A while back I wrote about the H. P Lovecraft Historical Society’s film of The Whisperer in Darkness. It’s a great movie and by and large it does a good job of rendering a classic Lovecraft tale in the style of ‘40s film noir. Yet at the same time it highlights a lot of the issues that emerge when anyone tries to film the Cthulhu Mythos stories. On the surface you get the impression that the originals are highly visual. Lovecraft dwells in great detail on appearances – colours, textures, writhing abysses filled with amorphous horrors etc. His descriptions of, for example, the Great Old Ones in At the Mountains of Madness (1931) and the Elder Things from The Shadow out of Time (1936) are pretty specific. But in the end I think the power of his writing rests in the language, in the constant layering of increasingly frantic prose as each story reaches its denouement. What begins with half-suggested references, hints and suggestions of the cosmic horror, rapidly breaks down into the hysterical overwritten incoherence of whoever goes barmy in the end. The final ‘bloody hell it’s a Shoggoth’ reveal at the end of At the Mountains of Madness is a good case in point:
It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.
Any special effect, no matter how impressive, is going to struggle to achieve the same effect – and every Lovecraftian movie monster I’ve seen has ended up being disappointing – even the MiGo in The Whisperer in Darkness and the endearing animated puppet of Cthulhu in the earlier, silent Call of Cthulhu movie.
Comic book artists have a distinct advantage over film makers in that they’re less bound by the conventions of cinematic realism, and the need to shoe-horn a story into a two-hour time slot, and they can match the visual style to their interpretation of the tales. In 2011 Self Made Hero published the first volume of The Lovecraft Anthology, a collection of seven classic tales in graphic form, each with a very distinctive style. My favourite two were Mark Stafford’s chillingly grotesque The Colour Out of Space which looked like it had been drawn by something Janet and Allen Ahlberg were keeping locked in the attic, and Ian Culbard’s The Dunwich Horror whose deceptively simple lines belied some great characterisation and very clever composition and pacing. On his own Culbard has tackled five more Mythos classics – At the Mountains of Madness (2010), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (2012), The Shadow Out of Time (2013), The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (2014) and The King in Yellow (2015 – based on Robert W. Chambers cycle of stories.
At first the comic books seem surprisingly simple – Culbard goes for minimal line and a bold palette with little detail or cross-hatching, the Ligne claire style that Hergé pioneered, leading one reviewer to point out that Culbard’s own characters wouldn’t look out of place in Tintin. At first this might seem ill-suited to Lovecraft who’d surely warrant a more hysterically detailed and warped expressionist style. And yet that’s my whole point, Culbard’s Lovecraft works so well because it preserves the underlying, sinister horror of the Mythos by stuffing it back into the dark corners of the universe and referring to it through hints and barely-sketched suggestion, leaving the true cosmic terrors to lurk in the reader’s imagination where they belong. Combined with a fantastic sense of pacing, some wonderful characterisation (Mr Wilde and Tessie in The King in Yellow, Dr Willet from Charles Dexter Ward and the T. E. Lawrence/Lovecraft clone Randolph Carter in Kadath) and bold composition, these books do far greater justice to the imagination of their original creator than any movie, no matter how faithful to the original.
Of the books produced so far my favourite is The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Originally intended as Lovecraft’s tribute to Lord Dunsany this rambling and often confused picaresque is an odd mixture of whimsy, fey charm and Mythos horror. In the story itself it doesn’t always work, although the sheer exuberance of the writer’s imagination carries it over the clumsier bits. Culbard does a fantastic job of smoothing out the wrinkles, giving it a wonderfully minimalist German Expressionist feel and an overall coherence that the original lacks. In many instances it’s his boldest and most abstract work yet – the baroque cities of Celephais, Inquanok, the City of the Gugs and the Monastery of Leng are all rendered in the simplest of lines and blocks of colour, with mood expressed by the changing palette. Whole panels are devoted to, for example, Carter falling asleep by the light of the moon or the plummeting flight of a Night Gaunt. It’s a brilliant tribute and I reckon, apart from Culbard’s own magnificent Clockpunk story Brass Sun, his best work yet.
My only reservation about Culbard’s Lovecraft is that I wonder how well the books work for people unfamiliar with the originals. I know these stories inside out and backwards, so for me it’s a constant delight to see familiar scenes, locations and characters come to life. Someone who has never read Kadath might find the graphic novel hard to follow, though this would be less of problem with the other books. Having said that I think the main audience is likely to be Lovecraft fans looking for an exciting new perspective on what can, on occasion, seem a bit done to death. They won’t be disappointed. One of these books animated would blow all the other Lovecraft movies out of the water.
Culbard is currently working on adaptations of The Shadow over Innsmouth (scheduled for Spring 2016) and The Dreams in the Witch House (Autumn 2016).