One of the joys of being a parent is recycling old pleasures. You get to take something you once loved (but have now grown a bit bored with), and experience it through the new and enthusiastic eyes of a child. Nothing better captures the beautiful codependency of parenthood.
I’ve introduced my children (or subjected them, depending on your perspective) to everything from hip hop dance battles to hard-core science fiction. But when Halloween darkens our doorsteps, it’s time to break out the best in scary literature. That includes some distinctly not-made-for-children material like Edgar Allen Poe and the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft.
A brief introduction to H. P. Lovecraft
If you don’t already know H. P. Lovecraft, you’ve definitely come across pop culture references to his elaborate horror mythology. The most infamous figure in Lovecraft’s world is Cthulhu, an ancient octopus-headed god-like alien that has lived in the ocean since before the dawn of humankind. His best description is usually some form of “too mind-meltingly horrible to describe.” Cthulhu turns up everywhere from parody presidential campaigns (“Cthulhu for president!”) to Simpsons episodes. He’s a minor celebrity in his own right.
Into the dark, tangled, loathsome forest of adjectives
I read it out loud to my eldest daughters (7 and 9 at the time) in classic over-enthusiastic dad fashion. And that meant we got to deal with thorny sentences like these:
“There was no light revealed above, and as my hands went higher I knew that my climb was for the nonce ended; since the slab was the trap-door of an aperture leading to a level stone surface of greater circumference than the lower tower, no doubt the floor of some lofty and capacious observation chamber.”
It’s fun enough to read aloud, but even experienced readers can get taken out of the moment when they hit archaic words like “nonce” and are asked to imagine “apertures” and “circumferences.”
And then there’s this:
“As I approached the arch I began to perceive the presence more clearly; and then, with the first and last sound I ever uttered — a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause — I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious fugitives.”
This is an easy sentence to lose yourself in. Even the most long-winded writers among us would be tempted to trim a handful of adjectives.
In the end, our family enjoyed The Outsider. But it was a tough slog and my younger daughter just waited for dad’s editorial recap.
Cosmic horror for toddlers
This experience got me thinking: What if there were an easier way to share the painfully overwrought but wonderfully weird world of H. P. Lovecraft? After a little digging, I discovered a small cottage industry of writers adapting H. P. Lovecraft stories into kid-friendly picture books. Along with the horror, they add a number of things that would have been the stuff of H. P. Lovecraft’s nightmares: snark, syrupy cutesiness, and goofball rhymes. (Actually Lovecraft might not have minded that part, as he also wrote better-than-fair poetry, and favored it over his prose.)
That’s not to say these books aren’t worth checking out. Some of them are great, if you like that sort of thing. Cthulhu nerds get to enjoy a dose of Lovecraft that’s repackaged into a sanitized, completely-kid-friendly form. And Cthulhu fans that don’t have a child in sight can still appreciate the comic contrast between otherworldly horrors and a pastel baby board book.
But it wasn’t for me. I was hoping to find something in between Lovecraft’s turgid gothic prose and Cthulhu-themed baby books. That’s when I made another discovery. I came across the Lovecraft fan community, where good and bad writers alike write their own Cthulhu spinoffs. It’s sort of like fanfic, but for a fictional world that’s roughly 100 years old. And unlike fan-written Star Trek romance novels, it’s all completely legit. This is because, like most turn-of-the-century writing, Lovecraft’s work exists entirely in the public domain. That means it’s free for others to reprint, sell, and — most exciting — adapt to your own purposes.
When Halloween came around this year, I decided to take the master’s work in my hands and try to create a version that would be more accessible to my kids. The goal was to keep the same atmosphere of lingering horror and revulsion, while trimming the forest of adjectives and dependent clauses. There would be no snark, no jokes, and definitely no cutesiness.
My Halloween project
And even more fun, I could add illustrations! I was on a shoestring budget, so I needed to get creative with public domain artwork and artistic filters, but I learned a lot in the process. Take a look:
The process of writing my adaptation was surprisingly involved, and there were plenty of creative decisions along the way. How much of the phrasing should I keep in order to get that classic mood of languorous gloom? When should I inject an extra bit of exposition to keep kids on track? Where should I cut a repetitive aside, or take down an extra adjective?
And then there are those details that tempt you to love them, even when you really shouldn’t. The more I read “Outside, across the putrid moat and under the dark mute trees” the more I wanted to keep the chilly assonance of “putrid” and “mute,” even though I knew both words could pose challenges for my target audience. (No spoiler here about whether I kept them in the end.)
The Outsider was a warm up. After I trimmed it down to more manageable proportions, I went on to one of Lovecraft’s minor masterpieces, the 25,000 word novella The Shadow Out of Time. My kid-friendly version is not much more than a quarter the length, so I had to be extremely selective in what I kept, what I cut, and what I clarified. I made good use of my child test readers to make sure the simplified version made sense to them.
Some may find that I could have pruned these stories more. I decided not to modernize the text, introduce contractions (like don’t or can’t), or restage the story. For example, a large part of The Shadow Out of Time takes place inside the narrator’s mind and dreams. It would be interesting to rework this as a scene-by-scene dramatization. But in the end, I decided that would lose the creeping psychological horror we feel from being trapped in Nathan Peaslee’s mind, where he can’t distinguish memories from dreams.
My book is finished now. Although it started as a quirky Halloween project, I expect I’ll try abridging something again. Plenty of classics are in the public domain, some with excellent abridged versions and others that have embarrassingly bad adaptations. (I remember hunting for a proper version of the Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol for my kids years ago, but being unable to find one that wasn’t simplified to the point of pablum. It was just as impossible to find a version of Black Beauty that didn’t pull some of the punches from the original story.)
But the biggest development was the change in the way I thought about the art of abridging. In the past I had always thought of abridgements as lesser, dumbed-down versions of classics. Now I saw them as stepping stones to the real versions. They weren’t replacements to the originals, but complimentary works that could help them see new worlds and different styles beyond the vast walled garden of modern-day kid’s fiction.
Four Tales of Cthulhu is available on Amazon https://amzn.to/2pX0Q46 (paperback) https://amzn.to/2J8cRMC (Kindle). Or read an excerpt on my site http://prosetech.com/cthulhu-for-kids. If you share it with your children, let me know how they make out! And please drop a line at matthew @ prosetech.com (or in the comments) if you’re tackling an abridgement of your own.