So I was going to devote this week’s column to whittling down this giant stack of unreviewed funnybooks I’ve got sitting on my desk, a full month’s worth of comics I just haven’t gotten around to talking about. But then Alan Moore released a new issue of his meditation on HP Lovecraft, and well… That’s worth a whole column on its own…
by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
Before we begin… I have a confession to make: I read this issue, and wrote about it, believing it to be the final issue of Providence. I could swear, in fact, that I originally heard that this book was going to run 10 issues. But now I’ve come to understand that there are actually two more to go. And come to think of it, I do seem to remember an announcement at some point or other that Moore had expanded it to 12 issues, having found that he had more to say than he’d expected. But I’d forgotten about that (if it happened at all), and had been anticipating this as the final issue for some time. That idea had become so set in my mind, in fact, that I’d already started analyzing Providence as whole based on this as the ending, and… Well. This changes everything. Still, though, I thought it might be interesting for you to read what I wrote when I believed this issue to be the last. So that’s what follows below. I’ll come back at the end with some further, better-educated, thoughts, but for now… Here we go.
I made the mistake of reading this book before bed again. I don’t remember the dreams it gave me very well, but suffice it to say that it stuck with me, and that I didn’t sleep easy. It wasn’t that it gave me nightmares, so much. It’s more that it… haunted me. I lay down thinking about it, and when I fell asleep, my dreams were labyrinthine. I wandered lost through them, and woke up often, my train of thought upon waking coming right back, it seemed, to where it had left off the last time I woke.
It’s not that the story is particularly horrifying, understand. Or rather, it IS horrifying. It’s just not particularly graphic or disturbing on its surface. It’s more the implications of it all, the…
I’m not explaining this very well. So let me back up.
This issue opens a few weeks after the last one. Our Hero Mr. Black has become fast friends with HP Lovecraft, the two of them enjoying long walks through Providence, discussing philosophy and literature. The conversation we get here, however, seems to be the first time that Lovecraft’s various prejudices have come to the fore. Specifically, his distaste for Jews and homosexuals, two groups to which Black (though he’s closeted on both fronts) belongs.
An aside: For anyone not in the know, the historical Lovecraft was notoriously prejudiced. Against race, religion, sexual preference… Anyone, basically, who wasn’t a White Anglo-Saxon Person of an intellectual bent. These attitudes softened somewhat in his later life, but in 1919, when this story is set, they were in full force.
Moore does something interesting with Lovecraft’s feelings on homosexuality here, though, and I thought it was worth discussion. As with many people who hold prejudices, Lovecraft’s life was filled with contradictions. He hated Jews, but he married a Jewish woman. And though he expressed distaste for homosexuality, one of his best friends was gay. Lovecraft mentions that friend in this issue (named, believe it or not, Samuel Loveman), and espouses the opinion that though Loveman (like Black) has expressed a love for other men in his writing, he must have explored those feelings only in writing, as a platonic ideal.
I don’t know if Moore pulled that opinion from something Lovecraft himself wrote (I’m sure Moore has read far more deeply into Lovecraft’s personal correspondence than I have), but (as someone who’s read a fair bit about the man nonetheless) it makes perfect sense to me. Lovecraft found sex distasteful in general. He was no virgin (his wife, in later years, after their divorce, called him “an adequately excellent lover”), but the sense you get is that it wasn’t something he had any great passion for. In his work, for example, he only ever writes about sex in the most oblique terms possible. And even then, he seems concerned almost exclusively with the after-effects of bad sex and unholy unions. Which is to say, monster children and the inheritors of congenital horrors.
As I believe Moore himself has remarked, there’s a great deal of sex going on in Lovecraft stories, but all of it happens off-camera.
Even in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” the only Lovecraft story that deals with married life in any meaningful way, the one prominent female character is secretly possessed by her own grandfather. The consequences of that for her husband are, again, only dealt with by inference. But the sense you get is that their sex life very nearly destroys him all by itself.
So, yes. Moore’s idea that Lovecraft found homosexual sex disgusting is entirely in keeping with his views on sex in general. He preferred to keep things to that platonic ideal, his life a purely intellectual experience free of fleshy concerns (which both explains his rather spartan eating habits, and makes his eventual death from stomach cancer rather ironic). Black only gets the distaste for Jews and homosexual encounters, though, and it leaves him distinctly uncomfortable. But he feigns agreement with his new friend’s opinions nonetheless. As a closeted gay AND a closeted Jew in the early 20th Century, his instinct to “go along to get along” is strong enough to prevent any other reaction.
Does that make Black a petty figure, or a tragic one? My initial reaction was “petty.” Because the shock of Lovecraft’s prejudice snaps Black out of his fondness for the man, just enough that when their discussion leads them to Lovecraft’s grandfather (who instilled these “values” in him), Black finally, after all this time, puts together the pieces of everything he’s heard from the various members of the Stella Sapiente over the course of the series, and realizes that Lovecraft is the end product of their scheme to bring about humanity’s end. This is no surprise to most readers, mind you, but Black has been a little slow on the uptake. So when I realized that the truth had finally hit him, I laughed. Ten issues of vapid refusal to accept the grand cosmic reality of what he’s seen, and all it takes is a personal slight to make everything click. What a jackass.
But over the rest of the issue, as Black makes clumsy excuses to leave Lovecraft’s house and stumbles through the streets of Providence in a terror, the words of everyone he’s talked to echoing in his head…
…I stopped laughing. “The poor sap,” I thought. “It’s all crashing down on him at once.” And by the time he’s made it back to his room, and suffered an… unwanted visitation…
…I’m not only feeling bad for Black, I’m actively disturbed by his fate.
I’m a bit torn as to how much to reveal about that fate. The nature of it is very important to my reading of the issue, and of Providence as a whole. But the book only came out a week ago, so I also don’t want to spoil it any more than I already have. So for now, I’ll just say this: Moore leaves Black’s final fate a mystery, but what we do see of it draws a rather heavy, and rather bothersome, line under Lovecraft’s notion that the cosmos, and the entities that represent its vastness and power, are so far beyond human understanding that we are nothing in the face of them. So whatever happens to Black, you know it’s not going to be anything good. That seems deeply unfair, and deeply wrong, and there’s not a damn thing anybody can do about it. But it’s also poetic in its way. Fitting, in a manner that I don’t think I’m at all comfortable with.
That’s why this final issue haunted my dreams, and that’s also why I think Providence is one of Alan Moore’s better works. Lovecraft’s fiction is all about unnameable horrors and avoiding description so that the reader’s mind will fill in the blanks with something far more terrible (and personal) than anything he could have written. And so Moore leaves a lot unspoken here, walking right up to the edge of his larger point while leaving his modern readers, the true faithful of the Lovecraftian sect, to make the final steps themselves, completing the spell of the Stella Sapiente as cluelessly as Black brought it to life.
What is his larger point? Well… Providence is ultimately a work of literary criticism disguised as fiction disguised as a magic spell. It’s Alan Moore’s rumination on what shaped HP Lovecraft’s fiction, and how that fiction has come to shape our world. Or at least, our worldview. Because Lovecraft’s work, known only to hardcore aficionados of pulp sci-fi and horror in his own lifetime, spent most of the 20th Century slowly worming its way into the mass consciousness.
His perspective that man is less than nothing in the face of the wider universe, for instance, has gone from being something that would convincingly drive men mad at the beginning of the last century to being a commonly accepted philosophical viewpoint at the beginning of this one. The rampant paranoia of our early 21st Century surveillance society, and the way so many people fear the Other, is also familiar territory to anyone who’s read Lovecraft. And then, of course, there are the mad strains of religious fanaticism that threaten, either through violence or the dogged determination to ignore fact in favor of faith, to drag mankind screaming into Lovecraft’s “peace and safety of a new dark age.”
And as society has caught up with good ol’ HP philosophically, his creations have likewise entered deeper into our popular culture. We give stuffed Cthulhu dolls to our children, for god’s sake! A friend’s daughter, when she was a toddler, once got a new (non-Lovecraftian) monster toy and immediately embraced it, tossing it into the air again and again, shouting “CTHULHU! CTHULHU!” over and over again in excitement and joy.
What a good little cultist.
Which is precisely what the Stella Sapiente are after in Providence. They wove a spell over the course of decades, producing an apocalypse child whose fictional works would one day transform human consciousness and allow the old gods, the gods of dreams and magic, to overturn reality and end man’s reign. Admittedly, Cthulhu’s not quite a household name yet. But as Moore would have it, we’re just one major motion picture away from total Lovecraftian saturation, and our own doom. Hell, he even named this final issue after the very first Lovecraft movie: 1963’s The Haunted Palace, a Roger Corman adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” in popular drag (not unlike Our Mr. Black) as an Edgar Allan Poe story.
Which seems an awfully prosaic thing to end with, but ah well. That’s how these things go, I suppose. Ending not with a bang but a whimper. Providence itself, however, has gone out on a decidedly high note.
So, yeah. All that “letting the Lovecraftian faithful fill in the gaps” stuff? Yeah, never mind all that. I’m pretty sure that Moore’s going to spend the final two issues in contemplation of exactly what Lovecraft’s legacy entails. I do think we’ve seen the last of Mr. Black, though. He’s delivered his message, the scales have finally dropped from his eyes, and his part in the story comes to a fittingly mysterious close. Even his Commonplace Book seems to have ended on an awfully final note. But Lovecraft himself talks about starting a Commonplace Book in this issue, and that’s where I think we’re headed next: into the mind of HP Lovecraft, as he moves to New York and experiences the very personal horrors that will drive him back to Providence, and the greatest work of his career. In the meantime, though, this remains a powerful single issue, and still earns my original rating of…