This month is a little Sci-Fi heavy, so I thought I’d lean a bit more toward horror with our first comic review. And since this is a great time to lean toward the classics, let’s get our Lovecraft on with The Haunter of the Dark.
I may be shooting myself in the foot by posting this. I wrote this review out of a library book, that I had to return prior to getting much out of it. Since I am now committed to reviewing more of its entries, let’s hope that the next time I take it out is more productive than the first. There is also the fact that I need to be in a certain mood to read these comics, for reasons which are detailed in the review proper. Still, I do enjoy Lovecraft, so setting the fact that I will read more into stone does not bother me too terribly.
Short story anthologies and comic book collections are two things that are difficult to review, at least in a format that is consistent with looking at entire seasons of television shows and individual movies. However, when a collection is a group of word-for-word adaptations of a legendary Sci-Fi horror author, it’s easy to come to a decision: look at each story on its own merits. For that reason, instead of reviewing H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark and other Grotesque Visions, I’m kicking off a series of reviews of that volume, starting with the titular and opening story, The Haunter of the Dark.
I’ve had some passing experience with H.P. Lovecraft. While I enjoy what he comes up with, his prose style is one that is a little difficult for me to focus on – a problem that I also have with his predecessor, Edgar Allen Poe – which results in me seeking it out lonely in small doses. I’m familiar with his concepts, and with several of the works inspired by his, but of his short stories, everything that I read prior to picking up The Haunter of the Dark seemed to stand on their own. The linking names of the Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods had failed to appear in any of the stories that I had read, although I did watch the silent film Call of Cthulhu which was adapted from his work.
The Haunter of the Dark is a story very much in the vein of most Lovecraft and Lovecraft-inspired stories. Robert Blake finds himself haunted by a mysterious church. Nobody seems willing to talk about it, until finally someone feels obliged to and tells him that it is somehow connected to terrible things that happened in the town, and he should stay away from it.
I won’t spoil what comes next step by step, but I probably don’t have to. These stories tend to run one way: protagonist finds knowledge, and the knowledge itself is fatal. Ignorance is truly bliss in the world of Lovecraft.
To an extent, this tried and true method of storytelling is great. It plays off of fears in a strong way. People fear the unknown, and they fear the barely known, and part of their fear is that what Lovecraft and others since him have written is true: that the very fact of experiencing these strange and unknown things may do irreparable damage to them. As long as there are new ways to portray this, I am absolutely fine with playing out this fear in different ways and new horror. But I fear I’ve seen enough of it that it’s starting to become played out, and that doesn’t bode well for how I’m going to react to Lovecraft’s work in the future.
As for John Coulthat, I can’t tell you exactly what he did, or what was contributed by Alan Moore to the book. This isn’t like a traditional comic book that credits who did the pencils, the pens, the script and the lettering. I suppose that makes it easier to say what I will about the art, without making any judgments on the artist. Let’s go step by step.
I’ll start with the script, because that is by far the job that is generally most removed from the penciler. In the case of a word-for-word script like this, it’s less a matter of which words to use than when and where to use them. The script for a comic includes which panel each sentence will appear on, usually how many caption boxes they entail, and sometimes where in the panel they will appear. This controls the pacing of the comic, which influences the tone and the mood just as much as the score, pacing and editing will influence the tone and mood of a movie. The Haunter of the Dark serves fairly well in this regard. Each line is drawn out just enough that it feels like the tone and mood are conveyed just as Herbert Phillip would have wanted.
The fact that I’ve given so much attention to this script, however, implies that there is a flaw, and here it is: a small, but noticeable portion of the time, I had no idea what order to read sentences in. Luckily, they were usually descriptions that muched up with a panel showing what Lovecraft was describing, or a part of a long, florid explanation that could be taken out of order, but the very act of trying to figure out what order to read those in irked me more than those arrows that the big comic companies used to put on pages that were confusing in the 1990s.
As for the art itself, it is excellent. I am always concerned when I hear about somebody depicting Lovecraft’s work in any sort of visal format. After all, the entire point of many of Lovecraft’s creations is that it is more than the human mind can fathom and that simply glimpsing it is enough to drive a man insane or kill them. Beside the fact that successfully adapting the work would mean that little thing would happen, that should mean that unless you have a five-dimensional brain, you can’t imagine what you’re supposed to be drawing. M. C. Escher, Pablo Picasso, or Salvador Dali might have had the chance, but few others are likely to come remotely close.
Coulthat does a great job. As he admits in the foreword, he doesn’t do a good job of accurately depicting Providence. Instead, he focuses entirely on the mood. The fact that this is a story that doesn’t describe what it was killed Blake in any sort of remotely visual terms helps with that, but it doesn’t do it on its own.
The last thing to comment on is the lettering. I have to admit I’m of mixed mind. On one hand, the elaborate script, even when it’s hard to read, perfectly matches the tone of Lovecraft’s writing. On the other hand, I don’t like it when things are difficult to read and require me to read the next sentence before going back to figure out what a letter was. There’s some give and take here, and while I’m not ready to praise it for being the right decision or condemn it as the wrong one, I can see both why it was chosen and why I wouldn’t have chosen it.
John Coulthat’s adaptation of The Haunter of the Dark is as successful an adaptation of a short story that I can expect. Its black and white visuals may throw off some viewers, but personally I feel it adds more to the tone of the story, or at least doesn’t detract anything from it. The story is standard Lovecraft fare and a short read for Lovecraft fans or those who want to look into the author, and the comic is pulled off with the right degree of finesse to translate it perfectly into comic format, making this a success all around.