Wednesday, August 10, 2011

James Lewicki: He made American Folklore Creepy

James Lewicki (1917-1979) illustrated many magazine covers and books for LIFE and others, mostly in the 50’s and 60’s.  I encountered him as a small child reading the The Life Treasury Of American Folklore (1961).  The Treasury stemmed from a series in LIFE Magazine, “The Folklore of America”, conceived and illustrated by Lewicki, which appeared in 1959-1960.

From the first full-page illustration of the “Sea of Darkness”, with gigantic sea monsters and blood-red waves, I was hooked.
The Sea of Darkness
 Some of the other illustrations were nice too…
A well-endowed mermaid lures Pascagoula Indians away from Jesus
…but I was fascinated by the lurid, scary images Lewicki produced.  Many of the people (and animals) seemed to be crazed and bloodthirsty, with staring eyes and overly-red mouths.  Even many of the illustrations for non-spooky tales were themselves spooky. 
The (Zombie?) Angel of Hadley
The images burned into my brain, and for a while there were some pages I had to skip past, but I kept going back to the Treasury again and again.  I recently flipped through the book 20-some years later, and there they were.  They’d been lurking there all those years…   
Bras Coupé
Sedna's amputated fingers become marine mammals
Ghost Pirates of Manhattan
Loup-Garou Attack!
The one illustration that really gave me the willies was the witch woman on pages 172-173, spinning off her skin.  Good story, too:  “As he watched, she spun her entire skin off her body as easy as the shucks off an ear of corn.  When it was all off, she was revealed as an enormous, tawny-yellow cat.  She took the skin and chucked it under the bed.  “Lay there, skin,” she told it, “with that fool husband of mine snoring in the bed until I come back.  I’m goin to have me some fun.””
The Witch Woman
Someone else, probably scarred for life by these images like me, even went about creating a life-size model of the witch woman.

The Treasury itself has a wide range of stories from 1492 to World War II, including a number of unusual ones.  But, needless to say, the illustrations were the most memorable part for me.


  1. Oh man, I love this book. Me and my brother got one as kids and I was mesmerized by it. I remember spending hours soaking in every word and spooky illustration. De' Witch Woman was probably my absolute favorite story and picture. Wow!

    My brother has the copy from our childhood but I am buying a copy for myself online right now. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  2. Holy cow! I just referenced this fascinating and terrifying anthology in a post about Kellyanne Conway and the witch woman who spun off her skin each night!

    1. I don't really see the connection - one is a frightening, mendacious, amoral hag and the other is a character from American folklore.