Fatale #11, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Much has been made of this series’ Lovecraftian elements, but so far that’s mostly been a surface thing. There’s no cosmic horror to it, really, no shattering revelations of man’s insignificance in the face of the vast unknowable universe. No, this book’s more about the entirely too knowable horrors of lust and desire, and the terrible things they can make men do.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think. The 20th Century was, in some ways, the Lovecraftian Century. In the 90 years (give or take) since Lovecraft published his first adult writing, the world has come a lot closer to his way of thinking. The idea that mankind and its institutions mean less than nothing on the grand scale is no longer a dark fantasy fit to drive men mad, but a challenge that’s been met and absorbed in the real world. Science, space exploration, and multiple social revolutions have seen to that. So that aspect of cosmic horror, frankly, just isn’t that scary anymore.
Granted, the rise of extreme, militant, fundamentalist religion around the world puts the lie to that statement. Because if anybody’s afraid of being nothing more than a mote in god’s eye, it’s those folks. But for the average sort of well-educated Westerner who’s going to be seeking out horror fiction in the first place… I think my point stands.
So where’s the Lovecraft in Fatale? Well, there’s this…
…and, oh yeah! Also this:
To be fair, that most excellent Sean Phillips portrait of HP Lovecraft himself was done for one of the series’ informative Jess Nevins essays on the pulp traditions Brubaker and Phillips are drawing upon for the main story. Still, though. That’s a lotta tentacles! And it’s that surface gloss that I think has drawn most of the Lovecraft comparisons.
Which is not to say that I don’t think Brubaker and Phillips are drawing on Lovecraftian themes. The aspect of cosmic horror that does still work is its air of hopelessness and desperation, and that’s something this book has in spades. The desire that Josephine (the Femme “Fatale” of the title) inspires in men is very desperate indeed, and in the end… It’s pretty hopeless, too. In the current issue, for instance, she exerts her supernatural wiles on a cop named Nelson, who kills for her, and leaves his honest life behind in the name of the mad desire she’s inspired in him. And when he thinks she’s used him up and left him behind, the only thing that makes sense to him is stepping out in front of a freight train to end it all.
Nelson’s story touches on a lot of Lovecraftian themes: hopelessness, desperation, madness and, maybe most interestingly, degeneration. Nelson does a lot of ugly things for Josephine, things he considered beneath him before he met her. This breaking-down of the social order is very much the sort of thing Lovecraft’s dark god-things inspire, and Nelson engages in it like many of Lovecraft’s doomed protagonists: with a growing sense of horror at the things he’s capable of. Of course, his inspiration is more like that of Lovecraft’s crazed cultists: sex. But while Lovecraft kept what little sex there was in his work safely hidden off-camera, it’s Brubaker’s focus.
Issue eleven also introduces us to Fatale’s Lovecraft stand-in, pulp horror writer Alfred Ravenscroft:
Heh. Much like Fatale itself, it’s not a dead-on match. Lovecraft lived in New England rather than the American southwest, for instance, and doesn’t seem to have been so baldly obsessed with his mother. But he did die of cancer, and did keep a medical diary in which he charted the progress of his illness. As for whether he was afraid of everything… Well, I think that’s perhaps an unfair characterization, but it’s certainly something he’s been accused of more than once.
All of which may make Fatale the best kind of Lovecraft pastiche. One that doesn’t just deal in tentacled horrors from beyond, but that digs down into what makes the older author’s writing work, and approaches it from angles he never would have.