Fear of the Known: Lovecraftian classic Cromwell Stone goes beyond the unknown to find terror
Whenever a book, a movie, or a comic book claims to be a work of Lovecraftian horror, certain storytelling worries and expectations crop up. Will it open with the overused Lovecraft quote on the oldest and strongest fear of mankind being fear of the unknown? Does it look like it’s bound to be an affair between tentacled monstrosities and madness? Or will it be about a single person living in a house that’s located on the exact coordinates where cosmic horror lies buried?
One would think that the extent of Lovecraftian horror lies within those questions, but for French comics auteur Andreas (born in Germany and then relocated to France) the very core of this kind of horror lies beyond the unknown. Instead, it might lie in the realization that what we truly fear is what we can’t understand, and whether our attempts at understanding it will ever bear fruit.
This is what Andreas contemplates in his classic horror trilogy Cromwell Stone, a story about strange objects and old gods that might be too alien for our minds to comprehend but must still be studied and pursued. The real danger is in the discovery process for Andreas and his main character is the vessel through which we come to this realization.
Cromwell Stone can currently be found in a collected edition containing all three volumes of the story—the opening entry titled Cromwell Stone (1986), followed by The Return of Cromwell Stone (1994) and The Testament of Cromwell Stone (2004). This edition was published by Titan Comics in 2019.
The story sticks close to Lovecraft in focusing on a select group of characters that might or might not be trying to lead the titular character into otherworldly places not meant for humans. It starts with Cromwell searching for a friend that suddenly stopped corresponding with him after years of consistently doing so. The existence of a key-like object that has the capacity to change some aspect of reality among those who possess it guides Cromwell in his search. The entire saga gravitates around the effects the key generates.
Were this a very strict Lovecraftian story, Cromwell’s search would slowly progress towards an encounter with a race of strange creatures or old gods whose mere presence signifies a violent change on the very concept of reality. Life can never be the same again once we realize things that weren’t meant to exist actually do.
In The Call of the Cthulhu, for instance, gazing into the mountainous monstrosity that is Cthulhu means either death by shock or being entirely consumed by madness. The mind quite simply breaks.
The unfortunate ones that get to witness this get their entire worldview shattered and they know that nothing will ever help put the pieces back together. In other words, once the unknown reveals itself, there’s very little left to hold on to for those who were in its presence. Reality becomes a slippery thing.
Cromwell Stone adds a considerable wrinkle to the formula. In Andreas’ story, being confronted with the unknown does not mean the end for those involved directly with it. Instead, the unknown becomes a doorway that pulls those closest to it in, offering an assortment of strange questions without guarantee any answers lie at the end of anything. The questions, though, are exquisitely enticing and demand nothing short of obsession over the particulars from those that seek answers.
Andreas makes sure this attempt at understanding the unknown isn’t just relegated to dialogue and narration. In fact, the process is at its most impressive and challenging in its visual component. There are very few pages throughout the entire saga that offer a clearly delineated and rigidly structured environment for a characters to move around in. There’s a weird geometry that engulfs the story and its characters and it turns each panel into a reflection of the complexities of the mysteries at its core and how difficult they are to make sense of.
For Andreas, living with the knowledge of cosmically terrifying things means a complete transformation of the world and how one perceives it. It turns the book into a puzzle that requires one also obsess over details to decipher its possible meanings.
The first Cromwell story, for instance, contains a massive house that changes its physical dimension just enough to cast doubt on reality. And yet, Andreas doesn’t shy away from recognizing the veracity of such changes among his characters. Instead, it becomes a phenomenon that deepens the mystery and demands further descent into the unknown. Everyone involved is in on the proceedings and gets consumed by them.
Andreas makes each become more claustrophobic as the story unfolds, as if the weight of the new things he discover are overwhelming enough to box Cromwell deep within his mind with little to no chance of escape. Sharp lines cut vertically and diagonally in key sequences and become a new burden upon those whose minds are attuned to the secrets of the universe.
Fans of Bernie Wrightson will find a lot to appreciate in these scenes. Andreas’ attention to detail is, not unlike Cromwell, obsessive, but it’s all at the service of creating a deep sense of existential dread within the story’s world. One is left with little choice other than to be consumed by the worlds contained in each panel. In the process, we come to better understand the toll it takes to pursue even a base understanding of things infinitely more complex than we are. The result is a kind of horror that hypnotizes its subjects rather than drive them away.
The second volume of the series focuses on a voyage at sea that reveals crucial information as to the existence of ancient gods, but theirs is not an existence purely bred for the destruction of humanity. Their presence in relation to humanity can even be framed as a matter of inconvenience due to accidental clashes of energy that ground drive these beings into our planet and imprisons them.
The story takes a step away from popular Lovecraftian ideas by giving these beings a less defined physical shape. They are not the squid-like, tentacled horrors of the source material. They are somewhat more symbolic in nature and also invite more complex questions to be lobbed at their behavior.
By the third story, Cromwell himself is presented as tragically illuminated with forbidden knowledge. He’s more concerned with his findings and whether others will take up his never-ending search for answers, knowing future candidates will most assuredly be destined to become tragic scholars of the forbidden who will never be satisfied with what they find. As such, they would take up the burden of learning a fraction of the mysteries of the universe and then hope others continue their work.
This obsessive search for answers, despite the horrors that hide in the questions, is not entirely divorced from Lovecraft’s own idea of fear, but Andreas does give the concept a more complete and convincing shape. For Lovecraft, all roads lead to madness. For Andreas, some roads lead to dangerous knowledge.
These two destinations aren’t meant to be mutually exclusive, but Andreas’ story suggests there are more terrifying things beyond the unknown. Instead, searching for answers to try and explain the impossible is where true terror resides.