Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Books: The All of Cthulhu.

Despite the dire abundance of predictions informing us that book-centric literacy is relic of now by-gone technological paradigm, the sub-genre that would seem most likely to suffer extinction when pitted in Darwinian struggle with the Internet – quirky reference tomes on niche topics – still seems quite lively. In this respect, Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft would seem an exemplary book. On glancing the title, I must admit that my first thought was, "Certainly there's a wiki or blog or something out there that does this. Is anybody really going to hand over a Jackson just to get it in dead tree format?" But thumbing through its nearly 350 pages in the shop, I liked the not-always obvious film choices, the co-authors' willingness to give points for earnest (if sometimes amateur) efforts, and the wealth of supplementary materials they packed into their book. So, in answer to my own question, "Yeah, somebody out there will probably drop twenty Washingtons on just such a book."

There's something that borders on the ironic about the fact that there are now enough film adaptations of Lovecraft works to warrant a guide. Lovecraft himself was no fan of the medium. According to the preface by Lovecraft scholar (and editor of the Penguin Lovecraft anthologies) S. T. Joshi, Lovecraft described the art of moving pictures as "utter and unrelieved hokum." Despite the old master's definitive harrumph, co-authors Andrew Migliore and John Strysik have hunted down more than 150 pages worth of adaptations, homages, and shameless rip-offs, both for the big screen and television. In quick-moving, fair, and occasionally humorous one- or two-page reviews, our authors not only run down obvious selections, such as The Re-Animator or Dagon, but they dig up Lovecraftian references in the damnedest places: such as an extended riff off the Old Ones and Cthulhu that appears in an episode of kiddie-anime Pokemon clone Digmon: Digital Monsters. I kid not. In fact, as nice as the reviews of direct adaptations are, Migliore and Strysik's most interesting reviews cover flicks that I suspect even a horror fan with more than a passing interest in Lovecraft may have missed. Their look at international films is especially appreciated. Extending the Digmon example, the guide's author introduce a whole strain of Lovecraft-love to J-horror flicks. Apparently several of the directors and screenwriters behind the J-horror Renaissance are big time Lovecraft fans. Go fig? All told, five different Japanese film and television treatments of Lovercraft's work make the cut. They also include Italian, UK, Mexican, and Chilean films and TV shows. Even when I had heard of these flicks – such as the J-horror Spirals - I often had no idea they were inspired or influenced by Lovecraft. The even include a selection of shorts – often notable fan-flick stuff or film school projects – in a special section.

I also appreciate the tone the authors' take throughout their book. It would be very easy to imagine that a book like this could devolve into an effort to set the "party line" on film adaptations. The reviews would then be little more than exercises in determining who did or did not meet the purity test of the author's self-selected defenders. The fans of other pulp masters – notably Philip K. Dick fans – are notorious for that sort of thing. Instead of putting themselves in the role of "Defenders of the Faith," the authors come off as two guys who dig on Lovecraft and get a really kick out of sharing this pleasure with others. This isn't to say that they're uncritical: if a movie is a stinker, they don't hesitate to let you know. By the same token, they have some strong positive opinions on films genuinely regarded as failures. Migliore and Strysik call them as they see them and make no bones about it. Still, they ultimately seem more interested in seeing what people are doing, how Lovecraft is being reinterpreted, and tracking his influence in unlikely places. I note their generous tone because it is a welcome change from the seemingly universal shrill and grating tone of persecution and superiority that fans of pulp and genre work often adopt when introducing their cult heroes to a wider audience.

The first half of the book is all reviews; the second half is dedicated to a short, but nifty, gallery of production art and other interesting graphics (with several plates in full color) and a series of interviews with directors, actors, and other Lovecraftian filmmakers. The gallery has some boss stuff, including an original painting of Hellboy inserted into the classic story "Mountains of Madness" and stills from the fabulous opening credit sequence from Beyond Re-Animator. Fans of horror comics will also find top-notch stuff from Richard Corbin and a whole set of conceptual art for "Shadow Over Innsmouth" by Bernie Wrightson. The interviews include both obvious choices, such as go-to Lovecraft adaptor director/writer Stuart Gordon, with more obscure, but still entertaining selections, such Tom Sullivan, the artist behind the covers of the Cry of Cthulhu role-playing game who went on to work on the 2005 retro-silent Call of Cthulhu flick.

I really only have one complaint – the editing of the edition I have is spotty. Now, I'm well aware that my own editorial practices here at ANTSS leave much to be desired. My defense is that I'm not charging you for the privilege of putting up with my editorial blunders. Furthermore, we're not talking grammar-geek quibbles here: for example, the review of Hellboy is cut off mid-sentence and hangs unresolved. Should the book head into another printing, these could be cleaned up easily, I think.

For the person who could take or leave Lovecraft, this book is not going to turn you into a true believer. However, for fans of the man, Migliore and Strysik have produced a real treat. The guide is well worth checking out.


Anonymous said...

His work is good, but reading it makes me wonder how well it stands the test of time.

The Cthulu mythos still does well, but a lot of his other work feels too campy. Mostly because I'll bet at the time his stuff was revolutionary, but folks came after him and improved on his methods and techniques. The result as someone raised on modern horror is to read his work and think it's very amateurish.. Sort of like your critique of all movies having "gotchya" endings, Lovecraft had his share of those as well.. .

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Howie L. was weirdly dated even when he was current. Even his diction and vocabulary displayed his willfully cranky anachronism. Which is odd if you consider he's clearly modern writer in the sense that he was firmly rooted in a post-Darwin, post-long history view of the world - a product of new science and not old superstition.

Part of the problem is that quite a bit of his stuff doesn't hold up today. But, like all these rediscovered "unrecognized geniuses" of the pulp world, he suffers from the completeist impulses of his hardcore fans. Lovecraft and others like him really shine when a thoughtful and sympathetic editor culls the filler they cranked out for a buck from the stuff that still holds up. Unfortunately, the cult members work hard to keep every little scrap in print (we have a collected poetry of H. P. Lovecraft edition out there, if you can believe that) and the result is an across the board depreciation in the writer's value.