Providence by Alan Moore

Providence issue 1, art by Jacen Burrows

Halfway through the run of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s 12-issue comic, Providence, I re-read all of Lovecraft’s stories (as well as S T Joshi’s monumental Lovecraft biography, I Am Providence), and suddenly the comic made a lot more sense. It’s not that Moore makes a lot of references to Lovecraft’s work — being pretty familiar with Lovecraft, I’m confident I’ll get most broad-brush references to his stories — it’s that the interplay between Providence and Lovecraft’s work (and life) can be quite subtle, and the deeper you can go into those subtleties, the more connections you can spot, and the more you’ll get out of the series. (The annotations at Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence helped a lot, too.)

Now I’m going to completely eat my own words about something I went into only a few Mewsings ago. Talking about Alien: Covenant, I said how prequels, particularly those that delve into a series’ background mythology, are pretty much doomed to failure, unless, like Star Wars: Rogue One, they do their best to keep their entanglements with the further reaches of the mythology as minimal as possible. Well, Providence is a prequel to Moore’s two other Lovecraftian comics — The Courtyard and Neonomicon — and it wallows in mythology (mostly Lovecraft’s, but at the end you need to know Moore’s, too). Not only that, but it attempts to make all of Lovecraft’s ramshackle mythology tie up, and — ye Eldritch Gods! — it even tries to explain it all.

art by Jacen Burrows

But, it works.

Perhaps it works because this twelve-issue series isn’t also trying to be a cinema-audience-pleasing ninety minute thrill-ride at the same time, but can take its time to tell the story as it needs to be told. Considering this is a horror comic, very little happens in the first few issues — unless, that is, you’re busy making Lovecraftian connections, in which case the implications will be building. But also, of course, this is Alan Moore, and Moore is particularly good at not only sorting out other people’s narrative tangles, but at adding his own — often awe-inspiring — sense for them to make.

In fact, I’d say Moore is energised by a creative challenge, and the bigger and more impossible-seeming, the better. He stated his aim for Providence in a 2015 article on Previews World:

“…Providence is an attempt to marry Lovecraft’s history with a mosaic of his fictions, setting the man and his monsters in a persuasively real America during the pivotal year of 1919: before Prohibition and Weird Tales, before Votes for Women or the marriage to Sonia, before the Boston Police Strike and Cthulhu. This is a story of the birth of modern America, and the birth of modern American terror.”

The comic follows Robert Black, a reporter from New York who, upon the suicide of his lover (in a suicide booth — this is a slightly different world to ours, in this case owing a little to Cambers’ King in Yellow), leaves his job to pursue his dream (“some day, if Providence allows”) of writing a novel. Scholarly, nervous, and by no means an action hero, Black is the typical Lovecraft protagonist — in all but being both Jewish and gay. Intrigued by the mention of a translated Arab alchemical text that made its way to the US, Black begins tracking down the various individuals and occult groups who have made use of it in their beliefs.

Providence 7, art by Jacen Burrows

These individuals and groups are Moore’s renamed versions of Lovecraft characters, and the main fun of the first half of Providence is in tying up Moore’s characters with Lovecraft’s, and seeing what twist Moore has put on them. Usually, the effect is to emphasise the historical and social context in which their stories are being told, and to — at first at least — make us feel that perhaps Lovecraft’s presentation of them as figures of horror is a misunderstanding because of their status as social, racial, religious, or sexual outsiders. Because of this, Black doesn’t even start to glimpse the implications of what they’re saying (Moore’s dialogue has a wonderful way of playing with double meanings), and I, as a reader, started to feel that perhaps the whole point of Providence was to redeem Lovecraft’s secretive, evil-intentioned cultists from any horrific interpretation at all.

The first character Black meets, for instance, is a Doctor Alvarez, Moore’s version of Lovecraft’s Dr. Muñoz, from “Cool Air”. Like Lovecraft’s Muñoz, Alvarez is seeking to preserve his life beyond the natural point of death, which requires him to live in a controlled, artificially cold environment. He doesn’t hide that he’s doing this, but neither does he state it outright:

“For myself, I must not complain. Here, for a time, I can be comfortable… Life does not trouble me.”

It’s as though Alvarez might be quite willing to admit the truth about what he’s doing, if only Black were to ask the right question. But Black never does, because — who would? Who would suspect that the quiet-voiced, well-mannered Alvarez is actually a walking corpse, preserved by ammonia and low temperatures? Also unlike Lovecraft’s character, Alvarez is fully human, even compassionate, as revealed in a very un-Lovecraftian line:

“…to not love is to waste the existence. Even life is a small matter beside it.”

But there is a real horror, and Black’s journey takes him right to the heart of it. The Arab alchemical text, the Kitab Al Hikmah Al Najmiyya, includes a prophecy of two figures, a Herald and a Redeemer, who are to bring about the end of our world — or its transformation. Moore’s refusal to provide a Lovecraftian moral judgement of his characters extends to a refusal to judge the coming transformation.

So, you start by thinking this Dr Alvarez is, in fact, a pretty nice chap; then that those Innsmouth folk are maybe odd-looking but they’re just folk from a different culture; then that Garland Wheatley (Moore’s version of Wizard Whateley from “The Dunwich Horror”) is, well, dangerously backward, perhaps best left alone, but not a world-shattering evil… Then you find yourself at issue 6, the halfway point, where it is, finally, made clear to Black that he is in the midst of something really bad, and in deep, and it’s way too late to do anything about it.

art by Jacen Burrows

Randall Carver, art by Jacen Burrows

The ideas Moore presents undergo a similar shift. At first, it seems as though he’s presenting Lovecraft’s horrors and his dream-world stories as evidence of a real but separate dream-reality, which brushes up against our world and which can even be accessed by dreamers such as Randall Carver (Moore’s version of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter, which confusingly is also Lovecraft’s fictional version of Lovecraft himself, which makes it triply strange when Moore presents us with his versions of Carver and Lovecraft living in the same town). Black has a few such brushes, but initially dismisses them as hallucinations. His issue 6 experience, though, is too deeply traumatic to be dismissed even if it can be thought of as a hallucination, and it sets the tone for an increasing bleakness throughout the second half of the series, which on a first read left me with as much a feeling of nihilism as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus did on a first viewing. There’s a real sense, in the closing issues of Providence, just how little human life and our illusions of free will matter in the face of the coming transformation:

“We are words on papyrus, a thousand years ago.”

In its final issues, Providence is at times quite moving — issue 11, for instance with its rapid skim through the history of Lovecraft, his circle, and his growing impact on culture — but, at the end, it’s also terribly bleak. Robert Black turns out to be yet another Moore version of a Lovecraft character, so you know he can’t come to a good end, but in its final issue, Providence brings in characters from The Courtyard and Neonomicon (which I also found horrendously bleak, after its protagonist underwent a similarly horrific and traumatic experience as Robert Black does) and resolves the whole three-title series.

Robert Black, art by Jacen Burrows

Most of the issues of Providence included a lengthy text extract from Black’s diary, and I have to admit that, on my re-read of the series, I skipped these. In part because, although they provided Black’s innocent interpretation of the events in the comic part of the story, they didn’t really add much, as it was pretty easy to guess what Black thought was going on anyway. But also I skipped them because they were pages and pages of single-column, long-paragraph, small-size handwritten text and were just plain difficult to read. Aside from the wonderfully punnish extracts from an Innsmouth parish newsletter in issue 3, I really don’t think I missed much by skipping them.

It’s an excellent series, if bleak, though one I think you really need to know your Lovecraft to get the most out of. As such, it might not have wide appeal, but I’d certainly rank it with the best of Moore’s work, and Jacen Burrows is to be applauded for the amount of work he’s put into realising so many historically accurate locations and Lovecraftian characters, as well as providing some neat visualisations of sometimes transdimensional concepts.

DC Comics’ Sword of Sorcery

coverI’ve read somewhere that DC’s Sword of Sorcery was conceived as an answer to Marvel’s runaway success in bringing Robert E Howard’s most famous creation to the world of comics, with Conan the Barbarian issue 1 appearing in August 1970. DC dipped its toe by having Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser guest in Wonder Woman #202, in Oct 1972. I haven’t read this, so I don’t know how the two (to my mind, wholly separate) universes would have been brought together. I’d like to imagine a story featuring Fafhrd & the Mouser’s rivalrous attempts to woo the Amazonian Princess, while perhaps simultaneously trying to relieve her of her lovely gold wristbands and glowing lasso (which I can see the Mouser finding irresistible), probably only to be soundly and solidly put in their place — but I think, to judge from the cover, they just get into a fight.

Sword of Sorcery, a standalone title featuring Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser in their proper environment, the fantasy world of Nehwon, debuted in March 1973. In the first editorial, writer/adapter Denny O’Neil issues a pledge: “We’ll change Fritz’s work as little as possible, because we love it, because it would be silly to imagine we can improve on greatness, and because, for the first time in our comics careers, we’re approaching a project with genuine reverence.” But by the third issue (which mentions, in its editorial, that both Leiber and Harlan Ellison have complimented them on their adaptation) they’re presenting an original, non-Leiber story. I do have to say it sticks quite well to the feel of the F&GM stories, including in its cast a bird-woman (which fits in with the pair’s many dalliances with exotic, semi-human females), but this same bird-woman brings out an uncharacteristic note of sexism from Fafhrd (usually the more chivalrous of the two). Thinking themselves abandoned by the half-woman half-bird Lissa, Fafhrd says: “She could be of no help… and besides, what do you expect of a woman… even a woman half a nobler creature?”

panel from Sword of Sorcery issue 1, Ningauble and Sheelba

The wizards Sheelba and Ningauble, minus the clash of terse/loquacious personalities Leiber gave them

In general, though, seen as a comics-of-the-time take on Leiber’s tales, Sword of Sorcery manages an okay series of adaptations. The stories have mostly been boiled down to centre on one big fight, but do include a smattering of the sort of wordplay & archaicism so characteristic of Leiber’s writing. One thing I forgot about this sort of comic (not having read any in ages) is just how much the characters love to talk during fights, and mostly about themselves. As soon as they whip out their swords, Fafhrd & the Mouser turn into a pair of gangsta rappers — “Hey, I’m great at this, I’m great at that, look at me, how good I am in a fight.” Fafhrd calls himself a barbarian rather a lot (and is “Fafhrd the Barbarian” in the titles); Leiber’s character wouldn’t do that — not as a boast, anyway, as he was more interesting in being civilised. It’s basically a shorthand way of getting readers to grasp his status as a Conan analogue. And I have to mention one truly awful thought bubble from a non-Leiber back-up strip in issue 4, about Fafhrd in his youth. Seeing his girlfriend snatched by a snow-dragon, the young Fafhrd thinks: “So… my blooming manhood is put to the test!” A letter from issue 4 says it all: “A splendid adaptation of ‘Thieves House’ this month. I wonder, though, why you retitled it ‘Revenge of the Skull of Jewels’. That’s laying it on a bit thick, isn’t it?” Laying it on a bit thick is what this sort of comic does.

from Sword of Sorcery issue 3, a fight scene

Another thing I forgot from US comics of this era is just how crude the colouring technology was. In most cases, the splotchy, all-too-basic colouring detracts from the artwork far more than it adds. I would have preferred to have seen it in black & white just to get a better look at the linework. And I wasn’t 100% taken by the depictions of Fafhrd & the Mouser — mostly the Mouser, who, though properly short, still had the usual superhero proportions, making him seem like a 7 foot tall man shrunk in size, rather than a short man with a short man’s proper proportions. But, again, I suspect this is just one of the conventions of the time. One thing I would like to say about the art, though — and this isn’t at all intended as faint praise — is I liked the backgrounds. They really brought out the feel of Leiber’s Nehwon, particularly the city of Lankhmar, a lush mix of opulent Orientalism and Renaissance Europe:

panel from Sword of Sorcery issue 2

And this panel is simply beautiful:

panel from Sword of Sorcery, ship at sea

Sword of Sorcery died without an announcement after five bimonthly issues. It was an interesting run, but more for how Leiber’s work could be fitted into a medium or market that couldn’t properly deal with his attempts to rethink & out-think the clichés of a genre he’d helped define (even, to name).

Fafhrd & the Mouser would appear in comics again in 1990, this time from the Marvel-owned Epic Comics, where they distinctly benefit from being directed at a more adult market, and in a generally more mature (post-Watchmen) comics milieu. In a neat link, although it was drawn by Mike Mignola, this later series was written by Howard Chaykin, penciller for Sword of Sorcery. I’ll maybe cover it in a future Mewsings.

Edward Gorey

I first came across mention of Edward Gorey in The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, and instantly knew I had to read him:

“His characters perform or endure unspeakable indecencies set against Victorian and Edwardian backdrops. His preoccupations are those of a man obsessed by the terrifying randomness of daily life: rocks and urns plummet from the sky without warning; everyday objects suddenly turn menacing.”

There’s something instantly recognisable about his world of Edwardian Grimm. His strain of nonsense — bringing to the forefront the often too-casual-to-see violence & horror depicted in the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll — veers at times towards the purely surreal, but also borrows from that Roald Dahl-like reaction to moralising children’s literature that’s been going on at least since Struwwelpeter (1845, whose “Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches” might be an episode in a Gorey book), if not before. Part of the fun of his pseudo-pastiche style is that his books feel like they might have actually existed in the past, and might now be considered curios or classics of a bygone age, unconsciously horrific beneath their air of gentility. Gorey’s is both a ready-made archetypal world, and a world entirely his own, an abandoned nursery room of the imagination, where yesteryear’s toys, ill-used and left to collect spiderwebs, have attained both life and malignancy.

Gorey worked as an illustrator (also producing a lot of book covers) for some time before beginning to write and illustrate the short books he’s perhaps best known for, many of which were self-published by his Fantod Press, (some appearing under anagrammatic or punning pseudonyms), and which have subsequently been collected in a series of bumper volumes Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, and Amphigorey Also. My two favourites are The Unstrung Harp (1953) and The Doubtful Guest (1957) (both found in Amphigorey).

extract

The Unstrung Harp relates the cyclical life of author Clavius Frederick Earbrass, showing how the writing of a novel (whose title is selected at random from “a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book”) progresses from boredom to self-doubt to gloom to despair to desperation and, post-completion, a sort of blank bemusement as to what it was all for, all wrapped up in the semi-superstitious rituals of a deeply-ingrained creative process.

In The Doubtful Guest, a peculiar, penguin-esque creature invites itself into the house of a Victwardian upper class family, mostly to get in the way, damage things, cause difficulties, and be generally exasperating in a world too reserved to express exasperation. Existing somewhere between Paddington Bear and the staring ghost monkey of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, it shares Mr Earbrass’s elongated profile and staring eyeball — the characteristic Gorey look that seems to combine angst, anger, despair, exasperation, resignation and a sense of cosmic dread all in one.

All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall/Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall

The Doubtful Guest is a perfect example of how nonsense becomes sense each time it’s read. The “Guest” could be interpreted as much as a gloomy mood as an actual person, but the first time I read it, it immediately made me think of my stepfather, who appeared in our house almost as abruptly as the “Guest” and came with just as irrational, peculiar, and incomprehensible a set of habits, such as endlessly searching through legions of plastic bags while the rest of us tried to watch TV. I can imagine The Doubtful Guest as an excellent book to leave in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, or as the perfect way for a (perhaps cruel) parent to introduce a child to the concept of a new sibling on the way.

In fact, any one of Gorey’s books might usefully furnish a psychiatrist’s waiting room, if the psychiatrist were sufficiently enlightened or just plain provocative, including his alphabets that describe the various grisly ends of a series of unfortunate children (The Gashlycrumb Tinies being the most well-known), or The Curious Sofa, “a pornographic work” so abstract and discreet, it’s almost entirely chaste:

Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan

But beware. Just as with the Grimmest of fairy tales, Gorey’s atmosphere of gentility & nonsense can lull you into letting your guard down. Of his fictionalisation of the Moors Murderers’ relationship, The Loathsome Couple, he says: “I showed it to my editor at the time, and he didn’t think it was very funny, and I thought, ‘Oh really, dear, I don’t think it’s very funny either; what made you think that I thought it was funny?'” (quoted in Ascending Peculiarity, a collection of interviews with Gorey).

It’s partly because his work seems to borrow that hand-holding air you get from some children’s literature, that you don’t fully notice, till it’s too late, that the hand in question is leading you towards a pretty dangerous-looking precipice. And, perhaps, a Gorey end?

The Rainbow Orchid volume 3 out tomorrow

Tomorrow, the final part of The Rainbow Orchid, “the biggest adventure in comics”, comes out, and I can’t wait. Nor can others, apparently: