Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Shadow Out Of Time by HP Lovecraft and INJ Culbard review

INJ Culbard’s latest HP Lovecraft adaptation is of Lovecraft’s last major work, the sci-fi-esque horror story The Shadow Out Of Time. Unlike Culbard’s last 2 adaptations, At The Mountains Of Madness and The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, The Shadow Out Of Time is a trickier story to make work in a comic and is tonally different from Lovecraft’s more straightforward horror tales - as a result this is the weakest book in the series so far. 

For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft, HP (Howard Phillips) Lovecraft was an early 20th century pioneer of the horror genre, which is referred to as “weird fiction”. Published primarily in low-circulation pulp magazines, he went largely unrecognised in his lifetime and experienced a resurgence after his death in 1937 when his fiction entered the lives of numerous popular writers of today like Stephen King, Michel Houellebecq, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, who would count Lovecraft amongst their influences. 

The Shadow Out Of Time (TSOOT) is about Professor Peaslee who suffers a fainting spell one day at Miskatonic University in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham. When Peaslee awakens he discovers 5 years have passed - but even more disturbingly, he finds out that he wasn’t unconscious and bedridden for all those years but actively walking around. But how was that possible? And what was “he” doing in those lost years?

With TSOOT, it seemed like Lovecraft was moving away from the horror genre as the story is mostly about the space dreams Peaslee experienced and relays, in rather tedious exposition, to the reader. There are numerous scenes of odd-looking aliens, somewhat familiar yet ominous pyramids and monoliths, and ancient statues hidden in remote areas that attest to the idea that We Are Not Alone In The Universe. All of which is fine material for Lovecraft to tackle except he tries to make it fit the horror template and it doesn’t work because they’re two different genres. 

Culbard does his best to diminish Lovecraft’s awkward writing style (the description “horrific prose” was never more ironically applied than to Lovecraft) where his characters repeatedly tell the reader that what they saw was shocking and horrible beyond belief which doesn’t work quite so well as experiencing it yourself. If you’re told over and over again that something is scary, it’s probably not. Thankfully, Culbard does away with those extensive paragraphs from the original story so the book reads a lot smoother and he even gives the characters dialogue, something Lovecraft notoriously avoided in his fiction (I should say that he claimed dialogue was vulgar and that was why he refused to use it in his work, but I think that he didn’t mostly because, as a recluse, he rarely spent much time around other people and so had no idea how they spoke. The few times he did utilise dialogue, it is absolutely laughable - ellipses everywhere!).

Perhaps the most damning aspect of this story and that makes TSOOT one of the least interesting Lovecraft stories is the descriptions of the Great Old Ones, the ancient deities that make up Lovecraft’s legendary Cthulu mythos. Culbard does his best to depict them as scary going off of Lovecraft’s descriptions but they’re really anything but - in fact, they’re kind of funny and kind of stupid at the same time. One of them looks like a giant strawberry nestled atop a can of tuna; another looks like a grasshopper with jelly for arms - these are the terrifying gods of chaos and madness?! They resemble the product of a 5 year olds imagination! 

I know Lovecraft’s fans really love his mythos but the stories related here read more like something Tom Cruise and John Travolta would believe in rather than credible sci fi or horror - it’s that poorly conceived and related. I respect that Lovecraft put a lot of effort into making it seem fascinating but I found it as byzantine and inscrutable as Tolkien’s extensive Middle Earth history. 

I enjoyed parts of the book like Peaslee’s eerie experiences, the mystery of those lost years, and his travels to remote areas of the world in search of answers. All of this was great, its just when those answers are revealed and turn out to be, well, kind of boring, that the book fell apart for me. Lovecraft droning on about some alien mythology he created is only interesting to the most indulgent of readers willing to try to understand this rambling discourse, a group to which I don’t belong. 

The Shadow Out Of Time is a somewhat interesting Lovecraft story with some good moments, decent art, and I think Culbard make the story far better in this book that Lovecraft did by himself so if you want to read this story, pick up this adaptation rather than punish your brain by reading Lovecraft’s prose. It’s also the weakest Lovecraft adaptation Culbard has done so far - instead of TSOOT, I highly recommend checking out The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for a more entertaining and haunting Lovecraft comic.

The Shadow Out of Time

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