This last summer, I was delighted to receive a request to do a foreword for a new illustrated Lovecraft book. (This is always mixed with mild dismay at my own enthusiasm, as the more sensible part of myself pulls my ear and reminds me that I actually must write something when I accept.)
I have learned to take this as a sign, though, that this is not a blithely ill-considered chore, but an opportunity, not painting myself into a corner, but the chance to paint a door in the wall and step through it to… well, who knows where? In this case, it was a step into the Outer Dark, where Lovecraft’s nameless gods bicker, jostle and sulk.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Lovecraft’s pantheon of chaos is its denizens’ undiluted malignancy, coupled with their curious inefficacy at actually achieving their goal: the total annihilation of mankind and the “clearing off” of the Earth. Of his irascible gods, he states: “All my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.” Nonetheless, they do seem to go about it in an absent-minded way, with of course, a curious fixation on New England. With a whole world to choose from, and much of it far older than Lovecraft’s own haunts, they seem to expend a disproportionate amount of energy in New England, the preferred stamping ground of a great number of his malevolent gods. (They are so remarkably thick in the hills and woods, one wonders how they avoid over-the-hedge quarrels.)
Lovecraft himself, with a few notable exceptions, did not venture far afield from his birthplace, devotedly dwelling on the ancientness of his beloved New England,. His three visits to Quebec City (three days in the summer of 1930, and again in 1932 and 1933) spawned a dithyrambic flood of eloquence in imitation Olde English prose entitled “A DESCRIPTION OF THE TOWN OF QUEBECK, IN NEW-FRANCE, Lately Added to His Britannick Majesty’s Dominions.” (It is his longest published work.) In his travelogue, he decries the American Revolution – or “rebellion” – and deplores the origins of Quebec’s founder Samuel de Champlain: “’tis a pity he could not have been an Englishman and a Protestant.” One imagines that he might have repeatedly swooned had he had the opportunity to visit Europe itself.
One of Lovecraft’s enduring characteristics, though, is his feeling of “otherness”. “I think I am probably the only living person to whom the ancient 18th century idiom is actually a prose & poetic mother-tongue… I would actually feel more at home in a silver-button’d coat, velvet small-cloaths, [and a] three-corner’d hat… I’ve always had [the] subconscious feeling that everything since the 18th century is unreal and illusory…” But, with all his faults, (and he recanted the worst of his prejudices near the end, as if his lengthy sojourn amongst us finally reconciled him with humankind as a species) Lovecraft remains an ultimately endearing and much-troubled envoy of the horrible writhing gods of deepest chaos, a genteel ambassador in ruff collar and frock coat who soberly details their bloodthirsty designs on mankind with a scholar’s manner and reserve.
So, with the permission of the artist and illustrator François Baranger and the Editions Bragelonne, here is the original English text of the foreword.
I HAVE OFTEN WONDERED IF, TO THE WIDELY ACCEPTED TAXONOMY defining fantastical literature: portal-quest, immersive, intrusion, liminal; might be added a category evaluating image evocation. The ability of a text to flood with images unbidden the mind of the reader, independently of style and actual content, depends in great measure on shared understanding: both personal experience and collective consciousness.
By and large, authors, and especially fantasy authors, trade in imagery, though their currency is words. Convincing world-building, suspension of disbelief, unbridled creative vision, evocation and reinterpretation of archetype; fantasy demands that the reader willingly abandon self-distancing and judgment, checking them in the cloakroom of skepticism before stepping over the threshold and entering the story.
Some authors’ words are nearly magical in their ability to spontaneously conjure up imagery. Foremost among these is Howard Philips Lovecraft, the flawed Olympian of “supernatural horror,” along with Peake, Meyrink, Hodgson, Shiel, Blackwood, Poe, Machen, to name only the most illustrious proponents. (The genre continues of course to be enriched by modern authors: Tolkien, Holdstock, Hobb, Moorcock, Sweet and many more.)
Nonetheless, for all his intense potential for interpretation, Lovecraft has, compared to similar authors, rarely seen his work translated into memorable images. The pulps published during his lifetime, with the exception of Virgil Finlay, saw little striking imagery commissioned. The cinema has done little better. Lovecraftian imagery has largely been confined to role-playing games, paperback covers and the occasional omnibus. Given the incredibly striking evocations in Lovecraft’s opus, why has it as yet found so little echo amongst visual artists?
Perhaps the error lies in taking the author of Supernatural Horror in Literature at his word. To illustrate “horror” is to often fall back on clichés that can titillate or dismay, but ultimately remain bound to individual experience. Horror is up close and personal; a violation of intimate space and
comfortable certainties. To illustrate Lovecraft, and especially the Cthulhu Mythos, is to venture beyond boundaries that are already far removed from our own experience, into a sur-reality that abolishes scale, where the “outside” can reach into our world, force its bulk through from those places where space and time are fused abstracts, leaving us anchorless and rudderless, adrift in a universe dominated by panic and despair.
Lovecraft’s gods are primal and undefined: they exist physically beyond the Earth, though no telescope can pick them out and they defy conventional science; they exist under the Earth and the sea, and while they can emerge with sudden and terrifying physicality, they remain intangibly slumbering. Like Greek or medieval conceptions of heaven and hell, they are both there and not there, in our world and next to it; cavern mouths, underground rivers or inaccessible peaks can possess a suitably evocative toponymy, but we cannot go spelunking in Tartarus or Dante’s purgatory any more that we can free-climb to Olympus or bring the Pearly Gates into focus with Hubble.
One notable essayist has stated convincingly that Lovecraft’s gods are not gods at all, but simply alien life forms, deified by distance and potency of menace. Humanity dimly perceives their existence and only rarely sees them up close. This classification has the merit of pointing out the “outsideness” of the mythos. Lovecraft’s gods are not involved in creation, as are most traditional gods; their eschatological role carries no hope of rebirth and renewal after the apocalypse. Their intent is simply to “clear off the Earth.” If they are indeed gods, they are alien ones in every sense.
The closest Lovecraft navigates to the coasts of traditional myth is when he suggests that mankind was created as an idle undertaking, immediately changing course by qualifying it as a scientific experiment. This typically Lovecraftian ambiguity blurs the border between science and religion, mitigating the science behind his mythos by the formulae required to materialize these alien gods on Earth. These incantations, eked out of forbidden grimoires, have nothing to do with trajectories, gravitation, orbits and flight paths, but are pure invocations modeled on traditional notions of sorcery.
Moreover, Lovecraft’s monstrous deities are strangely ineffectual in actually gaining entry into the Earth they desire to “clear off”, relying on individuals like Old Whateley, “aged and half-insane… about whom the most frightful tales of magic had been whispered in his youth” and his feeble-minded albino daughter Lavinia, who is somehow impregnated by Yog-Sothoth and gives birth to the humanoid if monstrous Wilbur and his brother, an invisible many-legged being with half a gigantic face on the summit of its vast tubular bulk. This seems a singularly tortuous way of gaining a foothold on the Earth, and a stop is put to the endeavour by a guard dog (who rips out Wilbur’s throat when he tries to break into the Miskatonic University Library after his request to borrow a copy of the Necronomicon was refused) and a small band led by the librarian, Dr. Henry Armitage, who shouts a spell from a hilltop to destroy the other sibling. (Sorcery again!) The other alien beings live either in remote galaxies or in the shadow of unexplored regions of the earth or oceans, or clumsily manage to switch places and take control of human bodies, though they seem to do little with them. As for Cthulhu, he is asleep in Ry’leh, somewhere under the Pacific, and only stirs when sudden tectonic activity pushes the undersea metropolis to the surface, and seemingly submerges along with it when the ocean bottom subsides again.
Clearly, Lovecraft’s gods and worlds defy convention; to adequately illustrate them means discarding all the common trappings of conventional horror and choosing an approach more cosmic in scope. This is the course François Baranger has chosen to explore the Mythos’ uncharted depths. He has largely eschewed bringing us “into the action” in the conventionally foreshortened sense, abandoning easy clichés – gaping maws about to close on screaming humans squeezed in tentacles – focusing instead on the distortion of space, the unmooring of scale and the horror of the distant and barely-glimpsed too vast to be comprehended.
Horror is often resumed by close-up, too often dragged out by unbelievably narrow escape after narrow escape, with a final reckoning somehow inexplicable on human terms. Lovecraft indulges in none of that; when the doors to the Outer dark are finally opened, the Earth will be cleared, it will be swift and impersonal. Francois Baranger’s illustrations bring this into sharp focus, enlarging the scope, pushing back the frontiers of the imaginable, evoking the unutterable horror of Cthulhu’s grand awakening. His art is possessed of an elegant sobriety; these are darkly evocative and spectacular visions of dire and gigantic beauty.
The book is only available in French for the time being, but an English edition is in the works. In the meantime, if you wish to admire François’ artwork: please visit his Facebook page