Notes on adapting Lovecraft…

I was on the Art & Story podcast to talk about adapting Lovecraft-stories with Mark Rudolph, who is doing an adaption of Dagon. You can follow the progress on Mark’s tumlbr.

So anyway, I was going to send the guys at Art & Story some notes before the podcast, and got carried away. And a lot of work these days is prohibiting me from posting a lot of new content on my blog, I thought I’d just quote the whole damned thing here:

I thought I’d send some notes on what I want to discuss at the podcast. These are probably too much to read, and I will most likely use this text as a basis for something written later, so don’t feel any pressure to read it all.

First of all I want to establish why Lovecraft is so incredibly tempting to adapt.
Second I want to establish why it is so incredibly difficult to do something either good or true when adapting Lovecraft.
Third I wanna suggest some tools that might be useful for adapting Lovecraft.

It might be useful to try and define Lovecraft. While Lovecraft wrote more varied than is commonly thought, the primary Lovecraft tales, which “Dagon” is the earliest prototype of, are easy to mislabel as horror or sci-fi, but in reality they are so much more. A Lovecraftian tale fails spectacularly when judged as a horror story. They don’t have the deliberate build-up of tension that horror should have, they often announce the “twists” way to early, and the climaxes are either too short or too elaborately long. What Lovecraft tries is to “Paint what I dream”, as he says in “In Defence of Dagon”. The imaginative writer, as he aspires to be, is:

…a painter of moods and mind-pictures – a capturer and amplifier of elusive dreams and fancies – a voyager into those unheard-of lands which are glimpsed through the veil of actuality but rarely, and only by the most sensitive.
…I should write even if I were the only patient reader, for my aim is merely self-expression. I could not write about *ordinairy people* because I’m not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos- to the unknown- which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination”.

And so, with most of his major tales, the object is not to horrify or scare. It is to express a certain mood or a scene, informed by day-dream, dream, or nightmare, and the horror is but a side-effect of the insignificance of man in the cosmos that these dream-pictures show.
I believe that the vivid cosmic nature of Lovecraft’s images is clearly the reason why the world has been obsessed with putting images to his undecribable horrors ever since his death. Like the simple, almost abstract image of waking up in a black, mire of deep-sea-bottom, stretching flatly as far as the eye can see, the stench of dead sealife clinging in the air, the midday sun painting the cloudless sky almost black.

But in order for these images to become as vivid as they were in Lovecraft’s mind, they need to be infused with the sense of reality they surely had when dreamt. Lovecraft, after his initial, more traditional tales, tries to achieve this reality by imagining scientific and historical explainations to his dream-images. He inserts historical and contemporary detail into his fantasies, tosses away his flowering archaic language of his early tale in favour for as realistic speech as he could write(Himself speaking in a hopelessly flowery and out-of-date fashion), and above all, hints at a possible scientific character of his horrors. The black land-mass is not just a land of nightmare, it is a bit of the ocean-floor upheaved by a vulcano. The Polyphemous-like monster in Dagon is not the a God or supernatural being, it is simply a member of a race long preceding humanity. In later tales even magic is explained as non-Euclidian arithmatic. Everything is grounded in the real, but it is not a forward-thinking sci-fi he uses, but a dark technological past that humanity may never come to equal or even understand in our short time in this universe. As sci-fi, even though he made awesome predictions coming close the understanding of dimension in modern string-theory, his work is rubbish. It doesn’t show any scientific possibilities. It only uses science as a tool for making the nightmares become real even after we wake up.

So the Lovecraftian tale is in a way a descent into a nightmare, but it is nightmare from which you never wake up. In Dagon, the nightmare may start when the hero-victim wakes up on the landmass. Being alone for days in such an alien landscape might be enough to make a man insane. Or perhaps the nightmare starts when he wakes up under the gibbous moon, to climb the peak and descend into the lair of the monolith. But it isn’t the landscape or the final horrific sight of the monster that sends the hero-victim into insanity. It’s the alien text on the monolith, suggesting that this is not just a single rare oceanic creature, but that these things have lived on earth for millions of years, and that they know about humanity. The only reason we don’t know about them is that they do not want us to know. When the time is right, they might choose to erradicate or enslave us, just as we would an inferior animal. That is the horror that the hero-victim can never awaken from, which leads him to his final hallucination of the creatures coming after him. God! The hand! The hand!

In Pickman’s Model it’s harder to place where the nightmare starts. It certainly starts when Pickman lead his hero-victim Thurber to the impossibly old part of Boston’s North End. And room for room the nightmare gets worse, as they go deeper into the abyss of ancient architecture and at the same time deeper towards the present in the paintings. The horror isn’t the paintings in themselves, nor is it that they are based on a real model, nor is it that Pickman himself is hinted at being one of the monsters, about to blossom into full monstrousity. The horror is the realisation that these things exist around us all the time, that Boston is a giant mole-hill filled with this cannabalistic cousin of humanity, that anyone could be one of these monsters, and again that we do not know about the monsters, but the monsters know of us. And laugh at us.

Waking up the day after, Thurber finds in his pocket the photgraphic evidence that makes it impossble to ever wake from his nightmare.

For Lovecraft knowledge was the supreme terror. The letters collected as “In Defence of Dagon” quickly become an attack on spitituality and religion, but it is not wholly irrelevant to the intrepretation of his stories. In fending off religious critics, he claims that:

… continuity is never possible in matters of discovery. Before America was discovered, it was unknown- then suddenly it was known! And so with the facts overturning religion.

The knowledge that the dream is real, or that the distinction between them is meaningless, is the heart of the Lovecraftian. In being a dream it seperates him from other horror-writers, and in being real it seperates him from other dream-explorers like Kafka and Jose Luis Borges.

A contestant on some british quiz-show defined Lovecraft’s literature as “Horror written to scare an atheist”. It is a good definition, but I’d suggest to change it to “Images written to explain why an atheist is scared”. As Lovecraft stated, it’s all about self-expression.

And that leads me to some theories on how to adapt Lovecraft, largely based on my reading of Maurice Levy’s “Lovecraft: A Study of the Fantastic”. The main thesis there is that Lovecraft wrote to rid himself of the pressures of his many anxieties, including the extreme racism and misantropy. While there are many things in the book that wouldn’t have been written if Levy had the knowledge of later biographies on Lovecraft(Levy wrote his book in 1972, I think), it does point out some recurring themes that Lovecraft uses to make his dream-landscapes and moods seem so vivid and real in our heads.

The chapters each define one of these themes, and are as follows:

  1. The Outsider (A brief biography, establishing that Lovecraft’s hero-victims are almost always like himself, outsiders, unfit for the world they live in, alone even in a crowd).
  2. Dwellings and Landscapes (Regarding Lovecrafts love for his home of New England, showing that the home of childhood is the only landscape that can populate the world of dreams).
  3. The Metamorphoses of Space (In which even this dream-home rots away through ancient alien corruption gnawing at it’s roots, in the end dissolving space and time itself, leaving on the terrifying freedom of abstract unthinkable geometry filling the void, as the dreamer is dragged towards the abyss).
  4. The Horrific Bestiary (On the Lovecraftian monsters, showing that they are not merely fantastical creatures, but species occupying the same space as humanity unknown to us, capable of hiding their shapes form us, communicating with us at will, and interbreeding with us without our knowledge. This of course is the chapter that most links up with Lovecrafts racism, as some of his descriptions of for instance Chinatown are eerily similar to, and often more gruesome, than his monsters).
  5. The Depths of Horror (Showing how Lovecraft’s horror always comes from the deep. The depths of the ocean, the depths of the earth, the depths of time, and even the depths of cosmos above us, all hide the horrors of the depths of our own sub-conscious.
  6. The Horrors of Heredity (In which the depths extend to the depths of bloodlines, which in even the most “Aryan” of “Unmixed english gentry” and “Viking-blood” hides horrors of cannibalism, inbreeding, and even monstrous races of fishlike frogs that call us back to the seas).
  7. Cthulhu (Describing the pantheon of primary sentient forces in the universe, so far above our feeble grasp of science and morality that we can only view them as Gods, and imbue their actions with meaning made to make sense to our simple human minds)
  8. Unholy Cults (About the hidden cults and secret books that keep the lore or legend of these things alive, and that tries to harness the powers not meant for humanity).
  9. In the Chasms of Dream (Establisihng how closely related Lovecraft’s stories are to his own dreams, and starting to link it all up to his own life)
  10. From Fable to Myth (Trying to show how Lovecraft creates his own mythology as a way of healing his own lack of faith in anything, and above all his lack of faith in himself. Perhaps a less satisfying end to the thesis, but better than most anything else written about Lovecraft).

Not all of this is of interest to our discussion, but chapters 2-6 are extremely relevant as they are all describing visual cues we as cartoonists can use to anticipate the final indescribable horrors that no brush can ever succesfully paint.

It is for instance hard not to think of “The Metamorphoses of Space” as Mark’s brushstrokes drag the hero-victim towards the black mound in the distance or later gets washed away in a storm that comes from nowehere, or to not think of  “the Depths of Horror” as he peers down into the impossibly deep gulf where the monolith awaits, and finally the thing that grasps the monolith surely must be Lovecraft’s first addition to his “Horrific Bestiary” as it is a creature not of this world but grounded in it’s own myths and fables and language that far precedes our young species.

For my attempt at Pickman’s Model, I need to know the “Dwellings and Landscapes” of Boston in order to successfully portray how it metamorphoses to a North-End of dreams, and in Pickman’s face I need to show the “Horrors of Heredity”, charicaturing him more and more towards a ghoul as they walk down into their own depths of historical cellars and hint at the tunnels that burrow beneath.

In essence… What I’m trying to say is that Lovecraft created dreams. And that these dreams are incredibly strong in inspiring imagination to this day. Which is why they are adapted so much, and so badly. Few understand how to make a dream.

Dreams, or the convincingly real sort, take up a lot of space. I automatically fail in that regard in my Pickman’s Model, and even my longer version of it will be too short. But I was aware of this when I started, and chose the tale for specific reasons. Mark however has jumped in with the right idea for the right tale right from the start. Using tens of pages just to decribe one line is surely a prerequisite of adapting Lovecraft. Because a single line may hold enough dream-information for a whole novel.

Ummhhhhh… This has gone on way too long. Sorry guys! If you read it all: Thanks and God bless! Cthulhu Fthagn!


Yup. That’s some of my thoughts. I will have to write a follow up, since neither this nor the podcast even begin to tell enough about adapting Lovecraft. The podcast should be up on Art & Story later today. For some more Work-in-Progress from my various projects, follow me on tumblr!



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