Friday, April 8, 2011

A Hideous Naughty Strangeness: Alan Moore's Neonomicon, and the Doom That Came to Lovecraft

Neonomicon
by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

So Alan Moore’s farewell “fuck you” to the comics industry wrapped up recently, and… This unrelentingly dark and unpleasant book didn‘t exactly go where I expected it to, though perhaps I should have. He played fair with his literary mystery, after all, planting clues and images that pretty much told you where it was headed if you chose to view them in the right way. But I wasn’t exactly trying to solve the mystery anyway. I was more concerned with the commentary he was making on the works of HP Lovecraft, which is how I want to look at Neonomicon tonight.

Part of the agenda here seems to have been to give some teeth back to the incredible nihilism, the sheer hopeless existential horror that makes Lovecraft’s work so compelling, and that too often gets glossed over in the modern popular fan interpretations of the work. I mean, in a world where you can buy cute stuffed effigies of Cthulhu (I own one myself), it’s easy to forget how terrifying that fucker’s supposed to be. He’s an avatar of nameless, uncaring evil from beyond, a vast alien intellect that will devour all, and that we have no hope of defeating. He is nihilism made flesh, not a toyetic cartoon mascot.

I can understand how it came to this, of course. One of the ways people deal with scary things is to codify them, make them understandable, and (in the end) make jokes about them. And Cthulhu strikes the perfect balance between the bizarre and the relatable in Lovecraft’s pantheon of evil cosmic god-things. “Big flabby oceanic monster with an octopus for head” is way easier to grasp than, say, “formless boiling madness that sits gibbering at the center of the universe.” But it’s also more pleasingly strange than “black goat of the woods with a thousand young.” But still. Codifying Lovecraftian horrors is pretty much antithetical to the point of them. They are the unknown, the unclassifiable things that terrify us because we have problems wrapping our heads around them. That’s why it’s so difficult to do the man’s work justice on film, or in comics: visual mediums demand that you provide visuals for things best left to the imagination.

Jacen Burrows does supply visuals here, of course, and his Deep One (though a very cool monster) isn’t particularly horrifying in and of itself. But it doesn’t need to be, because of the kind of horror Moore has chosen to focus on. Which brings us back on-point, and into the realm of SPOILERS...

Moore’s Deep One, despite his role as supernatural rapist, winds up as a sympathetic figure, as much a victim of the Cthulhu cultists as our heroine, FBI Agent Brears. He’s little more than an animal, responding to instincts he can’t control, and a magical summons he can’t resist. He has no concept that what he does to Brears is wrong, and is therefore, in spite of the sheer bloody horror of his actions, an innocent. An unwitting instrument. The cultists simply rape Brears using his dick. They know damn well that rape is wrong. They just don’t care.

And that sentiment cuts to the second level of horror in Lovecraft’s writing: human beings that embrace the savage amorality of Lovecraft‘s cosmic truth. Going back and re-reading his story “The Call of Cthulhu” recently, I was struck by the motivations of his cultists in worshipping this horrible thing that they knew would bring about the fall of mankind. Essentially, they’re seeking a breath-takingly nihilistic paradise: Cthulhu’s going to kill us all when he awakens, and they believe that as his devout worshippers, they’ll be the last to go. They’re eager for him to teach them new kinds of pleasure before the end. Unspeakable acts that Lovecraft (characteristically) doesn’t go into.

He’s famously reticent to detail such things in his work, something Moore parodies with the character of Aldo Sax, a former FBI agent turned serial killer who’s been driven mad by knowledge of the Elder Gods, and who looks a bit like good ol’ HP. Sax expresses an extreme distaste with sexual matters, especially genitalia, and I’ve got to think that’s a jab at Lovecraft’s relative prudishness. But I think Moore’s got it wrong there. The lack of sex in Lovecraft’s writing is understandable considering the time period and the market he was writing for. Pulp magazine sex was generally of the slap-and-tickle variety, especially in the fantasy pulps Lovecraft pitched to. And when you consider that he was blacklisted early in his career for ghost-writing a story about a necrophiliac on the battlefields of World War One, it makes sense that he‘d avoid such things in his own work. So while Lovecraft hints at much hideous naughty strangeness, he shows us none.

But that’s precisely what Moore does show us in Neonomicon. What Lovecraft only hinted at, Moore puts right in our damn faces (quite literally, in the case of issue three’s totally uncalled-for fish-man bukkake scene). It’s a pretty effective way to reignite the horror and revulsion of Lovecraft for a jaded modern audience. Moore’s cultists are technically Dagon worshippers, but since I’ve always thought of Dagon as sort of Cthulhu Lite… same difference. And they’re as amoral a collection of freaky fish-fuckers as you‘d ever hope to find, banal suburbanites who’ve found pleasure in rape and murder and inter-species sex. Which jibes pretty well with the degenerate cultist assholes we see in “Call of Cthulhu” … other than the “suburbanites” part.

Which brings us to Moore’s critique of Lovecraft. Running right alongside his attempts to bring the horror back to this material is a complementary thematic thread that takes Lovecraft (and by extension his fans) to task for the uglier aspects of his work: his elitism, his racism, and his unspoken misogyny. I don’t think that’s an entirely fair assessment of the man, honestly. I think all of those things were symptoms of his real problem: a crippling xenophobia that ruined his marriage and caused him to retreat from wider society into the comforting bosom of his hometown. The world was a place HP Lovecraft loved to visit, but he most assuredly didn’t want to live there. To his credit, he recanted some of his prejudices in his later life. But still. It’s impossible to look at stories like “He” or “The Horror at Red Hook” and not feel at least a tiny bit sickened by the race hatred on display. That’s not uncommon for popular fiction of the period, but there’s something more virulent about it in those stories, and any commentary on the man’s work is incomplete if it doesn’t grapple with that in some way.

Moore chooses to do it by putting those attitudes into the mouths of his cultists. While Lovecraft’s cultists are almost always people of lower social standing, or of the “lesser races” he was so terrified of, Moore’s cultists are Lovecraft’s own people: white middle-class New Englanders. White middle-class New Englanders with delusions of grandeur, or at least a mostly-unfounded belief in their own superiority. They are, of course, all big Lovecraft fans, and they even sell those plush Cthulhus people are so fond of in the hobby shop they run above their ritual sex-pool. Moore’s group even displays the blatant hypocrisy of so many armchair racists: two of their members are Vietnamese! This also echoes something from Lovecraft’s own life. Though he was an anti-Semite in theory, in actual practice… he married a Jew. It’s a stinging indictment, and honestly a more realistic take on things. I mean, it’s never poor people who get into all this twisty perverted black magic bullshit, after all. It’s the bored middle and upper classes.

People like, say… Alan Moore himself, a white Englishman who’s been a practicing magician for more than 20 years now! I don’t think the irony is lost on him, either, considering how much he draws on his own not-inconsiderable knowledge of the occult and esoteric science in reinterpreting Lovecraft’s mythos. There's a lot of discussion of Lovecraft's source material along the way, for instance. Lovecraft was always borrowing names and events from history, often with a lot of artistic license, and Moore’s interpretation of this habit here is the idea that all the seemingly Lovecraft-inspired stuff in Neonomicon actually works the other way around. In other words, they’re simply drawing on the same occult esoterica that he did, but he didn’t always get everything right. A good example of this is the Plateau of Leng, a literal location in Lovecraft’s work, but here (in “reality”) a reference to the attainment of a new level of awareness, an ability to step outside of time and see mankind’s true four-dimensional form.

This leads to a pretty decent artistic representation of the “time worm” effect from Burrows. If you're not familiar with the time worm, it's a representation of the human body as seen from outside of time, which in this context makes a time-distended human body into some unending, amorphous, multi-limbed thing. You know. Like something from, oh I don't know… the writings of HP Lovecraft.

That neat trick of context is also the key to the series’ final (and central) twist: the seeming timelessness of the Great Old Ones ("The Old Ones are, the Old Ones were, the Old Ones shall ever be") doesn’t mean that they’ve been around for an eternity and always will be. It means that they literally exist outside of time, and have yet to be born. And that they are, in fact, the result of the union between Brears and the Deep One in the cult’s orgone-powered sex pit. Which means that the cultists, stand-ins for Lovecraft and (perhaps) the most honest face of his fictional legacy, win. Though, considering that the ones not murdered by their victimized Deep One are cut down by an FBI SWAT team, perhaps not in the manner they’d expected.

All of which turns the mythos quite neatly into an extended, self-fulfilling nativity metaphor. Which is the last thing you'd expect, considering the near-complete absence of women and sex in Lovecraft's work, but which is also an obvious interpretation to make, considering how very many of his stories dealt with hideous miscegenation and degenerate bloodlines (not to mention that goat with the thousand evil babies).

In the end, the message here is that we’re not merely doomed. We’ve always been doomed, and we always will be doomed, and it‘s all by our own hand. Now that’s some class-A cosmic nihilism right there. It even ups the ante on Lovecraft’s own brand of it, since humanity is responsible for its own downfall, rather than just being the unwitting victims of powers from beyond our ken. Discovering this ugly truth might well be enough to drive men mad. Which is as fine a thing to say about a Lovecraft pastiche as I can think of.

Grade: A+

4 comments:

  1. My response got eaten by a browser error.

    In essence, this is a perfect recap, and now I need to find "The Courtyard" to see what came earlier.

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  2. I have nothing terribly important to add, except that I did read all of the Courtyard, and when I realized Neonomicon was a continuation and subsequent conclusion of that, I picked it up the second it hit shelves. That and, you know... it was all rapey and Lovecrafty and there's something wrong with me. I was pleased with the ending, and particularly liked the time worm nod. Chaos magic and Lovecraft's writings fit almost too well together...

    This is a great little essay on the works on good old HPL, and I hope you don't mind if I post a link to this in another blog! Wildclaw fans need you. They really do, sir.

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  3. Nice, thoughtful analysis. For me I think Lovecraft had it right...not showing unspeakable acts makes them more terrifying than seeing a woman have sex with and jerk off a Deep One, which (while disgusting) isn't really as shocking as it sounds, especially if you've read Moore before.

    I give it an A for effort and a C+ for execution.

    -TheLovecraftsman.com

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  4. Well, damn! I talk about Lovecraft and sex, and people start talking! Too bad there's not more Deep One porn out there.

    ...actually, scratch that...

    Seriously, thanks for the comments and kudos. And Lovecraftsman, I can't disagree with you about preferring Lovecraft's approach. I think Moore handled it well (for instance, it just hit me last night that Brears' eerie calm in the sex pool only sets in after Cthulhu's been conceived), but I'd hate to see all Lovecraftian fiction done this way.

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