Monday, October 11, 2010

Dreams of Chalk and Fish-Men

So it’s back to the funnybooks for Day 11 of the Countdown to Halloween, with a review of a comic that’s actually current…

Neonomicon #1 & 2
by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

So, uhm… Wow. This book is pretty hardcore. I mean, it’s a horror comic, so I expected something scary or disturbing, but man! I’ve seldom felt more uncomfortable reading a funnybook as I did reading the second issue of this series. I’m getting way ahead of myself with this intro, but I thought I should get that out of the way up-front: there’s some disturbing content ahead. Lots of SPOILERS, too, so read on with that in mind…

The book starts out in pretty safe horror territory. It all seems very grounded, a sort of police procedural take on the work of HP Lovecraft. There’s a former FBI agent who turned psycho after investigating a case at Red Hook. He’ll now only speak gibberish that reads much like the language of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu prophesies, but a couple of still-sane agents, Lamper and Brears, go to speak with him in connection to what looks like a rash of copy-cat murders, with clues dating back to a similar case in the 1920s.

Sounds like the set-up for a nice little Lovecraft pastiche, doesn’t it? Reference to “The Horror at Red Hook,” gibbering madness, the craziness starting up all over again… And at first, that seems like what we’re looking at. Moore’s writing his FBI agents in a very modern crime-fiction style; their banter wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Brian Bendis comic. Sure, it’s a little weird that they’re talking about how one of them (Brears) has just gotten out of therapy for sex addiction, but still. Not too far outside the bounds of what you’d expect.

And Moore seems to be having fun with it, packing the first issue full to bursting with throw-away references to Lovecraft. There’s a lesbian rock star named Randolph Carter, bands called The Ulthar Cats and The Rats in the Malls, and a particularly clumsy sex pun built around the place-name Innsmouth. It all seemed a bit much to me, honestly, until Agent Brears comments on it herself. “It’s almost like some big literary in-joke,” she says, and that’s when I realized that Moore’s got a bit more up his sleeve here than packing the book full of nerdy gags.

What we’re really looking at in Neonomicon, I think, is Alan Moore picking Lovecraft’s work apart. He’s peeling back the comforting layers of pulp cool and staid New England constraint to expose the raw, bleak, terror at the heart of it. Lovecraft’s central conceit, after all, was that humanity is already doomed, and the only mercy we’re allowed is the inability of our minds to comprehend it. Translate those themes from the less graphic writing of Lovecraft’s time into the language of modern fiction, and… That’s some pretty nasty stuff.

But Moore’s playing around with all the nastier aspects of Lovecraft’s fiction. Lovecraft was rather famously xenophobic, his early racism and misogyny coming out strongly in several stories, especially “The Horror at Red Hook,” the story from which this one takes its starting-point. So Moore makes his protagonists a woman and a black man. And Lovecraft hints at ugly sexual rites, referring to forbidden conjugations and nameless debasements without ever defining them, so Moore makes his lead a recovering sex addict, and in the second issue…

[SPOILER] Well. In the second issue, that’s where things turn ugly. Brears and Lamper run afoul of a modern-day Cthulhu cult operating out of a goth-geek boutique that runs a back-room trade in specialty porn and sex toys. Like starfish-shaped dildos and (my favorite) a book called “Cuntes des Ghoules.” They’re a faintly hysterical bunch, a handful of lumpy middle-aged couples who have orgies in their underground sex-pool. It’s all very creepy, but they seem harmless enough until one of them finds the gun Brears hid in her purse and shoots Lamper through the head.

And that’s where it all turns into a nightmare. Brears, who’s left half-blind after removing her contact lenses, is pulled into the sex-pool and raped at gunpoint while the rest of the cultists carry out their orgy as if they hadn’t just murdered a federal agent. It all builds up to the summoning (by orgone emanations) of some kind of horrible fish-man who they all proceed to have sex with. He’s never shown clearly; we see the scene from his perspective, more or less, and then from Brears’, whose vision is so blurred that she couldn’t give an accurate description if she tried.

*Shudder*

While I thought that Brears’ blurry vision was kind of a nice play on Lovecraft’s penchant for not describing his indescribable creatures… My god. The whole unpleasant sequence almost goes too far (actually, the fish-man money shot we get in one panel may very well cross the line), but it’s so well-written that I can’t dismiss it as mere sensationalism. The casual attitude of the cultists is the face of real evil, callous at Brears’ anguish, racist toward her dead partner, and cracking Lovecraft jokes all the while. These are people with some degree of understanding of the futility of Lovecraft’s universe, and this is their reaction to it: giving in to banal barbarism. Chilling.

Of course, it’s not like “sex with fish-men” isn’t already in the lexicon of Lovecraftian horror; it’s pretty much the entire basis of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” after all. But… maybe it’s for the best that good ol’ HP didn’t go in for graphic detail…

But there’s something bigger going on here. In the first issue, lead perp Johnny Carcosa turns himself into a two-dimensional chalk drawing right in front of Agent Brears, perhaps referencing Lovecraft‘s fascination with higher-dimensional planes. There’s also the series’ big mystery: even though the story seems to be taking place in a world that’s very much recognizable as our own, all the action has been shown, several times, to be taking place under a giant mechanical dome that, the first time we see it, seems to be free-floating in space. [/SPOILER]

And then there’s the very first page of the book, a full-page splash of what looks to be a picture of a gas cloud in space, with what I think is a face, ill-defined by clouds, at the bottom. Whatever it is, it’s accompanied by the following text: “It’s the end, and the beginning. He’s beneath the waters now, but soon, in only a few months, he will come forth. And until then he sleeps. And Dreams.”

Which is an obvious reference to Cthulhu’s undying sleep under the ocean waves, but which also might be telling us that everything we’re seeing is a dream he’s having as he waits for the stars to align. Which would certainly be in line with Lovecraft’s philosophy. What would make life more meaningless, after all, than the realization that you only exist in the dreams of a horrid octopoid space god?

Heh. Whatever’s going on here, Moore has two more issues to explain it. And, like Great Cthulhu himself, I’ll be waiting…

Grade: A-

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