The woman tells two ghoulish men that she's lost her way and wants to reach Houma by dark.

Bad decision. She winds up dismembered and sinking in quicksand.

"And she never makes it to Houma," says Leah Jewett, LSU Libraries Special Collections exhibits coordinator.

But the woman does make it to Baton Rouge, where her story plays out in the Louisiana-themed 1950 comic "Horror We? What's Bayou?"

It's just one of the horror, sci-fi and fantasy tales Clarence John Laughlin collected that are now part of a new Special Collections' exhibit at LSU's Hill Memorial Library.

The show, "Seeing and 'The Eye of the Imagination': Fantasy, Surrealism, and Horror in the Clarence John Laughlin Book Collection," runs through Sept. 21.

It pays tribute to Laughlin's massive collection of books and magazines, which once totaled some 50,000.

"We think of Laughlin as a surrealist photographer, but he thought of himself first and foremost as a book collector," Jewett says. "And it was his intention that these books be made available for artists and writers to do research."

And they are available for anyone to read, even during this Special Collections' exhibit.

But surrealistic photography is how Laughlin made his name. Born in Lake Charles in 1905, Laughlin aspired to be a writer but discovered photography when he was 25.

He started out working as a freelance architectural photographer, landing jobs for Vogue magazine and the U.S. government. He later focused solely on personal projects, using a wide range of photographic styles and techniques, from geometric abstractions of architectural features to staged allegories using models and props.

Laughlin, who died at age 80 in 1985, is often credited with being the country's first surrealist photographer.

His best-known book, "Ghosts Along the Mississippi," was first published in 1948. That book is included in a separate case focusing on Laughlin's work, but it was only part of his world.

Much of his world he viewed through the "eye of the imagination."

"That's the description he used, and he saw these books and magazines as a way of fueling his imagination," says Michelle Melancon, assistant university archivist, who put this show together with Kristina Sutherland, technical services cataloging associate.

Sutherland points out that Laughlin didn't collect these works just to have them.

"It was always his intention to read them, and he did read them," Sutherland says. "He also kept an annotated catalog on everything he read."

Laughlin's notes are included in a case alongside a photograph of him standing among the book-filled shelves in his New Orleans home.

"There were certain points in his life when times were rough and he needed money," Sutherland says "So, he sold 20,000 volumes from his collection to Southern Illinois University in the 1960s. We purchased the rest."

The purchase was made in 1985 with support of the Friends of the LSU Libraries. Subjects include fantasy, science fiction, psychology, the occult and supernatural, dystopia, fantasy, fairy tales and horror.

Like the entrance to a B-movie theater, the exhibit includes enlarged copies of books and magazine covers splashed with Dracula, zombies and Godzilla.

There are also covers from his collection of titles from Arkham House press, the publishing company founded in 1939 to preserve the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who died in 1937 and whose work had appeared only in pulp magazines up until that time. The company later published other writers' works, all with book covers bearing surrealist art works.   

Then there are the exhibit's enlarged comic book pages highlighting the macabre and science fiction.

"Laughlin even collected 'Flash Gordon' comics, and it's interesting to see how 'Star Wars' is so much like them," Sutherland says.

"Look at the Ice Queen's hair, and it's a lot like Princess Leia's hairdo," Jewett says. "And Flash Gordon is frozen and kept prisoner in this story, just as Han Solo is frozen in 'The Empire Strikes Back.'"


Seeing and 'The Eye of the Imagination': Fantasy, Surrealism, and Horror in the Clarence John Laughlin Book Collection

Special Collections exhibit

 WHEN: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. first and third Saturdays of the month. Through Sept. 21. 

WHERE: Hill Memorial Library, LSU campus

ADMISSION/INFO: Free. (225) 578-6544 or lib.lsu.edu/special


Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.