Stuff We Love: The graphic novel mutation of this Lovecraft chiller

Contributed by
Jul 3, 2017

Just when you thought H.P. Lovecraft's short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward couldn’t possibly get more insane, it actually did.

If Lovecraft’s original pseudo-psychological account of the haunted Ward needs to be contained in an insane asylum, I.N.J. Culbard’s illustrated version is that insane asylum. You will seriously question your own sanity, along with Charles’ therapist Dr. Willett, as things get weirder and weirder, more graves get overturned, and people start looking like 200-year-old paintings or only ever going out in sunglasses and a fake beard, like Santa Claus in a trench coat. This case of mistaken identity that slowly unravels into a horror of horrors, a reverse Dorian Gray that will rise again and again in your nightmares.

Anything Lovecraft took his dread hands to is nightmare fuel in itself. We know. “It was like some of the carvings on the hellish altar, but it was alive” is already a phrase likely to flood your imagination with abominations. However, sometimes a vision that corresponds almost too perfectly with the tone can convey everything the master intended to terrify us, without a single word. When you throw The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in a cauldron with dark lines and shadowy figures that perfectly capture the almost unthinkable possibilities that overshadow Charles’ hellish spiral into insanity, it adds a whole other dimension of terror.

Culbard’s illustrations are strikingly disturbing, from the grotesque, exaggerated specters of faces that mask something sinister to the ominous use of light and shadow that makes you think something’s tentacles are going to come writhing out of the next panel. Charles is truly chilling in the way he seems to stay the same, right up until something strikes you that you need to flip back 10 pages to make doubly sure you weren’t hallucinating. You have a creeping feeling that there’s something there. Something wrong. Something that will keep you eternally awake if you never read the original and don’t make it to the end in one night. Subtle, unsettling changes in his face over time reveal an unshakable truth you will deny to your grave (or at least the last page).

Through both word and image, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward plunges from shadow to impenetrable darkness, and images that play themselves out like a freeze-frame descent into madness will imprint themselves permanently in the back of your skull. That creaking sound you think you hear isn’t Lovecraft tossing in his grave, but lifting the coffin lid to sit up and clap.