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Visions of Monstrosity: Lovecraft, Adaptation and the Comics Arts.

In the last five years, the number of graphic adaptations of Lovecraft's fiction has grown at a rapidly increasing rate. The comics publisher Self Made Hero has been especially busy, producing six volumes since 2010: At the Mountains of Madness (2010), The Lovecraft Anthology I (2011), The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume II (2012), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (2012), The Shadow Out of Time (2013), and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (2014). Though most of these volumes cover individual tales, The Lovecraft Anthology takes on a more ambitious range of tales, including, among others, "The Call of Cthulhu," "Dagon," "The Colour out of Space," "Pickman's Model," "He," and "The Hound." Although these volumes help foster Lovecraft's ever-growing popularity, they also provide an opportunity to bring critical attention to the ways comics can shed light on our understanding of adaptation, of Lovecraft's fiction, and, perhaps, even of the weird itself.

In this article, I draw on selections from The Lovecraft Anthology to suggest that comics is intrinsically suited to conveying Lovecraft's distinctive and influential visions. I will begin, however, with a brief discussion of Lovecraft's personal interest in the visual arts and the ways he drew on them to enhance his descriptions of weird places and weird events. Next, I will discuss how adaptation theory can help scholars understand the inevitable practical and stylistic challenges, particularly in film, that occur when transforming Lovecraft's ornate fictional work into other media. Following that, I will turn to examples from The Lovecraft Anthology to suggest that comics may not only be the medium best suited to adaptation but that they can also underscore the broader connections between word and image so important to Lovecraft. Indeed, certain properties of comics, such as aforementioned interplay of words and images, not to mention the potential for readers to become completely immersed in the text, endow this medium with the power to engage readers in complex ways, perhaps even challenging conventional notions of reading itself. Given Lovecraft's own personal interest in the visual arts, not to mention his fascination with illustrated tales, graphic adaptations seem an appropriate way to help contemporary readers focus attention on the dynamic relationship between word and image and can even help them develop a better understanding of the weird.

Lovecraft and the Visual Arts

Lovecraft was captivated by the visual arts from his earliest years. In a 1916 letter, he comments on the way an edition of Paradise Lost illustrated by Gustave Dore not only fueled his imagination but was also the likely origin of the fearsome creatures he termed "night-gaunts," which, in "fretting & impelling [him] with their detestable tridents," frequently disturbed his childhood slumber and eventually found their way into his tales (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 68). As S. T. Joshi observes, "the utterly outre nature of [these] malignant entities" was to imbue Lovecraft's writing with a far-from-conventional aura of cosmic horror (A Dreamer and a Visionary 20). Dore's illustrations held a peculiar and enduring source of morbid fascination for Lovecraft, developed his budding "interest in the weird" and intrigued him with thoughts of the powerful connections between the visual and the literary (Joshi, "Explanatory Notes" 384). In 1928, Lovecraft again explained the power of the visual arts over his imagination. As he wrote to Vincent Starett, he found the "unholy abysses & blasphemous torrents [and the] terraced titan cities in far, half-celestial backgrounds" produced by the nineteenth-century English painter John Martin to be "a form of aesthetic appeal so especially potent to [his] individual imagination" (Lovecraft, "To Vincent Starrett" 219-220). Though he gave special praise to the lurid creations of Dore, Lovecraft also greatly admired the Gothic work of Henry Fuseli and the nightmare visions of Francisco Goya. He also admired the illustrations by Sidney H. Sime that were published alongside work by Lord Dunsany, an author Lovecraft praised for his "truly cosmic" vision (Supernatural Horror in Literature 98).

Lovecraft's tales often gave works of art a prominent role and also employed them as metaphors. In "The Picture in the House" (1920), the narrator, whose genealogical research takes him into the depths of rural New England, enters a remote house in which he finds a rare volume containing unsettling anthropological etchings of cannibalism. Reinforcing the protagonist's sense of isolation, these illustrations established an awful atmosphere of dread which culminates in his violent encounter with a murderous Yankee backwoodsman who has clearly found the images stimulating. The nightmarish "Dagon" (1917) tells of an individual who having evaded incarceration by the German troops that commandeered his vessel, becomes marooned on a far-flung island in the Pacific. His discovery of a "Cyclopean monolith" festooned with "an array of bas-reliefs whose subjects would have excited the envy of a Dore" presages a horrifying vision of a monstrous creature akin to these same carvings (4). Similarly, the statuette of the eponymous "god" in "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926), seized during a police raid on an ostensible voodoo ceremony, foreshadows awe-inspiring insights into those "black seas of infinity" surrounding human life to which Lovecraft famously alludes at the outset of that tale of cosmic horror (139). R'lyeh, the city in which Cthulhu is found still to dwell, is likened by the narrator to the fantastic visions conveyed by Futurism (165). Lovecraft also developed one of his most iconic backdrops, the vast and ancient Antarctic city portrayed in At the Mountains of Madness (1931), based on Russian artist Nikolai Roerich's paintings of the Himalayas. (1)

The 1926 story "Pickman's Model" goes one step further by taking a scandal at the Boston Art Club as its driving impetus. Recounting his ill-starred association with Richard Upton Pickman, an artist spurned by the Club for his perturbing manner and macabre subject matter, the narrator lingers over his account of the "colossal and nameless blasphemy" (87) revealed to him on a canvas in Pickman's subterranean studio. In describing the peculiar force of Pickman's art, he compares it to several real-life artists including Dore, Sime, Goya, and early-twentieth-century American book illustrator Anthony Angarola, all of whose artworks "stir the dormant sense of strangeness" (79). As Carl Sederholm argues, "Pickman's Model" suggests some compelling insights into how "weird art transforms the overall sanity of man," thus emphasizing Lovecraft's own fascination with the potentially destabilizing power of certain kinds of images (345).

All these examples demonstrate some of the ways Lovecraft utilizes the visual arts in his fiction, whether directly to propel the narrative or to draw more obliquely on the power of art to excite the senses and fire the imagination. For Vivian Ralickas, Lovecraft uses art primarily to "heighten and concentrate the mood of cosmic horror" (299). In Lovecraft's world, art is ever-present, by turns working as a stimulant, as a harbinger of doom, or even directly as a conduit for accessing previously unimagined realities beyond the accepted sphere of normal human experience. To some extent, his fictional world may even be construed as a heavily visual one. The wealth of visual material adapted from and inspired by Lovecraft in the decades since his death--in a variety of media forms, encompassing comics, films, artwork, role-playing board games, and video games--also stands as testament to this aspect of his work.

Bearing in mind Michel Houellebecq's contention that Lovecraft seeks first and foremost to engender "fascination" in the reader--likely a form of creative response to the enthrallment Lovecraft himself felt for the work of artists such as Dore, Roerich and others--it seems unsurprising that the drive to realize Lovecraft's compelling fictional vistas, along with the iconic monsters that inhabit them, in pictorial form remains undiminished (59).

Issues of Adaptation

Lovecraft's uncanny realm, all-too-frequently disturbed by inter-dimensional activities and infiltrated by the horrifying creatures roused as a result, has been vividly evoked through his own idiosyncratic--and notoriously florid--prose. Designated by Stephen King as "the twentieth-century horror story's dark and baroque prince" (4), Lovecraft produced fiction characterized by lengthy descriptive passages, strongly detailed and gripping, that typically escalate to a fever pitch of intensity and narrative climax. No matter what he is discussing, Lovecraft's prose is consistently rich with description and dense with ideas. Architectural features, historical anecdotes, geographical characteristics, regional detailing, and adjectives abound in his fiction, together comprising a textual excess that actually helps shape Lovecraft's distinctive brand of horror. As Roger Luckhurst explains, the language through which Lovecraft communicates his cosmic horrors is crucial as the "power of the weird crawls out of these sentences because of the awkward style" (xx).

What happens, however, when Lovecraft's trademark prose is adapted into a new and intrinsically different medium? As Brian McFarlane observes, the field of adaptation studies has long been concerned with the issue of fidelity to the source material, drawing a distinction "between being faithful to the 'letter' ... and to the 'spirit' or 'essence' of the work" (8-9). He discerns that certain aspects of such sources--for example, the fundamentals of the plot, the setting, the cast of characters, and the dialogue--may be transferred from the original text with few, or even no, alterations and with relative ease. Such an approach to adaptation, in keeping the most conspicuous characteristics of a work intact, demonstrates a level of appreciation and respect for the original likely to meet with the broad approval of an existing fan base.

McFarlane distinguishes between such relatively straightforward facets of written fictions and those that require so-called "adaptation proper" (13). This latter term refers to elements resisting literal, overt translation from one medium to another and instead demanding some degree of artistic interpretation in which a creative leap is made that may (or may not) resonate with the interpretations of others. Such elements might be visual in nature--as with the mise-en-scene and the physical appearance of a character or a monster in genres like horror and fantasy--or they may be less tangible, as with the tale's atmosphere and mood. Yet, as McFarlane acknowledges, attempts to encapsulate the "'spirit' or 'essence' of the work" may pose a serious challenge as readings of fiction often diverge widely from one reader to another (8-9). As Linda Hutcheon observes, the concern with fidelity has ceased to be the paramount focus in adaptation studies (6-7), supplanted now by a new interest in the process of translating, or re-mediating, a text "from one sign system (for example, words) to another (for example, images)" (16) with all the complexity that such a process demands.

In a similar vein, Joshi stresses the significance of essence over mere replication in remarking that worthwhile adaptation for cinema demands "a transference of moods, images, and effects" between the media forms ("Preface" 7). Given the impossibility of pleasing every potential viewer, it may well be the case, particularly where the supernatural is concerned, that capturing something of the spirit of the original tale is the key to producing a truly satisfying version of a weird literary world. Even if a re-imagining of an imaginary landscape or creature does not mesh entirely with an individual's expectations, he or she is likely to accept such an attempt as in keeping with authorial intent and thus broadly reflective of the source material. However, the urge to realize compelling fictional universes, particularly those with the longevity of Lovecraft's creations, with something approximating true fidelity persists. With these ideas in mind--and in order to better understand the nature of adapting Lovecraft into comics--I will turn briefly to a discussion of film adaptations of Lovecraft's work, not only because they have received substantive critical attention, but also to highlight some of their overall limitations.

Lovecraft and Cinematic Adaptation

Over the last fifty years or so, numerous motion pictures have either been inspired by, or adapted from, Lovecraft's fiction. Some films, like Daniel Haller's Die, Monster, Die! (1965), ostensibly an adaptation of "The Colour out of Space" (1927), have not been particularly successful in conveying their Lovecraftian origins because of their reliance on horror cliches such as mad scientists and rubber bats, or putting too much emphasis on conventional sources of horror like black magic. In contrast, those films generally held in higher regard, such as Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1995), tend to rely on establishing Lovecraftian atmospheres and themes by evoking particular moods rather than adhering closely either to source materials or to the characters and events outlined in them. Like Scott and Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro also frequently demonstrates a preoccupation with key elements of the spirit of Lovecraft's fictions--subterranean settings, fantastic monsters, mythology, and destabilizing notions of cosmicism--without actually adapting any one of them. (2) On this evidence, McFarlane's notion of "adaptation proper" seems more likely to yield a satisfyingly Lovecraftian cinematic rendering than is a literal re-telling of his work.

So why should essence be easier to capture convincingly on film only once fidelity has largely been abandoned? According to Julian Petley, there are certain qualities in Lovecraft's work that, especially when taken together, may constitute major stumbling blocks to the prospective adaptation of Lovecraft's stories:
   short on 'characters' (especially female ones) and 'action' as
   conventionally understood, no sex (except occasionally--and only
   implied--in the back-story, and then between degraded humans and
   unspeakable monstrosities), heavy on description, sometimes only a
   few pages in length, underpinned by a complex and not always
   coherent mythos, and informed by a philosophy of the bleakest
   pessimism, their cinematic potential is not immediately obvious.
   Even ardent Lovecraft aficionados agree that his work is not easy
   to adapt. (43)

Examining these characteristics more closely reveals quintessentially Lovecraftian story elements that, at least if followed slavishly, seem unlikely to translate effectively onto the screen at all, much less to appeal to an audience large enough to recoup the expense of realizing vast alien landscapes and peopling them with plausible versions of the monstrous beings by which Lovecraft's world has become defined.

Petley isolates "Lovecraft's complete lack of interest in 'characters' in the conventional fictional sense [as] one of the most striking features of his stories" and yet as one highly problematic for cinema (38). Rather than detailing back-stories, or dwelling on individual psychology and interiority, Lovecraft prefers instead to focus on events--often utilizing a shock ending for impact--and thus makes little investment in those notions of "human interest" that drive many a classical Hollywood narrative. As Michel Houellebecq remarks of Lovecraft's gentleman-scholar protagonists, "all they needed was functional sensory equipment. Their sole function, in fact, would be to perceive" (68). This underscores Petley's claim that the tales are "heavy on description." Further, that which these characters are required to perceive--alien "gods," repellent creatures "from beyond," breathtaking landscapes and "non-Euclidean" architecture--also represents something of a challenge for mainstream cinema. Indeed, Petley points to the unremitting hopelessness of Lovecraft's cosmic worldview, which these beings and settings exemplify, as inherently incompatible with the world of commercial film (47). As a result, most Lovecraft-inspired cinema strives to compensate for the strictures of the source material by fleshing out characters with histories and motivations, developing plots that allow some measure of closure, and so forth.

Whereas both the letter and the spirit of Lovecraft's fiction are bound up with vivid portrayals of astounding events and entities, mainstream cinema tends to downplay this in favor of other considerations. In light of Houellebecq's assertion that Lovecraft's fiction seeks primarily to engender "fascination" (59), this is a problematic approach. After all, his tales are propelled by anxious escalations towards awe-inspiring, even paradigm-shifting, moments--moments that are essentially descriptive and thus capable of expression in written or in visual form. Crucially, I suggest that whether they are conveyed through words (as in the original accounts) or through images (as in the various adaptations), these moments need time and space in which to achieve their full impact and be properly appreciated.

Some readers may balk at my emphasis on the actual power of Lovecraft's prose to stir readers' imagination and to introduce them into weird environments. My point, however, is that his highly detailed, sustained depictions are of fundamental importance to his fiction overall. Indeed, they typically occupy a considerable portion of the tales and thus make comparably high demands on the reader's time. In contrast to film, comics may have a greater ability to adapt the power of Lovecraft's prose. Following Scott McCloud's reflection that the "lingering timeless presence" of comics imagery--which, in contrast to film, need not be experienced in a solely linear fashion--can instill and sustain mood, a case can be made for comics as a visual medium conducive to such an appreciation (103). Moreover, Thierry Groensteen's suggestion that "at the perceptive and cognitive levels the panel exists longer for the comics reader than the shot exists for a film spectator" indicates that comics are well suited to meeting precisely this need for time (26).

In this way, I maintain that a reader--who is often obliged to engage imaginatively with a text in a way that perhaps a mere viewer is not--has the chance to actively absorb the scale and import of those revelations vouchsafed time and again to Lovecraft's luckless protagonists. While cinema is certainly capable of provoking a creative response through the judicious use of editing techniques, cinematography and so on, the immediate experience of reading a prose text obliges the reader to supply a visual accompaniment of her own devising. Further, a film might succeed in stirring the imagination by hinting at something rather than actually showing it, but there is also the issue of perpetual motion in time to consider. Groensteen avers that cinema "is practically condemned to equip the projected image with a fixed and constant form" (40). Books afford an imaginative luxury that cinema, with its insistence on forward motion and its tendency to show exactly how events unfold, together with its need to explain events in terms of character motivation and to structure them around narrative closure, seems less equipped to provide. For Groensteen, the relative "rigidity" of film stands in opposition to the "flexibility" of comics (40). This feature of the latter arguably serves to augment its capacity for stimulating creativity. As will be examined below, McCloud discerns that the reader of a comic, in the role of "silent accomplice" to the author, must routinely draw on his or her imaginative faculties (68). These observations reveal that reading comics is a more active and sophisticated pursuit than might initially be apparent. In response to this emphasis on the two distinct kinds of activity inherent within comics, and indicative of the greater level of engagement thus demanded from those who consume them, in the analysis below I will refer to these individuals as reader-viewers.

Lovecraft in the Comics Arts

Given the perceived link--particularly in the United States--between comics, violence, and lurid horror (Varnum and Gibbons x-xi), it hardly seems remarkable that the output of a pulp author like Lovecraft should find its way into the medium. Yet Chris Murray and Kevin Corstorphine, in tracing developments in Lovecraftian comics from the 1940s to the twenty-first century, note the difficulties inherent in adapting this kind of material, bound up as it is with "the portrayal of indescribable horrors" (158), by noting that "visual media, such as film and comics, often cannot resist the show the creature, and in doing so, break the mood by presenting creatures that are unconvincing at best, and ridiculous at worst" (172). Though there are undoubtedly many examples of exploitative and implausible publications taking Lovecraft as their putative inspiration, comics nonetheless can--and do--succeed in engaging with the hellish scenarios invoked by his prose.

In the landmark study Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner observes the high level of input that reading, described as "translating a descriptive passage into a visual image in the mind" (140), typically demands. Similarly, in Understanding Comics, McCloud casts the relationship between writer and reader as a uniquely privileged one, characterizing it as "a silent, secret contract between creator and audience" (69). (3) Eisner deduces that the inclusion of pictures inhibits the imagination, though he does also recognize that readers are obliged to work in order to produce "'in-between' action" (140), an idea echoed by Julia Round's claim that comics exact active participation from their readers (96). McCloud has rather more to say, and seems more confident, about the role of the imagination in comics. Noting the importance of audience participation in any medium, he contends that the "intimacy" nurtured by comics is second only to that found in fiction, because "while film makes use of audiences' imaginations for occasional effects, comics must use it far more often" (69). In this way, he designates comics as a kind of halfway house between literature and cinema. With this in mind, I will now consider specific examples of what comics have to offer in terms of adapting Lovecraft's idiosyncratic tales, arguing that the formal properties of the medium impact on the reader's connection to the text, creating not only some degree of identification between reader and narrator, but also a greater sensitivity toward the horror being developed. As Lovecraft explained in Supernatural Horror in Literature, the "appeal" and the impact of the weird tale comes from "minds" capable of "the requisite sensitiveness" (12). To enhance this sensitiveness, I suggest, comics artists may draw on components of four key areas documented in McCloud's analysis: characterization, ways of combining words with images, framing, and closure.


Returning to the earlier discussion pertaining to the lack of in-depth characterization in Lovecraft's fiction, I argue that it is precisely this trait that lends his oeuvre so well to comics. As McCloud delineates, this is a field, given the propensity of comics to draw on the imaginative faculties of readers, in which rendering a character with too great a degree of precision might actually be disadvantageous. Noting the "universality of cartoon imagery"--as the more abstracted a face appears, the greater the number of people whom that face could credibly represent (31)--he highlights the potential in comics for a reader-viewer to situate him- or herself in the action unfurled within the stories. McCloud puts forward that "Storytellers in all media know that a sure indicator of audience involvement is the degree to which the audience identifies with a story's characters. And since viewer-identification is a specialty of cartooning, cartoons have historically held an advantage in breaking into world popular culture" (42). This observation, which points to comics as an especially accessible art-form on the basis of the ease with which reader-viewers can submerge themselves in "a sensually stimulating world" (43), has clear implications for Lovecraft's fiction--a body of work eschewing individualized characterization in favor of an emphasis on supplying strikingly-detailed episodes of near-overwhelming sensory stimulation.

Whether providing testimonials from traumatized gentleman-scholar protagonists or drawing on eye-witness accounts yielded by other characters, Lovecraft tends to tell his tales through first-person narration. The immediacy of this technique enables readers to be caught up within the narrative, as though they themselves were actually experiencing the fantastic events described therein, in a process of "viewer-identification" akin to that which occurs visually in the world of comics (McCloud 42-43). Examples from the Lovecraft Anthologies reveal that Lovecraft's first-person prose and comics' visual placement of the reader-viewer "in the action" intermingle to promote exactly this sense of immersion. Many of the stories commence with the introduction of a first-person narrator situated within an evocative backdrop, as with the man on a promontory beset by ominous clouds in "The Call of Cthulhu," the shadowy figure at a train station in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and the lonely camel rider traversing sand dunes in "The Nameless City." Such a figure corresponds to "the character, the agent of the action" identified by Groensteen as fundamental to the anthropocentric tradition of narrative drawing that underpins comics (161). Openings like these combine first-person written preambles, to invite initial viewer-identification with the protagonist, in tandem with intriguing visuals that whet the reader's appetite for the events soon to be related.

This effect may be further enhanced by artistic choice. McCloud explains that the simplicity of ligne claire ("clear-line")--a technique typically linked to the Belgian artist Herge in publications such as Tintin--is especially facilitative of the process of viewer-identification (42-43). Even though Murray and Corstorphine suggest, in their discussion of Lovecraftian comics, that ligne claire "is unable to communicate real horror," it nevertheless contains the potential for reader-viewers to establish themselves in the narratives and thus more decisively into the mind-sets of the horrified protagonists (182). These particular examples tend to be adaptations of some of Lovecraft's longer tales and--as in the full-length graphic novelizations of At the Mountains of Madness (2010) and The Shadow Out of Time (2013) by I. N. J. Culbard--ligne claire actually boosts the impression of engulfment by a protracted, gradually unfolding drama that will ultimately result in shocking revelations for protagonist and reader-viewer alike. In a tale like "The Call of Cthulhu," the union of this style with extracts from the source material written in the first-person enables a dual experience--through reading and through viewing--of affinity with the storyteller.

However, Lovecraft's vignettes, with their brief and focused accounts of various types of horror, might be said to provide the starkest articulation of the dearth of fully realized characters associated with his fiction. For instance, the previously-mentioned "Dagon" and "The Picture in the House" have no need of detailed characterization because they are concerned primarily and simply with revealing these events. This preoccupation with character experience over character development readily manifests in the comics. Adaptations of shorter tales like "From Beyond" (1920) and "Pickman's Model," though drawing on rather different artistic choices, aim first to conjure up, and then sustain, the claustrophobic world encountered by the protagonists. In the former, the three-page-plus riot of shadowy imagery, cast in a nightmarish purple hue, ensconces the reader-viewer in the very world of extra-sensory impressions suddenly rendered perceptible by the "noxious machine" invented by the narrator's friend Tillinghast (Camus and Fructus 11). Round also draws on McCloud's observation that backgrounds, like characters, can express emotion, suggesting that a background may create a "psychological effect" connotative of a character (84). Here, the garish background is a result of Tillinghast's ill-advised experiments and is linked to Lovecraftian tropes concerning what these characters perceive rather than their specific personality traits. Emphasis is also placed on character perception in "Pickman's Model" when the onslaught of disturbing paintings witnessed by the first-person storyteller is shared with the reader-viewer. The move between portrayals of Pickman's art--if only in tantalizing fragments--and the use of a "frame within the frame ... similar to the effect of a cinematic zoom" (Groensteen 87-88) to show close-ups of the protagonist enable the reader-viewer to empathize with his startled and horrified reactions.

Combining Words with Images

A chapter in Understanding Comics entitled "Show and Tell" tackles the subject of what is arguably the most definitive feature of comics--namely, the blend of words and images. Groensteen also advances an argument for comics' originality in bringing together discursive and visual codes in order to produce a "system" (6). (4) McCloud details a number of different strategies for combining these two elements. (5) With regard to telling, it is immediately obvious that fidelity is a priority in the Lovecraft Anthologies as many of the tales incorporate fairly substantial excerpts from the original material. Numerous captions, frequently containing more than one sentence, are included with the images in order to establish ambience, advance the plot and elucidate the significance of events. In addition to preserving settings, themes, and storylines from the source, a vital part of the adaptation process here is the preservation of Lovecraft's distinctive prose, which, as discussed earlier, has proved to be instrumental in evoking the all-important mood of his fiction.

In terms of showing, bearing in mind that Lovecraft's work is fundamentally bound up with display, the addition of the visuals augments the effect already instilled by the writing. Hutcheon remarks that the works of certain authors, especially those who favor description and thus hold "potential for scenes of spectacle" (15), lend themselves especially well to adaptation. Lovecraft, as has been established, certainly falls into this category. So what do the graphic versions of these tales have to offer? As with most comics, these anthologies display both "word specific combinations" in which pictures simply illustrate the text, and "picture specific combinations" in which words basically serve to reiterate the content of the pictures (McCloud 153). These combinations offer a chance to preserve, at length, the letter of Lovecraft's fiction while simultaneously allowing enjoyment of new interpretations of his thought-provoking subject matter.

Examples of the "word specific" variety are, unsurprisingly, especially prevalent in these text-heavy tales, as in "The Call of Cthulhu" when the Emma's crew boards the steam yacht Alert and discovers a shrine to the eponymous "god." Here, the description of the shrine's centerpiece as a creature with a "cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings, and hieroglyphed pedestal" (Edginton and D'Israeli 15) precisely echoes Lovecraft's own description of this item in the source (163) and thus imbues the illustration with an air of authenticity. The crew members sail on, making ever-more-alarming discoveries as they do so, until they encounter Cthulhu himself. Imagery dominates in the three pages devoted to relating this meeting and there is thus a turn to "picture-specific," as briefer captions like "Cthulhu was loose again!" (Edginton and D'Israeli 16)--ever derivative of, though not always identical to, Lovecraft's prose--reinforce the events on display. Ranging from a full-page reveal of Cthulhu through to images of the sailors' fate in that "poison city" (16) and the escape of the second mate Johansen, the interplay of words and images varies, allowing reader-viewers to take pleasure in reliving the source material even as the comics afford them a novel type of gratification (Fig. 1)

Building on these observations, McCloud suggests that the most common category of combining words and images is the "interdependent," whereby "words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone" (155)--for example, a panel picturing someone asking 'What's this?' while pointing to an image of something. This can be seen in "From Beyond," when Tillinghast's perturbing experiments with the "noxious machine" allow visions of beings not normally detectable by human senses, and he directs the attention of both the protagonist and the reader-viewer towards these entities by demanding: "Do you see them? Do you see the things that float and flop about you and through you every moment of your life? Do you see ..?" until he--and, presumably, the reader-viewer--is obliged to take them in (Camus and Fructus 8) (Fig. 2). A specialty of comics, as indicated above, this narrative strategy permits a unique opportunity to combine the activities of reading about and viewing such phenomena. Here, as Houellebecq's notion of "fascination" predominates, the formal properties of comics facilitate a novel kind of "directed engagement" with the fiction.


Another definitive aspect of comics is the way in which narratives are "broken up into sequenced segments" known as panels or frames (Eisner 38). McCloud remarks that the function of frames, which may of course be used in accordance with the specific wishes of the author, is to divide space or time (102). The overall effect can be manipulated through the use of speech balloons or captions, or visually by altering the size or frequency of the panels. In The System of Comics, Groensteen uses the terms "arthrology" and "braiding" to refer to such matters as the layout of the panels on the page (23) and the practice of forging links between them (146) respectively. Here, I will focus chiefly on observations regarding the potential of the frame to play a part in the narrative.

Eisner discerns that the "frame's shape (or absence of one) can become a part of the story itself. It can be used to convey something of the dimension of sound and emotional climate in which the action occurs, as well as contributing to the atmosphere of the page as a whole." As such, framing can serve to "heighten the reader's involvement with the narrative" (46). Groensteen also comments that the frame "can connote or index the image that it encloses" (49). These remarks indicate that the choice of frame, as with the artistic style, can offer creative opportunities for the treatment of the subject matter and impact on the experience of the reader-viewer. Through these framing techniques, then, tension may be heightened and alternative states of perception and of being may be evoked, all of which promises to enhance an appreciation of the essence of Lovecraft's fiction.

A tale of escalating terror, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" describes the experiences of a young man on a sightseeing trip around New England who, in seeking genealogical information about his maternal ancestry, pays a visit to the shunned town. It builds to the point when he witnesses the denizens of Innsmouth at first hand, then ultimately to the realization that, through his mother's bloodline, he is himself destined to dwell among them. An air of mystery about the protagonist pervades the story and this is enhanced by framing. A borderless or silent panel, unaccompanied by speech or captions, has an "unresolved nature" and an enduring "presence [that] may be felt in the panels which follow it" (McCloud 102). In the Volume I adaptation of this tale, as the narrator enters the town on a bus and spies an ominous figure entering a hall devoted to the "Esoteric Order of Dagon," a sequence of three silent panels is employed to help the reader-viewer absorb the nature of this event. The first panel, focusing on the enigmatic, robed figure, privileges the narrator's own inquisitive gaze and the second reinforces this with a close-up of the now backward-glancing figure, whose one visible eye hints at the "Innsmouth look" noted with distaste by residents of neighboring towns (Moore, Reppion, and Gallagher 4). Yet the third panel--in which the point-of-view shifts and the figure watches the narrator speeding away--briefly distances the reader-viewer from the narrator and instead invites speculation about this stranger's relationship to the community. The simple act of framing indicates that these are "privileged elements[s]" (Groensteen 56) of the narrative, and the use of silent panels allows the time and space requisite to their appreciation (Fig. 3).

Eisner also detects that, "In addition to adding a secondary intellectual level to the narrative, [the frame] tries to deal with other sensory dimensions" (Eisner 46). This is a valuable device for adaptations of Lovecraft's tales, given their attempts to transport readers to exotic locales and expose them to extraordinary visions. In "From Beyond," what McCloud terms montage--when words are actually part of the picture--blends with the framing (154). Sets of panels continuing over several pages are delineated by sound effects, expressed phonetically--variations on "OWOWOOOW" repeated over and over again (Camus and Fructus 8)--to suggest the disturbing clamor and vibrations produced by Tillinghast's machine. With its dominance of "the page as a whole" once the tale moves to its climax, and its evocation of "other sensory dimensions," this visual choice heightens the dramatic effect in the manner Eisner suggests. Where bleeding--having a panel's content exceed the very limits of the page--occurs, the potential for drama is enhanced even further (McCloud 103). This helps to convey the overwhelming nature of those moments of awe and revelation to which so many of Lovecraft's tales climb. Examples in the comics include the full-page image of Cthulhu and other, similarly imposing, images of monstrosity in adaptations such as "Pickman's Model," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Dunwich Horror," and "The Colour out of Space."


Finally, the process of observing only parts but seeing a whole, like interpreting the series of still images on a film strip as one long tale of continuous motion, can be termed closure. In part, McCloud ascribes the power of comics to fire the imagination to the medium's capacity for stimulating this activity. He designates the gutter, the space that falls between the panels, as "host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics" (66) and, because of the participation required, a feature integral to forging a relationship between author and reader (69). He later notes that "all in all, [comics] is an exclusively visual representation. Within these panels, we can only convey information visually. But between panels, none of our senses are required at all. Which is why all of our senses are engaged!" (89). In contrast, Groensteen holds the position that examples of comics in which readers have to construct their own images are so rare as to be largely irrelevant to the formation of wide-ranging theories, and even concludes that "an intermediate state between ... panels does not exist" (113).

However, given the inherent focus on horror fiction that aims to inspire reader engagement, it is hardly surprising that the adaptations under discussion here draw at least partially on closure. It is inevitable--and rather in the spirit of Lovecraft's original fiction--that even when dealing with ostensibly indescribable, perhaps fundamentally unknowable events that challenge the limits of human perception and understanding, these comics still tender visualizations of such phenomena. In other words, they do not--and they cannot, in a medium such as this--leave everything to the imagination. Yet, although comics unavoidably offer up illustrations of figments of an author's imagination, such as a monster or an alien landscape, certain features of the form encourage reader-viewers literally to fill in the gaps for themselves. Further, comics do not necessarily depict everything described or implied in the narrative. In this way, even while indisputably in the business of showing, they can still foster an imaginative response to the subject matter they convey.

Hence there is certainly scope for the reader-viewer to contribute in this instance. Specific details may be omitted or obscured and events may take place beyond the confines of the panels. McCloud's memorable example of closure in comics pertains to an axe murder, set up in one panel only to culminate out of sight once the subsequent panel moves to a city skyline above which the victim's dying scream is scrawled (68). The Volume I adaptation of "The Colour out of Space" contains one such example, as the protagonist is moved to dispose of the deformed monstrosity that the eponymous "colour" has made of the wife of the farmer on whose land the meteor happened to fall. The caption, "To leave anything capable of movement in that room would have been to damn me to eternal torment," leaves no doubt as to the violence being committed, while the accompanying visuals are reduced to a silhouetted figure wielding a broomstick and flanked by a vivid trail of crimson drops (Hine and Stafford 12). Similarly, "The Picture in the House" in Volume II builds to the aforementioned climax in which the resident of the house attacks the protagonist with an axe. Once again, an act of brutality--here thwarted by a timely lightning strike on the dwelling--is implied, and then effectively handed over to the reader-viewer as the images of the characters first dwindle into shadow and then fade away entirely with the shift to an exterior view of the building with no figures at all.

Another way to promote audience participation in closure is through an emphasis on the protagonist, rather than on the horror witnessed by the protagonist, by utilizing reaction shots. This practice, which foregrounds psychological and emotional affect over mere spectacle, forces the reader-viewer to reflect on the wider themes of the tale and perhaps to formulate a similar response for her- or himself. For example, the revelation in "Pickman's Model" is portrayed though a montage of extreme close-ups--chiefly of the horrified narrator, along with the merest fragments of what he sees in full--and the onomatopoeia that communicates gun-shots and his horrified scream. In this sequence, which propels the drama to its conclusion, the gaps in what is actually shown leave reader-viewers free, through closure, to conjecture for themselves exactly what is on Pickman's easel or what might lurk in the depths of his basement studio, as well as reflecting on the implications. For Sederholm, this scream signifies the narrator's sense that he is encountering a truly cosmic horror, something "beyond his puny comprehension," and closure, in giving free rein to the imagination, offers reader-viewers a similarly-destabilizing impression of awe (343).

Conclusion: New Directions for Depicting Horror

According to Will Eisner, the "reading of the comic book is an act of both aesthetic perception and intellectual pursuit" (8). Following Eisner, I suggest that comics, as a distinctive arena for both preserving and enhancing elements of Lovecraft's fictional worlds, are especially suited to adaptations of Lovecraft's work. The singular properties of comics, such as the blend of words and images, the unparalleled capacity for viewer-identification and, most notably, the potency of closure, all unite to cultivate an experience most conducive to stimulating an atmosphere of Lovecraftian horror.


(1.) In A Dreamer and A Visionary: H. P. Lovecraft in his Time, Joshi notes that Lovecraft visited the Roerich Museum in New York City soon after its opening in 1930 (287) and states that these paintings "played a role in the genesis" of the short novel At the Mountains of Madness (300).

(2.) Guillermo del Toro has long planned to make a film adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness; unfortunately, those plans have been delayed indefinitely.

(3.) Some aspects of McCloud's writing have met with censure from later theorists (Beaty and Nguyen vii), e.g. his taxonomies of panel types (Round 69). Yet his work has made important contributions to scholarship on comics and this chapter will consider how these help illuminate the graphic adaptations under analysis here.

(4.) However, as Round explains, Groensteen moves away from Eisner and McCloud's stress on the sequentiality of comics and highlights instead their "visual unity" (52).

(5.) As mentioned earlier, McCloud's taxonomies have been rejected by some critics. However, given the emphasis here on the adaptation of prose fiction, his reflections on how comics handle the balance between words and images are particularly germane.

Works Cited

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Camus, David, and Nicolas Fructus. "From Beyond." The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume II. Ed. Dan Lockwood. London: SelfMadeHero, 2012. Print.

Davis, Rob, and I. N. J. Culbard. "The Dunwich Horror." The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume I. Ed. Dan Lockwood. London: SelfMadeHero, 2011. Print.

Delano, Jamie, Steve Pugh and Jon Haward. "Pickman's Model." The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume II. Ed. Dan Lockwood. London: SelfMadeHero, 2012. Print.

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Sederholm, Carl. "What Screams Are Made Of: Representing Cosmic Fear in H. P. Lovecraft's 'Pickman's Model'." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 16.4 (2006): 335-49. Print.

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Caption: Fig. 1. Lovecraft's original prose finds new visual expression with the depiction of the shrine in "The Call of Cthulhu." Adapted by Ian Edginton. Illustrated by D'Israeli. Image used courtesy of Self Made Hero.

Caption: Fig. 2. In "From Beyond", words and images combine to permit reader-viewers to experience the result of Tillinghast's experiments. Adapted by David Camus. Illustrated by Nicolas Fructus. Image used courtesy of Self Made Hero.

Caption: Fig. 3. First glimpses of the shunned town raise questions for narrator and reader-viewer alike in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Adapted by Leah Moore & John Reppion. Illustrated by Leigh Gallagher. Image used courtesy of Self Made Hero.
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Author:Janicker, Rebecca
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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