This piece is currently in The Lovecraft eZine
This is an overview and as such contains minor spoilers
“Today began with one of those blue skies that seems so perfect it can only go on to betray you horribly.”
– Robert Black’s Commonplace Book
It’s many a long year since I bought an individual comic-book. In fact it may be decades, more like. There’s a fair chance that any interesting long run these days will find itself in a single-volume collection at some stage; and – for myself, at least – it’s just a lot better to read that way, what with that nice new-book smell in your nostrils, not to mention being able to hold a publication with an actual spine on it.
So when I heard of a new HPL-inspired comic-book back in 2015 – and even though it was written by Alan Moore, whom I hold a lot of admiration for – I was in no rush to read it. I knew that a collection would be along a few stops down the road.
And here it is.
I’ve just belatedly finished reading Providence, released in March of this year and gathering together the first four issues. And the only problem now is that I’ll be breaking that ‘no-single-issues’ rule of mine; because just these four alone introduce about as perfect a Lovecraftian tale as I could ever have hoped for. There are fourteen issues to the series and I don’t know if I have the patience to wait for the next hardback collection.
“They talk about distant stars an’ Eternity’s depths an’ how Man ain’t nothin, though respectable society is, seems like. Maybe you oughta meet my family and judge us for yourself.”
Like many another writer, Alan Moore has been drawing inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft throughout his career; and we can see mention of Cthulhu and Co. at least as far back as his ’eighties run on DC Comics’ Swamp Thing.
Moore, however, has never been one to just throw out a predictable pastiche or a lazy namecheck of Mythos deities. He is far too fond of challenging himself – and us — for that. And, if you don’t take my word for it, then read his short story The Courtyard from The Starry Wisdom anthology; or just dip in almost anywhere along the way with his various League of Extraordinary Gentlemen outings. The spirit of Lovecraft drifts its way through most of those volumes and is never long absent from events in the lives of the characters.
In 2011 he finally did a full-blooded modern Lovecraft horror story in the shape of the audience-dividing and pretty damned repellant form of Neonomicon. On the back cover blurb at hand here, Providence is mentioned as both a prequel and a sequel to it. I’m going to ignore Neonomicon, however, since this collection is well able to stand on its own.
Also, I don’t think that Providence will be anywhere near as divisive. A totally different kind of work, this is a volume that really belongs on the shelves of all Lovecraft enthusiasts.
The first chapter – The Yellow Sign – opens with a quote from a May, 1922 Lovecraft letter to Maurice Moe. It’s tinged with pathos, reminding us that initially the writer had approached what was to become his two-year New York nightmare with great enthusiasm: ‘Out of the waters [the skyline] rose at twilight; cold, proud, and beautiful; an Eastern city of wonder whose brothers the mountains are’.
How quickly his feelings were to change.
Moore and artist Jacen Burrows begin with a page of silent panels that acts as a superb indicator for what is to come. It shows a letter being slowly torn down the middle; and which contains the sentence: ‘You seemed to break through the mere words to the reality lying beyond them.’ And indeed, as the letter is torn in pieces there stands revealed the New York cityscape of 1919.
Then, in a quiet, low-key first scene, we are introduced to the young Herald journalist Robert Black. He needs to fill in half a page at the last minute and when the office typist mentions the Robert Chambers book The King in Yellow it leads him to look up a Dr. Alvarez, who has written an essay on the book that inspired Chambers: Sous le Monde by Claude Guillot. And if I tell you that this story has apparently sent several people the way of insanity and suicide, would you think it sounded familiar?
I have to say that right here at the beginning Moore proves himself as adept as the maestro himself at mixing fact and fiction, because I began wondering how the hell I’d missed this book down the years. It is, of course, an invention of Moore. Damn, he had me going there.
Black finds himself outside a brownstone at number 317 West 14th St. where the good doctor is living in icy splendor, his landlady just a door’s knock away to lend him a little cosy, if cold, carnal comfort.
And this, incidentally, was the real address in 1925 of the Chelsea Book Shop, run by Lovecraft’s friend George Kirk.
So what’s going on here? We obviously have a take on HPL’s Cool Air, written in March of 1926. And it’s accurate right down to the year in which Dr. Alvarez contracted his deadly ‘disease’. Yet the lead character’s name has been changed from Dr. Muñoz and the landlady hardly fits Lovecraft’s description of ‘slatternly’. Here she is a warm and supportive woman who obviously cares deeply for her strange tenant. These small changes are a sign of things to come.
“Most notably, there are suggestive passages referring to an altered view regarding the relationship between dreams and reality, with the implications of a vastly different version of terrestrial history arising from this notion.”
We quickly discover that Black is living a lie on several levels, from covering up his true sexuality to hiding his Jewish religion; and it is Alvarez who gives him the idea of exploring, through a novel, a hidden side to America.
“In America we are allowed our secrets. I have my secret and you have yours, I think. Other people, also. There is a concealed country, therefore, hidden below the society we show the world. Uncomfortable truth, it lurks beyond our pretences. This truth, it is a land sunken beneath many fathoms. Were it one day to rise and confront us all, what…would any of us do?”
Most people reading that (at least on this site!) will probably think of sunken R’lyeh; but naturally enough Black thinks of the hidden world of forbidden sexuality that he is a part of but can’t write of openly. Perhaps in writing about an occult order – the Stella Sapiente – that has existed in America for centuries is a way in which he can explore his own hidden world through metaphor?
So begins a journey along dark pathways that will touch on strangely altered occurrences from the fiction of Lovecraft, as Black attempts to track down an Arabian alchemical text known as Kitab al-Hikmah al-Najmiyya (Book of the Wisdom of the Stars), written by Khālid ibn Yazīd in the eighth century. And as if that didn’t have me salivating rather alarmingly, there is the added nugget of information that our scholarly Arabian friend mysteriously exited this life in 704 A.D.
It’s not the 738 of Alhazred, but it is close; it’s pretty damned close.
I’ve gone on at some length over this first issue as I want you to have a flavour of how seriously Alan Moore is taking this; and how much pure enjoyment the Lovecraft enthusiast is going to derive from watching out for the many, many references not only to HPL but to other writers.
Briefly then, the second issue is steeped even more deeply in Lovecraftiana: In The Hook we find that the New York detective Tom Malone had been investigating the case of Robert Suydam, mentioned in HPL’s 1925 The Horror at Red Hook, for several years before the events of that tale. Here Tom is portrayed as probably homosexual; but if you think that whirring sound you hear is Lovecraft revolving at top speed up in Swan Point Cemetery, take another look at some of his collected letters. He was a lot more aware of what was going on in the world than some people seem to believe.
The Hook (and in particular its supplement, more of which later) also touches tantalizingly on our favourite hyperspace-travelling witch Keziah Mason from The Dreams in the Witch House; and also the sorcerer that no one wants living next door, Joseph Curwen from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
And there are other goodies to watch out for, both glaring and subtle; but frankly, if those two haven’t gotten you…eh, hooked…then nothing will.
The third issue is a pure delight. In A Lurking Fear the town of Salem is Innsmouth in all but name. And here it is ’way past time to mention the artist Jacen Burrows, whose gorgeously clear and crisp style is complimented beautifully by colourist Juan Rodriguez and letterer Kurt Hathaway.
In depicting the ‘Innsmouth look’ some artists often stray too far in making the characters look overly ‘fishy’ or mutated. Here, Burrows gives them just the right touch of what could pass for inbred degeneracy. And in Moore’s writing we continue the subtle comments on racism that he has already begun throwing out there.
Intriguingly, the Nazi Swastika is sprayed on the pavement outside some waterfront buildings. Of course, in 1919 it is not recognised as such:
“It’s a certain sign, from India I’m told, what’s called a fill-foot. Out on the islands it’s a superstition, means bad luck or worse. Salem’s respectable sorts bate us with ‘em…sometimes I believe they’d like to see us all locked up someplace, or poison us like we was rats.”
And here, in a truly nightmarish dream-sequence Moore amplifies on the theme of ‘gassing’ that he has already touched on. In a deliberately anachronistic sequence, we see hints of the horror that would become a reality within a quarter of a century. It shouldn’t work, but it does, in much the same way that director Ken Russell also used such anachronisms successfully in his brilliant 1974 film, Mahler.
It also ties in with the time-vortex concepts in Moore’s From Hell, as well as in his recent, massive novel Jerusalem.
“I think the past gets in the marrow of a place, and maybe of its people likewise. I don’t know this Garland Wheatley you’re after, and if he’s from declining stock, I don’t want to. Neither should you, I’d hope. The way some of these people live…well, it’s nothing to shout about.”
Head Librarian, Athol.
I didn’t think that it would be possible to match that third chapter — or the manner in which Moore wove such characters as Kingsport’s Terrible Old Man and the equally terrible cannibal of The Picture in the House into the overall narrative – but in fact he actually outdoes himself with White Apes.
In many ways, this is the awful story behind The Dunwich Horror. We see the appalling way that the Wheatley’s live and hope for some sort of recognition of them by way of daughter Leticia’s horrific offspring. And when Black sits quietly as the mentally challenged girl tries to find the words to tell him just how she conceived, it is in a scene that truly makes this abomination real to us:
“What I think, Daddy was like one o’ them syringes what they have for the inseminatin’, nowadays. You know, when the bull won’t mount the cow proper?”
Of course, Robert Black is having thoughts of an incestuous conception; but we know that it is Yog-Sothoth – and when a full page suddenly shows us the scene from Leticia’s point-of-view it is far and away this volume’s most disturbing moment.
Many of you reading this will have seen all of the individual issues by now, so you will know if I’m correct in assuming that Providence is – on the evidence of this volume – -shaping up to be one of Alan Moore’s most important works.
There are maddening hints as to where we are being taken. The journalist at times seems to be expected (‘The Herald-man?’) and Willard – one half of ‘The Boys’ and shudderingly depicted by Burrows – comes out with this tantalising snippet: in the ‘Redeemer’ story, there has to be a crazy grandfather and a white-faced woman…but Black is from another story altogether.
And that story includes a recognizable historical background that makes the weird sections even stranger, be it the Versailles Treaty or impending Prohibition. (In a typically clever touch, a sign is in the far background of one scene: ‘Drink – the Demon that is Haunting America.’)
As well as the care and obvious research he puts into each 26-page issue, Moore extensively supplements this with dozens of pages from Robert Black’s Commonplace Book – obviously based on Lovecraft’s own and in which he recorded random ideas that came to him for weird fiction. In addition he includes pamphlets and brochures that are picked up on this journey into the occult heart of America.
All of this adds a richness of texture and a depth to the narrative proper, as well as proving an almost inexhaustible terrain for the Lovecraft fan to mine through rereading.
This volume leaves Robert Black seemingly setting off to explore the events behind the classic 1927 story The Colour out of Space; and it ends with a quote from HPL’s marvelous poem, The Ancient Track:
Too well I saw from the mad scene
That my loved past had never been –
Nor was I now upon the trail
Descending to that long-dead vale.
Around was fog – ahead, the spray
Of star-streams in the Milky Way…
There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track.
For myself, I can’t wait to now follow where this ancient track leads.
Providence Act 1
by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
Published by Avatar Press.