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Sex and the Starry Wisdom: Alan Moore’s Providence Hits a Disturbing New High

So I took a week off for Thanksgiving, with the full intention of writing up a big fat review of multiple comics for the week after, but then one of the books that came out Thanksgiving week drew me into its undertow, and I’ve been trying to write my review of it ever since. It’s complicated, and ugly, and compelling. The more I wrote, the more I saw in it, so I re-wrote, and re-wrote again, my opinions and impressions changing almost daily. I’m afraid that some of what’s left will be a bit disjointed and hard to follow. But I’m done with it, so I guess it’s time to share, warts and all…

Providence 6, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Burrows Providence 6

Alan Moore’s dissection of HP Lovecraft continues, and this is easily the most disturbing chapter to date. I don’t want to spoil anything, but… Holy crap. This is brutal. I think I’m ultimately going to have to spoil the scene I’m talking about, just to discuss the issue intelligently, but let’s deal with some less disturbing, non-spoilery stuff first.

This issue gives us our first look at Moore’s Necronomicon stand-in: Hali’s Book of the Wisdom of the Stars. It’s a transcendent experience for Our Hero Mr. Black, one in which he has visions, and comes away with an impression that he’s known the book all his life. Though it may be more accurate to say that Hali’s Book knows him, as it’s increasingly obvious that Black is the harbinger of the apocalypse it predicts.

Black himself is oblivious to all that, though, moving through the supernatural events he’s experienced as a man in a dream, rationalizing and making sense of things in a sometimes desperate attempt to reassure himself that everything’s fine. On the one hand, that makes him seem like an idiot, especially to a reader who knows the Lovecraft stories all this is based on. But that may be too harsh; the things he’s experiencing can be a bit dream-like, especially his time-out-of-joint experiences from the previous issue. So a bit of rationalization is forgivable.

We get that rationalization mostly in the series’ backmatter, a reproduction of the journal Black keeps as he travels through haunted New England. I had mixed feelings about this part of the series early on. The journal largely consists of Black telling us the same story we just read, with his personal impressions filled in along the way. It often felt like a bit of a cheat, Moore telling us about Black’s reactions to the strangeness around him, rather than showing us in the main body of the story. As we’ve gotten deeper into the series, though, I’ve starting to see why it’s there: as a closeted gay man, Black is constantly putting on an act. He’s an outsider, not free to be himself, so he tries to fit in as well as possible with those around him. And that behavior evidently extends to racist fish-men and inbred monstrosities, too. So we’re really only getting Black’s true reaction to everything in the journal. In his writing, we see the real him.

In the story, however, we’re mostly just getting the face he shows the world. It’s only when he’s confronted with the impossible, the obviously bizarre or the genuinely supernatural, that he breaks his genteel facade. And even then, he’s polite about it, making excuses as he flees the scene. This issue tests even that, though, as the horrors are so bad that all he can do is run in abject terror. Which brings us back to why this issue is so very disturbing. So I’m going to suggest that you stop reading now, if you plan on reading the comic anytime soon. Because everything from here on out is going to be a SPOILER.

Okay. So last issue we met young Elspeth Wade, a precocious girl of 13 whose learning is sufficiently advanced that she’s attending college. Lovecraft fans in the audience immediately suspected that she was an analogue for Asenath Waite, a strange young woman who’s possessed by the spirit of her dead grandfather. Gramps uses her body to seduce a man so that he can regain the male body he needs to perform certain occult rituals. That’s right: one of the only women in Lovecraft’s fiction is in reality a man. A man wearing a woman’s flesh like a suit, just so he can turn himself into a man again.

Issues, yes. I know. We’ll come back to that.

This issue, we discover that we were right about young Elspeth, in a stunningly horrible six-page sequence that left me gob-smacked. Luring Black back to her (His? Hir?) apartment under the guise of taking refuge from a storm, Elspeth disrobes. Then the entity possessing her switches their bodies and proceeds to rape Elspeth with Black’s body, while Black is trapped in hers.

Yeah. YEAH. This is horrible in so many ways I can’t believe it. First, we’re witnessing the graphic rape of a 13-year-old girl, the shock of which is momentarily ameliorated only by the revelation that Elspeth’s personality is long dead, switched into her own father’s dying body when the thing possessing him jumped to her. But then you realize that you’re feeling better (even if it’s only very slightly better) because a little girl is dead. Which is really nothing to feel better about at all.

And once you work through all that, you’re back to what’s actually going on: Our Hero is being raped BY HIS OWN BODY, while he himself is trapped in the body of a pubescent girl. And he’s gay. Which… guh. That adds a level of wrong to the scene that I’m still not processing fully, even now.

And why is this happening? Is the rapist doing it out of some sick passion? Is this how he gets his kicks? No. It’s far more calculating than that. This rape is the culmination of centuries (yes, CENTURIES) of planning. He’s been hopping from body to body for a long time, waiting for the arrival of Our Hero, who (as I may have mentioned before) is the prophesied messenger of the apocalypse. To the Elspeth-Thing, Black is essentially John the Baptist. And this is just his attempt to make an impression on the harbinger of all the wrongness that’s going to come down the pike when the Old Ones return. As he explains this to Black (in Black’s OWN VOICE, remember, coming out of Black’s OWN MOUTH), it’s clear that he’s enjoying the act physically (yet another level of horror), but there’s really less passion to it than there is religious fervor.

That’s a lotta wrong to process in just six pages. I don’t know whether to admire Moore for conceiving the scene, or be disgusted that I was subjected to it to begin with.

Well, okay. I suppose I ultimately have to come down on the “admiration” side of that equation. Disturbing as the scene is, it’s also brilliantly constructed. I was constantly off-balance while reading it, feeling batted from one horrifying realization to the next, until it was over. And then I numbly turned the remaining pages, as Black (back in his own body once again) flees in silence out into the street. It’s masterfully executed horror writing that makes the reader feel a portion of the victim’s violation, and in that it’s a rather brave scene to have written.

Now, I’m sure there’s already a mountain of snark out there about it. Anytime Moore writes a rape scene, the folks who were personally offended by his take-downs of work-for-hire super hero comics have a tendency to start calling him a pervert. Hell, even some people who agree with him on the work-for-hire thing have started in with the eye-rolling when rape comes up in Moore’s work. But it’s one of his major themes. Rape is a far more common crime than murder, and yet it receives far less attention in our fiction, not to mention our public debate. I’m glad he’s out there reminding us of it. Especially when the scene’s as well-written as this one.

Of course, it serves a literary purpose here, as well (just as it always does in Moore’s work). In this case, it’s part of his commentary on Lovecraft. While sex is never a major topic in Lovecraft’s work, it’s still tucked away in the corners, just off-stage from the main action. It’s there in Asenath Waite’s marriage, in the begetting of the Spawn of Yog-Sothoth, in the crossbreeding that leads to the “Innsmouth Look.” Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of sex and sexual violence lurking between the lines in Lovecraft, and Moore’s dragging it all into the light.

I’m not always a fan of making text out of subtext, but in this case it seems only appropriate. Considering Lovecraft’s obsession with congenital monsterism, the sex is conspicuous by its absence. Of course, Lovecraft himself claimed to be somewhat asexual. Or if not asexual, then as someone who didn’t find the subject (or the act itself) all that interesting. Some have speculated that his disinterest may have been because he was gay, closeted even to himself.

I suppose there’s some circumstantial evidence to support the idea. In Lovecraft’s short, unhappy time living in New York, his best friend and mentor was the writer Samuel Loveman, who was (as his Wikipedia biography puts it) “almost assuredly gay.” It’s believed that Lovecraft based several of the very close male friendships in his stories on his own relationship with Loveman, and those fictional relationships are difficult for a modern reader to look at as anything but homosexual in nature (I wasn’t greatly shocked, for instance, that Moore made the Providence version of Herbert West gay).

At any rate, you have the young Lovecraft involved in a very intense relationship with a gay man, and then embarking on a somewhat hasty marriage to an older woman (Sonia Greene), a marriage that reportedly alarmed many of their friends. The marriage dissolved after only two years, with Greene leaving town to start a new business and not taking Lovecraft with her. His mood quickly deteriorated, as he became consumed with hatred for the city. Soon thereafter, he fled back to his beloved New England, to live the rest of his life single and in the company of his old maid aunts, driven by whatever demons followed him home to write the best work of his career.

Pretty easy to make that into the story of a man fleeing from his own gayness, so bothered by his true passions that he rushes into a doomed marriage before violently withdrawing into a life of seclusion, writing thereafter primarily about fear, loathing, and the dreadful consequences of sex.

It’s a tempting narrative. But it’s not one I really buy into. Absent any real proof, I tend to take Lovecraft at his word on this point: he just didn’t find sex very interesting. His obsession with congenital conditions, rather than being caused by denial of his own sexuality, can more likely be traced to the fact that both his parents went mad. With that in his past, it’s no wonder he found inherited horrors so fascinating. And his bitter withdrawal from New York, and subsequent intense period of inspired writing, is perhaps more plausibly explained by his failed marriage than any attempt to flee from the knowledge of his secret homosexuality. That might also explain his continued bachelorhood afterward; he never filed the divorce paperwork he promised Greene he’d take care of, leaving her an unknowing bigamist when she remarried. Was he just lazy about it, or does it indicate that he continued to pine for her in his later years? We’ll never know, but it seems more likely to me than “secretly gay.”

Still, though… That “Lovecraft was gay” narrative might be the most interesting story you can weave around the facts of Lovecraft’s life. So I like that Moore’s exploring it through his gay leading man.

There’s more to discuss here, I think, more angles from which to approach Providence. More about gayness and outsiders. More about victims and victimization, and how those concepts shape this apocalypse Black’s supposed to usher in. I’ve got some ideas about where the story’s going next, too, if Black does as he says he’s going to do in this issue, and visits Boston. But it’s all too much, and I don’t have time to distill it all down to something that will make sense outside my own head. So I suppose it’s time to bring this discussion to a close, for now.

So, to wrap up… Providence is strong stuff. But it’s also filled with darkly marvelous writing for anyone of a mind to tackle it. It’s neither Moore’s most accessible work, nor to be honest his best. But it’s damn fine comics nonetheless.

Grade: A

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About Mark Brett (408 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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  1. Some Suggested Reading About Providence | Facts in the Case of Alan Moore's Providence

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