What if we focused an entire anthology on the gods and monsters of Lovecraft, instead of just the horror? How would that feel, especially since Lovecraft specifically kept the gods in the background, lest we look upon them and go insane?
—Russel Nohelty, Cthulhu Is Hard To Spell: The Terrible Twos
It is a popular trope—sometimes amounting to a complaint—that Lovecraft kept his most tremendous horrors off the page; that all of his bogeys and Mythos entities were impossible, indescribable, ineffable, and unnamable. The truth is a little more complicated. Lovecraft recognized that a reader’s imagination could go places which no artist could achieve with pen and ink, and often strove to put off showing the horror to let the terror build and build, to strengthen the atmosphere by degrees with careful excitation, to hint darkly to suggest certain things that were more effective for being unseen.
In this, Lovecraft was not alone. Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” (1887), Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” (1893), Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” (1907) are all characterized by unseen or unseeable horrors; subtlety in description was characteristic of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, and M. R. James who were all influences on Lovecraft. Lovecraft was working within an established tradition when he held off from immediately describing the exact shape and form of some of some his Mythos entities in clinical detail…and yet, when the time came for them to appear, Lovecraft wasn’t shy about that either. Nor did the sight immediately drive the viewers mad.
Poor Johansen’s handwriting almost gave out when he wrote of this. Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad, and poor Wilcox raved with fever in that telepathic instant? The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars, had awaked to claim his own. The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
“The Thing cannot be described”—then Lovecraft goes ahead and describes it.
Like many of the tropes of the Cthulhu Mythos, the idea of seeing a Mythos entity driving an individual insane is something that developed in the secondary literature, where authors were more likely to copy the more superficial aspects of Lovecraft’s work instead of the core themes that they served. Sandy Petersen in The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game introduced the Sanity mechanic as a sort of mental equivalent to Hit Points in Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D, when your hit points run out your character dies and the game ends for that character; in CoC, when your Sanity runs out your character is insane and the game ends for that character. In games of Call of Cthulhu, seeing the monsters really does shave points off your Sanity. This has led to a lot of un-Lovecraftian behavior on the tabletop: player characters, wanting to continue to play, may deliberately avoid looking at the eldritch horrors as they toss a grenade or a stick of dynamite in that direction, or perhaps they might burn the ancient Mythos tome instead of suffering whatever Sanity it would cost them to read through the terrible pages.
In terms of illustrating the Mythos, this creates an obvious issue: how do you try to visualize and capture some of the indescribable quality of these entities and places? Some artists achieve at least partial success: John Coulthart’s R’lyeh in The Haunter in the Dark and Other Grotesque Visions springs to mind, the delightfully detailed morbid and erotic fantasies of Raúl Cáceres’ Insania Tenebris, probably a few others whose art isn’t afraid to tiptoe up to and past the point of taboo. Yet even if some of these images are haunting, they are ultimately just that: images. As with “The Picture in the House,” there’s not that sense that staring too long at them is going to shave off a few Sanity points or necessarily instill some terrible knowledge.
That is one of reasons that comics and graphic novels based on the Mythos are so interesting: it isn’t just a question of the technical quality of the artist, or even of the power of their conception and execution. It is the interaction of art and text which come together. Anyone can make a comic adaptation of a Lovecraft story; At the Mountains of Madness could be adapted on sticky notes with stick figures, and Lovecraft’s text would come through and hold the same power. The question is, what interplay is offered in the combination of art and text? How can one serve and enhance the other? What kind of stories can you tell in comic form, that would be impossible to tell with art or text alone?
“Unseen” by Claire Leslie is one such example. In four pages, Leslie manages a surprisingly complex narrative, not so much by what is spoken, but what is unspoken. The reader, looking at the page from without, sees more than one of the characters does—and there is plenty of room to read between the lines regarding what they want to say to each other, but can’t. As an exploration of a concept, the length is perfect: readers get a sense of the Lovecraftian goings-on, the slow build of intrusive elements, without getting tired of them. The whole story can be read in a few minutes, yet the reader might turn back to it two or three times and still find some new little detail to reflect on.
Leslie’s style has a certain quality that’s somewhere between bishōnen and Tom of Finland, with a bit of a Gothic quality, reminiscent of Olivier Ladroit’s work for Requiem Chevalier Vampire, but with a more dreamlike quality to her digital paint technique, tight clothes on muscular figures, but with long, effeminate eyelashes and manicured hands. The art suits the writing; readers pick up on character traits without having to be told them directly, and this sells the idea of things left unspoken, or perhaps something else that one of the characters just cannot see but that the reader can.
“Unseen” was created by Claire Leslie and published in Cthulhu Is Hard to Spell: The Terrible Twos (2020, Wannabee Press), edited by Russell Nohelty. The book was originally launched on Kickstarter, though you can still buy hardcopies on etsy and digital editions are available on Kindle/Comixology. Leslie also did a separate mock cover for “Unseen,” which is available as a print from her etsy store.