LOVECRAFT: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL
A review by Michael S. Walker
In HP Lovecraft’s story “Pickman’s Model,” the artist Richard Upton Pickman is renowned (or perhaps reviled would be a better term) by his Boston contemporaries for his uncanny ability to render on canvas creatures that are not of this earth. I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything for readers of this website when it is revealed at the end of the story that Pickman has been painting these nightmare creatures entirely from life and NOT pulling them from his imagination.
I had a similar idea in about 2000 or so. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if ole HP himself had not had such an overweening imagination, and all those beasties he wrote about in his fictions—shoggoths and the like—the creatures that populate his best Arkham and Cthulu stories, actually came to him from some other dimension? I thought it would make a hell of a screenplay, and was excited about the idea for several weeks or so, even reading quite a number of stories in preparation. I never did get around to writing the actual screenplay (or even a treatment) but the idea stayed in my noggin for quite some time.
Well I wasn’t really all that surprised when, a couple of years later, I found that an enterprising screenwriter named Hans Rodionoff had beaten me to the punch. (Let this be a lesson to young writers who have what they think is a boffo ticket-to-fame idea—Google it first. Chances are it’s already been done.
The resulting graphic novel Lovecraft was published in 2003 by Vertigo Comics (the adult subsidiary of DC) so it’s been out for over a decade now. But if you are a fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulu mythos, it is well worth a read. The story was adapted for the page by renowned comic-book writer Keith Giffen (co-creator of the alien mercenary Lobo) and illustrated by the great Argentinean artist Enrique Breccia (Batman Black and White). Where my proposed screenplay would have just covered the period in Lovecraft’s existence when he was a newly-married man living in New York, the graphic novel covers a huge portion of the man’s sad and tumultuous life—from childhood to his brief marriage to Sonia Greene, with knowing asides to his stunt as a ghostwriter for illusionist Harry Houdini and his participation in the Kalem Club (a literary salon of sorts that included fellow writers such as Frank Belknap Long and Samuel Loveman.)
According to the graphic novel, the reason that Lovecraft’s life WAS so sad and tumultuous was that most of the tragic events in it were precipitated by “The Old Ones”, those cosmic deities from the Cthulu mythos, and their offspring and followers. Lovecraft’s father, Winfield, is in possession of the Necronomicon or Al Azif, that book of evil that has been featured in so much macabre fiction, and the book serves as a gateway for these creatures to visit our world. Both of Lovecraft’s parents were confined to mental institutions in his lifetime, and these events are linked to their using the book and seeing these hideous creatures from other dimensions. His grandfather, Whipple Phillips, the wealthy industrialist who helped raise the boy after his father’s confinement, suffered a fatal stroke in 1904. In actuality this happened at the home of one of his friends, but in the comic he suffers it while battling a shoggoth, those amorphous creatures that feature in Lovecraft’s novel: At The Mountains Of Madness. Rodionoff and Giffen do a nice job weaving these fictional creations into the narrative of Lovecraft’s actual life, making for a piece that is as dense, atmospheric, and weird as the man’s writings.
In the graphic novel, the fictional town of Arkham, where so many of Lovecraft’s stories take place, is conflated with the other-dimensional reality where Cthulu and his ilk reside. In the comic’s climax, Lovecraft uses the Necronomicon to transport himself and Sonia Greene there, in a (failed) attempt to rescue his mother from the clutches of the Old Ones, who wish to extract from her the whereabouts of the book so that they can keep the inter-dimensional portal open.
It is here, in this skewered, topsy-turvy Arkham, that Rodionoff’s story takes an existential turn that, I feel, truly enriches the reader’s experience. In the climactic scene, Lovecraft confronts Wilbur Whately, the half-human protagonist of Lovecraft’s story “The Dunwich Horror,” who,in an effort to trick the author into revealing to him the Necronmicon’s location, appears to him as Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s alter-ego in a number of his works. He goads Lovecraft, telling him that his entire life is a lie, that he is inadequate as a writer, as a husband, even as a man. This scene is indeed powerful because I think it does reveal to us the flawed psyche that spurred Lovecraft on, that caused him to mine his almost overwhelming anxieties and project them on to the literary stage, where they became shuffling, amorphous horrors. For that scene alone, I think, Lovecraft is worth a read.
The art in the graphic novel is also first rate. It veers wildly in style from staid, sepia-colored panels when the story centers on Lovecraft’s home life, to a garish expressionism when Lovecraft’s Cthulu bestiary manages to break free and threaten our world. There are also portions of the novel where Breccia’s art seems to be a nod to the bold colors of 30s and 40s pulp magazine covers. Whatever Breccia’s choice of styles, the artwork perfectly matches the incidents told by Rodionoff and Giffen.
Lovecraft also features a nice introduction by John Carpenter, a definite devotee of the man, whose admiration is so very evident in his most satisfying works of cinematic horror. So another plus there…
I fear that the graphic novel is out of print now, but it still can be purchased through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Also, as a parting note, I fear that some Lovecraft devotees and purists will not be as taken as I was with Lovecraft—the graphic novel. Historical inaccuracies abound. For instance, there is mention of Lovecraft’s correspondence with Robert Howard, which didn’t start until 1930. (The comic concludes in 1926.) Perhaps one of the most blaring inaccuracies is that, in the comic, Sonia Greene goes to Providence Rhode Island to meet Sarah Lovecraft, Lovecraft’s mother. In reality, Sarah Lovecraft died two months before Lovecraft met Greene. All I can say is that I let these errors slide. I was taken with the story and the artwork. The end. I still think it would make a hell of a film.
Michael Walker is a writer, musician, artist, living in Columbus, Ohio. He is a graduate of the OhioStateUniversity, where he graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English. He has seen his poetry and short stories published in a number of literary magazines. His first novel 7-22, a young adult fantasy novel, was recently published by Creative Guy Publishing. In addition to being completely stymied on his third novel in progress, Michael has an aversion to wooden popsicle sticks.