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Life and Lovecraft
Interview by Eroom Nala

Haunter of the Dark

• What's the first thing you remember?

I always seem to be bad with questions of this nature, don't have much specific memory of anything prior to the age of five, just a lot of general impressions. This may be due to spending several days without my parents in hospital at that age for an eye operation (unsuccessful, as it turned out). I remember a great deal about being in that hospital ward with other children, probably because it was such an unfamiliar situation and environment. The only specific thing I remember before that was England winning the World Cup in 1966, which made an impression solely because my father kicked over a teapot when someone scored a goal.

• When did you first realize you were going to die?

Again, this is hard to pin down. I used to read a lot of science fiction when I was a boy so there was eventually a creeping understanding that a lot of this future stuff that was exciting me was going to occur after I was dead.

• Who are your favourite SF authors and what are your favourite SF works? Bradbury? Martian Chronicles? Stranger in a Strange Land? Clarke? Dick? Vonnegut?

I read hardly any SF at all these days but I read fairly widely for a while when I was a teenager then became bored with the tedious writing styles. Prior to that I'd been reading HG Wells and a lot of Victorian ghost stories and horror fiction which sensitised me to a certain quality of writing (although Wells isn't as fine a writer as, say, Stevenson). So when Isaac Asimov comes along thinking that he can "improve" the quality of written fiction by putting "X said: " every time a character speaks, I lost my patience.

I adored HG Wells and enjoyed Arthur C Clarke the most out of the classic bunch from the 1950s. My diminishing patience occurred with the discovery of the New Worlds group of writers based around Michael Moorcock, all of whom were far more substantial and interesting than the rocket ships and robots fraternity. It was Moorcock and New Worlds that led very quickly thereafter to William Burroughs and other literature completely out of the SF orbit. Moorcock was easy to get into at a young age as you read his fantasy first then gravitated to the more sophisticated pleasures of the Jerry Cornelius books. Ballard seemed rather remote and chilly at first (although I liked all the Surrealist references) until I started to understand what he was doing. They were the big beasts, but I liked many of the other writers of that period, such as John Sladek, Norman Spinrad and especially Harlan Ellison who, like Moorcock and Ballard, should be considered a writer who's worked in SF as distinct from an SF writer. Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions anthologies were key works in the development of new directions for science fiction.

• Are you an atheist or do you follow William Blake? "All religions are one."

Religious discussion in interviews always runs the risk of slipping into terrible pomposity, doesn't it? Or it runs the risk of letting fall the kind of glib platitudes people usually associate with competitors in beauty contests. That aside, the blanket atheism of the biological materialist is deeply unsatisfactory. As with Existentialism, it's an easy position to reach – life is pointless, the only meaning is that which we create for ourselves, etc. There's an unspoken implication behind such pronouncements which says that you personally have the whole meaning of existence (or lack of it) worked out, that you've tested every metaphysical theory imaginable and found it wanting. This is a bizarrely confident position to adopt based as it is on scientific models that are only a few hundred years old. The universe is vast beyond our comprehension, life is deeply strange, and the chemistry of our brains – that stuff that biologists tell you somehow "secretes" consciousness – is incredibly fragile and subject to great disruption with only the slightest adjustment. Tweak it one way and you plunge into a void of meaningless despair; tweak it another and you experience boundless ecstasy where everything is laden with transcendent import. How can we then declare with absolute certainty that our dim perceptions at any given moment are the true and ineluctable reality of things when we're rarely clear-headed for more than a few hours a day?

Religions are unsatisfactory as well, of course, being maps intended to guide us through the things we can't explain. Most of them are rather out of date and much of the world's current problems are the result of people mistaking the map for the territory it seeks to describe. Atheism pretends it isn't a map by being a blank sheet of paper with the words "THERE IS NO MAP" written on it. Agnosticism favours no one map over any other, including the blank map. That's where my sympathies usually lie.

Was I pompous? Probably. So be it.

• When did you first become aware that you could make a living through your artwork?

When I was about 13 or 14 and I discovered Roger Dean's book Views, a collection of his album cover illustrations. He was the first professional illustrator whose work really hit me and I decided then that this was what I wanted to do.

• What's the first work of art you got paid for?

That would be the art for the Church of Hawkwind album lyric book for which I provided a colour cover and some black and white interior illustrations. The booklet cover was supposed to be the cover of the album but RCA apparently didn't like it very much so they used a design of their own. I don't blame them really, it looks pretty amateurish, as does most of my Hawkwind work.

• Who are some of the famous people you've worked for?

Fame is relative: some people are very famous in one area – Alan Moore, for example – but their names aren't always recognised outside that area. Hawkwind were the first, then there's been Cradle of Filth, Jon Hassell, Alan Moore, Steven Severin (of Siouxsie and the Banshees), Jeff VanderMeer and (although the book I designed remains unpublished) Michael Moorcock. Savoy Books, with whom I've been working for seventeen years are more notorious than famous.

• What's the strangest commission you've ever done?

Tattoos, probably. I've designed a couple and it's always an odd thing to think of a drawing you made being permanently inked on somebody's skin.

• Do you have to solicit for work or are you so well known now that people contact you?

I spent a number of years regularly trawling for work. Happily I'm in a position now where people come to me with commissions.

• Are you left-handed?

I'm right-handed although I see the world predominantly through my left eye due to the right one being deficient.

• Your weblog has a lot of gay-themed postings. How important is it to declare yourself as a gay artist?

I used to think it wasn't and in an ideal world it certainly wouldn't be but our world is far from ideal. It shouldn't be an issue at all but the outside world continually makes it one by telling you its opinion about who you sleep with. I was worried at one time about being pigeonholed as "a gay artist" if I made any such declarations; this is silly really because people categorise you according to the content of your work more than anything, and there's very little overt gay material there. I'm more liable to be pigeonholed as a horror or fantasy artist than anything else, even though genre work comprises a small percentage of my output.

Declarations of sexuality seem to be more important for the way they can help other people. When I was growing up there were no gay role models apart from TV comedians, most of whom (Graham Chapman excepted) were a pretty dismal bunch. Details about the lives of Caravaggio or Jean Genet or Francis Bacon were hard to find. After the homophobic heyday of the 1980s (when Manchester had a police chief who wanted to build camps to house AIDS sufferers) it seemed that things were getting better. They certainly have got better in the UK but with the resurgence of religious and political bigotry in the US and the usual death-laden pronouncements from Middle Eastern fundamentalists (this issue is one that unites many Christians, Orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure) it's time to stand up and tell these Republicans, priests and mullahs to go fuck themselves. The more people who take a stand against this crap, the better it is for everyone, especially for gay people stuck in the more reactionary parts of the world.

• Do you think it makes any difference when looking at a work of art to know that, to use some examples, say Leonardo was gay (Vitruvian man), Michaelangelo was gay (God creating Adam on the Sistine Chapel) but Raphael wasn't? It's a bit like judging an actors performance on their sexual preference. Why should it matter to the voters at the Academy Awards that Nigel Hawthorne was gay and why was he outed by publicists in a campaign to stop him getting a best actor award for The Madness of King George?

It should only matter if it explains some aspect of the work. So for example when Francis Bacon takes a photograph of naked wrestlers by Muybridge and paints them clutching each other on a bed, it creates a whole new set of associations around that image; Bacon's sexuality then reinforces a sexual reading.

You have to exercise caution when applying this to artists from other centuries, however, since information is often sketchy and facts are disputed. Most authorities agree that Michelangelo was gay but didn't act a great deal on his impulses beyond writing love poems to young men. If we accept that, it explains how an artist who was such a master of the depiction of the male body could go awry with female bodies, some of whom he paints looking like muscular men with breasts attached (not always; the Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel are marvellous renderings). Generally, artists are good at depicting what interests them most although that doesn't mean that heterosexual artists should have any problems depicting men. Equally, there are many gay men who love depicting the female body (or the clothes that adorn it).

People who vote for the Academy Awards are a particularly conservative bunch so nothing surprises me there.

• If you're mostly self-taught how did you teach yourself? (books/films/how to manuals) Which would you recommend for struggling new artists?

I've mentioned a number of times before my dissatisfaction with the term "self-taught" when applied to artists; art critics especially use the term without considering whether it tells us anything useful about an artist. It still has common currency today even though most contemporary art critics agree that the actual manual production of art by the artist isn't necessarily important anymore (at least in the conceptual field). So what great mysteries are these artists being taught during their passage through art school?

No one ever describes non-classical musicians as self-taught, for instance, when most of them undoubtedly are. The Beatles were "self-taught" yet when have you ever seen them referred to in that way? The same applies to the numerous writers (Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore among them) who never attended university or went on any writing courses. Yet art or illustration only seems to gain validity via passage through art school. In any of these disciplines it's perfectly natural to have a talent and be able to nurture that talent through practice. This isn't to denigrate art schools or universities, people learn at different rates and many need encouragement at a young age; but I still maintain that the "self-taught" thing is nothing special.

I had a slight head start over most people since my mother had been to art school herself (training as a textile designer) so she was a role model in many ways. Looking through her sketch books was a great inspiration since it said to me that "you can do this yourself". She also had a stack of art magazines I used to look through. I surprised the teacher at school one day when she asked us to make some constructions with card and scissors and I made something based on the sculptures of Henry Moore; I was about 9 at the time so that was rather precocious.

I don't recall reading anything specific to teach myself techniques, whenever I've wanted to learn something I just puzzle it out by trial and error. This has extended more recently to working with computers; I got to grips with Photoshop, Illustrator, html and so on simply by messing around and trying different things. Going through any kind of manual bores me to death, I'd much rather play around until I find out how a thing works.

Advice would be pretty much the same elementary stuff you'd receive from anybody: practice as much as possible and learn the history of the field you choose to work in. Then look outside that field to see what you can learn from elsewhere. If you're avoiding art school then it's important to learn the few things they do actually teach you there, such as the way colours work together and other elementary principles. And art history, of course. Similarly, if you're heading down a design path you should know something of the history of design and typography, learn about spatial relationships and so on. But creativity is a difficult thing to advise upon beyond these kind of generalities.

• Who have been your mentors? What's the best piece of advice you ever had?

I don't think I've had any mentors as such. David Britton's presence has been invaluable over the years as a sounding board for ideas and as someone to reinforce certain ideas or approaches I may have had. Dave's own work contains a lot of deliberate humour or downright silliness but this shouldn't obscure the fact that his creative intent is as serious and determined as anyone I know. In fact you could add that to the advice question: never underestimate the value of talking over ideas with somebody. This is very often the only way you articulate a vague impulse that may develop into something substantial later on.

Not sure I've had a single, great piece of advice. Alan Moore once told me I had a rare and special talent and said "don't abuse it." I didn't ask what constituted abuse. If he meant selling out, I've tried that a number of times and signally failed.

• Speaking as an artist what is the purpose of art?

Ah yes, the easy questions... Oscar Wilde said that all art is completely useless, which it is, on one level. But then one should never take Oscar's aphorisms at purely face value; his paradoxes insisted on being serious about frivolous things and frivolous about serious things. Art lets us see the world anew, lets us see how the world might be different and lets us examine the contents of our minds, all of our dreams and nightmares. That sounds like a pretty serious business to me even if much of what passes for art today has been subsumed by the thing that we call entertainment. If all art was useless then we could easily live without it as various Talibans from the East and West would prefer. Asking people to live without art is like asking them to live without sex; the desire to create is a fundamental human impulse, something that puritans of any stripe always forget. Imagine your world without all your favourite books, music, films, comics, television in it. Imagine how diminished your life would feel without those things. Art justifies itself by making our world and our perceptions of the world larger, richer and more vital.

• What artists do you admire as role models for a) they way the lived their life and b) their actual work?

Role models are more important on the work level for me although anyone who had to struggle against, say, ill health, as did Aubrey Beardsley and Robert Louis Stevenson, or societal strictures, as did Oscar Wilde, is deserving of admiration. I value mavericks, people with exceptional ability and wild imagination, people who maintain some traditions and people who destroy others. We don't need mediocrity anywhere and let's not forget my favourite Picasso aphorism: "Good taste is the enemy of creativity."

• For The Haunter of the Dark, why did you choose these particular Lovecraft stories and did you ever consider adapting other ones too?

There were quite a few I could have chosen but I decided to concentrate on (a) ones with a good visual dimension, and (b) ones that weren't too long.

At the Mountains of Madness has always been a favourite of mine but adapting its 90-odd pages – and spending two weeks drawing each page as I was at the time – would have been a daunting task.

The Haunter of the Dark I liked because of the church being the central focus. As early as 1979 I'd tried to visualise what the sinister church might look like (that drawing is included in the book). It's also one of HPL's later stories so there's a lot of reference there to the broader Cthulhu Mythos.

The Call of Cthulhu had some great visual moments with the voodoo ceremony, the discovery of R'lyeh and Cthulhu's appearance at the end. It's also nice for the descriptions of the way that the Cthulhu Cult has spread around the world. This gave me the opportunity to decorate the pages with pastiches of religious artefacts from different cultures.

The Dunwich Horror is a great story for all sorts of reasons, one of Lovecraft's most carefully-crafted and atmospheric, and the semi-human Wilbur Whateley is a very memorable character.

• How did Alan get involved in the project?

I'd met Alan a couple of times before we were brought together in 1994 (along with many other writers and artists) by DM Mitchell in Creation's Starry Wisdom anthology. While that book was being assembled, Creation commissioned Alan's Yuggoth Cultures and it was suggested that I provide some illustrations. That didn't work out, as we now know, but when I mentioned to Alan in 1999 that Oneiros would be publishing The Haunter of the Dark book, he suggested we collaborate on something for that. That collaboration is The Great Old Ones, evocations of Lovecraft's Mythos gods that Alan mapped across the Tree of Life of the Kaballah. I think he was pleased to be able to tackle Lovecraft again and explore some Kabbalistic symbolism at the same time. (This was shortly before he went deeper into the Kabbalah in Promethea.)

• You've pretty much kept the typeface from the previous edition and just changed the cover illustration so obviously you liked the text but needed a totally new image to differentiate it from the previous one. For someone who already has a copy of the previous edition what is the main incentive for buying this new one? What extras are there?

The book has been slightly redesigned as there were a few minor things I wasn't happy with about the original book layout. There were also a couple of typos here and there that have been corrected. Then I re-scanned all the artwork, not because the original was badly done, more out of thoroughness. I doubt most people will spot any difference but if I hadn't done that I'm sure it would have nagged me at a later date. Finally, there are some new additions with 8 pages of additional artwork and a whole new section of The Great Old Ones that's receiving its first publication here. That section was created originally for an abandoned Lovecraft calendar project in 2000. If this book was a CD, it would be the remastered version with extra tracks.

• Do you think you'll ever do any more fine tuning to any of the images from the existing stories at a later date or is the final version for these particular stories. (For example I could send you pages from the Sydney Bulletin dated April 18th 1925. We're probably the only library in the world that would still have a copy. Do you think Lovecraft had a sense of humour. The article he mentions isn't there obviously but on page 7 there is an ad for HP sauce "creates a healthy hungry feeling".)

I doubt I would since any changes made have only been minor ones and I don't feel the need to add to those. (HPL had a healthy sense of humour – many of his stories contain disguised and often jokey references to his friends – but I'd be surprised if he saw a copy of the Sydney Bulletin at all. He used the names of real publications to lend his stories documentary verisimilitude but that's as far as it goes.)

• The cover is in colour but all the internal artwork is black and white. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in colour vs. black and white?

Yes, the book is all black and white inside. Black and white suits itself to the period, of course, since we perceive the early part of the 20th century through black and white films and photographs. Beyond that, horror often works best in black and white because of the way a mood is created and sustained. In modern horror cinema there's a tendency to reduce the colour values to monochrome partly for this reason.

• What was the hardest part about finding a visual equivalent for Lovecraft's prose?

Being short stories, some of the elements lack detail. Lovecraft was never very big on character so you have to define the appearance of many of the characters yourself since he tends to avoid direct description of people unless they're grotesques like Wilbur Whateley. Cthulhu's underwater city of R'lyeh posed a problem at first since the description there is deliberately vague. My rendering of the place is overly-spiky for somewhere that's been lying under the Pacific Ocean for thousands of years but I wanted to draw it the way it felt when you were reading the story, rather than match the actual description which doesn't go very far beyond "weed-covered blocks of stone".

• Do you think you've got any more Lovecraft adaptations left in you or will you be concentrating on other writers and even your own fiction in future?

I don't mind getting involved in Lovecraft's world again one day, but for now I'm more interested in creating something original rather than illustrating existing stories. Illustrating Lovecraft was something I did to break away from the science fiction-oriented Hawkwind work in the mid-80s and it proved to be more successful than I anticipated. But I've always had plenty of ideas of my own and would prefer to pursue some of those now. My follow-up to this book is more-or-less finished but I'm not making any announcements about it yet, I'd like there to be a bit of surprise involved.

• Graphic novel, illustrated stories, comic book... How would you describe it?

Graphic novel it isn't. Illustrated stories would be more appropriate.

• Where there many postponements/printing problems with this edition like there were with the last one? Is there a curse of HP Lovecraft for people trying to adapt his work?

The production of this one has gone fairly smoothly (fingers crossed). I think the only curse that afflicts Lovecraft adaptations is the one that makes people produce bad work along the lines of Bride of Reanimator and Cthulhu Mansion. He's been poorly served by cinema so far.

• Are there any other Lovecraft-inspired images done by other artists that you admire?

There's lots of things I could list: some of the illustrations from the original pulp publications of the stories by Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok; British illustrator Ian Miller's book jackets in the 1970s; Alberto Breccia's masterful comic adaptation of The Dunwich Horror that I first saw in the Heavy Metal Lovecraft special in 1979; JK Potter's portrait of HPL for the cover of that issue; Tom Sutton's portfolio for The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath; Berni Wrightson's adaptation of Cool Air. And nearly everything produced by one of my favourite comic artists, Philippe Druillet, has a Lovecraftian flavour.

• Are there any other great comic-book adaptations of works of literature you like? P Craig Russell?

P Craig Russell is great, yeah, although I prefer Elric drawn by the original illustrator of those stories, James Cawthorn. Cawthorn's adaptation of Moorcock's The Jewel in the Skull for Savoy was an influence on my approach, as was Berni Wrightson's Frankenstein portfolio. Burne Hogarth's Jungle Tales of Tarzan is an extraordinary work, authoritative adaptations that are perfectly rendered.

• Why adapt works of literature into illustrated format? To get more people interest in re-reading the original or... ?

My impulse was to create a book I felt should have been in the shops already since I couldn't understand in 1985 why no one had produced an illustrated Lovecraft. Beyond that, there is the hope of expanding the audience for a writer one admires, and also the possibility of adding something to the story. Hogarth's The God of Tarzan is an excellent demonstration of the latter. While Tarzan ponders metaphysical questions the artwork is laden with subtle figures and other images that only emerge once you've studied the page carefully. He makes the artwork convey this aspect of the story in almost purely visual terms, achieving something that words alone couldn't manage.

• For people who enjoy this book what other ones would you recommend?

Er, that's rather difficult to answer, since the book isn't a standard comic book or merely a collection of illustrations. For more Lovecraft art, there are now a couple of illustration and story collections out there. An Italian publisher, Glittering Images, produced a nice collection of old and new stuff in 1991 called The Cosmical Horror of HP Lovecraft. This features a lot of the original drawings by Virgil Finlay, plus some comic strips of variable quality (Cool Air among them) and more recent book jackets. Then there's also The Fantastical Worlds of HP Lovecraft from James Van Hise (1999) and Tom Pomplun's Graphic Classics no. 4 (2002); both these feature illustrations of mine along with work by other artists.

• How well did the previous edition sell?

It sold very well when people could find it. Distribution was a problem, something that's been corrected for this new edition.

• Whatever happened to Oneiros Books? Did it mutate into Creation?

Small publishers often have a tough time getting money back from distributors, many of whom behave in a criminally negligent fashion once they've sold your books. Oneiros suffered from this and ran out of steam as a consequence. Creation has resurrected the imprint in order to produce a new line of fantasy/sf/horror works.

 

The new edition of The Haunter of the Dark will be published on September 15th, 2006. John will be signing copies of the book at the Atlantis Bookshop in London when it is published.

Signed prints of Haunter artwork are available here.

 

 

 

Original interview with artwork.