I'm not really a comic/graphic novel kind of chap. I have an admiration for what can go into the best of them, and fond memories of certain comic characters in my youth, particularly those from the Marvel stable. However, upon seeing some of John Coulthart's astonishing artwork on the web, I felt the clammy hand of avarice clutch at my vitals, and I just knew I had to have ownership of some of his work, in however diminished a form.
I thrilled to the tales of H.P.Lovecraft as a youngster, and have been gratified to see how his lurid mythos has been picked up and developed by many other artists over the years. I can't say I respond to the term `Horror' in fiction. For me nothing fictional can compare with what my imagination can furnish if I incautiously allow it to ponder too long what real people can really do to each other. However, I must confess that Lovecraft's `Dreams from the Witch House' is probably the only piece of fiction ever to instil a genuine frisson of apprehension in me. So it was with great pleasure that I discovered, upon its arrival, that the main body of this book is devoted to graphic realisations of three Lovecraft tales, including an eye-wateringly spectacular rendering of `The Call of Cthulhu'. Coulhart's style harks back to the Gothic inspirations of Austin Osman Spare, with near inconceivably meticulous pen and ink drawings. His obsessions somewhat parallel those of Hans Geiger of `Aliens' notoriety, exploring similar themes of insectoid exoskeletons, badly interfaced organic machinery and rent and spilling viscera. But other signature forms are also apparent, ranging from dendritic landscape from neuro-cytology, to screaming faces seeming to emerge from the cloudy surfaces of planetary gas giants. Indeed the sheer voracity of Coulhart's imagination, and his capacity to coerce forms from just about every branch of knowledge into the service of his twisted art is quite stunning. A further aspect of his work that impressed me was the entirely original and deliciously disturbing architectures that he manages to conjure with.
The most artistically impressive section of the book follows the Lovecraft tales, being a personal `inverted' Qabalah, based on the Lovecraft mythos. While the rest of the book is a majestic compendium of comic book art, these full page features are art of another order, in the sense of something you could hang on your wall, live with, cherish, and never cease to find new shapes and vistas emerging from.
The very final section comprises reproductions of work he did for an apparently notorious comic called `Lord Horror' back in the 80s. For these he concocted an Auschwitz, with another highly idiosyncratic architecture, from a counterfactual reality in which the work of the ovens continues without end. There is arguably a question of taste about the associations of fantasy horror with the variety offered by bedrock reality, but then the juxtaposition has much to tell us about the human fascination with horror, both real and imagined.
Another intriguing aspect of the book is the contribution from the comic artist Alan Moore. As stated, I am no aficionado of the graphic novel, and know of Moore only as the reluctant originator of the Watchmen movie. However he supplies an absolutely luminous introduction, and then a commentary for each page of the Lovecraft Qabalah. His texts are most entertaining, with resonances of William Burroughs at his most psychotic, and even inflection of a post psychedelic Lovecraft.
I have two regrets. The first is that I did not come across this work in its earlier form when it was released in a larger format. The second is that I did not encounter it until a time in my life when my eyesight is clearly on the wane, and the full devilishness of the detail, of which there is so overwhelmingly much, is denied to me. An altogether strange cup of tea.