Canonical writers of popular fiction — Stevenson, Wells, Conan Doyle, Poe— are usually renowned for lucid prose, deft allegory, vivid description, and, most of all, a mastery of pacing. H.P. Lovecraft is a titanic — or as he would say, a Cyclopean — exception. His prose is a clotted, lumbering mush, as if a septuagenarian academician had decided to rewrite “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an anthropological treatise. His use of allegory and myth is so preposterously labored it makes Joseph Campbell look coherent and insightful. His descriptions have all the obfuscatory imprecision of a Hillary Clinton stump speech. His pacing is, um, inutterably amorphous. His plots grind out with audible squeals and protests — standard suspense tropes slowed down till they become first laughable, then abstract. Foreshadowings don’t so much slither up as they thump to earth like pratfalls; surprise twists leap out like barbituate-stunned glaciars; even climactic chase scenes are methodically borified with extraneous matter and irrelevant observations. Lovecraft makes the mystical mundane and the exciting dull — he is Golden Age pulps’master pedant.
He’s also one of my favorite writers. Lovecraft had an enormously individual imagination and a supergeek’s fascinated enthusiasm with the minutia of self-contained systems. Jammed into a popular framework, his somnolent ineptitude and undeniable creativity combined with a whole closet-full of neurosis to produce a body of work which is charmingly ludicrous, poetically prosaic, and shot through with a quivering, submerged anxiety. Despite the genre trappings that group him with Stephen King, or Poe, he’s really much closer to someone like Henry Darger — an outsider artist transforming Dungeons-and-Dragons-style world-building into art.
Lovecraft’s ham-fisted style and predictable thematic concerns seems like they should be easy to reproduce, and he’s spawned a slew of imitators — from his close friend August Derleth down to, well, me, in some of my more benighted adolescent writing endeavors. But while the outward, abominable trappings are easy to mimic, Lovecraft’s unspeakable core is almost impossible to reproduce without lapsing into self-parody, empty genre exercises, or both.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Lovecraft volume of Eureka’s Graphic Classics series fails for the most part to capture the man’s special charms. In fact, the act of turning Lovecraft into comics has so many obvious pitfalls that the attempt seems almost Quixotic. At the most basic level, Lovecraft simply isn’t a visual writer — you can see some beleagured Creative Writing instructor being driven inexorably mad by a young H.P.’s insistence on telling, not showing. If Lovecraft’s hideous creeping nightmares aren’t “unnamable,” they are “indescribable,”,or possibly productive of “visions so extravagant that I cannot even relate them.” When Lovecraft does explain more clearly what he’s talking about, the results generally are…well, see for yourself. Here’s his description of one of the “Great Race,” a group of monstrous aliens in “Shadow Out of Time”
“They seemed to be enormous, iridescent cones, about ten feet high and ten feet wide at the base, and made up of some ridgy, scaly, semi-elastic matter. From their apexes projected four flexible, cylindrical members, each a foot thick, and of a ridgy substance like that of the cones themselves.”
It sounds like he’s describing a giant muppet.
Buried in Lovecraft’s copious prose, descriptions like this can register as kind of silly, but don’t necessarily attract enough attention to undermine the whole. Once you start illustrating them, though, you’re in trouble. Matt Howarth, for example, faithfully draws “The Great Race” as Disneyesque cuddlies — and once you’re forced to actually look at them, the story’s delicate balance between cosmic preposterousness and (in critic Lin Carter’s words) “cosmic immensitude” is destroyed. Howarth tries to compensate by veering towards straight mockery; the protagonist rushes around at the end mouthing wry speech bubbles like “(incoherent shriek)” and “(mindless panic).” I love Lovecraft humor (the shoggoth plush-toys are great), and Howarth’s schtick definitely made me chuckle. But it does seem a little too easy — as if Howarth-the-adapter is using his smart-guy irony to avoid having to actually sweat as Howarth-the-artist.
Even more disappointing are Pedro Lopez’s illustrations for The Dreams in the Witch-House.” A story about the unholy powers of mystically disjointed angles, Lovecraft’s narrative is filled with bizarre vistas and frankly incomprehensible images. As just one example:
“Two of the less irrelevantly moving things — a rather large congeries of iridescent, prolately spheroidal bubbles and a very much smaller polyhedron of unknown colors and rapidly shifting surface angles — seemed to take notice of him and follow him about or float ahead as he changed position among the titan prisms, labyrinths, cube-and-plane clusters, and quasi-buildings….”
Faced with the admittedly fiendish task of rendering this in comics form, Lopez punts – his extra-dimensional landscapes are mostly just a basic black, shoehorned into an uninspired layout of standard panel borders. When he does try for more exciting page organization, it ends up looking like bottom drawer Marvel knock-offs. An image of Gilman, the protagonist, hurtling through space towards some tentacles, a disembodied bridge and a group of bald guys, with close-up insets of the main villains, could almost be a page from Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange — in an alternate reality where Steve Ditko sucks. This is quickly followed by a sequence in which the evil witch’s arms telescope like Mr. Fantastic — to what narrative or aesthetic purpose, I couldn’t tell you. In any case, with its central spatial themes abandoned, the story is crippled. Perhaps Lopez’s collaborator sensed as much — Rich Rainey truncates the end of the story in such a desultory fashion that the final revelations will be incomprehensible to those who haven’t read the original.
Visualization is the most obvious problem facing a comic-book Lovecraft, but it’s not the only one. For example, there’s the difficulty raised by dialogue — or rather, by its absence. Lovecraft’s stories are told almost entirely through narration; there are long expository block of text, and occasionally long expository monologues from one character to another, but there’s little interaction. In a comic, the urge to switch some of the exposition into speech bubbles is nearly irresistible, but it comes at a cost. Lovecraft’s stories are obsessively inward-focused; the fact that you only ever “hear” one person speak at a time contributes to their cloistered, dream-like stuffiness. Having a bad guy shout, “There he is! Get him! He knows too much!”— as adapter Alex Burrows does in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” — certainly makes the story more dramatic (or at least melodramatic). But drama isn’t what Lovecraft is about, and adding it diminishes him.
Another challenge has to do with length. Lovecraft’s best and most characteristic stories are his longest ones. In short form, he starts to look just like any other mediocre horror writer — it’s only when the pages mount that he can indulge his gloriously leaden penchant for irrelevant detail and narrative stasis. Obviously, for an adapter, this presents serious problems. On the one hand, you can reprint — largely unchanged— his shorter, inferior works. Or you can adapt the longer classics, tightening them, focusing them — and turning them into shorter, inferior works.
The Graphic Classics volume does include “The Terrible Old Man” — a very brief, very mundane twist-ending shocker, with equally predictable alterna-art by Onsmith Jeremi. But for the most part the volume tries to cope with the more ambitious pieces: the long “Witch House”, the really long “Herbert West” Reanimator”, the stupefyingly long “Innsmouth” and the even longer “Shadow Out of Time.” Inevitably, the result is to conventionalize them, changing them from lumbering monstrosities into (more or less) competent pulp. Robbed of much of its backstory, “The Shadow Out of Time” seems particularly irrelevant. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” has problems too — Alex Burrows’radically shortens the beginning and middle, and as a result the bulk of the story feels rushed rather than ponderously inevitable. Still, the angled shapes and overwhelming grays of Simon Bane’s art do manage to recapture some of the tales’ muffled claustrophobia. This works especially well at the conclusion, where Burrows slows down, and wisely reprints Lovecraft’s last two paragraphs — among the best things he wrote — virtually in their entirety. The second-to-last panel is particularly striking: we stare directly into the preposterously large, unblinking, and pupilless eyes of a monstrous fish-frog as he drives a bus, — beside him another creature sits in the passenger seat, fanged mouth hanging open, as if in speech. Both wear coats, and the driver seems to have some sort of seaweed comb-over, but the humorous incongruity only adds to the disjointed feeling of alienation — an awareness of an unknowable, monstrous and perhaps Lacanian Other, whose very existence, for Lovecraft, corrupts both the world and the self.
The story that suffers most from excision, is probably “Herbert West: Reanimator.” This is a shame, because the art here is much more effective — zombies are a lot more easy to deal with than alternate dimensions or giant cone creatures. J.B. Bonivert’s sketchy cartoons in Chapter Three looks ugly and cluttered, but Mark A. Nelson’s cross-hatched, boldly composed illustrations in Chapter Four hit the spot, and the mottled flesh on Richard Corben’s corpses — inanimate and otherwise — has a skilled and grisly weight. And, to be fair, from a narrative perspective,“West” isn’t really all that good a story to begin with. Lovecraft disliked it himself —it was written in serialized form, which meant that each chapter had to end with an unLovecraftian bang. In addition, Lovecraft had to review “the story so far” at the beginning of each chapter. And, to top it off, the plot is simply a clunky Frankenstein riff — mad scientist raises the dead — which Lovecraft apparently intended partly as parody. Even as farce, though, it doesn’t come off. It lacks both Shelley’s moral power and Lovecraft’s pseudo-mythological scope, and the gore which was supposed to be over-the-top at the time comes across, in the age of splatter-films, as helplessly quaint.
Still, the original story does have a couple of things going for it. Perhaps the high point is West’s efforts to reanimate the corpse of Buck Robinson, a Harlem boxer. Lovecraft’s racial views were unpleasant, even for his time, and fear of miscegenation and impurity were at the emotional core of much of his work. Sure enough, the vision of a black man from beyond the grave inspired one of his most visceral images of ravenous, animalistic degeneration.
“Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares — a glassy-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves, and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.”
The story’s other point of interest is a little more subtle, but perhaps more important overall. It involves the relationship between Herbert West and the unnamed narrator. This relationship is never discussed at length, but we do learn that the narrator is West’s “enthralled assistant” in his efforts to raise the dead, that the two set up a practice and even live together, and that, impelled by his search for fresh corpses, West “sometimes glanced witha kind of hideous and calculating appraisal at men of especially sensitive brain and especially vigorous physique.” Moreover, West starts to look at the narrator with this same unholy lust. The narrator begins to fear his companion, and there is some suggestion that, rather than being dragged away by hideous legions from beyond the grave, West may have been killed by his life-long companion in a semi-allegorical homosexual panic.
There’s no proof that Lovecraft was gay, though there’s certainly been a lot of speculation. There is , however, a lot of evidence that he had, shall we say, issues with intimacy. Certainly, the sublimated anxiety surrounding close relationships of indefinite category, bodies, and the creation of life give “Herbert West” its flashes of emotional coherence and resonance. Yet, in the comics version both these and the story’s racial elements are excised.
It’s possible that this is in part due to concerns about political correctness. But probably it has more to do with the logistics of condensation. The implications of the relationship between the narrator and West are spread out over the course of the entire story; it would have taken extraordinary care on the part of adapter Tom Pomplun to have retained them while chopping much of the context. As it is, there are hints — the quote about West’s fascination with living bodies is still present in the final version, for instance. But the narrator’s role in the story is deemphasized throughout, and as he becomes more of a non-entity the question of why on earth he is mucking about with West becomes less pressing. So we’re left with a mildly gory shocker and some nice art, without any of the tale’s half-realized, but much more interesting, depths.
All of these translation problems can be summed up by saying that the Graphic Classics approach is too faithful to the original — which in Lovecraft’s case, ends up meaning not faithful enough. The adapters here dutifully keep to Lovecraft’s words and try to follow his plots and imagery as closely as they can given the differences between straight text and comic forms. I suspect this works well in their volumes devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle or even Stevenson — writers for whom plot and surface are pretty much the point. In Lovecraft, though, it’s all about atmosphere and repressed meaning, and a straight retelling of the story just doesn’t cut it. Instead, you need to completely reimagine the work in order to translate its effects for a new medium — the way David Cronenberg did for William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” as just one example. It would have been great to have seen what Bill Sienkiewitz or Gary Panter or Paper Rad, or a visual artist like Paul Nudd or Masami Teraoka would have made of this material.
Alas, Graphics Classics is too tied to the illustrational approach to embrace surrealism. As a result, many of the best moments in this anthology are the filler drawings, unconnected to any particular story. Giorgio Comolo’s cover is probably what most people think of when they think: “Cthulhu art”: writhing tentacles, disembodied eyeballs, hideously carved masonry, and a big, bad monster who veritably screams “trashy album art!” Jim Nelson’s frontispiece, showing a carving of Cthulhu and attendant monstrosities on a piece of presumably ancient pottery, is less bombastic, but comes broadly from the same “cool shit!” perspective. Though neither of these is overwhelming in conception or execution, they do have an enthusiasm and energy missing from much of the rest of the book — since they don’t have to worry about bashing Lovecraft’s vision into an incongenial form, they’re able to stretch out and enjoy themselves. This is even more true of Maxon Crumb’s odd, semi-abstract illustration of man, window, and vaguely animate conglomeration. On its face, the drawing seems to have as much to do with Bauhaus as it does with H.P. — yet, in its suggestion of menacingly dissolved boundaries, it’s probably the piece of art here that gets closest to Lovecraft’s spirit.
There are a two longer stories that are effective as well — and both are notable for being very uncharacteristic Lovecraft productions. “The Cats of Ulthar” is a short, light, adorably gruesome fable in which virtue (or at least felines) triumph over evil. Tom Pomplun organizes the text so that it essentially works as a children’s book, with cute goth greeting card illustrations rendered by Lisa K. Weber in an appealingly witty style somewhere between Edward Gorey, manga, and Saturday morning cartoons. “Sweet Ermengarde” is even less Lovecraftian — it’s a satiric melodrama which suggests, against all other evidence, that Lovecraft not only had a sense of humor, but was actually witty. The story is presented by adapter Rod Lott and Kevin Atkinson as a stage drama at Miskatonic U and the semi-virtuous heroine with the “beautiful but inexpensive complexion,’ the dastardly villain (who enters riding a hobby horse), the male lead (named Jack Manly) and similar stock characters enthusiastically and amorally betray each other in front of an audience full of shoggoths, sea horrors, mad scientists, and other assorted Lovecraftian monsters.
Both “Ulthar” and “Ermengarde” are a hoot, and the straightforward translation to comics form works seamlessly — which suggests once more that the central problem here is that most Lovecraft stories are a bad fit for the literal approach with which the Graphics Classics crew seems comfortable. Still, the enterprise deserves props for finding any Lovecraft stories that fit their aesthetic. And whatever this volume’s shortcomings, it did encourage me to go back and check out the original stories again. If only for that, I’m grateful to have had the chance to read it.
This was originally published in the Comics Journal in July 2007. If you’re interested in more of my writing on horror, I have a long essay on the Carpenter’s The Thing, Cronenberg’s Shiver, and Tabico’s Adaptation here.