The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: HP Lovecraft, much improved in graphic form.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a recent graphic novel adaptation of the classic 1928 HP Lovecraft story of the same name, masterfully executed by INJ Culbard.

The dirty secret of the Cthulhu mythos is that their originator, HP Lovecraft, wasn't a very good writer. In addition to his unfortunate tendency to embrace his era's backwards ideas about race and gender, Lovecraft was also fond of elaborate, tedious description that obscured the action and dialog. Which is a pity, because Lovecraft did have one of the great dark imaginations of literature, a positive gift for conjuring up the most unspeakable, unnameable (and often unpronounceable) horrors of the genre, so much so that they persist to this day.

Enter INJ Culbard, whose work adapting various Sherlock Holmes stories into graphic novels for Self-Made Hero press I've reviewed here in the past. Culbard is a fine storyteller and artist, and makes truly excellent use of the medium to deliver a streamlined Lovecraft, one where the protracted, over-elaborated descriptions are converted to dark, angular drawings that manage to capture all the spookiness, without the dreariness.

This is really the best way to enjoy Lovecraft.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward


    1. Sorry, but it’s true.  Like Tolkein, Lovecraft is a writer who lacked technical skill at storytelling, but got away with it due to the amazing power and depth of his imagination.  The story is so atmospheric that the slips in technique become irrelevant.

      One of the reasons that Lovecraft pastiches are generally stronger than, say, new Sherlock Holmes stories is that Lovecraft still leaves room to say more and do better.  (The sheer size of his universe helps, of course; there’s plenty of room to insert new stories.)

      1. Tolkien I agree with (LotR much more so than the relatively pedestrian Hobbit), but Lovecraft was a decent writer. I think his short “The Color of Outer Space” is an excellent example of both his writing style, overall creative content, and skill.
        Who but Lovecraft created the atmosphere you praise?

        Perhaps it’s characters lack the dept of thier full novel counterparts, but the characters arn’t the true focus of any of Lovecraft’s works (Save Dream Quest of unknown Kadath and that’s, perhaps, the best example that would support your claims). The otherworldly aspects, the alien geometries, and the threats of mind-warping monsters are the core of Lovecraft’s writing.

        1. This is a matter not of content but of style. I don’t think anybody who favors a graphic novel interpretation of Lovecraft can argue with the content. The style, though, is a different matter.

          Lovecraft wrote in a way not unpopular among writers of the gothic tradition during the period twenty to thirty years before his birth, which is no coincidence, since he consciously modeled his style after those writers and their forebears. If anything, Lovecraft was merely taking to an extreme that which would otherwise be considered a pastiche of Arthur Machen.

          But, popular styles change. The most popular writer of the era that Lovecraft copied, Edmund Bulwer-Lytton, lent his name to a ‘bad fiction’ contest. Poe (who Lovecraft admired greatly) is more typically enjoyed in the form of adaptations, dramatic readings, and pithy quotes today (and to the extent that his complete works are read, the emphasis is on his short stories to the exclusion of longer works, and again on the shorter of his short stories) — in other words, Poe is enjoyed in homeopathic quantities only.

          It is not unusual for a writer whose ideas have come into vogue to not adhere to the stylistic vogue. That’s when we get adaptations, and this is a great example of this process at work. Perhaps a less potent example is the emergence of movie-adaptations of Lord of the Rings during the first decade of the twentieth century, when much of the western world was mentally living some variation on a similar theme: a long, slow, drawn-out war with an undeniably evil enemy. 

          I suspect that Lovecraft’s style will come back into vogue eventually, and that graphic novel adaptations will cease to be considered to be preferable — but, personally (having had my own idea of good style crystallized by exposure to William Gibson & Neal Stephenson, both of whom are known for a much greater information density of their prose) I prefer this. Lovecraft himself was in a sense seeking a return to the writing style of the Victorians, and was writing out of time, but his style wasn’t terribly unusual within the genre of Weird Literature (which he and his circle dramatically shaped).

          1. Ahhh, but you’re talking about popularity and acceptance, not quantifiable ability. One can very justly say “I don’t like Lovecraft’s writing style.”… or ANY writer’s style for that matter. But to out and out declare “Lovecraft isn’t a good writer.” implies a concrete lack of technical skill.

            I, personally, like Tolkein’s books; his ideas and character are interesting, his world captivating, and his epic plots engaging. But Tolkien’s writing stinks. To such an extent where his LotR trilogy can get downright unreadable. Lovecraft’s style may be froofy and not for everyone, but his actual writing technique is more than decent.

      2.  Yeah, there are some of Lovecraft’s stories that are better written than others — and there are plenty that make for good stories despite being atrociously written — but for the most part, he’s a better ideas-man than he is a wordsmith.

      3. It’s funny how much all this reminds me of the ambivalence towards George Lucas, too.

        1. Okay, if people don’t think that lovecraft’s writing is good, I can stomach that.  But a comparison to George Lucas?  That I will definitely shun.

  1. Cory, I think you’re off the mark on this one.  I think Lovecarft’s elaborate descriptions are central to his mythos.  It is the contrast of those elaborate descriptions that, when contrasted with the unknowable and indescribable horros of the Mythos highlight the truly alien nature of the universe and humanity’s insignificane within it.

    1. The problem is that Lovecraft doesn’t only resort to elaborate description when confronted with indescribable Elder Things.  His tendency to overdo the adjectives makes the work textually dense reading, without actually improving the information content.  To be blunt: he overuses the trick.

      That’s not to say he never benefits from doing so, of course.  And the scope of imagination makes the technical flaws irrelevant.  But that not the same as saying that there aren’t any.

      1. That’s exactly my point.

        His descriptions of Elder Things are quite sparse in comparison to his florid prose in describing architecture, music, clothing, sound, physiognomy, et. al.

        That leaves the reader to fill in most of the (presumably horrific) details to him/herself, which usually results in a more personalized, deeper, existential dread than if someone had completely fleshed out, say, a description of an evil clown.  (No slight meant to Mr. King; it’s just the first image that came to mind.  But that’smy point.  I can’t conjure images of most Lovecraftian baddies that aren’t a result of derivative works.  They still send chills up my spine, however.)

      2. Your comment makes me feel like you haven’t actually read much Lovecraft.  He actually does not resort of elaborate description when confronted with indescribable Elder Things.  His descriptions of those things make little sense at all, and he deliberately does not elaborate on concepts that obviously need elaboration.  What he does elaborate on are details of everything else – the very point being to highlight the alien-ness of the things that are ill-described.

        For the part of his work where he gives elaborate description of the scenery, the criticism that is does not have much information content is a criticism of style, not of his ability as a writer.  I could criticize a painting of a cabin in the woods by pointing out that the phrase, “a cabin in the woods” would have sufficed.  But that is my preference, the painter may still be very good.

  2. Thank you so much.  I thought I was the only one who noticed what an atrocious writer he is.  People would say things like, “You’re off the mark,” or even, “SHUUUUUUUUUUN.”

    Open any Lovecraft story and count the number of times he uses “rugose.”  I dare you. (EDIT: Forefox doesn’t even think rugose is a word.)

    1.  And don’t forget ‘cyclopean’! But frankly I think the overwroughtness is part of the appeal. I can’t quite agree that the excess and flourishes make him a crappy writer per se; sure, it’s hardly *functional* in a narrative or even strictly descriptive sense, but you can still argue for it on purely stylistic grounds. Rococo lexical aesthetics, or something.

    2. He uses the word “rugose” just four times in all of his collected fiction. He uses it once in “The Shunned House,” once in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” and twice in “The Shadow Out of Time.”

        1. Charlie Stross and Neil Gaiman both use it quite often, but only when they are making fun of Lovecraft. The word ‘rugose’ is the ‘beam me up, Scotty’ of the Lovecraft Mythos.

          1. Having volunteered in a botanical garden, I’ve used it conversationally on many occasions.

    3.  Lovecraft uses “rugose” six times in his fiction. That’s six out of approximately 713 000 words. A staggering, overwhelming number.

  3. Having never read anything by Lovecraft, this graphic novel could pose two problems to me:
    1) Should I read the full text version first?
    2) Would it be better, with regard to my appreciation of the Lovecraft Mythos, to remain unsullied by any of his works in any form? Thus allowing MY imagination to run wild with possibilities of what the books are like. A kind of meta approach to his work. But in reverse. Maybe.

    1. Read the text version first. Regardless of whether you think he’s a good writer or not, take in what Lovecraft himself offered, then read/look at how other people interpreted it. A graphic novel is going to omit some material and substitute it with it’s own, for better or for worse. Make your own conclusions on what Lovecraft is saying before you adopt someone else’s.

  4. If you like this book and Lovecraft, check out Deadbeats, by the guys who put out the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast (my audio of choice on night walks…really). It’s an original Lovecraft inspired story illustrated by Culbard. 

    And although I really like Lovecraft, not everyone can deal with his admittedly…unique style. But his ideas are quite powerful…if you can’t wade through the gooey purpleness of his prose, graphic novels are indeed a good way to enjoy the stories. 

  5. This is my favorite Lovecraft book. And what you call “tedious detail” is a remarkably important historical guide. I read it before visiting Providence, Rhode Island, where the story is set, and the book can be used as a guide for a walking tour. Many of the houses and building are still standing and are precisely as he described. 

    In addition, that tedium can lull the reader into a sense of security that is suddenly ripped away, increasing the horror. 

  6. Not everyone can dig Lovecraft’s style. Doesn’t make him a bad writer. Sexist? Yes. Racist? Shockingly so. A terrible user of language? I don’t think so. 

    His writing style is intentional. He is by parts emulating the writing style of his great influences, Chambers, Bierce and Machen while at the same time attempting to convey the sense of cosmic indifference that came to be the defining feature of the mythos he created. 
    His work is not always perfect, but go read anything that was being published in periodicals at the time. Imperfection was an artform. Criticising Lovecraft for hiding action, plot and dialogue behind obscure and tedious description misses the point. He deliberately hides it. We are only given the vaguest of glimpses of his horrors  because he wants them to be ours. 

    That’s the great beauty of his work – and the reason it still matters. Lovecraft leads the reader through a strange and often unfamiliar landscape of word and idea so that we create the outline, shape and colour of the vast horror he wants us to feel. Then, once the merest glimpse of that horror is revealed or described he abandons us to contemplate it. 

    It is a technique that is remarkably effective and is used in religious texts the world over. I wouldn’t call it a failing.

  7. Lovecraft makes it pretty clear in his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” that things like action and dialog do not make good weird fiction in his estimation. The important thing is atmosphere, which in his case is the product of elaborate and tedious description. We might find this less readable than other styles, but I don’t think it’s a case of Lovecraft trying to be a “good writer” and failing. I think he knew what he was doing.

  8. Sorry; but Lovecraft was indeed a good writer, at least at times. It’s true that you can find a number of affected and overly precious passages of the type that make their way into the parodies — those stories and that style are deservedly parodied. On the other hand, look at William Morris in the previous generation, whose style affectations were even more extreme and who was nevertheless regarded at the time as a good writer.

    But apart from those well-known failings, Lovecraft was also capable of a high level of fantastic vision, delivering some really eerie and uncanny scenes that are still quite readable today.  I think, for example, that The Dream-Quest for Unknown Kadath is generally better than most of the widely praised Lord Dunsany’s contemporary work, for example, though it too may have a few of those twee passages here and there. 

    Iterating through some other randomly chosen contemporary fantasists, I’d say Lovecraft was a better writer than Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert Howard, not as good as Robert Chambers, and about as good as Clark Ashton Smith (though Smith was a better poet, of course). James Branch Cabell was clearly superior, however. Still, it seems to me that Lovecraft was far better than most pulp writers, and his best work could stand with those of the other fantasy luminaries of his time.

  9. Lovecraft occasionally wrote poorly, but he was predominantly an excellent stylist.  There isn’t any gold standard or formula for what constitutes “good” or “bad” writing – good writing means working in an idiom which is perfectly fitted to the type of story you are telling, and Lovecraft’s tales were so exotic and weird that the feverish, incantatory, consciously artificial style was one of the only registers which was a natural fit for this type of story.  Decadent prose was always a throwback to a poetic rather than naturalistic literary idiom, and for this reason it is often regarded as “bad” today simply because it does not conform to the prevailing tendencies of naturalistic prose.  The morass of Lovecraft’s racial and sexual attitudes speaks to his neurotic deficiencies as a person rather as a writer, and in fact he probably wouldn’t have been as great a writer as he was without being so phenomenonally neurotic and ill-adjusted to the world.  The universally revered Argentinian genius Jorge Luis Borges admired Lovecraft enough to write a story in his memory, and I would defer to his judgement over that of a great many armchair critics.

  10.  I have no idea what Forefox is, but other sources seem unperturbed by the word rugose.

  11. I couldn’t finish At the Mountain of Madness because it seemed like Lovecraft saw the word “cyclopean” in a word-a-day calendar and then put it in every sentence to show how smart he was. It got on my cyclopean nerves.

      1. I was being half facetious, but it’s true, I haven’t yet gotten through that particular story. For the stories I have gotten through, each has been like climbing a mountain: a series of arduous passages, but at the end, being treated to a pretty nice view. Definitely part of the appeal.

        And for something completely different, here is how Lovecraft would describe an encounter with the African lion.

  12. Lovecraft was a product of his times.    Was he racist, antisemitic, & sexist?    Sure he was.    The KKK was at peak membership during Lovecraft’s adulthood.    Racism was considered scientifically valid during those dark days.    After all, a guy born in 1890 isn’t going to be as progressive as someone born in 1990.

    As for the quality of Lovecraft’s work; no critic will take away the joy & horrific images that H.P.L’s missives have long brought me.     Tim Curran & many other writers are carrying the eldritch torch that Lovecraft wrested from Poe’s unquiet corpse.    Lovecraft’s legacy is more than secure.

    1.  It is a bit more complicated than that — his wife was Jewish, and his Jewish friends (such as Samuel Loveman) didn’t notice any anti-Semitism on his part (although Loveman was very distressed to learn about it after Lovecraft’s death).

  13. Yeah! And Picasso was a lousy painter. My seven-year-old niece has a better sense of human proportions than that guy. At least she knows what side of the face to put the nose on. And I’m sorry but it’s true: my dog could paint a more realistic flower than Jackson Pollock on his very best day. 

  14. Lovecraft was one of the few 20th-Century writers who knew how to use adjectives and adverbs *properly.* Admittedly, he used quite a few of them much more often than he should have–“squamous” and “eldritch” being two of the most common–but at least he knew how to write descriptive prose. The whole “write like a fifth-grader so a third-grader can understand it” minimalist aesthetic that came to define so much 20th-Century (and now 21st-Century) writing is not so much a backlash against overly-florid prose as it is a reflection of the shriveling of the American vocabulary to an etiolated, dumbed-down state of barely-literate degeneracy.

    Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for minimalist prose–my idol Cormac McCarthy amply demonstrates how effective it can be in The Road–but McCarthy is just as adept at writing intensely-descriptive prose as well: witness Suttree and Blood Meridian as examples. But the sparsity of the great majority of post-Victorian American and British prose indicates not an effort to scale back excesses but a pandering to the lowest common denominator. If you write like a dullard, you only encourage dullardism amongst the populace.

    Oh, and the artwork for the above-mentioned graphic novel is abominable. I am still, however, curious to read the full piece to see how the author adapted the novella to a more visual form–something which a quick glance at a few panels of shitty art certainly can’t answer.

    1. “The whole “write like a fifth-grader so a third-grader can understand it” minimalist aesthetic that came to define so much 20th-Century (and now 21st-Century) writing is not so much a backlash against overly-florid prose as it is a reflection of the shriveling of the American vocabulary to an etiolated, dumbed-down state of barely-literate degeneracy.”

      Yeah.  There was a time when people looked to prose to elevate and enrich their conversation, but since the mid-twentieth century the ideal shifted to the idea that prose should model itself on the most undemanding and neutral conversational-style; this of course creates a feedback effect whereby both prose and speech become progressively duller.  I also agree that minimalist prose has its place and can be absolutely fantastic, essential; but I think the overall mindset has lead to a shrinking of linguistic horizons.

  15. I’m going to have to get this book. I’ve  just reread the original a couple of months ago.

    Sometimes I draw  parallels between Lovecraft and Isaac Newton. Newton  made enormous contributions to science, yet he also studied alchemy. Lovecraft gave us The Colour out of Space, the first story, as far as I know, of space aliens that don’t even have a body, something that would not be out of place in an Outer Limits episode. Lovecrafts atmosphere and archaic vocabulary give him this atavistic bent that puts him in with the Gothic writers.

  16. I read Lovecraft primarily when I was a teenager. Have happily re-read The Dunwich Horror and The Color Out of Space many times. According to L. Sprague De Camp in his biography of Lovecraft, Lovecraft deliberately adopted a Georgian prose style.  He’s certainly uneven but I’m sure I’ll be re-reading his work, and reading things by him I’ve never looked at, for years to come.  He’s a personal fave. It’s like Philip K. Dick, whose prose style generally left a lot to be desired as well.  To quote Einstein’s reply to his wife when she begged him to get a new change of clothes: “One does not judge the pork chop by its wrapper.”

  17. “In addition to his unfortunate tendency to embrace his era’s backwards ideas about race and gender” ….

    I think that’s a somewhat under-analysed cliche. Yes, Lovecraft’s time was more open to racism, sexism, ichthyism etc. than the present day. But in any period there are going to be some thinkers who are naturally open, empathetic, and inquisitive about different kinds of people, and others who simply adopt or unquestioningly reinforce the prejudices they find around them. Lovecraft belonged to the latter category, and it’s too easy to let him off the hook by blaming some kind of chronological determinism.

    1. I’m not really sure what you are proposing here.  Rather than “let him off the hook” would you suggest that we do what: make sure we denounce him personally any time we talk about his writing? not read what he wrote?

      Lovecraft was an obvious racist from his fiction, and from the admittedly little I’ve read about him he was probably more racist than many of his contemporaries.  But what do we do about the racists, sexists, and classists of history?  If I were to talk to someone about Lovecraft with the idea that they might read some, I would probably mention that some of his stories are very overtly racist in case they would find that very upsetting to read.

  18. Seems to me that kind of long-winded detail was just the norm for fantasy writers way back when. I started reading H Rider Haggard’s SHE recently, and while the adventure bits are fine, my God, every few pages the action stops for some awfully drawn-out background or exegesis of some ancient inscription.

  19. Hmm. I came here to snark at Lovecraft’s writing style, and I say that as a fan of his work.

    Trying to be completely fair: I’d say that although he wrote some terrible sentences, he wrote some pretty good stories. Whether that makes him a good writer or a bad one is a matter of personal taste.

  20. Well, others have already made the point I wanted to make, but I’ll say it again.  Lovecraft was a great writer.

  21. The demands of genre fiction are different from what we put on in the ivory tower and call literature. Genre fiction is often more about what is communicated than how it is communicated.

    Lovecraft was a great genre writer. That’s why his work has endured long, long past its day.

    It may make us all uncomfortable — I’m a little uncomfortable with it — but people will probably still be reading and discussing Stephen King a century from now. Deeply flawed, but nonetheless a great genre writer.

  22. The “elaborate, tedious description” is how what he used to conjure up “the most unspeakable, unnameable (and often unpronounceable) horrors of the genre”.

    One of the things that makes his stories work so well that they’re still monstrously popular almost a century later is that he uses layers of description to build up the atmosphere of the story. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

  23. What the hell is wrong with rugose?

    It’s shorter than “wrinkled”, so hardly qualifies for “purple prose” (if purple is going on too much at descriptive lengths).

    1. I found the harping on rugose to be a little weird myself.  For all we know, Lovecraft and people he spoke with often used the word somewhat regularly in normal speech.

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