientation of the threads. More importantly, the threads get polished as they move through the high speed sewing machine. Because of that they're reflective and produce highlights along the edges of the raised design elements. That effect saved the patch.

The second problem with the design is the primary reason I'm writing this.

Put simply, there's no possible way the Dornier Wal was the plane used by the Miskatonic Antarctic expedition.

More about that tomorrow.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Dragon Tooth Scrimshaw

Caerban brings us this example of scrimshaw inscribed on a dragon's tooth. If you thought harpooning whales was hard...