The Folio Society is a British publisher that releases some incredibly beautiful books, like their editions of American Gods and I, Robot. Today it adds to its lineup with The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, a collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. The edition comes with an excellent preface from Watchmen author Alan Moore and with some stunning art from Dan Hillier.
Lovecraft has become an increasingly controversial figure in the literary community. He’s lauded for his weird and horrifying cosmic-horror stories, which launched an entire subgenre, and still inspire authors and readers today. But his work is complicated by a long legacy of racism and bigotry. In his preface, Moore addresses this, trying to reconcile the author’s views with his truly innovative body of work: “Lovecraft and his work endure because his terrors have a higher register that lifts them far above contemporary scares and bigotries, an existential dread informed by his awed comprehension of modern cosmology, where mankind is reduced to a chance viral outbreak on a vanishingly tiny fleck of dirt amid a random and unending avalanche of suns.”
The Folio Society is releasing two editions: a “core” edition and a 750-copy limited edition, each with art that’s been commissioned for the run. The limited edition isn’t cheap at $575, but it looks like it could be a volume lifted directly from of one of Lovecraft’s stories.
We chatted with Hillier about how he went about illustrating Lovecraft’s “unimaginable” horrors.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your own relationship with Lovecraft? Are there any particular stories that you've enjoyed before this project?
I've come to Lovecraft quite late, actually. In fact, it was only in preparation for this project that I really got stuck in. I had read a few stories in the past, mainly because people often asked if I was influenced by him, or told me I should read his stories based on the subject matter of my older work. And I enjoyed it, but it was only in reading the stories that make up this collection that I really got into his writing.
It took a while to adjust to his antiquated and often feverishly grandiloquent language, but once I did, I loved the drama and hysteria and intensity of his writing, and the power of his imagination meant that images for the work came easily to me.
How did you go about drawing these images, and how did you specifically work to capture the weirdness of the stories?
The images are made as I make all of my work, by collaging bits and pieces of 1800s woodcuts and engravings with my own drawn elements and allowing the process of putting these fragments together to build the picture as much as any sort of planning.
I wanted to make pictures that reflected the darkness and mystery of Lovecraft's stories, and went about building these images with the intention for them to be quite claustrophobic and shadowy, whilst also containing something cosmic and otherworldly. I used a lot more black than I usually do, and I wanted all of the images to reflect one another, sharing themes and textures, such as the stars and the black coiling smoke, as it's a feature of Lovecraft's writing for characters and objects to crop up in several seemingly unrelated stories.
My work is already quite dark and weird, so I enjoyed turning the dial up on that.
At the start of the project, we agreed that I wouldn't be illustrating as such, but rather making imagery that would fit with his stories' atmospheres and themes. But in the end, they became quite illustrative.
I wanted to steer clear of making imagery that was too representational, especially of Cthulhu, who has been depicted so many times and so well. With Cthulhu in particular, I wanted more to put over the elemental power and horror of the monster, rather than show a physical depiction of it.
These illustrations in this anthology focus quite a bit on faces. Why?
I think it's mainly a feature of the work I like to make, as the starting point of my pictures is often a nice wood engraving of a face that goes on to be the focal point of a larger, more complex image. Lovecraft's stories are also mostly about these vast, inter-dimensional horrors that drive people mad, or require them to try to comprehend the incomprehensible, and so I wanted to provide a shadowy, somewhat occult, pitch-dark atmosphere, with people up close in the centre of things.
What’s your process like?
I work using 1800s woodcuts and engravings, of which I now have thousands from various markets, shops, and online finds, scanning them into Photoshop, where I collage them and add my own drawing to them, layering and manipulating them until I have an image that I hope looks as if it could have always existed.
Generally, I'll have a rough idea of what I want to make, or I'll have a single element from a print — a face, or a piece of landscape, or a texture — and will build the image around that, allowing the process of adding and removing whatever is found along the way until the picture “clicks,” and then it's a case of tightening up the whole until it works.
Once it's finished, I'll usually have it screen-printed. It's been interesting making work for a book, as usually I produce these images at a much larger size, so making work that is very intricate but that will work in a smaller size was an extra consideration.
Can you tell me a little about the mandalas and what they represent? How did you come up with these?
When we were putting together ideas for the limited edition, I noticed that the reverse of the illustrated pages are usually left blank, and suggested I could put together some abstract pieces that would fit with the book and add to the sense of it being something quite magical and dangerous.
I'd been working on some mandala-like abstract pieces for a solo show that I was putting together at the same time I was making the work for this book, and thought that with some jiggery-pokery, they would work nicely to fill the blank spaces and add another level of weird magick to the book.
The main aim I had for the limited edition was that it would look like a dark and dangerous object, or one of the various mysteriously hieroglyphed items that crop up in Lovecraft's work, or even something like the Necromomicon, which appears in several of his stories.
Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge