At one point in the late 1970s, after almost two decades of middling adaptations, H.P. Lovecraft fans were very close to getting a movie worthy of their devotion. The Cry of Cthulhu was written and co-produced by a young cosmic horror adept named Byron Craft. It promised to be the first Lovecraft adaptation to directly—and faithfully—address the Cthulhu Mythos, and a number of future special effects superstars were slated to work on the picture, including Tom Sullivan (The Evil Dead), Ernie Farino (The Terminator, The Thing), Lyle Conway (The Dark Crystal), and Craig Reardon (Poltergeist). Ultimately, Hollywood machinations quashed the much anticipated project, but, as the mad poet said, “that is not dead which can eternal lie…”
The Alchemist’s Notebook, Byron Craft’s novelization of his original screenplay for The Cry of Cthulhu, was released in early 2014. I had a chance to ask Byron a few questions about his book, the enduring appeal of Lovecraft, and the history behind The Cry of Cthulhu.
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2W2N: How and when did you first discover the works of H.P. Lovecraft?
CRAFT: I was twenty-two and attending college, in the latter half of 1968, when a good friend of mine, Bob Skotak, got me started reading Lovecraft. If my memory serves me correctly, the first of Lovecraft’s works I read was “The Colour Out of Space.” It was one of Bob’s Favorites. I couldn’t put it down, and within a six month period I devoured everything HPL wrote, including a collection of his letters. I am still obsessed (or is it possessed?) to this day.
2W2N: Lovecraft experienced quite a resurgence in the 1960s. Why do you think that was? What drew you personally to his work?
CRAFT: The 1960s resurgence of H.P. Lovecraft and the writer aficionados who followed him was owing to several reasons. It was the era of the Vietnam War, an emerging drug culture and a revolution against the then government establishment. It was the age of the anti-hero. One of the remarkable things about Lovecraft’s stories is that his protagonists were rarely handsome men of action; as readers of that period we preferred to follow his scholars and amateur investigators as they pursued the winding road of mystery, uncovering ancient secrets that sometimes led to insanity.
The dreams, the drugs, the witchcraft and the wormholes all played well to the “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” crowd. The desire to expand the consciousness welcomed the aliens and their alarming deities to the mundane world where the deviation from the normal was embraced. All of this oozed from the pen of one of the most influential sci-fi fantasy and horror writers of the 20th century—H.P. Lovecraft.
Fandom also grew in the 1960s during the “Monster Boom,” which was bred from the revival of the Universal monsters and merchandise, including publications like Famous Monsters of Filmland. Plus, August Derleth’s Arkham House publishing house was going strong back then with its hardcover reprints of Lovecraft’s stories. Ballantine Books picked up the rights from Arkham House to do paperback editions of the same, thus bringing Lovecraft very close to mainstream status, primarily with the youth of the hippie movement.
Having discovered the stories of Lovecraft when in my twenties, I immersed myself in every one of his works. Later, I explored those who continued the Cthulhu Mythos, as well as the authors to whom Lovecraft thought of as contemporaries, such as Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. To this day H.P. Lovecraft holds a strange attraction for me. He was the creator of Arkham, Innsmouth and Cthulhu; and he was the quintessential outsider who believed that human laws, interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos.
2W2N: When did you write (as David Hurd) the original The Cry of Cthulhu script, and when did you start shopping it to the studios?
CRAFT: Bob Skotak and his brother Dennis and I produced an independent film titled Timespace that never got past the rough cut. I also worked with them on some amateur film projects. Bob and Dennis relocated to the west coast sometime in the mid ’70s. I wrote The Cry of Cthulhu screenplay, final draft, in 1976. In 1977 I hooked up with Bill Baetz and we became the co-producers of the project. Bill had several connections in Hollywood by way of his uncle Jerry Logue. Jerry was a retired VP from United Artists and a grand gentleman. Mr. Logue set up several appointments for us with a variety of studios over the next few years to pitch our story. Around that time was when Bill Baetz introduced me to Tom Sullivan and Tom did several awesome pieces of artwork for Cry. We used Tom’s works in our presentations. We had color 35mm slides of Tom’s paintings and in the days before PowerPoint we would put on slide shows for various studio executives.
2W2N: Was the late Dino De Laurentiis one of the executives interested in your script?
CRAFT: I believe it was the summer of 1978 that Bill Baetz and I met Dino De Laurentiis. It was during that time that we were carrying on several correspondences with Arkham House’s attorney and April Derleth Jacobs, the daughter of August Derleth. We sent them a copy of The Cry of Cthulhu screenplay and asked for permission to make a film in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. We legally did not have to get their permission because Lovecraft never copyrighted any of his works and, as many of his fans know, he encouraged other writers to carry on with the Cthulhu Mythos. All the same, Bill and I believed that a friendly working relationship with Arkham would be best in the long run. The results were favorable and we carried on an amiable association with Arkham House.
Both Arkham’s attorney and Ms. Jacobs told us that they were very disappointed with the Lovecraft films that had been made up to that point and that they had been contacted by Dino De Laurentiis. Mr. De Laurentiis, according to them, was interested in acquiring the rights to one of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. As the account was related to us, they were familiar with Dino’s track record (i.e. King Kong 1976) and they refused to do business with him.
Later, our agent Jerry Logue was contacted by Dino De Laurentiis’ office and told that Mr. De Laurentiis was interested in financing our film project. After our communications with Arkham House we were very leery. We sent word back that we were not interested in selling the project to Mr. De Laurentiis. A very short while later we were contacted by his office and told that Mr. De Laurentiis wanted to finance the project, that he would not be involved in the production of the film and would get the credit of executive producer. We knew that he had made similar arrangements in the past, so we flew to the west coast to meet the great Dino De Laurentiis.
When we walked into his office it became a horse of a different color. There was no film production investment made in heaven. Instead, he acted like his office never proposed a co-production deal. He offered us $100,000 for the complete rights to The Cry of Cthulhu. We would have no hand in making the film, we would not have any additional piece of the action and we would lose all ownership of the project including sequels, prequels, spin-offs, novelizations and product endorsements.
We refused the offer. It was immediately evident to us that he was unwilling to discuss any other alternative and we started to leave. De Laurentiis left his chair and with clenched fists started jumping up and down, screaming and yelling, “I don’t need you! I will make my own Lovecraft movie.” Normally, I don’t put up with anyone’s nonsense, but I was temporarily in shock to see a grown man behave in such a way. My partner Bill was more audacious then me that day and said, “No you won’t. We talked with Arkham House and they refused to sell you the rights to any of Lovecraft’s stories.” Dino got really fired up after that and I was afraid that he would spontaneously combust. I guess he never knew that ole’ HPL’s work was public domain. We left in a hurry and it was the last time either one of us saw Dino De Laurentiis.
2W2N: Was a director ever attached to The Cry of Cthulhu? If so, did you have conversations with him or her?
CRAFT: The director that Bill and I had signed under a conditional contract (conditional upon The Cry of Cthulhu being produced) was Wolfgang Glattes. We had several conversations with Wolf and we also met with him in my home. Mr. Glattes was particularly interested in approaching the portion of the film from the female protagonist’s point of view.
2W2N: Can you tell me why the film never got made?
CRAFT: We simply ran out of money and patience. We both had families that needed us more than the film project. So we shelved it and went on with our lives.
2W2N: When did you decide to adapt your The Cry of Cthulhu script into novel form, and how did you find the experience? Adaptations usually go the other way around.
CRAFT: It was something we would discuss, from time to time, during the pre-production and pitching of the film. It was only talked about and I had nothing on paper besides a few scribbled notes and my screenplay to use as an outline. I always wanted to approach the novelization of the screenplay with a slightly uncommon style. I wanted to tell the story from three different people’s points of view. I always wanted to do it as three separate narratives wherein, as one leaves off, the other begins, seamlessly weaving the entire story together.
Part One is titled “The Schloss,” which was taken from the diary of Janet Church. Part Two became “The Alchemist’s Notebook,” which was from the journal of Heinrich Todesfall, followed by Part Three, “The Cry of Cthulhu,” which was written by Faren Church, the male protagonist of our tale.
In 1979 Bill Baetz was contacted by Heavy Metal magazine. They wanted to print an excerpt from the novelization of The Cry of Cthulhu for their special October/Halloween/Lovecraft issue. Bill committed us and I was forced to perform. Rather than approaching the story from beginning to end, like any sensible earthling would do, I decided to start in the middle. I made the decision to write Heinrich Todesfall’s narrative first. Todesfall was an aging Nazi with a mind that had been warped and twisted by a world war. Becoming a master sorcerer, he searched the world for arcane secrets that he would eventually use for his own selfish and destructive end.
The Todesfall portion of the novel, for me, was easy as well as fun to write. It also contained an element within the structure of the story that made it a stand-alone read. It was a perfect pick for Heavy Metal’s October issue. My only regret is that the piece was hurried and was truly a rough draft. I apologize to the readers of that decade for a rushed job. If you are kind enough to pick up a copy of my novel, The Alchemist’s Notebook, you will find that the ravings of the megalomaniac Todesfall are done in a more polished and mature style.
As it turned out, years later, when I completed the first draft of the entire novel, my expectations as an author had reversed. Having Todesfall’s story primarily behind me, I was very apprehensive about writing Janet Church’s narrative. I figured that when it came to writing the husband’s account it would be a piece of cake. All I had to do was write it as if I was the one experiencing the terrors… right? But writing a portion of the novel from a woman’s perspective was daunting. Facing up to the challenge, I began writing Janet’s story next and at once discovered that when I got her narrative started I couldn’t shut the old girl up. It was just the opposite with Faren. Writing his narrative was a very difficult and arduous task. Nevertheless, as the old adage is recited, “If it isn’t hard it isn’t worthwhile,” and Faren’s chronicle eventually became a labor of love for me. I was able to dig down into the depths of Church’s soul. We have become close friends ever since.
I hope that whoever picks up The Alchemist’s Notebook will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
2W2N: Much of Tom Sullivan’s original concept art for The Cry of Cthulhu was used to illustrate The Alchemist’s Notebook. How did that come about?
CRAFT: The final edit of my novel The Alchemist’s Notebook was completed around April of 2013. I always wanted to use Tom Sullivan’s painting of Faren Church (the male protagonist of the story) digging up his great Uncle’s coffin. It is a frightfully good rendition of what happens in The Cry of Cthulhu, with his uncle’s screaming, rotting corpse rearing up out of the grave and the demon Yath-Notep rising up in the background. The problem was that Tom and I had gone our separate ways and we hadn’t communicated in 35 years.
It was Google to the rescue. I just did a simple search for “the Artist Tom Sullivan” and voilà, there was his website. I went to Tom’s contact page and the next day we were reminiscing on the phone. Originally we made a deal for the use of the painting as the book cover alone. About a week later I was kicking myself for being stupid because Tom had originally done eleven paintings and illustrations for the film project, and I should have attempted to include them in the book as well. We amiably renegotiated a new deal, and The Alchemist’s Notebook ended up with a dynamite cover and fantastic interior illustrations. I have probably received an equal amount of complements for the artwork as I have had for the novel itself.
2W2N: What’s next for you? Can we look forward to more Lovecraft-inspired novels?
CRAFT: I have been writing reviews and historical articles for Strip Las Vegas magazine for going on ten years (over a hundred articles), but I do have quite a bit coming up in the fiction market, all Lovecraftian. I have a short story soon to be available on Kindle titled “Pilot Demons.” A friend of mine is after me to change the title to “Cthulhu’s Minions.” He may win that battle. If you have read The Alchemist’s Notebook, you will be familiar with the little revolting creatures. One of the main characters in the book describes them as “ethereal puffs of smoke that sometimes take shape and solidify.” Like the pilot fish of a whale they wait in subterranean depths to guide their master into our world. The short story takes place in Arkham and my main character is “the detective with no name” who is saddled with a case of serial killings that appear to have been done by hideous dwarfs.
I am currently working on my next Lovecraftian novel. It seems of late that I am having difficulties naming my works because I really wanted to call my next book “Tunnels,” but I’ve recently learned that there are several books on the market with the same title. I have re-titled it, but for the time being it is a secret. The story is about a group of scientists and military personnel who discover a network of tunnels beneath the Mojave Desert. They soon learn that the tunnels were constructed millions of years ago by an unknown race. They also realize, to their horror, that something still lives in the ancient passageways.
I refer to these works as “THE ALCHEMIST’S NOTEBOOK PROJECT” because it will be a series of five Cthulhu Mythos novels dealing with mankind’s internal, as well as outward struggle to control their own destiny while encountering malicious beings from another time and space.
All of the Tom Sullivan artwork included in this article—and more—appears in The Alchemist’s Notebook and is © Tom Sullivan.
The Starlog #24 (July, 1979) feature on The Cry of Cthulhu is posted here.