INTERVIEW James Gracey
Widely known for his graphic novel adaptations of classic literature, including collaborations on the acclaimed Sherlock Holmes series with Ian Edginton, INJ Culbard has also been making a name for himself with his adaptions of the work of HP Lovecraft. Having tackled At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and The Shadow Out of Time for SelfMadeHero, Culbard has now turned his attention to Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle, with an adaptation of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
Lovecraft’s influence over contemporary horror, and indeed sci-fi, is undeniable. What is it about his work that continues to be so effective and powerful, and what do you admire most about it?
I think the pivotal thing Lovecraft did was turn myth into science fiction. His work created a defining crossroads and like a pinpoint on a map, his influence resonates out through everybody else’s work. Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, an idea Lovecraft himself actually explored years before in “The Dreams in the Witch House”, in which you have a crossover between physics and magic. I think that’s a key thing in Lovecraft’s work and it has such a strong resonance, consequently appearing in the work of everyone from Stephen King to Alan Moore. He’s been a constant sleeper hit, popping up every so often when loads of people devour his work, then simmering down only to bubble back up. He always hits a nerve and will continue to do so.
So far you have adapted At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which has just been published. What drew you to these particular stories?
I’d been working with Ian Edginton on the Sherlock Holmes novels and he was going off to do Pride and Prejudice with another artist. I had been kicking around a few ideas, including The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, as I wanted to adapt an adventure story. At the last minute I decided to pitch At the Mountains of Madness to the publisher when we were at the Frankfurt Book Fair, as it has elements of an Antarctic-set Boys’ Own Adventure Tale. Within about half an hour it was commissioned. The fluky thing was that Emma Hayley of SelfMadeHero was working on an anthology of Lovecraft’s short stories, which I didn’t know about at all, so it was definitely a case of pitching the right thing at the right time. After that I chose Charles Dexter Ward because it was entirely different in tone — it’s essentially a horror detective novel — and I wanted to do something that was quite different from Mountains, but still quintessentially ‘Lovecraft’. I adapted The Shadow Out of Time because it is a combination of the two; part sci-fi adventure, part tale of someone losing their mind. Dream-Quest is entirely different again; it’s set in Lovecraft’s Dreamland and has more of a ‘pilgrim’s progress’ quest about it and further demonstrates how he could tell a wide range of stories.
Can you talk me through your process of adapting these works? Do you concentrate on text or images first and foremost?
I used to work using a combination of drawing and writing. SelfMadeHero like to see a script to begin with, so that’s how I work now; it’s become second nature to me. I spend a good deal of time writing the script, which involves taking apart the story, breaking it right down to synopsis level, to the bare bones, and then building it all back up again with a structure that fits the medium and enables me to tell the story visually. I’ll read the source material, research the background, and get an audio reading of it so I can completely digest the story. I’ll also read support material, letters and correspondence written by the original author, and research the places that the stories take place in. With Lovecraft, I also read any stories that cross over into other parts of his mythos. I need to be fully versed in it and know why and how certain things need to be changed in the adaptation. As it comes together I get a feel for the visuals and the kind of images I want to see.
In SelfMadeHero’s Lovecraft Anthology, you illustrated Rob Davis’ adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror” — how was this experience? How did your approach differ from your own adaptations?
In terms of the writing, Rob handled all that; I just thought about how I wanted it to look and fit in with everything else. The character of Armitage appears in Dunwich as well as in Mountains of Madness and Shadow Out of Time, so I wanted to make sure things were consistent and stick with what I’d already established, visually, in my corner of the Lovecraft universe. It all ties together, for example Miskatonic University in Rob’s adaptation looks the same as it does in my adaptations.
Given that Lovecraft said horror is most effective when suggested rather than depicted, were you concerned that depicting his work would strip it of its power? How much freedom did you allow yourself?
While there are certainly moments when it’s best to keep your palette dry, it’s not always true when people say you can’t show the monsters and that you shouldn’t try to ‘describe the indescribable’, as Lovecraft at times actually went to great lengths to describe them. There are moments in the stories where, for example in At the Mountains of Madness when he describes the Elder Gods, he provides such detailed descriptions they become very clearly painted in your mind. If you look at most depictions of the Elder Gods they’re all pretty much identical as they’re all based on the text, and the text is so thorough it leaves little wiggle room. There are of course other instances where he only suggests stuff and you’re left to play in the shadows. There’s a moment in my adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward when Dr. Willett sees something so disturbing he begins to lose his mind, but of course we don’t see what he sees, we just see his face and his reaction over a couple of panels. It’s important to be able to play with primal and genuine fears; fears that are relevant and we can all relate to. While monsters aren’t necessarily ‘relatable’ horror, someone’s reaction to something monstrous is certainly very relatable.
Yes, despite all the fantastical aspects of his work, Lovecraft really manages to tap into universal and oddly relatable fears. He once said “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown…”
The things he plays around with are things we can latch on to and relate to. They’re real things, tangible things that can happen to us. You might never encounter an Elder God, but you could still lose your mind, and that’s the thing he’s really playing with here. A lot of his stories are basically about people losing their minds. That’s real horror. Dementia is real horror. I see The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as a story about a man losing his son; a father losing his son in his own lifetime, long before his own death. There’s really something horrific about that. As part of my research for the adaptation, in order to get a grasp on the situation in very real terms, I read various letters and accounts by people who had lost loved ones to dementia. Lovecraft touches on this in the way he writes, and while he doesn’t write about it very specifically, he had that sort of relationship with his own father, losing him to madness. He’s seen these things first-hand and you’re getting that through his work.
That’s really interesting because Lovecraft’s work has so often been described as emotionless and cold, but what you’ve just said makes me believe there are traces of emotion if you look for it.
It is there and it’s heartbreaking. If you look at it in real terms like that it can be heartbreaking.
What can graphic adaptations of Lovecraft’s work offer readers that other mediums can’t? Do they bring anything extra to his work?
His work is ripe for visual interpretation and dramatisation. In a letter to Fritz Leiber, Lovecraft confessed that one of his biggest flaws was that characters weren’t his strong point, and he felt his work lacked characterisation. He was always very self-deprecating. His characters take you through the stories in a horrified and dreamlike state; they’re there to bear witness and report back about the things they’ve seen, not talk about who they are. The moment you start illustrating these characters and seeing them visually, characterisation begins to take form. You build on what Lovecraft laid down and it all becomes richer. He also doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, particularly in stories such as At the Mountains of Madness. I try to figure out the relationships and dynamic between the characters and any conflict becomes what you base the dialogue on. There are moments where Lovecraft just allows you to tell the story visually anyway. You have to be true to the story but also true to the medium you are working in. Lovecraft allows for that, he’s a very generous author in that sense.
What has the response been to your work? Has anything about that surprised you?
People’s reactions to anything I do always surprise me! The amount of people who have supported these adaptations is great — Mountains sold out very quickly. It’s nice how people have reacted and been so positive; it’s especially nice that Lovecraft fans have taken to them and liked them, despite certain little changes I made to suit the medium. It has to be that when I adapt these stories they aren’t just abridged versions of the originals; that’s why I strip them back and build them up — they have to exist as works in their own right, and entertain people in the way that the medium should, using the economy of visual exposition.
Are there any other authors of ‘weird fiction’ whose work you’d like to adapt? I’m thinking of Robert Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, those sorts of writers.
I’m actually working on an adaptation of Robert Chambers’ King in Yellow at the moment. I pitched it ages ago and the publisher was quite keen, but not that many people were really familiar with it then. I knew that if anyone would be familiar with The King in Yellow and to read it, it would be the Lovecraft readership. Then along comes True Detective and popularises The King in Yellow.
I’d love to be able to adapt some of those other writers you mentioned. I love Blackwood, and I’d love to do the John Silence stories. I also like Hodgson and Clarke Ashton Smith. The publisher needs to be sure there’ll be an audience for them though. Even if you went down the route of Lovecraft’s mythos and looked at everyone who had chimed in on that, you’d be looking at writers as diverse as Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Ramsey Campbell — it would be fantastic to adapt a lot of their stories and corners of the mythos. It would be great to introduce new readers to it as it’s quite niche. Maybe one day there’ll be a series of True Detective built around Clarke Ashton Smith!