Les indicibles entretiens #20 | English version
The year is 1887 and a storm brews. Eulalie Dubois has spent her entire life tending to her family’s trapline, isolated from the world. A chance at freedom comes in the form of a parcel that needs delivering to a nameless town north of the wilderness. Little does Eulalie know, something sinister hides in those woods and it yearns for what she carries. A chilling historical cosmic horror tale of survival.
Hello Lonnie. Thanks again for answering my questions ! For those who may not know you yet, could you please introduce yourself ?
Oh, this is the most boring part so I’ll keep it short. I’m a writer (and sometimes filmmaker) from the Great White North we call Canada. While I’m mostly known for my work in the North American comic book industry on titles like X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy at Marvel, I’ve also published a number of original comic book series and graphic novels, which I like to think are far more worthwhile. At the very least these books better represent me as a storyteller. I’ve also published short stories and essays for various media outlets and literary magazines. Most of my work fits within the New Weird cannon, I suppose, though sometimes it ventures off into noir, horror, or postmodernism. Who needs genre labels anyway, right?
Black Stars Above is for me a genuine piece of lovecraftian fiction. What would be your definition of « lovecraftian » ?
Thank you for saying that. It really does mean a lot because part of my reason for making this book was to create something genuinely fits within — and reaches out from — his body of his work. The reason for this is because I’d grown rather sick of seeing books that claimed to be Lovecraftian when the only thing vaguely Lovecraftian about them was a badly designed tentacle monster or some allusion to “Arkham”. That kind of empty homage, where you can tell people never read a single Lovecraft story, began to upset me. There’s a particularly egregious trend toward this kind of lazy pseudo-homage in the comic book world, I find, but really it’s everywhere.
To answer your question, “Lovecraftian” to me is a quite complex and nuanced set of literary devices, language choices, and provocative imagery that borders on incomprehensible for the purpose of instilling a sense of dread in the reader, specifically as it relates to the humanity’s inherent limited understanding of universe. For something to be Lovecraftian it doesn’t need to reference Cthulhu or Innsmouth, and in fact I’d say what makes something truly Lovecraftian is specifically not making such overt references or derivative allusions.
Lovecraft, to me, was someone who did all he could — with all his imagination, scientific knowledge, and fears of the world — to conjure new sorts of images and monsters that stretch to the boundaries of human perception. If we take anything from his work, it should be that desire to offer new horrors. Of course, if you want to be playing in the same world as him and you’re attempting to actually invoke the Weird as opposed to trying to create a pastiche or spoof, there needs to be an attempt to engage with the fear of the unknown and to examine the epistemological implications of these horrors.
Obviously with Lovecraft it often just led to his protagonists going mad, but that doesn’t have to be the case. And that’s where moving beyond his canon and views of the world becomes so important.
The story you wrote in Black Stars Above is truly lovecraftian, but in which way is it Canadian ? Are there any differences with American lovecraftian stories ?
I think so, but only in the sense that there are differences no matter where you set it. A Lovecraftian story set in, say, Egypt should obviously wear the mark of its setting and be very different from one set in China. Lovecraft’s protagonists were predominantly anglo-saxon educated white men, and they would have a completely different experience of the world from, I don’t know, like a samurai during the Edo Period of Japan, for example. And that difference of culture is something he never considered, or perhaps not in the most…delicate of ways.
Aside from telling a Lovecraftian story, my secondary goal was to see how this cosmic horror lens could apply to an important historical period in Canada. I think this allowed me to have a more personal connection to the work, as opposed to just setting it in Massachusetts. When you dig beneath the surface of the Lovecraft and Weird Lit and cosmic horror elements, I think what we’ve created in Black Stars Above is in essence a deeply Canadian story with themes that are important to the nation, both back then and now. These are things like liminality, the treatment of indigneous cultures, colonialism, the constant threat of nature, and a lack of coherence in identity.
But, you know, it’s easier to advertise something simply as, “Do you like Lovecraft? Then check out what we’ve got for you!”
Speaking of Lovecraft … What place does he have in you personal pantheaon (I read somewhere you even have a HPL tattoo …) ?
I do have a Lovecraft tattoo. It’s a book spreading open and the pages of it are turning into tentacles. It was meant as a physical acknowledgement of my love for Weird Lit and cosmic horror in general, but the tentacles obviously bring H.P. to mind. Lovecraft played a vital role in my development, both in my desire to become a writer and in the types of stories I wanted to tell. He was a gateway drug in a lot of ways, and opened my eyes to a whole new type of storytelling that I didn’t know existed before. I was a latecomer to his work and I didn’t start reading him until I was in University. I had been an avid reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and so Lovecraft was a natural next step, or so internet message boards told me. This was over ten years ago so it was before we had an overabundance of these beautiful new reprints of his work, and I had to track down old paperbacks. There was something exciting about the discovery of his work that felt like I was unearthing a secret.
The first story of his I read was Dreams in the Witch House and I instantly fell in love. I know a lot of people who find his work later in life have some issues with his baroque prose, but I actually found his use of language, overuse of adjectives, and his calculated use of over-explanation to be quite appealing. From there I hunted down whatever works of his I could and thankfully they became easier and easier to find. I’ve read mostly all of it at this point. I’m not obsessive, but I’ve become a minor collector of his work. I think I have about 10 of his collections along with a number of books about him and his work. I find him incredibly fascinating both as a writer ahead of his time, but also as an incredibly intelligent yet deeply flawed and anxious individual whose life was full of contradictions, ignorant intolerances, and misgivings.
Black Stars Above obviously makes us think of Robert Chambers and Carcosa.
Yes, absolutely. While this was first and foremost an attempt to work within Lovecraft’s traditions and to then step beyond them, I was also aware of and deeply inspired by many of Lovecrafts’ contemporaries and those who contributed to the genre before him.
Are there other authors that influenced your work?
In some ways writers like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood were more of an influence on Black Stars Above than anyone else, at least in terms of the actual tone and narration. Without Blackwood’s stories The Willows and The Glamour of the Snow, this book would not exist. Similarly, Machen’s stories The Great God Pan and The White People are directly referenced in my book a number of times. Hopefully not in an obnoxious way. And, if I’m being honest, I now place those writers above Lovecraft in terms of their influence on me, and believe the horror genre at large owes a whole lot more to them than they get credit for. I believe Stephen King even once said The Willows was the greatest short horror story ever written, and while I tend not to rank things in such a way, it’s hard to disagree with the man. But, HPL was the one who introduced me to the whole realm, so he holds a special place in my heart.
More modern Weird writers like Anna Kavan and Thomas Ligotti were also hugely inspirational for this book. Kavan’s Ice in particular. I encountered it as I was writing Black Stars Above and I’m sure it seeped into the story more than I would care to admit. And of course there were writers outside the Church of the Weird who played a role like Margret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, and Farley Mowat. I could go on, but I’ll hold myself back from nerding out too much.
I think that Eulalie Dubois is a character who makes your book very contemporary, since she turns upside down the « typical lovecraftian WASP character ». Could you talk a little about her ?
Yes, definitely, and this was the goal with Eulalie — to examine such otherworldly horrors through the lens of a character we don’t typically see in these stories, to see how different cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds would twist the narrative and the outcome. Eulalie is a quintessential Canadian character to me in that she is indigenous (Métis, to be specific) and is being controlled, both directly and indirectly by the external forces of colonialism. She is feeling the weight of the men overseas and the men in power.
I generally don’t like expounding too much on characters and their purpose because I think readers just need to experience the story alongside them, but what I can add is that a put a lot of research into Eulalie’s role and I believe she represents both the past and the present, and that her fears and worries and desires of the past are not all that different from those held by young people today.
Eulalie is a Métis, she speaks Michif, which is a mixed language, the language of Métis people. I found this idea very interesting since miscegenation was one of HPL’s fears. Is Eulalie a mean to explore HPL’s racism or to right HPL’s wrongs ?
Yes. There’s no Lovecraft fan out there who isn’t aware of his racism and xenophobia, and anyone who denies it is doing an injustice to themselves and his work. It’s only through coming to terms with this side of him that we can gain a richer understanding of his stories. This isn’t to say it should eclipse his work, but his work also shouldn’t eclipse his moral shortcomings. In some ways Black Stars Above was my attempt to work out my own mixed feelings toward the man who has given so much to me as a writer but obviously held beliefs that I do not abide. And, look, I say this as a Jew about a man who sympathized with Hitler.
But back to the point at hand, as you noted, Eulalie is exactly what Lovecraft himself would fear and so her reactions to “Lovecraftian” horrors is very different from the way his anglo-saxon male protagonists react, as we previously discussed. But it’s not just Lovecraft’s racism in question, it’s the history of prejudice and mistreatment of cultures in Canada as well. Those two horrifying aspects, I hope, walk hand in hand in the book.
Speaking of fear again, there’s this famous quote : « The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. » So, what is the Unknown in your story ? Does it have several faces ?
Several is likely an understatement. I’m being cheeky, but yes, the unknown can mean almost anything, and it’s not that far off from the concept of infinity or the concept of nothingness. The unknown can be deeply personal, familial, or universal. It can be the unknown of transition from adolescence to adulthood, or the unknown of nature’s brutal and almost supernatural power, or the unknown of black stars in the snowy night sky.
When reading your book I couldn’t help thinking about Alan Moore’s Providence(the eight pages commonplace book in the middle for instance ). How much did he influence your work ?
Providence was certainly an influence. However, I should say that I specifically did not read it before writing Black Stars Above. Or, rather, I’d only read a couple issues of it before scripting Black Stars Above because I knew if I read it, I would be too influenced by it and my comic book work is already stained by Moore’s fingerprints.
The commonplace book was certainly inspired by Providence, but it was not the reason I put those pages of text in the book. As you know Weird lit and Gothic lit have a tradition of text-within-text, epistolary form, and palimpsests. I wanted to make sure I was playing by the right rules and employing these conventions and tropes, while also subverting them.
I think I got the original idea of the text within the text from Machen’s The White People and the little green book that serves as the girl’s diary. I’m also a big fan of House of Leaves, and Frankenstein is my favorite book of all time so it was more than just seeing Moore employ this that led to my decision to include it. Meta text is part of almost all of my writings to date. But when you’re working in comic books and you do something like that, it’s inevitable to garner comparisons to Moore, and I suppose I welcome them.
Jenna Cha, Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsman-Elhaou achieved a wonderful work. Images are really stunning and create a feeling of « cosmic dizziness » with these huge and snowy landscapes. Where did you (as a team) take your inspiration from ?
Jenna (who is my wife) and I spoke very early on about the kind of story we wanted this to be. She’s also a fan of Lovecraft’s work, but from a strictly visual perspective the easiest touchstones out the gate were movies we both felt an affinity for. We spoke about The Witch, The Shining, Kwaidan, and Sergio Leone’s Westerns.
From there it became pretty clear we were on the same page and our list of visual inspirations continued to grow. Jenna was a big fan of photographers like Ansel Adams and how he captured landscapes as well as Edward S. Curtis and how he documented Indigenous peoples. We also talked a lot about artists like Gustave Doré, Bernie Wrightson, and Junji Ito. The art needed to feel like it was also of the era, rather than hyper modern like so much of comic book art today. As far as the snowy landscapes, well that was more inspired by our real lives, me growing up in Canada and Jenna having spent time in Minnesota, we were no strangers to the perils of cold weather.
Once Jenna and I decided on the general look and tone, we discussed who we should bring on board for the roles of colorist and letterer. Brad and Hassan were our first choices for those positions, and lucky for us they were both available and liked the project. Their roles can’t be understanded because both of these gentlemen put deep care into their respective art forms, and so they aren’t merely complimenting our work, but elevating the narrative by contributing to its design. I am very careful and a bit picky about the people I collaborate with, but clearly it pays off.
I discovered that your book has a soundtrack, and a pretty good one ! How did that happen ?
Yes! I’m glad you brought it up because most people don’t know about it and I love that soundtrack. I’m someone who love formalism in storytelling and trying new things that push beyond the boundaries of what’s considered the norm, and while I’m not the first to make a soundtrack for a comic, I wanted to be the first to do it with a comic like this, with a fully orchestral piece of music.
I had worked with the composer Nestor Estrada before on a few film projects and he’s a musical genius so I approached him about scoring a comic, which was a big challenge because the medium is inherently silent. But he was up for the experiment and so I sent him references for what I had in mind, a lot of ambient drone music in addition to composers like Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Mark Korven, and Yuka Kitamura.
Nestor took those and really ran with it to make it his own and made sure the piece of music was done in time with the pace of the first chapter of the book. He then hired some friends to perform the piece with him and that’s how it all came to be. I think it’s actually better and much more unsettling than a lot of contemporary horror film scores because it’s not so obvious and predictable in its composition. To me, it fits the book perfectly and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.
What are you currently working on ? Do you plan to publish other stories in the same style ?
I’m working on my next project with Jenna, which is a concept she brought to me that I fell in love with. We’re co-writing that and she’s in the process of drawing it. It’s a much more sprawling and ambitious story than Black Stars Above but shares some similar DNA.
Otherwise, I have been toiling away on a graphic novel that’s more so in the Gothic tradition, but also fits in line with some of Machen’s work in a similar way to Pan’s Labyrinth. Those are my major projects at the moment but I have two other books on the backburner, one of which is a spiritual sequel to Black Stars Above and so it’s tonally and thematically similar, with plenty of less overt Lovecraft references. And then I have a dark fantasy book that I would also put in the same broad category, but more along the lines of Clark Ashton Smith than Lovecraft.
Is there any chance we have your book translated in French some day ?
The book was just translated to Spanish, so I certainly hope so! We just need to fool a French publisher into thinking it’s worthy of their time and money…
Thanks again for your answers !
You can follow Lonnie Nadler on Twitter HERE .
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