Guest blogger, Benjamin Dickson: ‘The Picture in the House’

As SMH writer/artist Rob Davis once said to me, “Those who say you should never meet your heroes have never met Mick McMahon.”

Mick is of course a fan favourite – his work on Judge Dredd, Slaine and probably even Sonic the Hedgehog have been hugely influential to an entire generation of comics creators.  When he was offered the job of illustrating Lovecraft’s ‘The Picture in the House’ and was asked who he thought should write it, you can imagine how happy I was when Mick put my name forward.

I’ve known Mick for about a year and a half, after a random exchange of emails led to our deciding to work together on a creator-owned project.  The result will eventually be a book called The Kestrels (See Mick’s blog for more on this) but it’s going to be quite a while before gets to read it, so it was great to do something together that was a bit more immediate!

‘The Picture in the House’ is a wonderful piece of writing.  It begins with what could be described as a statement of intent for much of Lovecraft’s work; that when attempting to seek out horror, people (eg writers) often make the mistake of travelling to mysterious and alien places such as “forgotten cities in Asia” or “sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands”, whereas the truly horrific often lies closer to home, within the landscape of the familiar.  In Lovecraft’s case, the countryside of New England.

(This is a principle that came to life in the 70s with films like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween – horror films that take place in familiar surroundings – and has been a staple of American horror ever since.  But Lovecraft was doing it in the 1920s.)

After Lovecraft’s statement of intent there follows a master class of horror storytelling.  Horror stories rely on simple, primitive yet powerful fears that cause our Amygdala brain to race ahead of our conscious mind, to warn us of danger before we can use reason to remind ourselves that it’s just a story.  And ‘The Picture in the House’ is a beautifully simple premise.  The hero of the story is an everyman – he’s you and me.  Yet he’s also every headline you ever saw about the man who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, reminding us that it could so easily have been us.

Adapting Lovecraft is I think a very rewarding experience.  The thing is, on the surface at least, to do a straight adaptation of a story like ‘The Picture in the House’ isn’t that hard; structurally it’s already done for you.  The challenge lies in not losing anything in translation – and that can be tricky. ‘ The Picture in the House’ is entirely told through a first person narrative, with descriptions of internal thoughts and feelings.  To overload a comic with caption boxes is I think not a good way to go, so it was essential to convert as much of our hero’s thoughts into action as possible.  How well I did is up to you to decide!

A real stroke of luck came when I researched the background of the story, and discovered to my delight (and to the surprise of the editor Dan Lockwood) that the “Afriky book”, Pigfetta’s Regnum Congo, actually exists – as do the illustrations that Lovecraft refers to in the text.  It meant that the comic book version would have something that no text version of the story would have.  Being able to see those illustrations, drawn by someone who clearly had never been to the Congo and was presumably drawing of what he thought it might look like (including dragons), add a lot I think.

Editing the story down was of course crucial.  I hope I’ve managed to not cut anyone’s favourite lines, but I had to be quite brutal at points. (Dan Lockwood actually told me to put one line back in.)  Most cuts were simply a matter of distilling down the descriptions (the opening monologue is about half its original length), but one thing that got cut was the use of the “N” word.  This was I think the most contentious issue in the script, as although I thought its use by the old man was entirely in character and therefore justifiable (its use told us quite a lot about the old man), neither Dan nor myself felt entirely comfortable with it, and after much deliberation, out it went.  Now it’s gone, I don’t miss it.

If I had one criticism of the story, it was how abrupt the ending was.  Dan and I had some entertaining email exchanges about this, including the option of changing the ending altogether; but I think we both knew this wasn’t a serious option.  Instead the final paragraph was elongated into a highly cinematic three page sequence that allowed Mick to flex his illustrative muscles to the full, and allowed the implied horror to fully break loose on the page.  Some may criticise us for this, but as I said earlier, the important thing to me is to be true to what Lovecraft intended, and I feel that literal translations between media risk losing more than if they are adapted to meet that medium’s strengths.

Finally, after an embarrassingly high number of typos were corrected by Dan, off the script went.  I’m quite proud of it, and Mick’s artwork is, as always, sublime.  We’re also in great company, including Pat Mills, Jamie Delano, Simon Spurrier and Warwick Johnson Cadwell.  If you enjoyed the first anthology, I have a feeling you’re going to like what we’ve come up with…

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The Lovecraft Anthology: vol II is out next week!

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2 Responses to Guest blogger, Benjamin Dickson: ‘The Picture in the House’

  1. An interesting article and lovely art by Mick, very much looking forward to that.

    The removal of “the N word” is perhaps not something I agree with though. I prefer a ‘warts and all’ take on these historical pieces – with the idea that the things we now find unpleasant and consider incorrect or even outrageous reveal just as much of interest about the time and author as anything else. It does not at all mean we agree with them.

  2. Dan Lockwood says:

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for the comment, and hope you enjoy the book!

    Re your racism point: I briefly touched on this in a piece for Forbidden Planet last week (http://forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/2012/directors-commentary-matt-timson-talks-us-through-some-lovecraftian-fun/), in which I referred to an article by China Mieville on similar issues contained in Herge’s work.

    While I agree that there’s something to be said for laying bare HPL’s views on these things (and that this does not equate to agreeing with them), I also agree with Mieville’s theory of decency – I’d rather trim out the more obvious racist terms in these adaptations than needlessly offend unsuspecting readers.

    And for those who are familiar with HPL’s oeuvre… well, is this really something they will miss?