Recent Dorkiness

Pickman’s Proletariat: Alan Moore Examines the Politics of Lovecraft

Providence 7
by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Burrows Providence 7

So I’ve come to the realization that I’ve been a bit lazy in my reading of this series. I mean, I knew there were greater depths to be plumbed. I just wasn’t plumbing them. In part, that’s because I’ve been hesitant to analyze it too deeply before it’s done. That would be like getting halfway through The Sound and the Fury and stopping to write a treatise on Faulkner’s use of the idiot man-child.

(Not that Providence is a stranger to those.)

(Not that Providence is a stranger to those.)

But if I’m going to be honest here… and lord knows I wanna be honest here… it was also plain laziness. I’ve been writing about comics for a long time, after all, and I’ve never been shy about waxing profound on serialized fiction long before it’s finished. So, no. I just got lazy. I’m pretty deeply familiar with the subject matter here – that is, the life and work of HP Lovecraft – and that familiarity encouraged me to take it easy. I know so much about Lovecraft and his fiction that I was content to appreciate the stuff I understood easily, and didn’t put in the effort to really pick things apart.

So what have I not been wrapping my brain around? Quite a lot, actually. Because Alan Moore’s not just playing around with Lovecraft’s themes and characters here. He’s using Lovecraft’s work to paint a portrait of Lovecraft’s times, with the purpose of showing how that work has shaped the present day. And of course, Moore being Moore, he’s doing that in as complicated a manner as possible, folding multiple figures and themes down into single characters, and then opening them back up.

I’m referring primarily to Our Hero there. Robert Black is an obvious stand-in for Lovecraft himself, in that he’s a writer who wants to capture something of the other, of the outsider, in his fiction. But he’s also attractive, metropolitan, and gay, things Lovecraft himself couldn’t really claim. But Lovecraft’s friend and mentor Samuel Loveman very much could. So Black is also a stand-in for Loveman to a certain extent. Of course, Lovecraft also had a fictional stand-in for Loveman in the form of Harley Warren, the gruff mentor to Randolph Carter. And Carter, in addition to being the only recurring protagonist in all of Lovecraft’s work, was a stand-in for Lovecraft himself. So when, at the end of this issue, Black meets a man named Randall Carver, who’s obviously Alan Moore’s stand-in for Carter…

Burrows Providence 7 Carver

…it’s kind of like Lovecraft meeting himself at the door. In reverse.

And that’s not even getting into the similarity between Black’s name and that of Robert Blake, the protagonist of Lovecraft’s story “The Haunter of the Dark.” Blake was based on the writer Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame), who at the time was a young up-and-coming author who’d become part of the Lovecraft Circle (the group of long-distance friends Lovecraft traded letters with). Bloch had killed off a character based on Lovecraft in a story called “The Shambler From the Stars,” and “Haunter of the Dark” was Lovecraft playfully returning the favor. So Black = Bloch = Loveman = Lovecraft = Blake = Warren = Carter = Carver. Except not, because Black and Carver are two different people.

And Lovecraft may be still yet another different person. We know he exists in the world of Providence, anyway, because he and his writings are a plot point in Neonomicon, the Alan Moore comic to which Providence is a prequel. Or a sequel, depending on which way you think time’s rippling out of R’lyeh, where Fetal Cthulhu lies dreaming of the future-past.

Anyway. “Lovecraft” could wind up just being a pen name for Black or Carver, I suppose. The name certainly sounds Dickensian enough for Moore to spin things that way. Especially considering how very much Providence (as inspired by so many of Lovecraft’s own stories) revolves around sex. Or procreation, rather, of which sex is a pretty important part. But I don’t think so. One of the members of the Stella Sapiente (the group of evil Lovecraftian wizards behind so much of the series’ horrible doings) was identified this issue as “Van Buren.” Which was the name of Lovecraft’s beloved grandfather.

That's right: I just blew my own mind.

That’s right: I just blew my own mind.

All that, however, is just stuff I picked up without putting too much thought into it. But this issue has, at last, started me considering the broader picture. What Moore’s really doing here is exploring the central dichotomy of Lovecraft’s life: though he wrote about outsiders, and considered himself something of an outsider, his fears and obsessions were pretty common for the years between the two World Wars. Or they were common for the white male ruling class, anyway. For minorities and the oppressed working class… notsomuch.

It’s the working class Moore tackles this issue, set during a fascinating little piece of American history known as the Boston Police Strike. You can read more about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Police_Strike. But the gist of the story is that in 1919, the Boston police, fed up with poor working conditions and wages that had fallen so far behind inflation that they were making less per hour than unskilled factory labor, formed a union and went on strike. Predictably, without no one to enforce the law, riots broke out. Mere anarchy was loosed upon the city, as it were, complete with drunken fistfights, people tossing bricks off rooftops, women being raped in the streets…

Burrows Providence 7 Riot

The very sort of thing people fear the most when the rule of law breaks down. And that’s where the action picks up this issue. Of course, this being just two years after the October Revolution, America was in the grips of the first wave of the Red Scare. The same local politicians who had refused to bargain with the cops on their wages were now accusing them of being communists, accusations that took on an hysterical tone when the riots broke out. State Guard soldiers were brought in to restore order, and Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge soon rode the wave of commie-fearing anti-labor sentiment straight into the White House.

It’s a funny sort of incident for an avowed anarchist like Moore to focus on. But the Police Strike Riots were a formative moment for Lovecraft’s America. They stirred up all that paranoid fear he was always writing about, paranoid fear that’s never really gone away. It got deflected for a while by World War II, channeled into a rightful fear of fascism. But it’s been our constant companion ever since, inflamed by politicians who find it useful and media outlets who find it profitable, first with McCarthyism, then the lingering nuclear anxiety of the Cold War, the Satanic Panic and War on Drugs that gripped America in the 1980s, and now in the amorphous, never-ending, impossible-to-define threat of the War on Terror. Decades of fear-mongering shock tactics have made the queasy existential horrors of HP Lovecraft far too familiar to us all. It’s no wonder his work has become so popular. We live in his headspace.

So… yeah. That’s the kind of thing Moore’s doing here. And he ties it back to Lovecraft directly, too, in the most appropriate manner possible: a monster.

Burrows Providence 7 King George

That’s King George, a creature who lives in a vast underground tunnel complex beneath Boston. Ronnie Pitman (a stand-in for Lovecraft’s Richard Pickman, of the story “Pickman’s Model”) calls him a “saprovore,” a creature that lives on the flesh of the dead. Lovecraft, of course, would have just called him a ghoul. George is a right bloody horrorshow, giving off a queasy air of violence even as he just sits and talks. But George is also the supernatural stand-in for the working class. He calls himself and his fellow ghouls “Good Boys,” hard workers who do their part. He frowns upon the Yankees, men like those in the Stella Sapiente, who “have many things and they do not work hard.” But that’s okay, King George tells Black. Because one day, the ghouls will eat the men who do not work hard. Everything balances out in the end.

Heh. It’s kind of hard not to draw a line between that logic and the discussion of Boston civic labor relations running through the first half of the issue. But the ghouls aren’t just monstrous Bolsheviks. They’re also sardonically funny bastards, understanding their position in the world but still going by grandiose names taken from movie stars, statesmen and kings. Besides King George, we’re told there’s one named George Washington, and another that George refers to as “my brother Mary Pickford.” Which, for me, conjures up an hysterical image of some kind of ghoul trannie.

Your mileage may vary.

At any rate. It’s not just Moore’s hard-working ghouls that tie the events of the riot to Lovecraft. The riot itself foreshadows the kind of world the Stella Sapiente is trying to bring about. It’s why Elspeth Wade’s grandfather pulled off his body-swapping rape of Black last issue: this is the world Cthulhu brings. A world where the strong prey upon the weak, doing what they want when they want, and feeling no remorse. It’s the kind of world Black is supposed to usher in, whether by writing it himself or by feeding it to Lovecraft, I’m not yet sure. Whoever writes it, it’s the sort of bleak vision that’s supposed to leak from our fiction into our dreams, and from those dreams into reality.

So again we’ve got Alan Moore writing about the thin line between art and magic, this time in service to something horrible. But something I nonetheless find compelling. Or at least, I find it compelling as long as it stays on the “art” side of that equation. I’m a bit less keen on it becoming reality. But I guess those are the risks we have to take.

Ah, funnybooks. It’s a dangerous game we play.

Grade: A

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About Mark Brett (427 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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