On Saturday morning, August 24, 2013, several of Lovecraftian fandom's most respected artists gathered for a panel at NecronomiCon-Providence to discuss how they effectively portray aspects of horror in illustration and film. The panel consisted of illustrators Robert Knox, Bob Eggleton, Allen Koszowski, and Jason Eckhardt, and filmmakers Stuart Gordon, Andrew Leman, and Sean Branney. The first part of the conversation was transcribed from existing audio, while the conversation that follows was captured by a method of shorthand.
Knox: "We can all agree that there are many different ways to depict the indescribable. My approach leans towards absurdity and surrealism. Eyewitness accounts in Lovecraft’s fiction barely describe the horrors seen, which lets your imagination run wild. Most depictions of Cthulhu are based on the statue Lovecraft described in detail, with batlike wings and cephapod head. My take is that the statue is religious art- for the cult is a religion, as blasphemous as it is- and religious art is only an interpretation, it can’t be God. Just as we see in Michaelangelo’s paintings of God and know that can’t be Him, the statue can’t be Cthulhu. Remember what George Burns said in the movie Oh, God! 'If I showed you my real form, you couldn’t handle it.'"
Leman: "Michaelangelo’s depiction of God is flattering to humans. If the eidolon in “The Call of Cthulhu” is religious art, does it flatter us or Cthulhu?"
Eckhardt: "The representation is an effort to make Cthulhu understandable. You need something to focus on while you’re sacrificing humans in the swamps!"
Gordon: "Lovecraft found everything disturbing, which lends itself to weird sex scenes, fish, and a sense of otherness."
Eggleton: "I don’t set out to disturb; I draw monsters just as I liked to as a kid… and sometimes it disturbs people."
Knox: "We’re jaded as artists and are probably tough to disturb. But surefire elements are things people don’t like: creepy and slimy things all over them, like bugs, slugs and worms."
Leman: "People like penguins because they’re anthropomorphic, but this familiarity can also make things weird- something’s that familiar but not quite right…"
Eckhardt: "Like fish people- what’s stranger than them? I’ve seen people with the touch of the Innsmouth look... But as for strangeness, there’s Machen’s idea of taking Heaven by storm, that fish talking and stones singing would drive you mad."
Knox: "Growing up in New England, you know there’s certain towns you don’t go to, and you never admit knowing someone from there, from the town one does not mention in polite company. That idea found in Lovecraft is quintessentially New England. But in depicting horror in art, is there a such thing as going too far?"
Eckhardt: "Well, if it’s too absurd, you risk the danger of it becoming ludicrous."
Branney: "As artists, we want to create a suspension of disbelief, so it’s got to be a believable absurdity."
Leman: "We just did The Color Out of Space, and in that story- with it’s otherworldly color- you run up against the limits of human perception- you can’t depict a color that can’t be perceived."
Knox: "What is the single most important factor of portraying the unnameable?"
Leman: "Leaving something up to the human imagination."
Eggleton: "That can be hard, because as an artist I want to be in your face with the monster!"
Koszowski: (To Eggleton) "Lumley told me that you made him, your covers made those books of his."
Gordon: "In movies, the thing left to the imagination is most disturbing. For instance, in the movie Seven, they show you pieces to the puzzle when portraying ‘lust,’ not the whole picture. You’re left to construct the scene yourself and it becomes more terrible than it ever could’ve been on the screen."
|Norman Rockwell's "Murder in Mississippi"|
Branney: "There’s a balance between the implicit and the explicit, and between the two is the sweet spot. The blank spots will linger in your imagination as your mind chews on it for a long time."
Eckhardt: "The use of shadows can be particularly effective. In the Norman Rockwell Museum, there’s an enormous canvas of three workers in headlights and the shadows of the men that murdered them. The violence is suggested, and it’s all the more powerful and terrifying."
Knox: "In my own work, I want to capture a sense of absurdity. If the viewer can’t ask, 'what the hell is this?' it’s a failure. Trying to depict the incomprehensible isn’t easy; I’ve spent my career on that. For my painting 'The King in Yellow,' I originally wanted it all yellow, but I had to darken it to become disturbing. What about the ways sight and sound are used in film?"
|"The King in Yellow" by Robert Knox|
Gordon: "Sound effects very much get your imagination going. Have you seen the film Seconds by John Frankenheimer? The scene where they drill into a guy’s head is all sound effects; as you can imagine it, your head becomes the one being drilled! The film becomes dreamlike as the guy’s mind is destroyed."
Branney: "We did 'The Call of Cthulhu' as both a silent film and a radio adaptation, which makes for an interesting contrast. Image is powerful and sound is powerful, but when they’re divorced from each other, the audience needs to imagine what’s missing."
Leman: "Even the city’s name in that story is meant to be unpronounceable!"
Knox: "My thought should’ve been that every character pronounces the city and monster differently."
Gordon: "From Beyond had been rejected due to a brain being sucked through eye sockets, but it was the sound that provoked that response, because you don’t actually see it happen. We had to take it out to get an R rating, then we got to put it back in for the bluray release. The most famous and effective use of sound and image is Psycho- you never see the knife and body at the same time- you make the connection by sound, which was actually made by stabbing a melon… and the blood was chocolate syrup. I believe Psycho was intentionally filmed in black and white to leave more to the imagination."
Branney: "In our The Whisperer in Darkness, we used a chicken leg being ripped apart every time Akeley moved- you can hear the skin and tendons pop. Organic sounds, like breaking melons and tearing meat, seem to push buttons."
Leman: "Also part of sound is the film’s soundtrack, which is absolutely indispensible- music has the ability to appeal directly to the emotion, bypassing the rational part of the brain."
Gordon: "Going back to Psycho, Bernard Hermann’s score could even make peanut butter and jelly scary! I can’t imagine the bathroom scene without the soundtrack."
Branney: "You can only accomplish so much with visuals; the emotional life of any movie is being laid down by the music, particularly in our genre."
Gordon: "Do you artists listen to music while painting?"
Koszowski: "I listen to soundtracks."
Eckhardt: "I do, but the music doesn’t necessarily have to coincide with the feeling of the work."
Knox: "Lately I’ve been listening to Red Sox games while drawing. As for music, it could be punk one day, a soundtrack the next. But silence doesn’t work at all."
Koszowski: "I do my drawings dot by dot, and without music, I couldn’t do it."
Knox: "This idea of an unnnameable horror- it could be an inanimate object. Lovecraft gives us non-Euclidean geometry- geometry that follows no logical patterned rows of blocks; however accurately drawn, they cannot or should not exist. I get a sense of this distortion in Medieval paintings. M.C. Escher is a great example, too, but most of us would go, “I can’t do that!” Lee Brown Coye had the habit of including tied bundles of sticks in his paintings. When he’d made a trip to upstate New York, he saw these bundles of sticks thrust in the ground and wondered who’d put them there and for what purpose… He found them disturbing and so he put them in his paintings."
|"The Picture of Dorian Gray"|
Leman: "They implied some motivation he couldn’t comprehend, which made it frightening."
Knox: "What about inspiration? Who are your favorite artists?"
Koszowski: "Virgil Finlay."
Knox: "For me, it’s Hans Bok, Coye, E.C. Comics, and Surrealism."
Gordon: "Do you know Ivan Albright, who painted 'The Picture of Dorian Gray?' Everything is moldering, decomposing, including inanimate objects. Another favorite of his was 'That Which I Should Have Done I did Not Do.'"
Eggleton: "Arnold Bocklin’s 'The Isle of the Dead' is a disquieting and disturbing painting of a dark figure that brings souls to the island. Bocklin painted several versions and even the daylight version is creepy. There’s one in the Met in New York City. He was a major influence on my work. Also, Tom Wright’s paintings in Night Gallery are a favorite."
|Arnold Bocklin's "The Isle of the Dead," third version, 1883|
Knox: "Those paintings remind me of Roger Corman’s Poe films."
Leman: "Hieronymus Bosch and his hideous creatures, half human, half fish. My first exposure to Lovecraft was through those Michael Whelan paperbacks with their black and white and red color scheme."
Branney: "I’m a fan of Berni Wrightson’s pen and ink work. His use of light and shadow evokes different time periods, which we try to do in film, too."
Eckhardt: "I’m more a traditionalist, liking Howard Pyle. With his demand for accuracy, you know how that pirate’s coat felt just by looking at his painting. Are you familiar with Barry Moser? He did a staggering rendition of Frankenstein."
Knox: "Wrightson’s style owes a great debt to Graham Ingles. We see artists hundreds of years ago doing works of horror; how did they get away with it?"
Branney: "They were seen as cautionary works- they depicted what would happen to you if you don’t go to church!"
Gordon: "Eh, they seemed to show you’d have more fun in Hell than in Heaven!"