Oct 30 2014

Christian Read’s ‘Dread Empire’ explores Lovecraft’s cruel future

Christian Read (Behind the Panels banner)

Plus supernatural investigator Karnak, the conclusion of Unmasked, and the unholy union of Celts, Romans, and zombies in Legio Ex Mortis.

Readers and listeners around these parts will be familiar with Christian Read, the writer of comics The Eldritch Kid and Unmasked. When he last visited Behind the Panels, he had also just published Black City, the first novel in what has become the Lark Case Files series. Since then, Christian has released a sequel, Devil City, and continues to work on Unmasked. When we caught up with Christian at Oz Comic-Con Sydney back in September, he was busily readying a new project called Dread Empire, along with overseeing the developments in some of his other long-gestating projects with Gestalt Publishing.

Dread Empire p.4 (Gestalt Comics). Artist: Simon Kennedy

A pencilled page from Dread Empire (Gestalt Comics). Artist: Simon Kennedy

Christian’s connection with H.P. Lovecraft, the early 20th century American writer of horror fiction and developer of the literary philosophy of Cosmicism, has been evident in Read’s work at least since his first comic book fiction, Dunwich, based of course on Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. “I’m a Lovecraft guy, I’m a big fan,” he enthusiasically confesses. “I’ve written Lovecraftian fiction before. But I didn’t just want to do ‘what if someone met Cthulu in 2014’, I didn’t want to do that sort of stuff. I wanted to keep that dread horror and give it a swords and sorcery feel.” Instead, Christian has pulled from deeper within Lovecraftian lore, and Dread Empire promises to be something even the most ardent Lovecraft fans have never seen before.

“I’m actually very excited by this,” Read told us. “Dread Empire is kind of like what if H.P. Lovecraft wrote a fantasy novel. It’s actually set in a very, very underused concept that Lovecraft had. Something called the ‘Dread Empire’ or The Cruel Empire of Tsan Chan.”

For the uninitiated, Tsan-Chan is first mentioned by Lovecraft in the story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919). “In his entire body of work,” Read adds, “he mentioned it twice. In the far future, one day there will be the Cruel or Dread Empire of Tsan Chan. That’s it, that’s all he talked about.” Read previously expanded the background of the empire in The Cruel Empire of Tsan-Chan: An Account of the Year Five Thousand and the Creation of an Empire (2010) to aid Call of Cthulu roleplayers.

“So it is the story of the Hierarch,” he continues. “When we meet him, he’s imprisoned. He’s done something wrong, sort of this mysterious figure, always masked, and has become a folk hero to the oppressed classes of Tsan Chan who do a daring rescue on him to free him to work against the Mighty Children, who are the ruling class of Tsan Chan. Also, maybe the only people who can keep them safe from the horrors beyond the Great Wall. They take him on a quest, but the Hierarch is in prison for maybe reasons they don’t think, and is maybe not the nice man and the legendary figure they think. They go through this quest in this bizarre, surreal, haunted landscape, looking for a weapon. As it unfolds, everybody’s sort of secret agendas become clear.”

A pencilled page from Dread Empire (Gestalt Comics). Artist: Simon Kennedy

More art from Dread Empire (Gestalt Comics). Artist: Simon Kennedy

“Like nothing I have ever seen in fantasy artwork before…”.

Joining him on art duties is Simon Kennedy, who readers might already recognise from Gestalt’s anthology Flinch“Simon’s art is spectacular. Detailed, phenomenally detailed. Beautifully rendered. Magnificent storytelling, and the killer is some of the monsters and entities. The Mighty Children – the ruling class, this bizarre monstrous race – look spectacular. Like nothing I have ever seen in fantasy artwork before. I am so excited for people to see it. It’s been taking a while because of the beauty of the rendering, he’s been doing it all in beautiful, intricate hand-pencilling. It’s dark, it’s mysterious, it’s strange and I think people are going to really like it. I’m really excited for it.”

Perhaps the only downside of that praise is the wait we now have ahead of us before its publication is all the more excruciating. “We’re hoping for a release around possibly Christmas next year [2015], because it’s going to take that long to colour because of the intricacy of the details and things like that. Oh, man I’m excited.”

Another long-awaited project from Read is Karnak, a spiritual and thematic cousin to the work he has already begun in the Lark Case Files novels. Indeed, we first spoke with him about in in July 2013. “Karnak is closing on being completed. I’ve said this before, the artist is a volunteer fireman over the [United] States. There’s times where he’s like ‘I can’t do your comic book, because I’m saving people from burning.'”

If the name of the work sounds familiar, it’s because Read has dipped into another rich vein of occult detective fiction, this time the work of English author William Hope Hodgson. “Karnak is our version of a supernatural investigator story. Karnak is based roughly on Thomas Carnacki, one of the first supernatural investigators. This is kind of an update to the idea. Carnacki was unique for using a lot of gadgets, high technology at the time. He used these amazing fluorescents, you know, vaccuum tubes. Futuristic technology at the time. So we’ve used that, and we’ve used that supernatural investigator, and we’ve updated him so that his work is done mainly technologically.”

Illustration from an early Carnacki story

Illustration from an early Carnacki story, as published in The Idler (c. 1910). Artist: Florence Briscoe

“One of the framing stories around the Carnacki stories was that he would invite people over for dinner and he would tell these stories,” explains Read. “What we’ve done is that he has a beautiful assistant Cassandra, who is basically scamming him by selling his stories on YouTube for money. So that’s the framing story, and that’s the very first story of how they met, roughly based on one of the stories.”

Another familiar name will be joining Christian for this project. The art will be by by Michael Myer, who did the stunning art on The Eldritch Kid with Read. “It’s Michael Myer – it’s fantastic,” says the writer.

Then there’s Legio Ex Mortis, a new comic with artist Jason Gougnor that promises to finally combine the worlds of Romans, Celts and zombies. “Legio Ex Mortis is, for want of a better word, a spin-off from Rombies, which is the long-lost Gestalt project. Everybody’s schedules got mixed up with Rombies, and things got lost, but Rombies is what if there’s a zombie invasion? How would they handle it if they attacked in 40 AD or 60AD or whatever it is. The answer is not very well.”

Legio Ex Mortis (Gestalt Comics). Artist: Douglas Holgate

Legio Ex Mortis (Gestalt Comics). Artist: Douglas Holgate

“It’s Romans versus Celts versus zombies, and that’s a pretty cool story…”

Rather than simply place undead monsters in the ancient world, Read draws upon his knowledge of the historical conflicts and promises to infuse them with a touch of flesh-biting madness. In fact, the book came about completely separately to Gestalt’s Rombies books. “Rombies, the main story, is the invasion of Rome. I had pitched, quite independently, a historical story of Celts versus Romans, and a straight historical story can be a bit of a rough sell. How are we going to sell it? Zombies.”

Read continues: “We have a set-up, we know it’s Romans versus Celts versus zombies, and that’s a pretty cool story. We mainly focus on a Celtic queen of one of the local tribes. She’s been fighting the Romans for a long, long time. 20 years ago, the Romans put down one of their own, a mean son of a bitch who went rogue deep behind enemy lines. The Romans took him, and killed him, and buried him where no one could find him. Now, with the Roman zombie plague happening, this guy is woken back up. Now this perpetually burning zombie and the legion of the dead are haunting the land, and the Celts and the Romans must try very hard to make peace to put down this threat. And there’s a lot of bad blood between the Romans and the Celts, man. I don’t know if they can do it.”

“A bit of psychobilly/horror/ crime action…Loads of teenage kicks – with vampires.”

The final piece of the puzzle is Unmasked, the digital comics series that released its third issue last year. With one issue left to go, Read admits it has been a troubled production. “Art is done, just waiting on some colours, everything’s going there.”

However, fans won’t have to wait too long to return to the world of super-villains turned professional criminals. “What we do have, to remind people that this is a comic I’ve done and has existed in the world, is Unmasked #0. It will be coming out very soon Unmaked #0 is the story of two super-villains, Frankenstein X and Babydoll Draculina, and their Cadillac that runs on human blood, and their wild thrill-killing spree. Maybe Babydoll Draculina has some ideas that maybe she should be the boss of the gang. SO that’s coming out, a bit of psychobilly/horror/crime action, and that will be out very soon. Then after that, a trade paperback putting them all together. Bang. People will believe that it finished.”

“Loads of fun,” concludes Read. “Loads of teenage kicks – with vampires. If nothing else, you should see the car.”

Christian can be found online at christianread.com or on Twitter @MrChristianRead.

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