I imagine numerous essays and books have been written on the subject of art attempting to depict incredible things described in literature. From indescribable beauty to unimaginable horror, countless authors have included such elements in their stories with little or no effort. “A face more beautiful than any that of any man or woman who ever walked on the earth” is an easy enough phrase to write, but would probably not be done justice by any visual representation other than a photo of that very face (if it actually existed).
H. P. Lovecraft is one author who thrived on describing things in his stories more by the emotion they evoke in the people exposed to them, and less by detailed physical delineation. In The Call of Cthulhu, sculptures and idols of the title character (an ultimate evil) are described as “simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature…a pulpy, tentacled head surmount[ing] a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings”. A first hand account of Cthulhu itself merely reveals that the “thing cannot be described”. Many depictions of Cthulhu have been attempted, ranging from realistic to absurdly cute. But most similarity between depictions comes from a familiarity with famous works; Lovecraft’s descriptions leave much to the imagination.
But horrors like Chuthlu are supposed to be visually terrifying by their size and strangeness (one wouldn’t expect a painting or figure to try to imitate a stench or sound). A skilled artist could conceivably (and likely did) create a representation of Cthulhu that would have impressed Lovecraft himself. Other Lovecraftian horrors simply can’t be successfully recreated by any artist, and I doubt Lovecraft would have cared for anyone to try.
His 1927 short story Pickman’s Model is nothing spectacular, but it’s a good example of things better left to the written word and the imagination. Its narrator accepts an invitation to visit the secret studio of his artist friend Pickman, who has recently been expelled from college and ostracized by his peers for the disturbing nature of his admittedly skillful art. This studio is located in an old, decrepit house in an old, decrepit neighborhood, with Pickman’s otherworldly art filling the darkened, stale rooms. Deep down in the cellar is where Pickman actually does his painting as he finds it’s “where the inspiration is thickest”. Of the paintings seen here, the narrartor says:
“There’s no use in my trying to tell you what they were like, because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathsomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify.”
After describing the settings for many of the paintings, such as churchyards and subway tunnels, he continues:
“But don’t get the idea that it was all this hideous business of theme and setting which struck me faint. I’m not a three-year-old kid, and I’d seen much like this before. It was the faces, Eliot, those accursed faces, that leered and slavered out of the canvas with the very breath of life! By God, man, I verily believe they were alive! That nauseous wizard had waked the fires of hell in pigment, and his brush had been a nightmare-spawning wand.”
Obviously no artist would ever be able to recreate such a painting, unless they find a nightmare-spawning wand brush down at the art depot. But I can’t blame someone for trying, just for the fun of it.
It’s important to note that Pickman’s paintings are supposed to very detailed and very “realistic”:
“And the queer part was, that Pickman got none of his power from the use of selectiveness or bizarrerie. Nothing was blurred, distorted, or conventionalized; outlines were sharp and lifelike, and details were almost painfully defined. And the faces! It was not any mere artist’s interpretation that we saw; it was pandemonium itself, crystal clear in stark objectivity. That was it, by Heaven! The man was not a fantaisiste or romanticist at all – he did not even try to give us the churning, prismatic ephemera of dreams, but coldly and sardonically reflected some stable, mechanistic, and well–established horror – world which he saw fully, brilliantly, squarely, and unfalteringly. God knows what that world can have been, or where he ever glimpsed the blasphemous shapes that loped and trotted and crawled through it; but whatever the baffling source of his images, one thing was plain. Pickman was in every sense – in conception and in execution – a thorough, painstaking, and almost scientific realist.”
It is difficult (though surely not impossible) to make truly frightening, photo-realistic art without employing gore or other violence.
Iowa native Stephen Gammell significantly contributed to my childhood fear of the dark with his deeply disturbing illustrations for the children’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series. But his black and white sketches are far from photo realistic, accomplishing their goal through dreamlike wisps of suggestion, decay, and the uncanny. Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son is disturbing, while it’s more realistic predecessor, Peter Paul Rubens’ Saturn Devouring His Son is unpleasant but not nearly as unsettling.
So it’s with frustration that I picked up an H. P. Lovecraft collection at the bargain-sale cart at the library last week and was assaulted with this cover:
I don’t find the images on that cover to be frightening, or even disturbing. Rather, I think they’re tacky and unappealing for the cover of a book. I would like to think that Lovecraft, a self-proclaimed antiquarian, would refuse to allow such cover design for one of his collections, instead preferring something more classic (which can still be quite foreboding and interesting if done correctly), or at least more stylized. The bulk of his work was published in pulp magazine Weird Tales, and the narrator in Pikeman’s Model says early on:
“Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true…I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch – beyond life – that they’re able to make us catch for a second…”
Taking horror from words to images involves walking a fine line. Hitchcock said “Suspense is like a woman; the more left to the imagination, the more the excitement”. The stuff our imaginations tend to use to fill in the blanks is almost always going to be greater than any rendition of the real thing.