There are all kinds of reasons why people repeatedly turn to the writing of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, but it is his troubled life story that I find most compelling. Unknown, poor, ignored, struggling to find recognition, he spent a significant part of his 46 years doggedly creating a mythos that continues to reflect so much of its creator’s fears as well as curiosity about the unknown. When I read Lovecraft, I think as much about the emotions his stories evoke, as I do about why and how they came into being, and what must have compelled him to develop a worldview so dark that it continues to prompt writers, readers, and artists to plumb its depths almost a century after his passing.
Take, for example, Alex Nikolavitch’s recently published graphic biography H. P. Lovecraft: He Who Wrote in the Darkness. Illustrated by Argentinean artists Gervasio-Aon-Lee, it focuses on Lovecraft’s history, not his work, revealing yet again how real life can be stranger than fiction. It is challenging to reduce the big events that shape an individual to the constrictions of a few panels, of course, but the book works because it gives us a holistic view of a troubled childhood that eventually helped shape what we now call the myth of Cthulhu. The signs were all in place, if only made obvious with the benefit of hindsight.
Graphic novels tend to be uniquely equipped to tackle themes such as isolation because a powerful visual can instantly evoke what would otherwise require a few hundred words. The importance of that made an immediate impression when I looked at another recently published book, this one focusing on the intriguing mind of Franz Kafka. Kafkaesque, by Peter Kuper — better known as the illustrator of Spy vs. Spy in Mad magazine — recreates 14 short stories and effortlessly interprets their horror, mania, dark humour, absurdity and claustrophobia with the casual skill acquired only by a lifetime of practice.
To call this an illustrated version of Kafka’s stories would be a great disservice, because what Kuper does is use the original text as a launch pad, jumping off into alternative realities they only hint at. By doing so, he transforms aspects of iconic works such as The Trial into contemporary parables that reflect our own dark reality, one that Kafka would possibly find a measure of comfort in. What we get is Kafka for the Facebook generation, with everything from the rise of the far right to police brutality and unchecked consumerism leaping off its black-and-white pages. It is, by far, one of the most interesting works of fiction published over the past year.
The oddity of real life manifests itself in another recent title, a graphic novel called House of Penance, written by Peter J. Tomasi and illustrated by Ian Bertram and Dave Stewart. It is based on one of the most unusual Victorian mansions in the world, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Once home to Sarah Winchester, the widow of a man related to the Winchester firearm company, it was reportedly built and rebuilt continuously for years to appease the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles.
Sarah Winchester reportedly used her vast inheritance to do this, but chose to avoid a building plan, creating what is now a tourist attraction in the process. It explains why the 160-room home has stairs that go nowhere, windows that open into other rooms, and hidden spaces that continue to be revealed, with some coming to light as late as 2016. If this true story doesn’t lend itself to the imagination of an artist, what will?
House of Penance opens, appropriately enough, with death. It uses bold swathes of colour to depict the influence of a curse that Sarah constantly labours to overcome. Her struggles with colour start to mirror her losing battle with depression, while the house itself becomes a metaphor for her unquiet mind.
The last graphic novel that fits quite neatly alongside the ones just mentioned is a bittersweet anthology by Anthony Bourdain called Hungry Ghosts. Illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli, Irene Koh, Paul Pope and others, it is an anthology of food-themed ghost stories based on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, a popular parlour game from the Japanese Edo period. Bourdain’s celebrity must have undoubtedly helped bring some renowned artists to the project, but his own love for Japan also shines through all the gore.
Like a gruesome Arabian Nights, the thread binding this collection of folklore is a dare thrown by a Russian Oligarch to a group of international chefs. They must share a terrifying tale if they want to survive the evening. What they come up with are insatiable monsters, ravenous skeletons, snide humour, Buddhist spirits that give the book its title and, eventually, recipes by Bourdain themed to each tale. Bourdain and Joel Rose have collaborated on a graphic novel earlier, called Get Jiro!. It was also about chefs but set in a future where people had to kill to get tables at restaurants. This, his last published work, is lifted by great art, riveting stories, and the mention of horse meat braised in red wine and served with wild mushrooms. One can’t help but mourn Bourdain’s mordant voice that peeks through the ramen and raw flesh ever so often, making it a fitting end to an inspiring career.
This isn’t to say these titles are flawless. The biography of Lovecraft doesn’t address less desirable aspects of his character, while House of Penance includes a male perspective that may not add much value to the protagonist’s story. As for Bourdain’s recipes, they may sometimes feel as if they have been forced to match the stories that go before them.
What these graphic novels do, however, is allow us to experience the strange, other-worldly or negative in a safe context, taking us through a gamut of emotions that ultimately teach us more about ourselves and who we are. It’s why horror will always be as compelling a subject as love.