Tuesday 25 October 2016

The markwitton.com H. P. Lovecraft Halloween Special

The best holiday of the year is just around the corner: Halloween! It's the season to celebrate the macabre, the weird, the dark and the terrifying. It's the best excuse to watch all your favourite horror movies. And it's the time to spend hours making costumes that you can't really see out of or eat or drink in, but that's OK because you're doing this for the art, not the practicality. Yes, it's Halloween: king of the holidays.

This year, an impending honeymoon and my attendance at Dinosaur Days 2016 (a palaeontology/palaeoart event being held at the WWT Wetland Centre, London, 28-29th October - it's going to be awesome, and you should come along) means I can't celebrate Halloween as normal. But dammit, I'm going to do something, even if that means just celebrating a little here by sharing some off-topic art.

Sometimes, very rarely, I take a break from painting and writing about palaeontology and turn my attention to vintage science fiction, producing paintings of some of my favourite stories, characters or monsters, and the creatures of H. P. Lovecraft are a frequent subject. With Halloween being just around the corner and Lovecraft's tales of sinister cults, strange creatures and other-worldly horrors being pretty note-perfect fodder for this time of year, I'm going to take the blog off-road with a short gallery of my Lovecraft paintings. Although we're going to be pretty palaeontology-lite for this post (folks here for coverage of extinct creatures may be pleased to know we'll be back to normal very soon) we're not abandoning the concepts of biology and evolution altogether. One of the things I find appealing about Lovecraft's work is the frequent nods to biology, geology and evolution, and creating biologically plausible(ish) versions of his creatures was a primary goal of the work shared here. We're not quite in the territory of full-on speculative evolution with this post, but I've tried to make my discussion at least a little informed. Right, enough preamble, let's get stuck in. (Oh, and a major SPOILER WARNING for those of you who haven't read Lovecraft's most famous stories and books.)

The Innsmouthians 

First up is a take on some of my favourite Lovecraftian creations, the residents of the decrepit fishing town Innsmouth, as described in The Shadow Over Innsmouth. They're among the few Lovecraftian creatures which stand a chance of being depicted well in art because they're real, physical beings rather than elemental or transmaterial whosermerjiggers that are meant to drive people mad simply by violating the laws of physics.

Deep Ones and their allies search Innsmouth for the narrator. The one in the middle seems to have forgotten what he was doing.

The Deep Ones, the hybrid humans and their devious human counterparts are terrific, enigmatic villains and they feature in one of the most exciting of Lovecraft's stories. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is one of his few tales with a sustained action sequence, and it was this that forms the focus of the painting above where men and inhuman, bactracian beings pursue the narrator. I approached illustrating the Deep Ones using both Lovecraft's brief descriptions as well as keeping some basics tenets of biology in mind. In the novella, these creatures are described as sharing ancestry with humanity and retaining a capability to breed with us too, the resultant hybrid phenotype passing through a human stage before attaining Deep One characteristics. It's hard not to see this as a nightmarish variant on peramorphosis, the evolutionary process where growth is accelerated or extended to produce exaggerated features (it's the opposite of paedomorphosis, a more familiar evolutionary phenomenon where growth slows or ceases so that juvenile features are retained to adulthood).

I wanted to keep my Deep Ones fairly 'grounded', looking like beings that up until their latest growth stages passed for strange looking people, as well as sharing some of the basic tetrapodiness that we might expect of clade we have recent ancestry with. Thus, they still have anthropoid proportions and faces, with the exception of a certain tall froginess about the head, and a further exception being elongate hindlimbs to permit more effective swimming and bounding, as described in the novella. Their feet are also large to aid their swimming potential. I took inspiration from early tetrapods and tetrapodomorphs in removing some of the distinction between the head and shoulders and widening the oral tissues to create an amphibian-like mouth instead of a cheeked human face. The gills were kept relatively subtle, as they appear to be in Carboniferous tetrapods, rather than wacky fin-like structures that recall the designs of Ray Harryhausen. My hope is that creating a set of more grounded creatures rather than slimy-finny-tentacle-beings makes them a little creepier, too. My own responses to horror imagery are that distortions of real life are much scarier than all-out fantasy entities.

It also seemed important to show some of the creatures wearing clothes, something we rarely see in artwork of these creatures but mentioned several times in the story. I think this helps show that they are meant to be intelligent creatures on par with humans in terms of civilisation and culture, even if one of them - the bounding individual on the right - only wears a dirty, ill-fitting human shirt as a remnant of its former life (note the shirt is now incapable of buttoning properly around its fattened, gilled neck). The figure on the left wears a tiara and robes, another nod to specific references in the story and suggesting some sophistication in this species. A few normal-looking people are in the scene too, nodding to the fact that the whole town is associated one way or another with Innsmouth's peculiar goings-on. I think this is why the Innsmouthians are great villains: even those who aren't tainted with 'the Innsmouth look' are in on the game, and those who have lost their humanity remain man-like abilities, intelligence and malevolence. At the heart of The Shadow over Innsmouth is a story about how corrupt and nasty real people can be when they have things to hide.

Dagon: benthic whale wrestler

Moving on, the next image shows another famous Lovecraft creature, one we've come to know as Dagon, from the story of the same name. How Dagon fits into the rest of the Lovecraft universe is a bit murky. Some do not count it as part of the Cthulhu Mythos (indeed, Call of Cthulhu can be seen as a elaborate, Mythos 'canon' retread of Dagon) and the creature in Dagon is never explicitly identified as 'Dagon' itself. We assume it is the titular beast because of its prominence and because several aspects of its nature correspond with the popular, if erroneous, fish-god interpretation of the near-eastern deity also known as Dagon, but confirmation of this is not provided in the story. But something known as Dagon is continually referred to throughout other Lovecraft stories however, and we might assume that - as with his other in-universe references - these are nods to the creatures and scenarios outlined in his earlier work. My work and discussion here assumes that all references to 'Dagon' in Lovecraft's work point to the same entity, including all references to beastly creatures in the Dagon tale itself.

Dagon, imagined as a giant, facultatively-bipedal, whale-murdering member of the benthos, here taking a trip over land to visit his favourite monolith.
Dagon doesn't really give many details about the appearance of the titular creature and there are lots of different takes on this being available online. The best description we get are the narrator's observations of glyphs on a monolith, and they describe a man-like figure large enough to wrestle with whales. I've tried to follow those basic guidelines here. My version also has deliberate nods to my designs of the Deep Ones, it being alluded to as both a relative of their kind as well something they recognised and worship. With the intention to create something biologically practical as well as weird and freaky, I again turned to the early days of tetrapod evolution for inspiration. The barbels around the mouth, posteriorly-placed jaw musculature, sprawling limbs, expanded appendages and long, axolotl-like gills are nods to various amphibians as well as some tetrapod-like fish, but I resisted the urge to add a long tail because of the need for a generally man-like bauplan. 

With a human-like bauplan not being terrific for swimming, I assumed Dagon is a member of benthic communities and gave it large, weight-dispersing feet and hands to facilitate walking on soft marine oozes at the bottom of the sea. It's meant to be a facultative biped, something which can locomote like a man if needed but probably spends more time moving like a gorilla. Its limb girdles and musculature are small and on account of it being a bulky creature mostly living in and supported by water, and we could see this being a sluggish being on land. I don't recall any references to Dagon being a particularly intelligent creature in Lovecraft lore, and think this design conveys a slightly more animalistic, rather than humanistic, creature than the Deep Ones illustrated above. I quite like the idea that this thing may be a figure of worship for the Deep Ones not because its wise or divine, but simply because it's a giant monster that they fear. Sort of the Lovecraft equivalent of King Kong, I suppose. Now that's a movie I'd pay to see.

Echinoid Men from Beyond the Moon!

Heading now to Antarctica we meet what are, on paper, some of the pulpiest of Lovecraft's creations: sentient echinoderm men that lived on Earth before the evolution of man (I feel that sentence needs to be written in perspective-heavy writing over a 50s B-movie poster). More routinely known as the Elder Things, this bizarre species appears in another Lovecraft classic, At the Mountains of Madness. Along with The Shadow Over Innsmouth, this is another must-read entry in the Lovecraft canon as it's not only a great adventure story - and an important early entry into the 'lost world' genre of fiction - but delves into Lovecraft's alternative evolution of life on Earth. Briefly summarised, a civilisation of Elder Things arrived on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago and helped shape life into what it is today, even using some of our fossil reptile species as beasts of burden and livestock. Over time the Elder Things lost much of its adaptive edge - biologies that aided their arrival on Earth became unimportant to their survival and were allowed to become vestigial - and vital knowledge of how to build significant technology was lost. Amidst changing climates, their cities fell until only one survived in central Antartica, along with the last, frozen and dormant, members of their species. Almost needless to say, we start to learn all this only when Antarctic explorers accidentally wake them up. The outcome of that scene is depicted below.

Echinoid Men from Beyond the SpaceMoon. Is that the best caption I've ever written?

Yes. Yes it is. 
Lovecraft provides an extremely detailed overview of Elder Thing anatomy courtesy the reported dissection of the first thawed individual. Thus, they can be depicted in some detail and there's strong consistency among Lovecraftian artists of their general form. It's obvious that Lovecraft was highly influenced by various types of echinoderms in his description of this species, particular regular echinoids. Pentameral symmetry, their use of tentacle-like appendages to interact with the world and locomote, as well as pinnulate arms atop their frames are all echinoderm-like features. Furthermore, their barrel-shaped bodies are essentially just stretched versions of the globular tests seen in regular echinoids. But what makes the Elder Things particularly biologically interesting is that this bauplan is given to a species which is meant to be smart, emotional and even artistic. They're the answer to the question of 'what would a sentient, intelligent echinoderm look like?'. Granted, that's not a question most people would think to ask, but it chimes with discussions about 'dinosauroids' and other speculations about the rise of human-grade intelligence in other species. I don't think this was Lovecraft's intention, but we can still view this species as a particularly bizarre take on alternative evolution.

Painting the Elder Things was challenging because it is a little tricky to make them look, well, sensible and viable. I think this is partly because their appearance - based though it seems to be on living species - is pretty out there and grinds against creature designs that we're more familiar with. I mean, how many illustrations or movies show creatures that look the same from five different angles? I've done my best to honour Lovecraft's description here, the only omission from his overview being the absence of wings. However, these are mentioned as being retractable in the novel and thus consistent with all large flying animals to have ever evolved on Earth: wings, frankly, get in the way unless you're flying, so it makes sense for them to be stowed away until needed. Thus, although you can't see them in this illustration, the wings were considered and would be hidden between the bulges of the test (this also solves the problem of how to draw an animal with five wings). The bioluminescence is an exercise of artistic license as it is not mentioned in the novel, but I figure it adds both a sense of sophistication and eeriness to these figures. It's also in keeping with Lovecraft's echinoderm sources, several species of this clade having developed bioluminescent body parts. More by accident than design, the patterning created by the bioluminescent channels reminds me of body painting and masks of some human tribes, which seems appropriate for a race of super intelligent beings... even overgrown echinoids.

And finally...

OK, we're just about done scratching this Halloween itch scratched for this year - I hope you've enjoyed it, or at least tolerated my indulgence. If this sort of thing is appealing let me know in the comments below and I'll consider posting similar post in future. I'm also making these images available as prints at my website shop should you want some Eldritch horrors for your own home. But enough seasonal fun: back to dinosaurs next time!

Except for one more thing... how could we have a Lovecraft Halloween special without a picture of Cthulhu?

"In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. And singing '100 bottles of beer on the wall'. He loves that song."
Folks interested in the development of this picture, including a previous version, should check out this post at Matt Wedel's (yes, he of SV:POW! fame) blog Echo Station 5-7.
Happy Halloween everybody!

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The paintings and words that make up my blog posts are sponsored by a group of sentient, intelligent, non-echinoderm beings: my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. There's no bonus content or charge for this post because it's so far off my normal topics and not what people have signed up for, but, all the same, sign up to Patreon to get access to past and future exclusive content!


  1. Well, this sort of thing's appealing to me. I can use a good dose of Lovecraft now and then.

  2. That's one of the best conceptions of the Dagon-creature I've seen, no exaggeration. (And well-rendered too.) I agree with the approach of looking to real organisms for fictional creature design, and you've used it to good effect on this 'man-shaped' thing. I always liked Lovecraft's ideas of vaguely familiar but weirdly different things that've been here the whole time, longer than we have, and the only reason they haven't wiped us out is because they're otherwise occupied or we're beneath their notice - for now. This conveys that feeling nicely. It's like... a better version of the Cloverfield monster.

    "At the heart of The Shadow over Innsmouth is a story about how corrupt and nasty real people can be when they have things to hide."

    Well, it's about how Lovecraft hated the idea of foreign types spreading their filthy, filthy genes around; but with that in mind, alternate readings may not just be good, but preferable. ;)

    1. Yeah. Considering his fondness for vastly different alien-looking creatures, Lovecraft was quite hostile towards slight variations within humanity.

  3. Frankly these are the only lovecraftian pictures I like. Everything else is a murky mish-mash of sea life and "edgy" motiffs, while these at least are dynamic and colourful.

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  5. I can use a good dose of Lovecraft now and then.Halloween Costumes Coupon