Every few years, something comes along to make H.P. Lovecraft cool again. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was rock and metal bands referencing his myths and monsters. In the ’80s, it was Stuart Gordon’s films Re-animator and From Beyond, based on minor Lovecraft stories that nonetheless had enough raw material in them to inspire two outrageous cult horror flicks. More recently, it’s been Neil Gaiman’s tireless crusading on Lovecraft’s behalf. And while Sam Raimi borrowed Lovecraft’s fake-book-of-the-dead Necronomicon for his Evil Dead movies, Joss Whedon did him one better this year in The Cabin in the Woods, basically stealing Lovecraft’s entire mythos without crediting the source.
But while the legend of Lovecraft seems to grow exponentially, his readership doesn’t. That’s because while the underlying ideas are mind-blowing, Lovecraft’s writing style can be a chore, especially when he piles on the melodramatic dread. Gaiman practically does a standup routine about this in the BBC radio documentary Weird Tales, rattling off his favorite Lovecraftian descriptive tics like “eldritch” and “gibbous.” That’s why the just-released graphic novel The Lovecraft Anthology: Vol. 1 shouldn’t work—if something is unspeakable, shouldn’t it be undrawable?—and why it’s so important that it does. The Lovecraft Anthology features seven well-known artists from the comics world, each illustrating a different Lovecraft story. Editor Dan Lockwood also adapted two of the stories.
The choice of material is excellent, as four of Lovecraft’s best stories are represented—”The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” The Colour Out of Space” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”—and the other three are pretty good, too. A couple of them have been made into crappy movies, contributing to the popular notion that stories from Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos”—his works about horrifying ancient creatures who once ruled Earth and are always trying to find a way back in—are impossible to represent visually. But film is a literal medium; illustration can be far more impressionistic. What’s brilliant about Mark Stafford’s depiction of “Colour” and I.N.J. Culbard’s take on “Dunwich” is that they show only as much as they have to in order to build the mood. Stafford’s dark, caricaturelike style, for instance, is disturbing in itself, and he creates exactly the right mood of morbid decay.
But unlike Lovecraft’s heavy passages, there’s an energetic crackle to the adaptations (which have obviously boiled the stories down to their essentials, to some extent) and especially the art. The only story that doesn’t work is “The Haunter of the Dark,” and it’s not because of Lockwood’s adaptation but because Shane Ivan Oakley’s illustrations are ultimately too abstract—like Lovecraft’s own style, sometimes, they create too much distance between the reader and the epic horror being hinted at. All of the others, though, give just the right amount of shape to his gruesome ideas, reminding us of their power and why they continue to break through into the consciousness of each new generation.