Many readers seem to miss the humor in H.P. Lovecraft. Writers Chad Fifer and Chris Lackey are not among them. These hosts of the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast have been finding the humor and the horror in Lovecraft’s stories for years. In their recent graphic novel Deadbeats, Fifer and Lackey wed their love of 1930s comedies to the eldritch horrors conceived by Lovecraft.
Deadbeats follows Lester Lane, Hank Arvin, and Iron Willie—members of jazz group—who get on the wrong side of the mob and are forced go on the run. Desperate for money, they take a gig for a mysterious woman and her preacher father. These employers want them to play at a midnight funeral. An odd request, but hunted men have to take money where they can get it. The funeral turns out to be a resurrection, and the music is meant to summon and bind the raised spirit of the preacher’s wife. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the trumpet player (who has a key role in the musical incantation) cannot read music, so he improvises. He is a jazz artist, after all. In true Lovecraft fashion, things get a bit weird. Instead of raising the preacher’s wife, the music summons the spirit of Louis Delmar, a necromancer who died three hundred years earlier. He was searching for the resting place of a prehistoric alien intelligence. For Delmar, death has been an intermission, and he quickly resumes his previous work.
Deadbeats takes obvious inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft. The ancient alien intelligence is an obvious Lovecraft trope. Delmar has shades of Joseph Curwen from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Similarly, Deadbeats riffs on Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. Granted, in this story the jazz musicians don’t dress as women in order to evade the mob, but the tone—zombies and eldritch horrors aside—is very comedic and pays homage to films of that era. Horror and comedy are difficult to blend, but Fifer and Lackey manage it effortlessly: the citizens in the backwater town of Riverside are unusual and quite eccentric; there is a recurring gag about the drummer’s lack of trousers; and the 1920s lingo is a constant source of amusement. (“Some guy tried to jazz this flapper.”) But another strong influence is the Call of Cthulhu role playing game. The comic reads like a gaming scenario. The musicians are obviously player characters who find themselves in an unusual circumstance and must find a way to escape. They hang together no matter how horrific things get, and they even get to beat up a zombie or two. Toward the end, we even see a couple of secondary characters go insane after seeing the ancient evil, insanity being a special rule set in the role playing game. Gamers will find a lot to enjoy in this book and possibly some ideas to fuel a session.
The illustrations are by I.N.J. Culbert. Some readers may be turned off by Culbert’s style; the art isn’t extremely detailed, but what it lacks in detail, it more than makes up for in expressiveness. I was impressed with how effectively Culbert was able to convey the emotion of the characters with just a few lines. His style truly compliments the Lovecraftian elements. Lovecraft’s monsters were indescribable; they were incomprehensible. Less detail actually makes sense because it gives vague impressions rather than rendering the monster in every observable facet; less detail allows the reader to add the details in his or her mind. Culbert’s use of silhouettes conveys both horror and humor. The art perfectly captures the feel of the story, and I can’t imagine a better compliment to Lackey and Fifer’s writing. Culbert has adapted some of Lovecraft’s work, and I look forward to seeing how he visualized At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
Deadbeats is published by SelfMadeHero, an independent publishing house in Great Britain. A preview of Deadbeats is available on the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast website .