My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It is with hesitation that I write anything about Providence. This recent three-volume graphic novel—a prequel/sequel to the earlier works, The Courtyard and Neonomicon—represents Alan Moore’s meticulously-researched and carefully-arranged synthesis of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos, whereas I am only the most casual reader of Lovecraft and a mild skeptic of his new eminence in the literary canon (I attempt, in the voice of an imagined devotee, the best case I can make for Lovecraft in my review of At the Mountains of Madness). But I wrote this summer about Moore’s earliest comics opus, Miracleman, so for symmetry’s sake I will essay on his latest, Providence.
Moore is, in any case, skeptical of Lovecraft too. While a number of Providence‘s allusions no doubt wriggled tentacularly over my head, I think I got the book’s point. In this narrative, set mainly in 1919, Lovecraft is the unknowing channel used by an occult conspiracy to influence both popular and high culture so that the immemorial dream-world, vanquished at the founding of human civilization and populated with the creatures envisioned by Lovecraft (and kindred writers like Poe, Bierce, Dunsany, and Chambers), can triumph over the earth again. Not for nothing does Borges appear in its penultimate chapter: as a commenter at the Providence annotations site points out, Moore is in essence retelling “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” only with figures from Lovecraft’s life and work.
But is it a good thing that Lovecraft’s visions triumph? The final chapter of Providence stages a philosophical debate among the characters—including real-life, living Lovecraft scholar, S. T. Joshi—about just that. As we know, Lovecraft and many of his precursors and successors, from Poe to Burroughs, held illiberal views, while our present literary culture, ostensibly including Moore, is ever-more militantly liberal.
Moore addresses this question through Providence‘s protagonist: Robert Black. Black is a closeted gay, Jewish journalist from Milwaukee, rather than being the WASP scion Lovecraft was. He travels from New York to New England investigating signs of the aforementioned occult conspiracy. When at the narrative’s first climax he meets the man himself in the eponymous Rhode Island city, he lets Lovecraft borrow his journal, in which he’s both reported on his experiences and written down story ideas and literary criticism. Both Black’s record of what he’s seen in his travels and his theorization of the need for a new kind of fantastical literature inspire Lovecraft to write his most important works. Black, meanwhile, realizes he has been the pawn of the occult conspiracy all along, engineered as the “herald” (in fact, he writes for the New York Herald) to Lovecraft’s “redeemer”—a John the Baptist for the Cthulhu mythos’s Incarnation.
This narrative arrangement leaves us with two possible interpretations of Lovecraftian politics. On the one hand, despite Lovecraft’s own abjection of the non-white, of the queer, and of much of modernity at large, he actually owes his visions to these social forces; much of his own inventiveness must be credited to these prevailing conditions allegorized through the figure of Black (and communicated through Black’s understanding of how much “weird fiction” as theory and practice owes to the various social and artistic avant-gardes Lovecraft scorned in favor of the 18th century).
By contrast, insofar as the Lovecraftian lifeworld, not only inhumane but inhuman, colonizes culture then its collaborators, including real and made-up marginal figures from Robert Black to Burroughs and Joshi, may have something to atone for. (Moore makes clear the grisly methods of coercion it uses, for which rape, as in so much of his work, is here again the metonym.) Perhaps we ought not to have so hastily thrown the realist novel—the “literary fiction” Black anachronistically complains about to his journal—in the historical dustbin.
Providence never quite resolves this conundrum over the worth of Lovecraft or the weird for which he serves as figurehead. When earth becomes Yuggoth at the novel’s conclusion (or perhaps, per the fictionalized Joshi, realizes that it always was Yuggoth), the violated mother of Cthulhu herself says, “I think we should learn to dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.” Moore makes heavy reference to Freud on the unconscious and Jung on dreams to suggest that such a return of the repressed, such a habitation of the dreamworld, is true and inevitable. Yet it was purchased with lies and bloodlines, wrought on the bodies of prostrate women by metaphysical fascists. Can you have magic and ethics, even magic and everyday decency?
We are back in the dilemma, if dilemma it is, of From Hell: the character who speaks for Moore’s occultism is a misogynist murderer, the character who speaks for his humanism the only victim to survive. But perhaps this Yeatsian tension between spirit and humanity, between the work and the life, is preferable to the fantasies of their resolution that we were getting from Moore a little over a decade ago in the not-entirely-convincing polemics of Promethea and Lost Girls.
Added to all the foregoing to give it an extra savor: Providence is Moore’s love-hate letter both to comics and to America (and maybe they are the same thing for him). Providence is only part-comics. The comics part is drawn in the painstaking ligne claire of Jacen Burrows, avowedly influenced by Hergé and Otomo. Burrows must have once seen that interview where Eddie Campbell called Bill Sienkiewicz a prima donna for not finishing Big Numbers, because he seems to have devoted his life to doing whatever Alan Moore tells him to do. Yet Moore gives over a third of each chapter to the prose of Robert Black’s diary—too often undistinguished prose, alas. The occult paraphernalia Black inserts is usually better, my favorite being the weekly circular for the church in Moore’s Innsmouth stand-in, written all in piscine puns beginning with a hilarious Gospel misquotation: “I will make you fishes of men.” The book itself, then, is divided between Moore’s devotion to comics and his desire to escape into literature.
Likewise, through Black’s speculations on how to write romances for the modern age, we hear Moore’s tribute to American literature: he carefully roots Lovecraft’s achievements not only in the fin-de-siècle avant-garde but in the American modernity of Poe and Hawthorne. It all made me consider for the first time in literally 30 years of reading him (I read The Killing Joke when I was six!) how odd it must be to be Alan Moore: to have spent so much of one’s career writing for and about a country you don’t live in, a country whose culture has—shades of Providence‘s Cthulhu cult—semi-colonized one’s own, even if part of one welcomed it as a liberation from one’s overly familiar everyday world. Comics, pop culture, America: Moore must love and loathe them in equal measure. No wonder he writes fiction of such tortured ambivalence, in contrast to the sometimes unwelcome certitude of the interviews he gives.
Should you read Providence? You probably have to come to it already caring about Lovecraft and Moore. You should also be willing to deal with the nastiness Moore uses to emphasize the inhumanity of his cultists. Providence isn’t as bad as Neonomicon, with its outright attack on the audience, and its most disgusting scene is partially penitent, as it represents a Moore surrogate assaulting the reader (i.e., a character placed in the reader’s point-of-view position). Still, it’s not for faint of heart. (As for the often raised question of Moore and rape: he writes about it as much as he does for the exact same reason as second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin or Adrienne Rich talked about as much as they did: both think it’s the foundation of all human hierarchy.)
Providence does contain much too much relatively lifeless prose from Black, all given in annoying cursive handwriting. I understand Moore’s goal in dividing the narrative, but I remain convinced the man who often included three strands of narrative in a single tiny panel of Watchmen could have told almost the whole story in comics form.
Black’s characterization is also seriously flawed. Moore can’t seem to decide if he’s an aw-shucks hayseed or an experienced habitué of the queer demimonde who is au courant with the avant-garde. He’s naive when Moore needs him to be, not when Moore doesn’t; therefore, he never comes into focus as a character.
But for all that, I enjoyed Providence, particularly the time-jump audacity of its last two chapters. For personal reasons I love that the spread showing Yuggoth as it overcomes urban space takes Pittsburgh as its victim city. And the ethical debate at the end—accept sublime change, whatever form it takes; or fight for humanity and for humanism?—is one that our technological condition will never let rest. I admired Burrows’s heroic feats of drawing and Juan Rodriguez’s distinctive grayish-greenish digital palette.
Finally—a test of the most powerful works—for all its flaws, I have lingered in the disquieting mood of Providence for days after finishing it.
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