Howard Philips Lovecraft is dead! Long live Howard Philips Lovecraft!
In my opinion it’s impossible to talk too much about Lovecraft. He embodies my rather tight definition of genius: He departed from conventions and did something in his field of work that fundamentally changed the way we look at that field, maybe even how we look at the world in general. He wrote horror stories, mostly short stories but also a few longer things that might qualify as novels. He did it in his own, absolutely unique way: hardly any dialogue, mounds of adjectives and obviously all according to the principle: tell, don’t show. Utterly wrong, in other words. If you read a manual in the noble art of writing today the conclusion can be only one: utterly insane. Blogs and forums hand out advice and host debates: How to write well? How to sell alot? Oh, how? How? How?
And hopeful writers read, digest and produce. And everything smells the same. Not so Lovecraft, or Tolkien, or Joyce, or Sterne, and so on. Just like Picasso didn’t do it the same way everyone else did. The genius does it his own way, breaks the rules, and still manages to become iconic. Or is it because? Of course it’s because!
I can’t count the number of times the question has been raised: what makes great literature great. And the eternal, tiresome answer is: no literature is better than any other, it’s all a matter of taste. (And then they refer to poor Stephen King, simply because they can hope to become as good as Mr King, but they can never hope to become the next James Joyce.) As if there are no, if not objective then at least semi-objective, marks of quality in art. Why then, I ask, read all those books about how to write? If there are no marks of quality, then there is nothing to learn, is there? It’s very much like when people read ten books about “mindfulness” and then talk about their new, fantastic life. If it’s so fantastic, and if they got the point in book number one, why read nine more books? Bull!
It’s all a matter of taste. Silly! Of course there are marks of quality, as objective as anything human can ever be. How many writers from early 19th century England can you name? Jane Austen, congrats! How many were there once upon a time? Hundreds, most likely. Yet Miss Austen i virtually the only one who is read today. Time, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the best marks of quality. Thus none of us will ever know whether or not we are great. But time speaks for the long-dead H P Lovecraft: “That is not dead, which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.” He did everything wrong, yet his influence keeps growing. No marks of quality? Bah! Though they are not always what we think they are.
Blah, blah, blah! You pompous toad, shut it! Alright, I found the thin red line again. In the graphic novel At the Mountains of Madness, artist I N J Culbard tries to dress the classic Lovecraft-story in drawings. It’s a good attempt, but it fails to reach those ever eluding peaks of brilliance. The reason is precisely what made Lovecraft great: breaking the rules. Culbards drawings are good, not advanced but technically very good. They also leave me with a sense of the ordinary, they don’t stand out, they don’t break the rules. The cover is a different matter, with its huge mountain silhouette behind a curtain of snow and a scratched surface. It sticks out, it’s interesting. The same image inside the book lacks the scratched surface and doesn’t do it for me. Why? It’s very much like the classic image of Donald Duck and his nephews by the low wall above Plain Awful in Lost in the Andes from 1949, by Carl Barks. It’s a remarkable image, something billiant, something … askew. Yes, the perspective is flawed (apparently because Carl Barks was distracted by a chatty neighbour when he drew that particular image). It’s wrong, it’s flawed, it’s alive! Culbards drawings have too little of that, and when you try to breath visual life into something as non-visual as Lovecraft, you need to do something out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It’s not Lovecrafts best story, admittedly, but this version doesn’t do anything for it. And so I’m left with my thwarted hope, still searching for a truly good adaptation of the great old one.