Today we’re sitting down with software wizard Chris Karr, developer of the new smartphone app, the Pnakotic Atlas, an interactive map of the locations in H.P. Lovecraft’s work. He’ll be talking to us today about Lovecraft’s influence on contemporary horror, how authors can use technology in their worldbuilding, and What Scares Him:
How did you get into horror, and specifically Lovecraft?
I’ve been reading horror as long as I can remember. The first horror book that I read was probably Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger”. My dad had a box set of the Dark Tower trade paperbacks and I remember reading them in the attic of our barn late at night when I was probably in junior high or so. As for Lovecraft, I was introduced to the Gentleman from Providence through the “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem” game on the GameCube. I recall playing that game with my college roommate and he remarked that it was all Lovecraft. Since the game made such a big impression on me, I picked up Joyce Carol Oates’ Lovecraft compilation and was hooked.
What inspired you to make the Pnakotic Atlas happen?
A couple of years ago, my wife and I were driving through Maine on vacation. We started out in Portland, made our way through Bar Harbor and ended up in Bangor. While driving, I was somewhat annoyed that I didn’t have a good way to see the places that inspired places like Castle Rock and Derry on my new iPhone. While on that trip, I decided to see what I could do to take that idea and make it something real. For my first pass, I passed on geocoding the Stephen King universe because it’s something still in copyright and his literary output’s an order of magnitude larger than Lovecraft’s. Several years before starting the Atlas, I did a some research tracing the state of HPL’s copyrights, and decided that I was probably in the clear to pursue the project.
What location were you most excited to see?
When I was in Providence to launch the app this summer, I made it a point to visit the location of the Church of Starry Wisdom from “The Haunter of the Dark.” The church no longer exists and a nice park now sits in that location, but it was cool to hang out on Federal Hill for a little bit.
Which story is your favorite? Which one do you find the scariest? Which one resonates most with you?
The scariest story that I think Lovecraft has written has to be “Dreams in the Witch House.” A large part of my day job involves implementing mathematics not unlike those Walter Gilman studied as a way to train automated pattern recognizers on mobile phones. The idea that there’s someone/thing lurking just beyond the local hyperplane is a little bit spooky. And that it’s something like a rat with a human face that skitters between dimensions slaughtering babies and bursting out of folks’ chests at will seals the deal for me. Brown Jenkin FTW. (It’s also the only Lovecraft story that I know of that inspired an epic album-length rock opera.)
My favorite Lovecraft story is his 1933 collaboration with E. Hoffman Price, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.” It’s one of his lesser-known stories, and concludes the adventures of his frequent protagonist Randoph Carter. Its immediate predecessor, 1926’s “The Silver Key,” describes what happens to Carter when he gets to middle-age and becomes bored with adult life. He goes on a journey to discover esoteric knowledge to reclaim his youthful spirit and ends up vanishing at the end of the tale. “Through the Gates” resumes Carter’s journey and describes his ascension to higher levels of enlightenment transcending time, space, humanity, and ultimately individuality.
Those middle chapters are my favorite of any fictional cosmology I’ve read (surpassing even Stephen King’s Dark Tower) and probably the closest thing to a religious experience I’ll ever have.
What was the most exciting revelation this project presented for you, as far as what you thought you already knew about Lovecraft’s world(s)?
I think one thing that really surprised me while I was situating everything on the map was how global Lovecraft’s fiction is. While he has a reputation for being mainly a New England writer, his stories span all of the continents on Earth. South America gets the short end of the stick, but Lovecraft covers all seven continents and even sets a couple stories on and under the sea. “The Call of Cthulhu” and “Dagon” are his famous Pacific stories, while “The Temple” is a ghost story that takes place on a sunken World War I German submarine (!) pretty much in the middle of the Atlantic. (The Indian Ocean gets no love, alas.)
On the other hand, he earned that reputation for being a very local writer as well. When I was geocoding places from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, I was pretty amazed at how much of a travelogue it was for the Narragansett Bay and Pawtuxet River. That story is Lovecraft’s longest one, but even so, it has an absurdly high density of locations contained within. (It’s somewhere between a quarter and fifth of all the entries in The Pnakotic Atlas.) What was cool about geocoding that story is how much having a spatial reference helped make the story much more salient – once you see exactly where Joseph Curwen’s setting up his bungalow on the Pawtuxet River, you get a better sense of how far removed that place was from the rest of the locations in the story. I didn’t pick that up before.
How did you approach artists?
I knew a couple of artists personally and recruited them via Facebook or flyers posted in random places by some college friends. I found the rest of the initial batch of artists by trolling Deviant Art and contacting the ones whose art I liked. I reached out to probably fifty or sixty artists and probably recruited about twenty-five to thirty that way. Since the Atlas launched at NecronomiCon, I haven’t had the time to recruit as heavily, but I get a steady drip of new folks contacting me to see if they can help me illustrate the Atlas.
Were all of the artists already Lovecraft fans?
Pretty much all of the artists I’ve been working with are big Lovecraft fans. I can’t think of one who isn’t. Now, some of them come to Lovecraft via different ways, so I have artists who come from more of a gaming & computer modeling background, and a couple who regularly illustrate heavy metal album covers. I think my favorite find was Steve Burg, a visual designer for film who designed the spaceship from “Prometheus.” His contributions from “At the Mountains of Madness” are my favorite in the Atlas.
What’s really interesting about the folks illustrating the Atlas is that they come from all walks of life. Some of the more popular illustrations were done by students at Brown University, and the Rhode Island School of Design. My most prolific contributor, Sébastien Abellanis, a school teacher in France who spent some of his summer time helping me cover some of the more important places in the Mythos: Ryleh, Miskatonic University, Leng and more.
I could go on for some time on how great these folks are, but I think folks should check out their work on The Pnakotic Atlas web page (click the “The Team” link) or better yet, buy the app and help me pay these talented artists.
What were the biggest challenges in making this project happen?
The biggest challenge for me was the short timeframe I had. I purchased a sponsorship for the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast’s live NecronomiCon show in the spring, so I had to have the app ready for the convention in late August. I didn’t start tagging Lovecraft’s work until early June, so I had to go through all of his work, write two apps (iPhone & Android) and put together the backend to support the whole operation in about two and a half months while juggling a full-time job. I spent a lot of time in front of my computer over the summer and a large part of that was quality time in Google Earth trying to find plausible coordinates for each place. In some instances Lovecraft gives you a latitude and longitude that makes things easy. On the other hand, he has a variety of fictional locations, so trying to find the right place for Arkham, Innsmouth, and Leng (which is inconsistently located in his own stories) was a bit tricky.
How can we help?
At the moment, I’m looking to expand the audience for the Atlas as well as continue to recruit artists.
On the artist side, we’re almost a quarter of the way through illustrating all of the locations, so we have a way to go with respect to the illustrations. The deal that I’ve set up for the artists is a proportional profit sharing arrangement. After Apple and Google take their 30% of the purchase price, I divvy up the remainder among the artists based on a formula that takes into account the number of illustrations contributed and how long those contributions have been on the Atlas. At this point, I can’t promise that earnings from the Atlas will pay for more than beer and pizza, but my hope is that sales of the app will pick up and I can keep cutting these folks larger and larger checks. So, if you’re an artist with Lovecraftian ambitions, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the audience side, I’m looking to get the word out about the app and spur more purchases. The healthier finances enable me to make a stronger pitch to artists to continue illustrating the app. Also, the more folks I have using the app also make it easier for me to approach other writers whose work is still in copyright and pitch this kind of app for their own literary universes.
So we can hopefully look forward to you creating sister apps for other authors, like King or Clive Barker?
I’m definitely interested in approaching folks like King and Barker, but I don’t know if I’ve reached the level of success that would merit their attention and their publishers’ financial support quite yet. I’m doing everything that I can do to make this work for Lovecraft and once I get to a critical mass audience-wise, contacting these writers is definitely on my to-do list.
That said, if I had my choice of the first writer I’d work with after Lovecraft, I’d pick Jim Butcher. I’m a huge “Dresden Files” fan and the idea of geocoding Harry Dresden’s exploits in Chicago makes me giddy just thinking of it. Especially one particular trip from the Field Museum to Evanston via Lake Shore Drive. (“Dead Beat” for those wondering which book.)
If you could choose any artist to illustrate the Atlas, who would it be?
That would be a three-way tie between Mike Mignola (Hellboy), menton3 (IDW’s “The Dunwich Horror,”) or Dave McKean. Mignola and menton3 have already shown off their Lovecraft chops, but I think McKean could create some epic illustrations to go with the story “From Beyond.”
What scares you?
I was born and raised in southeastern New Mexico near Roswell and I lived with my grandmother during my formative childhood years. She was an avid reader and would leave books about alien abductions just laying around which made an early impression on me. I still haven’t shaken my innate anxiety about the Greys and a film like “Signs” (if you ignore the ending) still makes me shudder. I was looking for a couple of YouTube videos for examples, but had a hard time making it through ones I *know* are fake just because those big dark eyes just creep me out on a very primal level.
Demonic possession is a very distant second place.
The Pnakotic Atlas app is available (and just 99 cents if you hurry!) at the iTunes App Store and Google Play:
And you can like it on Facebook to see updates and enjoy additional Lovecraft-oriented content.