Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Describing the Indescribable: Depicting Lovecraft's Unnameable Horrors in Art

Whether it's haunting paperback covers or the latest horror film on screen, fans of weird fiction love to see their favorite stories brought to life, but for the artists responsible, there is always the question of how much to show and how far to go. One of the panels during Necronomicon-Providence 2013  wrestled with the problems of depicting the unnameable and unspeakable horrors encountered in Lovecraft's fiction, discussed by a panel of some of fandom's favorite image-makers: book cover artist Bob Eggleton; Stuart Gordon, director of Dagon and Reanimator; Andrew Leman and Sean Branney from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society; and three beloved illustrators from Necronomicon Press, Allen Koszowski, Jason Eckhardt, and Robert Knox, who also graciously moderated the discussion.

Below is a small audio clip of the panel's opening points recorded on Saturday, August 24, 2013, followed by some statements and observations made by the participants after the batteries in my digital recorder failed.

Robert Knox, Bob Eggleton, Allen Koszowski, and Stuart Gordon

Bob Eggleton: “What I find interesting about a lot of Lovecraft’s monsters is in what he would not describe- it was so up to interpretation. Cthulhu, for instance- in most images, he’s got two eyes, but in the actual description, I find he’s got six eyes. When you read the stories, it’s all described in terms of shock and terror, so your mind is really filling in the worst details.”

Stuart Gordon: “Lovecraft always has his characters fainting at key moments, then he’d say it’s too horrible to describe, or something like that, but when you make a movie, you’ve got to show something. The question is, how much do you show? You don’t want to show everything- the moment you show the monster, the movie’s over, because as Lovecraft said, “the greatest fear is the fear of the unknown,” and as soon as the unknown becomes known, you can deal with it. You want to show glimpses, sort of like what Lovecraft does in his stories to get your imagination going.”

Andrew Leman: “The common wisdom is that all the monsters in Lovecraft are indescribable, yet we all know what they look like, so somehow they managed to get described. Lovecraft has this great trick of describing something and then saying it’s indescribable; he works both sides of that equation, so you both get the description and you get told it can’t be described. That frees you up to go ahead and fill in the rest of the scary details yourself, and the ones you put in are always going to be more scary to you than anything Lovecraft or any other author could possibly provide for you.”

Sean Branney: “In addition to being indescribable, Lovecraft uses strings of metaphors of things that are describable. Doing At The Mountains of Madness last night, we got “it’s a subway train,” and “it’s a pile of bubbles.” It is a lot of things you know, but they’re not things that typically belong together… like the thing that’s part ant, part decomposed human being, and once you string nine things together, you’ve got a very complicated picture of something that is being described, which is helpful as an artist- you’ve got something to sink your teeth into and then combine them in a manner that scares you."

Allen Koszowski: “What I like about Lovecraft is that when he describes his blasphemous creatures, he leaves just enough description there so I can draw a thing that people will know what I’m drawing, but I can interpret it my own way. I must’ve drawn Cthulhu fifty times, at first, and each time was a little different… but each time the viewer knows that I’m drawing Cthulhu.”

Jason Eckhardt: “I tend to take the more subtle approach with horror- not showing as many of the details, trying to suggest things. I think that’s often more effective- if you can give the right clues and hints to the viewer, they can often fill in things that are far more horrible than I could draw.”

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