[7 February 2014]
HP Lovecraft built his reputation as the master of early 20th century horror on numerous short stories such as “The Call of Cthulhu”, a handful of novellas and one slim novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Positioned as the link between the uncanny 19th-century imaginings of Edgar Allen Poe and the modern-day horror of Stephen King, Lovecraft – who died in poverty in 1937 – has acquired a devoted and appreciative following over the years, won over by his unsettling novels and vividly imagined short stories, many of which appeared in early sci-fi and horror magazines such as Weird Tales.
Novella The Shadow Out of Time first appeared in the June 1936 edition of Astounding Stories, and has been anthologized often since then; this latest version, in comics format adapted and illustrated by comics maestro INJ Culberd, is likely to bring the story, and perhaps the author himself, to a whole new generation of readers. (Culberd’s graphic-novel version of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was released by the same publisher last year.)
The Shadow Out of Time is told through a series of flashbacks and reports, a set of perhaps unnecessarily complex contrivances that nonetheless manages to lend an air of distance and unreality to the proceedings even before the weirdness starts. And make no mistake, there is weirdness here in plenty as university professor Nathaniel Peaslee finds himself mysteriously knocked unconscious for many years, only to wake up just as mysteriously with no memory of what happened.
He has no recollection of this time period, during which he apparently engaged in a globe-spanning array of research trips and engaged in voracious reading. Only over many pages of tortured recollection, during which time Peaslee battles with bizarre and disturbing dreams, does the reader realize that Peaslee’s consciousness was swapped, and his mind was in fact abducted – through time if not space – to an otherworldly prison-slash-zoo in which representatives from around the galaxy are held and studied.
Or was he? It’s up to Peaslee’s son to work out the reality of all this, years after it happens; is the old man bonkers, and is his late-in-the-story revelation in the Australian desert merely the product of a disordered mind? Or is there evidence out there to prove that what he experienced was actually be the truth?
It is to Lovecraft’s credit that, decades after the original publication of the story, it still has the power to unsettle the reader. This is no splashy gore-fest, nor even an example of what is commonly called “psychological horror”. This is simply a story whose audacious premise is grandiose enough to swallow most anything the reader could think to throw it at; it’s unsettling because its scope is so damn big. Sure, there are some sort of queasy non-human life forms, and lots of shadowy caverns and hints of physical torture; but these are the embellishments, not the substance, to the creeping unease that permeates the story. The overriding sense here is that something… is… wrong… and that is the result of authorial manipulations far more subtle than usual in this genre.
Culbard’s art style meshes well with the story. It’s no surprise that horror comics were among the earliest successes in comics history, as they seem tailor-made for it with their blocky shadows, stark lighting effects, and glimpses of the unknowable. Culbard utilizes all these elements skillfully, adding a muted color palette that makes good use of nighttime skies and underground hallways (although even in broad daylight there is abundance of grays and browns). His figures are expressive in their postures, with facial expressions conveying much as well. That Achilles heel for so many comics artists – the human figure – is skillfully and suggestively rendered here.
Layouts are lively and varied: some arrangements clutter multiple panels together on a single page, while others stretch minimal illustrations across two-page spreads. Later pages forego panels altogether in an array of inventive and eye-engaging layouts. Significant passages are told solely through imagery, with no dialogue or captions whatever. All of this visual variety lends much to the story, which tends toward a certain breathlessness of tone.
As mentioned, the structure is far from straightforward, and the constant complications might put some readers off. The tale is directed toward Peaslee’s son, who was present for some of the action but absent for much more of it, and it also relies heavily on the testimony of other, incidental characters, who supply information about Peaslee’s lost, amnesiac years. There is an overriding sense of never really knowing for sure what happened, or is happening; for the most part, though, this is effective rather than unsatisfying.
More problematic for some horror fans is the fact that the story isn’t, frankly, that horrifying. There is a sense of unease, and dread, to be sure. But the actual horror elements are muted, at least in comparison to how the genre has evolved over the past 80 years. There are moments, to be sure, when various disembodied heads and multi-tentacled aliens threaten to bring the whole affair low, reducing it to the level of Futurama-esque farce. Such moments are rare, however, and both Lovecraft and Culbard can claim equal credit for that.
This is a handsomely produced softcover edition of one of the stronger stories in the HP Lovecraft canon, and well worth a look for fans of horror stories, or of contemporary comics, or both.