Monday, October 5, 2015

On the Road to Providence

Providence Book One: The Ancient Track: (Providence Issues 1-4): written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Jacen Burrows (2015): Well, I say it's Book One because it took me longer to read the first four issues of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows' 12-issue Avatar Press foray into (all) the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft than it normally takes to read 20 normal comic books. Maybe 30. 

Moore has said that he wants to save Lovecraft's work from its domestication in plushie Cthulhu dolls and jokey pop-culture references. Or at least I think that's what he means in his interviews supporting Providence. As in Moore's previous HPL comics, Providence makes explicit enough disturbing sexual elements that were implicit in HPL's original works to unsettle almost anyone who previously thought Cthulhu and friends were cute, cuddly, tentacled monsters who just need a little lebensraum on dear old Planet Earth.

Moore has also called Providence his Watchmen for the Cthulhu Mythos. This certainly works on a number of levels. As with Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, Providence proceeds as an investigation. It involves pastiches and homages to characters not created by Moore et al., characters reimagined and altered by Moore's sensibilities into new configurations and meanings from their source texts. And Providence contains lengthy text pieces at the end of each issue which expand our understanding of the narrative we've just encountered in the comics portion of the books.

One major difference between this and Watchmen is that Providence seems to aim at dovetailing back into H.P. Lovecraft's original stories by the (as-yet-unpublished) end of the narrative. Most of the post-WWI events of Providence occur before the events of Lovecraft's main horror stories, Mythos and otherwise. Though HPL was indeed writing by the time of this narrative, "The Call of Cthulhu" was still several years away. 

And so our protagonist is Robert Black, a gay, Jewish reporter for the New York Herald when we first encounter him. We don't know much about HPL's views on homosexuality, but we do know that he was anti-Semitic (despite the fact that he married a Jewish woman...oh, paradoxical HPL!). Lovecraft's stories and letters tended to avoid overt references to sexuality, though it was often implied. 

Black, though, is sexually active throughout the first four issues. Moore has set him up as both a Lovecraft proxy and an anti-Lovecraft. Like HPL, he's something of a snob when it comes to about 99% of everybody. But while Black has fled New York, just as HPL once did, he still loves the city, which HPL definitely did not. Given the title of the series and the structure of its protagonist's wanderings, I'd imagine that Black will eventually end up in HPL's beloved home city of Providence, Rhode Island. On Lovecraft's tombstone is the inscription "I am Providence," after all.

The desire to write a non-fiction book about odd rural traditions in New England motivates Black's wanderings first in and then outside of New York. He's also leaving the city for awhile to get over the death of an ex-lover. His initial investigation of a mysterious, ancient book and its lengthy, star-crossed history leads him to characters we've met before, under different names, in New York HPL stories that include "Cool Air" and "The Horror at Red Hook." Further explorations will send us to real-world towns that include Salem, Massachusetts -- only now superimposed upon them are creatures and situations from Lovecraft's demon-haunted, imaginary New England towns of Arkham and Innsmouth and Dunwich. 

But while some situations mirror Lovecraft's stories, Providence really is set Before The Play. And Moore's version of one of Lovecraft's most interesting characters, Wilbur Whateley from "The Dunwich Horror," seems to be aware that he's about to become part of the Story of that Play. And he's not all that happy about it when he meets Black.

Providence appears to be a prequel to Moore and Burrows' present-day Cthulhu comics The Courtyard and Neonomicon. But this may not entirely be the case. One doesn't need to have read those other works to enjoy Providence, though they do add an extra layer of cosmic horror to Black's investigation. He is from the Herald, after all. Or maybe he is the Herald, though of what, no one says.

I'm not sure how well Providence works for people who haven't read at least some of Lovecraft's work. However, Moore constantly puts his own revisionist, totalizing spin on things. What is implicit is often made explicit, and this often works quite well in terms of the horror in the text. The cosmic level of Lovecraft, that Sublime dread, is still absent from the narrative, though it certainly seems to be coming. 

As we end the comics portion of the fourth issue, Moore quotes a Lovecraft poem named "The Ancient Track." It suggests that worse and bigger things are waiting for our intrepid writer, whose conscious mind still hasn't clicked on to the supernatural horrors he's walking through. But the text pieces, journal entries 'by' Black, suggest that his unconscious mind is about one step away from shrieking and gibbering: as Black wonders in one journal entry, what if he wrote a novel about an investigator who doesn't know he's in a mystery until it's too late? And what would be a reasonable reaction to events of the supernatural for this investigator? Would he keep rationalizing what he's seen until it's too late as well? 

Moore's writing is sharp and mordant. Jacen Burrows' slick, hyper-realistic style works for Providence as it did for Neonomicon and The Courtyard. It supplies a sort of hyper-real documentary style that approximates the pseudo-documentarian aspects of Lovecraft's best work. When the horrors come, you almost believe in them. And Burrows really, really nails 'The Innsmouth Look' -- it's a comic-book-art triumph to make Innsmouthians seem visually unsettling again. Highly recommended.

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