The Shadow Out Of Time by H.P. Lovecraft and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard (book review).

One of Lovecraft’s final works, ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ is widely considered a masterpiece of the genre. It tells the story of an economics professor, Nathaniel Peaslee, trying to reconstruct the missing years of his life of which he has no memory. Half-way through giving a lecture in 1908 he passed out and, so far as he can remember, didn’t wake up until five years later. But to everyone else, Peaslee simply became a completely different man: alien and disturbing to his family and friends.

This Peaslee spent those years carrying out strange studies and travelling the world, indifferent to the departure of his wife and family. After several years, the original Peaslee personality returned, with no conscious memory of anything that happened and deeply alarmed to find his life turned upside-down.

It’s probably the humane element of ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ that makes it such a good story. While the human characters in most of Lovecraft’s fiction exist primarily to experience the cosmic horror he is trying to describe, Peaslee is unusually fleshed out. He is a family man (a very rare thing in Lovecraft’s work) and the relationship between Peaslee and his son plays an important part in the story. Indeed, the alien beings that Peaslee learns about are not spiteful or destructive and aren’t working to destroy humanity or summon terrible gods.

The damage they do to Peaslee is purely incidental and this adds a layer of pathos to Peaslee’s character that makes him uniquely relatable as a protagonist. Where Lovecraft often creates monsters that scare us, in ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ we instead have a character with whom we sympathise.

So what about the I.N.J. Culbard adaptation? To start with, Culbard sticks with Lovecraft in making the story one that Peaslee is narrating to the reader. This works well because what makes the story work is the way Peaslee pulls together different sources of information until he finally understands what happened to him. As a graphic novel, Culbard is able to use images as well as narration to give the reader imperfect glimpses into the past, adding to the sense of foreboding.

As an artist, Culbard is well able to portray alien scenes and species as competently as twentieth century humanity, but the colour palette used leans towards darker shades, giving the ‘contemporary’ scenes a distinctly sepia-tinted look that stands in contrast to the greens and reds of the ancient past.

While artwork generally tracks the story as Lovecraft wrote it, more or less scene for scene, there’s some moving around of particular events to make the narration more brisk. Lovecraft’s style of prose is sometimes a little leisurely by modern standards, with paragraphs given to describing a certain building or creature, while cramming the dramatic resolution of the story into a few lines. Certainly, ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ is one where substantial passages are given over to descriptions of the appearance, activities and social structure of the aliens involved.

These are, to be fair, part of what make the novella so popular. Culbard is able to trim down quite a bit of this by showing, rather than telling, the reader what the aliens look like. On the other hand, this does mean that some parts of the book are more a succession of images than anything else.

Only occasionally are there elements invented by Culbard to put across something new, most jarringly where Peaslee discovers a recording made by Wang-Li for his daughter. After watching this poignant recording, another surprise is revealed that doesn’t come out of the original story. Quite why this scene is included isn’t clear, but it does, I suppose, do more to make the actions of the aliens more horrifying, while hinting at another horror even more loathsome. Still, it’s left to the reader to determine whether this scene is a hallucination, a flashback or something Peaslee is experiencing for real.

The ambiguity of the ending, arguably muddied by the additional material, does perhaps add a nightmare twist to the story it needs to satisfy modern audiences. Otherwise, the idea of alien abduction is so commonplace in popular culture that by itself if wouldn’t, perhaps, have the same shock value as it did when the story was written, that is to say, in 1936. So, perhaps, Culbard’s addition makes sense here and set within the otherwise very faithful adaptation presented here, his version of ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ certainly works well.

As one of the less visceral of Lovecraft’s monster stories and with surely the most relatable and humane of protagonists, the understated artwork does the job very nicely and even in the smaller page format used here, everything holds together really well. Graphic novels based on Lovecraft are not uncommon but this is one of the better ones and warmly recommended to both long-time fans and those looking for an introduction to the genre.

Neale Monks

October 2020

(pub: SelfMadeHero, 2020. 120 page pocket-sized paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK).

ISBN: 978-1-9105-939-6)

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