Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Welcome back to The Jewels of Apator, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer's column on the intersection of art and the fantastic. Tentacular horrors, unnamable evils, and quests to the edges of alien-landscapes-on-earth like Antarctica were just some of the beautifully bizarre features of H.P. Lovecraft's weird fiction. Creator of the Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft has had an enormous influence on readers and writers. But what about art? Ever since the first pulp covers showcasing Lovecraft's fiction, visual creators have been interpreting his tentacular horrors, unnamable evils, and odd quests. Now, Centipede Press has issued one of the most audacious hardcover art books we have ever seen: The Art of Lovecraft: Artists Inspired by Lovecraft.

About the size of a thick tombstone, including over 400 pages of mostly full-color art, with nonfiction by Harlan Ellison, Thomas Ligotti, and others, this absolute stone-cold classic is a testament to the publisher's attention to detail and Lovecraft's enduring influence. It also provides a wonderful gallery setting for H.R. Giger, Bob Eggleton, John Coulthart, Michael Whelan, Lee Brown Coye, Virgil Finlay, Ian Miller, Gahan Wilson, John Picacio, Harry O. Morris, J.K. Potter, and many others.

Often, the images in the book mix fantasy with Lovecraft's take on "cosmic horror," the idea that the universe is hostile and inert.

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

Tentacles and Cosmic SF: The Art of Lovecraft

In SF-nal terms, Bob Eggleton interprets that cosmic horror as alien influence:

Lovecraft's elder gods, unspeakable ones,shamblers and so on...were all in reality malevolent aliens from other worlds. They were ancient and evil, but the fact they're from another world is lost in the mists. His stories had references to astronomy, astrology and science and yet took this 180 turn into something scary and dark. Nigel Kneale, for instance wrote the Quatermass series in much the same way. Quatermass & The Pit was truly Lovecraftian.

John Coulthart notes, too, that:

The young Lovecraft was a keen astronomer who became acquainted at an early age with a sense of cosmic scale, the vastness of the universe and so on. That combined with a natural pessimism, and his later atheism gave him a strong sense of human insignificance in the face of cosmic enormity. ‘We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity,' as he says at the opening of "The Call of Cthulhu."'

Not exactly the most uplifting of messages, but definitely powerful-and revolutionary within genre at the time.

"His problem as a writer was that most Western supernatural fiction up to that point had some kind of Christian dimension to it, even if this wasn't directly stated," Coulthart says. "That was obviously a problem for an atheist writing a form of fiction which needed something malevolent at its core. His solution was to replace the Devil and the Christian idea of evil with vast extra-dimensional entities which disturb or threaten us because we mean as much to them as microbes do to human beings."

Disappointingly (to us at least), Harry O. Morris rules out a literal cephalopodic element to the idea of cosmic horror:

[It's] not a giant squid descending from outer space, but rather an all pervasive sense of dread that permeates everything we think we know including our faces in the mirror and the knives and forks at the dinner table.

For Ian Miller the concept is more visceral, citing films like Alien as Lovecraftian in mood: "Things hidden in the shadows, in tight dark place, dangerous, scratching, moving, creeping, stalking, mysterious, and always at the peripheries of one's vision waiting in the shadows to spring out and bite you...Things arcane. Airless dark places with strange smells. Dark cupboards. Things that scratch and suffocate. Tight shoes and fish eyes...I suspect fear fueled by adrenalin gave rise to the notion of warp speed, though I'm sure some would disagree."

How, then, do these artists put their own personal stamp on something so strong and powerful on the page, and thus indelibly imprinted upon readers' minds?

For Eggleton it's trying to give "a kind of epic feel to [the paintings]. A sense of the familiar and then at the same, something alien and bizarre."

Morris' approaches Lovecraft through ambiguity: "For me, the best way to express this uncomfortable aura visually is to leave portions of the picture undefined, in shadow, and influenced by chance/chaos. Also, I'm inclined to try and convey a sense of timeless antiquity which seems to be a cornerstone of Lovecraft's vision."

John Picacio also believes the best Lovecraftian art doesn't try to show everything. "It leaves something to the imagination....a few conceptual voids here and there, purposely left for the mind to fill with something personal and therefore much more potent....I think trying to literally illustrate a Lovecraftian monster usually misses the mark. It's just not as scary anymore because the terror has somehow been contained in the lines and the strokes, and therefore distilled. That's why his stuff is so difficult to effectively translate to comics and film although so many have tried."

Coulthart is one of those creators who, in addition to his Lovecraftian paintings has successfully translated the icon's vision to comics:

I wanted to take Lovecraft's fiction seriously on its own terms, something which-in the comics world especially-wasn't happening very often. When I started illustrating his work in the 1980s there was little apart from the Lovecraft special issue of Heavy Metal from 1979 which had attempted that. I tried to match his dense writing style with an equally dense and detailed drawing style and tried to make things look solid and historically accurate. I've always been interested in architecture and Lovecraft's concept of alien architecture continues to fascinate.

This might make the art seem ultra-serious, but it's not all "cosmic." As Jerad Walters, the genius behind Centipede Press points out:

Some of the artwork is humorous or whimsical, and rather good-natured. There's a difference in humor between the ‘Deep One' Horrora Model Kit image, which is more nostalgic, and the ‘Where the Great Old Ones Are' image, which is just a send-up of HPL and Maurice Sendak, and the black humor of the Gahan Wilson piece, which is just over-the-top. It is the black humor of some of the works that works best in the book, for me at any rate. I think that the humorous side comes out because all of these bleak, nihilistic visions of Lovecraft can be so dreary and depressing that a send-up of it all is just inevitable.

All of these approaches and many more are showcased in The Art of Lovecraft; the gallery above can only begin to hint at the variety, depth, and jaw-dropping quality of the book. It's a stunning love letter to a long and storied tradition.

As for those tentacular horrors, Walters says:

I don't think any reader of weird fiction can ever look at tentacles the same way after Lovecraft. I remember boiling some squid and chopping off the heads, putting them off to one side of the cutting block, planning to save them for something, until my wife quite reasonably asked if I was out of my mind.

Or, as China Mieville writes in "M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire":

The spread of the tentacle-a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in "Western" aesthetics)-from a situation of near total absence in Euro-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth century, to one of being the default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture....The "Lovecraft Event," as Ben Noys invaluably understands it, is unquestionably the centre of gravity of this revolutionary movement; it's defining text, Lovecraft's ‘The Call of Cthulhu,' published in 1928 in Weird Tales.