“Nelle Spire di Medusa” (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Tommaso Campanini

Una chioma simile la faceva sembrare una principessa orientale dipinta da Aubrey Beardsley; quando li sciogleva le arrivavano sotto le ginocchia e brillavano come se possedessero una vitalita propria.

Chiunque avrebbe pensato sen’zaltro a Medusa o a Berenice…
The Miskatonic Diaries: Nelle Spire di Medusa e altre storie 25

Such hair made her look like an oriental princess painted by Aubrey Beardsley; when she melted them she reached under her knees and shone as if they possessed a vitality of her own.

Anyone would have thought of Medusa or Berenice without any doubt …
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

There have been many graphic adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft’s work; adaptations of his revision tales are scarce, and it very unusual to run into two that cover the same story. However, there are two adaptations of “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft“Medusa’s Curse” (1995) by Sakura Mizuki (桜 水樹氏) and “Nelle Spire di Medusa” (2019) by Massimo Rosi (writing) & Tommaso Campanini (art), which is the title story to The Miskatonic Diaries Vol. 1—and it is interesting and informative to compare the two adaptations to each other, as well as to the source material.

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First story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

The title, to start with, is interesting: most Italian translations of “Medusa’s Coil” are titled simply “Medusa,” but the earliest translation listed in H. P. Lovcraft A Comprehensive Bibliography is “Nelle spire di Medusa” in a 1976 collection of the same name. The story itself hews closer to Lovecraft’s text than “Medusa’s Curse”: the setting is once more in the United States, in the early 20th century, and the main characters are Denis de Russy, his father, Frank Marsh, Marceline Bedard, and the nameless narrator. The character of Sophonisba, and all the other servants white and black, are absent. This is not to say that the adaption completely ditches the background of the original story:

C’era stata un’epoca in cui le capanne che sorgevano nella parte posteriore della proprieta—su un tratto pianeggiante ora sommerso dal fiume—avevnao ospitato fino a duecento schievi negri; sentirili cantare, ridere e suonare il banjo di notte equivaleva a cogliere il fascino di una civilta e un ordine sociale purtroppo estinti.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (25)

There was a time when the huts that stood at the rear of the property—on a flat stretch now submerged by the river—had hosted up to two hundred black slaves; hearing them sing, laugh and play the banjo at night was tantamount to grasping the charm of an unfortunately extinct civilization and social order.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

Yet here there are some differences from the original story as well. Whether this was an issue with the translation or a deliberate twist by Massimo Rosi isn’t clear, but the character of Denis de Russy is given a little quirk:

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “Medusa’s Coil”

Un giovanotto romantico ribelle, pieno di sentimenti che probabilmente lei definirebbe antiquati. E le assicuro che non era facile tenerlo lontano dalle ragazze negre!
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (26)

A rebellious romantic young man, full of feelings you would probably call antiquated. And I assure you it wasn’t easy to keep him away from black girls!
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

While it is an inversion of Lovecraft’s original text, this formulation adds a bit of foreshadowing to later developments in the story.

As with “Medusa’s Curse,” the graphic adaptation greatly compresses and somewhat linearizes the original narrative; we never see the unnamed narrator arrive, by the time the story starts he is in the house with the elder de Russy, who is telling their story. The contours of the narrative, as with “Medusa’s Curse,” follow the general outlines of a romantic tragedy, right up until the point of the murder.

As in the original story, Marceline hardly gets any speaking lines. In “Nelle spire di Medusa” however, what she says has more portent than the dialogue Lovecraft gave her:

Voi tutti dovreste stare molto attenti se cantassi le vecchie preghiere o cercassi di evocare ciò che dorme a Yuggoth, Zimbabwe e R’lyeh. Ti facevo più prudente.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (26)

You all should be very careful if you chant the old prayers or try to evoke what sleeps in Yuggoth, Zimbabwe and R’lyeh. I used to make you more cautious.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

Marceline Bedard in this story is more fully involved with the Cthulhu Mythos, or at least more openly conversant; while she doesn’t quite take Soniphisba’s place in ranting about “Marse Clooloo” and invoking Shub-Niggurath, there the Mythos element is more prominent, especially with the more compact narrative.

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Sixteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

We never see the first two murders, not in the original story and not in the two adaptations. That lends an almost Gothic atmosphere as the elder de Russy has to follow the bloody trail back to Denis, and provides some great visuals…and it’s also where the story transitions from the romantic-tragedy to something weirder, where the hints of the supernatural cult background become shockingly, terribly real.

Which leads to the inevitable reveal…or, perhaps more accurately, the confirmation of what the readers already know, or have guessed. That the painting, as in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” will be the mirror that reveals the truth about Marceline. In the original narrative, Lovecraft had this final confirmation placed at the very end of the story, and used it as a sort of double revelation as to both the truth of Marceline’s supernatural affiliations and, almost as an afterthought, her “passing” as white. As with “Medusa’s Curse,” Massimo Rosi and Tommaso Campanini move the reveal of the painting forward, so that the subsequent events flow naturally without requiring a flashback or other device to show what the painting looked like before its destruction.

Appena ho visto il quadro ho capito ciò che era e il suo ruolo nei tremendi segreti che si tramandano dai giorni di Cthulhu e dei Grandi Antichi…

Segreti che furono quasi cancellati dalla terra quanto Atlantide sprofondò tra le onde, ma che continuano a serpeggiare in certe tradizioni nascoste, in certi miti e riti esclusivi che si celebrano nel cuore della notte.

Vedi, non era una ciarlatana: sarei stato contento che lo fosse, invece era proprio quello che diceva.

Era l’antica, orribile ombra a cui i filosofi non hanno mai osato dare un nome… l’essere di cui il Necronomicon fa solo cenno, ed e simboleggiato dai colossi dell’isola di pasqua.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (44)

As soon as I saw the painting I understood what it was and the role of him in the terrible secrets that have been handed down from the days of Cthulhu and the Great Ancients …

Secrets that were almost erased from the earth when Atlantis sank in the waves, but which continue to meander in certain hidden traditions, in certain myths and exclusive rituals that are celebrated in the dead of night.

See, she wasn’t a charlatan: I would have been glad she was, but that was just what she said.

She was the ancient, horrible shadow to which philosophers have never dared to give a name … the being of which the Necronomicon only mentions, and is symbolized by the colossi of Easter Island.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

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Nineteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

“Medusa’s Curse” side-stepped the racial reveal by eliminating the “passing” subplot of the story completely; “Nelle Spire di Medusa” chooses to address it by making it purely visual. Marceline’s race is never mentioned once in the text, and she is continually depicted as being light-skinned and with straight hair. If the reader goes back through the story and examines her features closely, they might find facial features which are ambiguous…but there is no shading that differentiates her from the rest of the characters. She basically does pass as white, even in death, except in the painting itself where she is deliberately shaded darker, with frizzier hair, and in the close-ups more pronounced features…but this aspect is never given any textual relevance.

It is a device that can only rally work in a graphic medium: it puts the onus of the issue of race on the reader as to how to interpret the painting, and thus how to interpret Marceline Bedard. Technically accurate to Lovecraft’s original, yet a new interpretation that presents a degree of ambiguity as to where the true horror in the story lies.

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Nineteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

There is a bit of action in the ending, as the elder de Russy’s narrative draws to its close, the supernatural vengeance is culminated, Riverside house meets its “Fall of the House of Usher”-esque demise, and we are left with the disquieting ending where the narrator wonders at what ghostly events had replayed themselves…both “Medusa’s Curse” and “Nelle Spire di Medusa” play out these last few story beats fairly faithfully.

There’s no reason not to. It sounds weird when talking about one of Lovecraft’s least-loved stories, but once an adaptor resolves the question of how to handle the Marceline Bedard’s portrait (and all the issues bound up in that), the remaining narrative structure is cobbled together from bits and pieces that are almost too familiar: young woman marries into a family, big isolated house in the country, a friend arrives to set up the love triangle, a bloody double murder resolves the love triangle, a supernatural vengeance from beyond the grave, the house burns down, it was all a dream…or was it?

These are all very familiar story elements for anyone that’s ready a good chunk of weird fiction or Gothic fiction; they’re not all usually mixed together, but you can see the prototype of this kind of story in, for example, Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” from The King in Yellow (1895). The use of the Cthulhu Mythos and the revelation that Marceline Bedard is “passing” as white are novel to the story, but they also really don’t mesh well, and the slightly convoluted narrative structure that Lovecraft used to express the ideas unnecessarily conjoins those two plot threads, which is what makes the revelation of Marceline’s portrait both so memorable and so terrible: the one-drop rule is put on the same tier as some of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors.

So if you just look at the story without that racial element, the rest of the story structure tends to fall into place fairly easily. Subtraction is the route that “Medusa’s Curse” took“Nelle Spire di Medusa,” however, goes for intimation. The story is technically very faithful to the original text, but it does so in a way that refuses to spell out the racial prejudice that underlay the original story prompt by Zealia Bishop. Whether or not that is enough is a question for the reader…and there are other questions readers might ask themselves:

Would it have been better if Marceline’s skin had not been shaded in? Will every reader of every adaptation of “Medusa’s Coil” go into the story looking for hints to her race? Would they have if they didn’t know that was the revelation all along?

You can read a Mythos story more than once, but you can only really experience that culminating confirmation, the ripping-the-band-aid-off sensation, the first time. Once you know what there is to know about “Medusa’s Coil,” there is little “shock” value left…it is only a question of the skill of the writers and artists that do the adaptation, and how they choose to handle the subject matter.

Massimo Rosi and Tommaso Campanini both do a more than adequate job on all the technical aspects of this adaptation: the narrative is relatively faithful, the pacing is right despite the front-loading of exposition and the relative death of action that are hallmarks of Lovecraft stories, and Rosi makes some clean cuts and welcome additions that tighten the narrative. Campanini’s art, in clean black-and-white except for the shaded segements of the portrait itself, are very pleasing; you can tell he put a lot of thought into the framing and layout, with a real preference for floating panels set above and in front of a larger illustraton which makes the reader sit back a little and take it all in. If I had to voice a criticism, it’s that Marceline’s hairlength is depicted inconsistenantly…it looks very short in many shots before her death…but chalk that one up to artistic license.

Tommaso Campanini uploaded the raw, textless art for “Nelle Spire di Medusa” to their DeviantArt gallery.

The Miskatonic Diaries Vol. 1: Nelle Spire di Medusa et altre storie (2019, Weird Books) is available on Amazon Kindle; the hardcopy graphic anthology does exist, but is a little harder to get in the United States. 


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

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