This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
So, now that we’ve taken a look at The Starry Wisdom and its Alan Moore-flavoured inclusion, the short prose story The Courtyard, we can now put Moore’s latter-day forays into Mythos fiction under the microscope. These have largely taken place with the aid and encouragement of Avatar Press; first there was the limited series Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures, collected into a trade paperback of the same name, which covered a mixture of archival Mythos and non-Mythos works by Moore, as well as some work not by Moore at all thrown in for the sake of the ride; then there was a comic book adaptation of The Courtyard, then a graphic novel sequel (Neonomicon), until finally and most recently Moore has treated us to a three-act graphic novel sequence collected in three trade paperbacks, entitled Providence. Over the course of these he develops a range of ideas about the Mythos – but does he really manage to grow beyond the kernel of a concept offered in The Courtyard’s original appearance? Well… let’s see.
Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures
The title of this implies far more conceptual unity than it actually possesses. Yuggoth Cultures and Other Growths was originally conceived by Moore as a full collection of Cthulhu Mythos works, but Moore lost most of the manuscript in a London taxi. The most substantial of the surviving pieces was The Courtyard, originally intended for being adapted here until it was spun out into its own adaptation, whilst the other scraps – Zaman’s Hill and Recognition – were brief poems.
What you get here, then, is not Yuggoth Cultures as originally envisioned by Moore, not least because he never envisioned it as a comic in the first place. Instead, it’s a mixture of long-lost odds and ends from Moore’s back catalogue, a range of interviews, essays, and supporting pieces, adaptations by Antony Johnston of non-comic works by Moore (including the two non-Courtyard bits of Yuggoth Cultures that survive and a couple of songs), and Yuggoth Creatures, a big fat slab of Antony Johnston’s own comics-format Mythos pastiches.
To address the Johnston adaptations first, the most interesting thing about them is probably the way they highlight the concept of adaptation in a comics context. You see, rather than Moore overseeing the conversion to a comic format directly, these pieces have Johnston taking Moore’s original text, deciding how to present it in a comic format, writing that up including the sort of directions to artists that comic scripts require, and then passing the results to various artists to interpret. The song interpretations (Litvinoff’s Book and Me and Dorothy Parker) aren’t up to much – the imagery therein having never been dreamed up with an eye to visual presentation in the first place – and the poem interpretations aren’t much cop either. The most substantial one, Recognition, is an overly simplistic attempt to connect Lovecraft’s imagination to his father’s syphilis-inspired delusions, and is notable mostly for being the only piece in the collection illustrated by Jacen Burrows, who would go on to do the art for The Courtyard, Neonomicon and Providence.
The rest of the Moore material here is a mixed bag. You get the Bryan Talbot-illustrated first episode of Nightjar, which they’d cooked up with an eye to making it a serial in Warrior magazine but abandoned when Warrior went defunct. With its vision of a secret subculture of magicians who refer to themselves as “birds”, it had something promising there, but without seeing Moore’s intended follow-through it’s hard to assess it. (Supplemental documents are provided, but none include much insight into how the series would have wound up.) Others consist of glib jokes – Nativity On Ice and Leviticus are cheap shots at easy targets, whilst Cold Snap more or less does the ending to the old Dinosaurs TV series about a decade before Dinosaurs event went on the air. I Keep Coming Back, illustrated by Oscar Zarante with an interesting first-person perspective, is described as a coda to From Hell – but to be honest, it has little to say that From Hell didn’t already cover.
As for Yuggoth Creatures, Johnston’s shameless riding of Moore’s coat-tails, it’s about as half-baked and undercooked a collection of forgettable Mythos pastiches as I’ve ever seen, much of the content being glib, underdeveloped riffs on superior stories from Lovecraft and his imitators.
Johnston’s adaptation of the Moore short story, with art once again by Jacen Burrows, by far and away has the most substance of any of the material reclaimed from the original Yuggoth Cultures manuscript. It is a fairly direct adaptation with more or less no textual divergences from the original, so in terms of the story and plot I don’t have much to say over and above what I said about its original appearance in The Starry Wisdom.
What is interesting about the adaptation is the occasional bit of visual imagination demanded by the text, such as exactly what it means to cut people open like a tulip, as well as the shift in the nature of the text itself with the passage of time. From the perspective of the 1994 original, the setting is a near future which may viably happen, but from the perspective of 2003, when the comic came out, the setting is already an alternate history. (The BBS-and-fax-connected phone booth, for instance, is vividly imagined as a technology which might have existed but didn’t, and is already looking battered in the context of the comic – a bit like those e-mail-capable phone booths that British Telecom wheeled out for a brief window in the early 2000s before the progress of technology made them entirely redundant.) This makes it akin to Robert Chambers’ magnificent The Repairer of Reputations, written in the 1890s and depicting a 1920s that never was, but whilst Chambers also lived to see his potential future become an alternate history he never did anything interesting with that; Moore, for his part, doubles down on the counterfactuality in Neonomicon.
By far the most visual imagination is called for when Aldo Sax gets his dose of Aklo from Johnny Carcosa, and it’s here that Jacen Burrows really establishes his credentials, producing grotesquely disturbing material crammed with esoteric detail. It is this visual knack which carries over into Neonomicon, and which makes Burrows a good creative partner for Moore himself.
This is essentially The Courtyard, Part 2 – to the point where the trade paperback incorporates a reprint of The Courtyard. Or rather, it’s The Courtyard 2 for its first half, before its second half glues on an essentially unrelated story for the sake of having shocking nastiness happen to our protagonists. Carl Perlman, Sax’s supervisor in the FBI, wants to follow up on the case – but he isn’t about to send anyone in on their own after Sax ended up a glossolalia-speaking multiple murderer under the influence of Aklo. He brings in the investigative duo of Lamper and Brears, who after a raid on Johnny Carcosa’s apartment uncover a link to a sex shop in Salem specialising in alien paraphenalia and acting as a front for what seems at first like a common or garden sex magick cult. What they discover is far more viscerally gruesome, and what it portends may be worse…
So, Moore on the subject of sex has something of a variable track record, and there’s a certain grotesqueness to its handling here, though I am in no doubt that it was intentional. The idea that Lovecraft was basically asexual is directly referenced; Brears has just come back onto the force after receiving psychiatric treatment for sex addiction. The major horror uncovered during the story is the sex cult’s meeting, in which far from flinching from it Moore directly acknowledges the intrinsically rapey undertones of the whole Shadow Over Innsmouth human/Deep One interbreeding thing and drags it out into the open.
We’ve a history here on Ferretbrain on looking highly askance at rape as a plot element in fiction and the way it’s often handled. On the one hand, I think Moore gets it right more than he mishandles it here; there is nothing titillating about what happens, it’s played as a nightmarish violation, and whilst the Deep One that rapes Brears eventually rescues her from her captors, it’s made clear that this wasn’t out of any sudden bout of kinder feelings. Brears’ own reaction to the situation is all very believable in terms of arising from a motivation to survive, and the problematic “she has sex addiction so she’d surely be up for it” trope that could so easily have crept in doesn’t happen.
That said, it still feels like something thrown in because Moore didn’t have any better ideas for something shocking to happen in the weird Salem sex shop, and some aspects of the handling of the aftermath are a bit tricky. Brears emerges from her ordeal with a new (Aklo-infected) outlook on the world, and a new sense of purpose, and I don’t think Moore does enough legwork to avoid the implication that the rape specifically (and not her expanded view of the universe) has “cured” her. Likewise, the conclusion of the story sails unfortunately close to the “woman suddenly feels spiritually complete thanks to pregnancy” trope. Given the apocalyptic implications and the fact that she’s become so chummy with Aldo Sax I don’t think we’re necessarily meant to take this as a good thing, but again I’m not sure that Moore did all that he could to either avoid that trope or criticise it.
Along the way Moore also decides to play with some radical re-imaginings of bits of the Mythos – like the idea that some aspects detail not an ancient past but an unimaginable future, in which human beings have transcended their old forms and old morality to become the Great Old Ones (an idea also toyed with by Moore’s fellow Brit-comics stalwart and magical rival Grant Morrison in his classic 2000 AD series Zenith). Further details of this alternate future are also evident; major urban centres are under domes in this setting, for instance, for purposes not made entirely clear.
At the same time, Neonomicon reads like a short story that’s setting up something more substantial, rather than a fully developed standalone work in its own right. Moore here seems to be beginning to chew on some ideas, but they do not yet feel fully formed. Perhaps the most vividly realised aspect of it is the way the various Mythos cultists cheerfully exist on the periphery of society, all of them from Sax to Carcosa to the Dagon cultists acting like all this is totally normal because this has become the new normal to them. It makes a great improvement over the usual supervillain dialogue Mythos hacks usually have cultists spouting.
It’s 1919, America is mulling over the Treaty of Versailles, and young gay man Robert Black is making a living as a journalist for the New York Herald. An office conversation about how eerie it is that Robert Chambers’ The Repairer of Reputations predicted that America would enter 1920 having beaten Germany in a World War, with legalised euthanasia available in Lethal Chambers discreetly set up in scenic New York parks. The conversation and the need to fill half a page of copy sends Black on a jaunt to look deeper into the inspirations for The King In Yellow, which leads to his discovery of The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars, a fabulously rare book on alchemy of Arabic origin which is purportedly prized by certain American occultists.
Returning to the office, Black learns that the half page has already been filled by the news that man about town Jonathan Russell has died, having taken advantage of the Lethal Chamber’s services. Unbeknownst to anyone at the office, Russell was Black’s lover that Black had very recently dumped; hiding his shock, sorrow and guilt, Black takes to writing his thoughts in his Commonplace Book – a notebook he’d been given by Russell as a gift to write his thoughts and literary ideas in, for Black has long held ambitions of pursuing weightier writing projects than journalism allows for.
Black really wants to write a book exploring the experience of being gay in an intolerant society – but to write about the subject directly.would not only ruin his reputation but endanger much of the community. However, he realises that the idea of an occult underworld existing in America, linked by its interactions with the prized Book of the Wisdom of the Stars, could represent a subculture and a set of fascinations which he could write about, and in the process of doing so slyly address the themes and thoughts he wanted to address concerning the gay community without actually putting anyone in that community at risk. Roving around New England he finds numerous signs of the activities of these occultists – including hints that the Stella Sapientae, a Colonial-era secret society dedicated to the occult worldview espoused by the Wisdom of the Stars, might still exist…
Providence establishes itself in its first act as a slower, more subtle, more literary prospect than the high-octane grimness of Neonomicon, which it is a chronological prequel and thematic sequel to. Each issue comes in two halves – the comic section (illustrated by Jacen Burrows again), in which the main action of the plot largely unfolds, and a prose section presented as an extract from Black’s Commonplace Book (including occasional documents obtained by Black in his investigations) that makes up Black’s diary.
The presentation allows Moore to take us deep inside Black’s mindset through the prose pages without hopelessly cluttering the comic pages with thought bubbles. Moore is known for eschewing that particular device anyway, and to good effect; the scene where Black hears of Russell’s death and must struggle to control his reaction is much stronger for the lack of them, since his facial expression tells us all we need to know. Moreover, the number that would be required to convey the information in these prose sections would be outright absurd. As it stands, Providence ends up an interesting hybrid of graphic novel and prose novel, with Moore deftly choosing what information to convey in which medium in a manner which plays to the medium’s strengths.
For instance, we know that Black needs to be circumspect about his sexuality in his society, but it’s in his Commonplace Book which we really see how tight a lid he keeps on things; he refers to Russell as “Lily” (flashbacks imply that Russell was cross-dressing when they first met) and has a habit of referring to his partners in feminine terms, almost as though he doesn’t trust that his Commonplace Book will remain private, and even when he admits to seeking the company of men he’s incredibly circumspect about what actually happens between him and his partners.
As well as providing another route for conveying information to us, the Commonplace Book also acts to give another view on the action of the comic sections. For instance, when Black retells the events of the comic pages in his diary we get an insight into what Black is picking up and what things, though entirely visible to us, have escaped his notice (or been rationalised away by him).
As for what he’s encountering there… well, for Act 1 we are mostly following Black as he tours New England visiting various interesting people. All the locations visited are real-life New England locales which were known to Lovecraft, and are also places which, sometimes guised under a fictional name, he worked into his fiction – Arkham is his Salem, for instance, whilst rural communities in the vicinity of Athol provide the model for Dunwich. Moore seems to have picked up the point from S.T. Joshi that Lovecraft was primarily in love with landscapes, architecture, locations, and to truly know Lovecraft you need to know his special places.
And in those places, Black encounters what are clearly – to the reader – the major figures from significant H.P. Lovecraft stories, quite happy and willing to chat with Black about their affairs, since Black is catching them before the terminal crises documented in Lovecraft’s tales arise. We get to visit the Deep Ones before the Federal raid genocides them, for instance, or the main character from Cool Air before his air conditioning breaks, or the Whateley family (spelled “Wheatley” here) before family members start dying.
In general, the better you know your Lovecraft, the more you’ll pick up from the comic, but even without much Lovecraft knowledge you’ll be left with a sense of terrible things about to happen, or having just happened out of sight, and not necessarily just the terrible things in the original stories. Racist elements in Salem are trying to drive out the Deep Ones by graffiting swastikas outside their meeting places, for instance (in The Shadow Over Innsmouth it is overtly stated that various South Sea Islanders use swastikas as a symbol to ward off the Deep Ones), and after seeing that Black has a disturbing prophetic dream in which swastikas, crowded trains, gas chambers and mass death come together in a way which should be ringing alarm bells with most readers. We get a good look at the underground tunnel and lake which later play a significant role in Neonomicon; whereas the Deep One community here seem to be sweet old dears just trying to get by in a hostile America (and possibly eating people occasionally), we know that in Neonomicon they’ve been displaced and their place of worship has been adopted by an obnoxious sect of yuppie swingers who summon Deep Ones to enhance their sex parties.
On the other hand, the strange subculture around the Book of the Wisdom of the Stars is not necessarily innocent here. In visiting the Wheatleys Black – correctly – comes to suspect that Leticia Wheatley’s father may have had a direct (and horribly abusive) role in siring her children. That said, in keeping with the dominant culture of the time Black doesn’t make any sort of official fuss about this; he writes it off as just being a thing that lower-class rural people do. In this way and others, Act 1 sets up the general agenda of Providence – to take the racial and sexual prejudices and hang-ups of Lovecraft’s era, drag them out into the foreground, and use them as part of a grand reinterpretation of Lovecraft’s body of work into an overarching conspiracy involving the Stella Sapientae.
In the process, Moore digs deep into Lovecraft in order to fish out useful ideas or text – we’re not just dealing with Lovecraft’s main fiction here but his entire body of work. In the last prose section in Act 1, for instance, Black parrots a point Lovecraft makes in his letters to August Derleth that it adds to the verisimilitude of a weird story if, should the protagonist end up killed off by the end, some mechanism exists for the story to get out to the wider public – like, say, Black’s Commonplace Book. This suggests bad things in store for Black, particularly when hot on its heels comes his musings that it’s essential that the characters in a mystery story not be aware that they are in that sort of story – or at least, not until they’re too deeply embedded to extricate themselves. Likewise, the comic section of Act 1 ends with an actual quote from The Ancient Track – one of Lovecraft’s few passable poems, here given extra effectiveness from the context; Black has been put on the trail of the Stella Sapientae, and he is going to follow it to his ultimate doom.
For the most part, the Mythos material in Act 1 relates solely to Lovecraft’s own work. The major exception, of course, is the Lethal Chamber in New York. Whereas Neonomicon took place in a substantially divergent world from ours, the existence of the Lethal Chamber is the only tip-off we have here that the story takes place in a somewhat alternate world, rather than the real 1919 – though in other respects Moore and Burrows are scrupulous in their research and dedication to historical accuracy. It’s an intrusion from The Repairer of Reputations which not only nudges the characters into thinking about Robert Chambers, but also us. It’s an appropriate inclusion, because of all the authors who preceded Lovecraft, Chambers feels like the one who hit the style of the Cthulhu Mythos the closest with the King In Yellow stories, Repairer of Reputations and The Yellow Sign in particular, so having a feature of Repairer be the starting point of Black’s journey nicely coincides with the way Lovecraft’s fiction builds on Chambers’ foundation. (Similarly, the 1919 setting also coincides with the end of Lovecraft’s doomed focus on poetry and the start of his return to prose stories.)
Act 2 takes things deeper, with more and more incidents happening which are overtly supernatural, Black’s attempts to rationalise them away becoming increasingly thin until he is forced to at least accept some notions, such as the power of dreams. We learn more of the Stella Sapientae’s agenda, we get a good look at that pesky old book they are so keen on, we get insights into how Black and an obscure amateur press author called Lovecraft fit into the book’s prophecies and the Stella Sapientae’s plans, and we conclude with Black and Lovecraft finally meeting, setting Black on a course to finally visit Providence itself.
Amidst all this, we have the by-now standard Alan Moore Uncomfortable Rape Content.
To give Moore some credit, it’s somewhat more interestingly handled than the rape in Neonomicon. See, in his travels Black encounters Elspeth Wade, the Providence equivalent of Asenath Waite from The Thing On the Doorstep. As in that story, Elspeth appears to be a young woman – in 1919 she’s 13 – but in fact, her body is the habitation of an ancient sorcerer who has usurped the body of their descendants one after another over the generations, thanks to their ability to swap bodies with others through hypnotic influence. Having got Black on his own, “Elspeth” swaps bodies with him, uses Black’s body to rape Black (who’s stuck in Elspeth’s body), and then swap back once the deed is done.
Now, this comes in the context of Black’s personal stability being badly rattled by realising he’s somehow lost three weeks, and is in the wider context of the revelation that time has become snarled up and labyrinthine in the vicinity of the town of Manchester, so this is a moment of exceptional trauma – the height of the nightmare, if you will – rather than being thrown out there cheaply. On top of that, the psychological effect it has on Black not only rings true, but also helps endear him to the reader at a point when his less appealing qualities might have otherwise turned us off. The sheer nastiness of what’s been done to him comes from the fact that, whilst he’s clearly in this context the victim, because he can’t allow himself to actually believe he swapped bodies with Elspeth he also believes himself to have raped her.
From a reader’s perspective, at this stage we pretty much have to accept that the body swap actually happened – not only is it far from the least supernatural thing we’ve seen just in Manchester itself, but Black has been so comprehensively established as being solely sexually interested in adult men that for him to spontaneously decide to rape Elspeth shatters all verisimilitude of characterisation – even when you ignore the fact that during the incident Elspeth delivers a monologue which she commences in her body, continues using Black’s body, and then concludes back in her body again.
None of this changes the fact that Moore and Burrows have chosen to depict a 13 year old girl being raped here, more or less without warning. Nor does it change the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any particular point to the incident. A throwaway line from Elspeth after the incident made me thought that it was an attempt to get some form of blackmail material on Black, but that doesn’t prove at all necessary to set up the encounter between Black and Lovecraft that the Stella Sapeintae have been nudging Black towards, and as far as providing a stimulus for Black to run out of town in a state of utter terror goes, his vision of himself entering town riding in a car passenger seat (which overtly establishes that there’s time loop shenanigans going on here) is surely enough.
On top of all this, there’s really very little ongoing narrative purpose played by this event after the end of Act 2. It pretty much is never mentioned in Act 3, and by the start of that Black has largely regained his composure and written it off as a bad dream in the midst of a range of other impossible circumstances. There remained enough enjoyable material in Act 2 to keep me hooked and interested to see how Act 3 panned out – I particularly like its treatment of ghouls – but it was a shaky moment.
Act 3 has Black finally reaching Providence and his confrontation both with Lovecraft and with the vast supernatural forces at work around him and Lovecraft. By this point, it has become rather obvious the direction things are going in, and the Act offers more or less no surprises in that respect in the first half or so: Black shows Lovecraft his commonplace book, Lovecraft is inspired to both keep his own and to borrow Black’s ideas for stories, Black sees something terrible which makes him realise his part in all this and how Lovecraft’s stories will end up bringing about the return of the Great Old Ones. Moore shows us what’s underneath Johnny Carcosa’s veil for a cheap shock, but what should be shocking becomes mildly absurd when it’s in the context of Johnny/Nyarlathotep giving Black a blowjob to thank him for being a good Herald. The overall conspiracy theory surrounding Lovecraft could be arrived at by anyone reading Joshi’s I Am Providence with an eye to the supernatural – for that matter, I did much the same at the end of my Lovecraft review – and ultimately doesn’t offer much of an added insight into Lovecraft’s fiction in the end beyond what I Am Providence offers, Moore having been too distracted by his occult philosophy about the esoteric reality of fiction to remember to craft a really good fiction around it.
The last two issues of the Act dispense with the commonplace book entries to give two full-length codas to the story. The first of these gives us the end of Black’s story, as with his sanity shattered he returns to New York in order to commit suicide in the same Lethal Chamber as his lover did, his death sequence interspersed with flashes of the future, again offering nothing which anyone who’s read I Am Providence – or, for that matter, my epic Lovecraft review – wouldn’t be aware of. You have Barlow being named Lovecraft’s executor, you have Derleth usurping him, you have Lovecraft entering popular culture, you have the Barlow-Burroughs connection, you have Burroughs dying clutching a copy of The Starry Wisdom anthology (presumably to emphasise the whole “word virus” idea behind Moore’s treatment of Aklo), you have Black’s commonplace book passing through various hands, you have the various incidents in Lovecraft’s stories happening for real and also to an extent being made real by the popular imagination, you eventually have the events of The Courtyard and Neonomicon and then you have Carl Perlman from those stories yanking Black’s commonplace book out of the archives to deal with the return of the Great Old Ones. It’s an artistically quite nice presentation of material which is by and large extremely predictable if you already know this stuff, but which I also suspect will be quite confusing if you don’t already know this stuff. (Also, didn’t Moore do the whole “dying central character has visions of the future” motif to much better effect in From Hell?)
The very last issue follows Perlman as the apocalypse unfolds and the world of dream overtakes the rational world, and forms a coda both to Providence and to Neonomicon, since we see the culmination of the pregnancy that concluded with and the final fate of Aldo Sax to boot. It’s quite effective in the way it captures how people in dreams tend to accept all the weirdness going on around them as being normal, even though intellectually they know it isn’t, but precisely because of that the characterisation is incredibly flat, to the point of being nonexistent. You can get away with that in a brief short story provided that the underlying ideas are strong enough, but at this point the ideas underlying The Courtyard and its various sequels and prequels have been stated and restated beyond the point where it’s especially interesting to restate them here, and the whole state of affairs descends into weird for weird’s sake, exacerbated by Alan Moore’s recurring habit of assuming that his very personal occult view of the world constitutes something that’s interesting to show to other people.
Really, it’s a very 1990s Vertigo ending, or possibly a very golden age 2000 AD ending. Like fellow comic book occultist Grant Morrison, Moore hails from an era of comics writing in which being dreadfully clever was prized above telling a satisfying story. Maybe it’s just that I’ve grown to the point where my priorities have changed, but these days I’m inclined to say “Why not try for both?” – with a preference that, if one can’t have both, one goes for the satisfying story over the smug cleverness. In keeping with his dedication to being Terribly Clever, Moore actually has S.T. Joshi show up as a character here; whilst it’s the natural next evolution from the tendency of people to include Lovecraft as a character in Mythos stories, and also probably a reasonable tip of the hat given the very great debt the whole of Providence owes to I Am Providence, at the same time it also reeks of clever for clever’s sake – and I suspect in the long run it won’t help Joshi’s Saruman syndrome.
It’s not that Act 3 is terrible – I quite like the way that Black’s easy, friendly rapport with Lovecraft gets shaked (opening him up to realise the awful truth) by Lovecraft’s casual dropping of some serious homophobia and hardcore antisemitism into conversation – but at the same time, it simply doesn’t measure up to the buildup to it; in the end, one feels like the entire three-act shebang could be summed up in a terse short story, and arguably in in the form of The Courtyard it kind of was.