At the Mountains of Madness with H.P. Lovecraft

Posted by on January 26th, 2011 at 5:03 AM

UK publisher Self Made Hero has been quietly nibbling at its own corner of the graphic novel market. They first came to my attention by publishing Reinhard Kleist’s Johnny Cash’ biography and recently Hunter S. Thompson’s life called Gonzo: A graphic Biography of.

Part of their Eye Classics line adapting famous classic novels like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Dostoesky’s Crime and Punishment, At the Mountains of Madness graphic novelises the infamous tale of the Necronomicon and the Shoggoths by the equally infamous H.P. Lovecraft. A known misanthrope as to the likes off Jonathan Swift and Arthur Schopenhauer, H.P. Lovecraft was a turn of the century writer obsessed with  – in his own terms – cosmic horror. Being of the mindset that the universe is a terrible thing to behold and that the tiny human mind will never be able to comprehend the intrinsic alien-ness of the world we live in, he tended to be not the most social of guests. Destitute in life, he is now regarded as one of the most important horror writers of the twentieth century and influenced whole generations of horror writers. The one comic owning perhaps the most to Lovecraft’s writings is Hellboy whose own mythology is deeply entrenched in – if not the ideas then definitely the atmosphere – Lovecraft’s own mythology of the Old Ones.

A tale of terror unlike any other.The barren, windswept interior of the Antarctic plateau was lifeless or so the expedition from Miskatonic University thought.Then they found strange fossils of unheard-of creatures, carved stones tens of millions of years old and, finally, the unspeakable, mind-twisting terror of the City of the Old Ones.

H.P Lovecraft’s writing tends to be verbose and overly descriptive, describing the Shoggoth creatures, ancient alien gods and eldritch places over pages and pages; not that that is a bad thing in itself (f.e. Oscar Wilde’s overly florid writing describing the carpets and immense wealth of the Victorian high society in The Picture of Dorian Gray still manages to captivate me after multiple re-readings) but it easily has the potential to lead to poor material for a story in pictures.

Writer and artist I.N.J. Culbard has the ungrateful task of turning these words into a graphic novel. Thankfully though, he understands what Lovecraft is about: atmosphere and the invasion of the otherworld. Culbard makes the decision to open up the pages, often using wide-screen panels and fluid borders, managing hereby to break through Lovecraft’s verbose writings. Utilising only dialogue and the occasional journal outtake, Culbard goes for ‘less is more’.

His sparse line work only serves to open up Lovecraft’s dense writing even more. His cartoony fluid line suits the arctic environment quite well and characters are well rounded and unique in appearance. The only place where his line work works against itself is in the phantasmagorical creatures Lovecraft describes. While Lovecraft describes the Shoggoths in detail, Culbard falls into the trap of prominently showcasing the creatures in all their hideous glory. However his literal interpretation falls a bit short due to his cartoonish line which detracts from the horror element substantially. A more real world interpretation of the creatures would be much more horrific. More effective would have been f.e. a different technique for the creatures or keeping the visuals more subdued and in the realm of shadows and whispers, where Lovecraft’s stories so often take place.

The sense of foreboding that is always ever-present in the novel also misses a few beats in the visuals. Though the colouring on the very striking cover of the graphic novel promises a more retro flavour while the inside colouring opts for a more classic approach with big blocks of colour, sometimes gently enforced by a shade applied here and there. However I feel colour could have been used more effectively in letting the danger lurk throughout these pages. Sometimes it is used well, like the scene where all is coloured red as the bodies of the missing expedition members are found, horrifically dismembered by the Shoggoths or the first steps in the city of the Old Ones where everything has an icy tint of blue, distant and abandoned. But these techniques are not as abundant as I would have liked.

Pacing wise, there’s a lot of build up in terms of tension and expectations right up until the moment that expedition members Professor Dyer and Danworth reach the lost city beyond the mountains of madness but once there, the book itself goes full stop, leading into an expositional chapter about the connections between the Necronomicon, the Shoggoth creatures, great Ctulhu and the mad prophet Abdul Al Hazred; though enlightening and captivating it’s also a bit of an anticlimax. The graphic novel reflects this ofcourse and Culbard can’t visually bring anything new to the table regarding layouts, visuals or pacing to brighten or intensify the scene.

At the Mountains of Madness is maybe not Lovecraft’s best book but as a gateway into his cosmic horror mythology, it does provide a good stepping stone into his fictional horror universe. Culbard transforms the novel into an excellent graphic novel that is true to Lovecraft’s intentions: atmospheric, otherworldly and full of dread. If you have always wanted to check out Lovecraft and see what the fuss is about, this would be a sterling start.

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard is published by Self Made Hero. It is a full colour softcover counting 128 pages and retails for £ 14.99.

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