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In Association with Amazon.com
Neonomicon
Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows et al
Avatar paperback £14.99 / $19.99

review by Patrick Hudson

H.P. Lovecraft has lent his name to a collection of clichés that we all know very well: madness, cursed books, ancient lore, and a cast of familiar tentacular aliens with a faces full of toothy consonants for names. A truly Lovecraftian tale, though, is one that captures Lovecraft's determinedly bleak view of the world, a morbid and oddly ambiguous self-loathing and misanthropy. It's a quality that set him apart from his contemporaries but has found a ready audience over the years and in particular in the present day.

One of the best examples is an early tale appropriately titled The Outsider, published in 1921. The first-person narrator is a sensitive and isolated youth who dreams of escaping his dim and claustrophobic home for a life of good cheer and fine company. He escapes his drear ancestral pile and finally comes upon a party at a posh country house. However, when he makes his entrance, the guests flee in terror. He's heartbroken and desperate - he wants nothing more than to join them, why do they run? Then, for the first time he sees his own face reflected in a glass. To his horror, he discovers that he's not the innocent youth his tone suggests, but a monster risen from the grave. It's a neat twist that cutely puts the previous narrative into a very different context, but that's not what makes this story distinctive. What's striking, aside from the rather wondrous descriptions of the narrator's sepulchral world, is where this realisation leads him.

This story's not a tragedy; it doesn't end in death and despair. Instead, the narrator of The Outsider finally finds company among others of his kind, "the mocking and friendly ghouls." A more conventional horror might see the Outsider die - either by his own hand or at the hands of the outraged populous - and the social order restored. Here, instead we get a celebration of difference and the suggestion of an alternative social order - one of "wildness and freedom" - in the shadows of the mainstream world.

Far from defending the social status quo, the most compelling voices in Lovecraft's stories long to see the whole shallow lie of so-called civilisation destroyed. You get a hint of it in another early story, Dagon, published in 1919, where the narrator says longingly of the creatures that are coming to murder him, "I dream of the day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny war-exhausted mankind." By the time he wrote The Call Of Cthulhu - for which Dagon is often considered a dry run - Lovecraft had worked the routine up into a litany of nihilistic joy. In the words of Old Castro, "an immensely aged Mestizo" caught doing something beastly in the swamps outside New Orleans, "The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom."

All Lovecraft's arrogant anti-heroes share this contempt for the conventional world. It motivates Wilbur Whately's attempt to call his dad in The Dunwich Horror, it's the goal of the creatures that Jospeh Curwen seeks to contact in The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward and fuels the maniacal plans of Robert Suydam in The Horror At Red Hook. More than his skill at building suspense or his extraordinary ability to imagine and describe grotesque creatures, it's the feeling that the mad-eyed cultists might be the ones in the right that provides Lovecraft's stories with the distinctive Lovecraftian whiff of despair.

Lovecraft was attracting - even encouraging - pastiches and tributes from early on and a foray into Lovecraftian horror is almost a rite of passage for a certain type of SF/ fantasy writer. He was also a key figure in the growth of fandom through his correspondence with young fans and writers who would go on to become pillars of the mid-century SF and fantasy establishment. He's almost the ur-geek in this regard - an awkward, overly intellectual and elitist oddball, physically reserved to the point of mental illness, who found a community of like-minded souls among fans of the weird and cranky.

These characteristics assured his place in the same obsessive fan milieu as Robert Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien but his ornate style and nihilistic atmosphere can make him hard to enjoy in quite the same way one might enjoy a less constipated writer. Instead, he attracted outcasts and oddballs who identified with his portrayals of self-loathing and madness. Inevitably, his work was held in higher esteem in the non-Anglophone world - admirers have included Jorge Borges and Michelle Hoellbecq - and the combination of this cultish following and gloomy outlook meant he was well placed to benefit when the outré and bizarre were embraced by the mainstream.

The symbol of the gothic outsider, once a tragic figure to be pitied and feared, has become one of our foundational myths of ourselves. The gen X/ gen Y/ goth/ emo generation that have their hands on the cultural triggers at the moment look for inspiration to Edward Scissorhands, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Donnie Darko, and Kurt Cobain. They represent rebellion and individuality, traits that flatter the post-countercultural pop culture Weltanshauung. Consequently, the wilful adoption of the grotesque and taboo by characters like Wilbur Whately and Joseph Curwen is far more appealing to us than the watery rectitude of the likes of Henry Armitage or Marinus Willet.

Maybe that's what happens to all our monsters, though. The zombies you see on TV today are every bit as gory as those that shocked us in the 1980s - more so, in fact, thanks to the advance in special effects - but they seem kind of quaint these days, and let's not even talk about the de-fanged mundanity that now surrounds vampires. Even Lovecraftiana is in danger of becoming almost entirely a matter of cartoons and fluffy toys, without a shred of self-hatred or oppressive ennui. From time to time we have to be reminded about the terrors that lie beneath the surface of these familiar trappings. On this occasion, that job has fallen to Alan Moore.

Alan Moore's name is a little harder to adjectivise - Mooreish? Mooreistic? - but his approach is no less distinctive than Lovecraft's. Mooreishness is a quality that plays with our assumptions about genre, somewhere in the space between parody, post-modernism, and full-on generic immersion. It's got something in common with genre parodies of the sort inspired by Mad Magazine, but Moore has always been able to take that style a little further. While picking apart the clichés of plot and setting with all the jovial cruelty of a satirist, he populates these absurd settings with strong, believable characters. It's such obvious idea that it looks like a cliché now: just make the characters like real people and see how they act when you put them in the extreme situations imagined in fantasy and SF.

It's this that lifts his best work above parody; it's as if he just has to create the characters and let them go and they'll explore the limits of the genre of their own accord. It's a quality most famously on show in his superhero classics like Watchmen, Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?, and Top 10. When considered seriously, with characters that possess a recognisably human dose of passion and ambition, the questions raised by superhero fiction show up in sharp relief. In Moore's hands, even by-the-numbers pot-boiling efforts like his mid-1990s runs on Supreme and Wild C.A.T.S. are delightful combinations of arch genre commentary and brilliantly satisfying superhero bollocks.

While he's largely associated with the superhero genre, Moore's been writing horror in one form or another since the start of his career. In many ways, horror is the genre that made his reputation. While Watchmen is unarguably the work that made him famous, and V For Vendetta perhaps has the deepest cultural influence, his reputation was made by his revolutionary work on the cheesy DC horror comic, The Saga Of The Swamp Thing.

Swamp Thing was a mishmash of generic elements created by diverse hands over a period of decades when Moore took it over in 1983. Within a few issues, and without contradicting anything in the stories before, he turned something a bit silly into to something magical, even occasionally sublime. It was such a revelation that it spawned a whole subgenre of obscure superheroes from the crusty fringes of Marvel or DC continuity given edgy po-mo makeovers by British young guns like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, and Garth Ennis. Moore's genre-aware approach was influenced by - and in turn a huge influence upon - the nostalgic zeitgeist of the 1980s and 1990s. The SF and fantasy audiences in particular returned to the heart of their genres for another look, and this went on to influence the 'new hard SF' and the 'new weird' as old ideas were resurrected by new writers with fresh Mooreistatic impulses.

That Mooreism and Lovecraftianism should combine so well shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows both. Neonomicon is a wonderful Lovecraftian pastiche that plays to the strengths of both writers. In typical Moorean style, it teases at the unspoken assumptions that lie beneath the Lovecraftian genre trappings while simultaneously keeping those dreadful trappings gloriously in place.

Neonomicon is a direct sequel to an earlier work, The Courtyard, first published in 2003 and included in this volume. In a rather tricksy way, though, The Courtyard isn't quite by Alan Moore; it's instead an adaptation by Antony Johnston and Jacen Burrows of a prose story from The Starry Wisdom (Creation Books, 1995, edited by D.M. Mitchell) an anthology of fiction reflecting Lovecraftian themes by modern hands.

It follows an FBI agent, Aldo Sax, investigating a series of bizarre murders using his system of 'anomaly theory'. Obviously things go horribly wrong for Sax, and finding the truth behind the murders leaves him forever changed in typical Lovecraftian style. It riffs cleverly off Lovecraft's The Horror At Red Hook - Club Zothique is clearly intended to be in the same building as the Reformed Church and the original story's stifling xenophobia is rendered effectively as a deranged Travis Bickle-like (maybe Rorschach-like) internal monologue. Jacen Burrows provides some startling surrealistic visions, there's some good panel-to-panel storytelling and Johnny Carcosa's pretty cool. However, it never really takes off and the central concept is a little stale, like a bit of generic 1990s Lynchian shamanic FBI horror psychedelia. The near-future setting also works against it - maybe the intention is Robert W. Chambers' The Repairer Of Reputations, but the clunky mid-1990s' futurism is a little too much like Keanu Reeves' Johnny Mnemonic.

Neonomicon has elements of the same futuristic setting (The Harlem Dome - don't ask me what it is or does), but it's less obtrusive in a story that seems to be set in something pretty close to our own 2010s. It kicks off with a continuation of the serial-killer story of The Courtyard, with a couple of new agents on the path of the same murders as Aldo Sax. The agents raid Club Zothique in an attempt to nail Johnny Carcosa, who pulls off a brilliantly disturbing disappearing act at the end of part one. From here it quickly leaves the contemporary concerns of FBI agents and serial killers behind and heads into the murky and terrifying basement realm of the truly Lovecraftian.

It's sometimes a feature of Lovecraft's stories that the narratives refer to his own stories and the stories of other authors he admired, and he encouraged other writers to use elements from his own stories. This intertextuality is a core element of Lovecraftianism that plays nicely with Moore's own predilection for genre jamming. References to Lovecraft's work fill the foreground and background of both The Courtyard and Neonomicon: the band Randolph Carter and the Ulthar Cats, Club Zothique, and Johnny Carcosa, and many little background jokes like the titles in the sex shop, 'The Balls of Eryx', 'Barely Describable', and 'From Behind'.

In Neonomicon the main characters are well aware of the existence of Lovecraft and his weird ideas. In fact, they almost twig that the whole thing is a piss-take: early on, one of the agents says to her colleague, "Gordon, there's something weird about this. It's almost like it's some big literary in-joke." This awareness takes the gags and flip allusions to another level, and the story becomes an explicit commentary on Lovecraft's stories. In particular, it addresses a theme that hangs darkly over a number of Lovecraft's stories but one he could never bring himself to face directly: sex.

In part three a character says of Lovecraft's stories, "Perhaps it's me, but it seemed it was all sex. You know? The monsters and all that they're like a lot of cocks and pussies crawling around. White slime everywhere and stuff stinks like dead fish." I don't know if I'd say that myself, even if Jacen Burrows underlines the point by drawing the Deep One in Neonomicon as if it's a giant cock. Lovecraft had a few hang-ups that came out in his fiction but not all of them are about sex. In fact, I think that the driving force behind Lovecraftian horror is Lovecraft's mental breakdown at the age of 18. It comes up again and again, every possession or hyper-sensitively detailed episode of mental dislocation. This seems a far more recurrent theme than sex.

Even so, a number of Lovecraft's stories have a strong sexual undercurrent, and Old Alan's certainly got form in this regard. In both The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and (more notoriously) Lost Girls, Moore's been interested in lifting the skirts and exploring the sex lives of the most demure figures in popular culture. He sometimes walks a fine line of good taste in this regard, occasionally crossing it and producing a kind of low parody that degrades rather than humanises its subjects.

No worries about that with Lovecraft, though! Lovecraft's eroto-phobic classics are already deliriously tasteless and degrading; that's entirely the point of them, even if he does shy away from the grisly details. There's the implication of father-daughter incest and the monstrous child it produces in The Dunwich Horror; orgiastic cults in The Horror At Red Hook, and The Call Of Cthulhu; the predatory desires of Ephraim Waite acted out through the possession of his daughter in The Thing On The Doorstep; and perhaps most horrifying of all the bestial mass rape fantasy of The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

And while it isn't always about sex, there are - on the other hand - no positive representations of sex or romantic love in any of his stories. For those few of his narrators that are family men, the wives get short shrift: Delapore in The Rats In The Walls is a widower and his son dies in World War I; the wife of Daniel Upton in The Thing On The Doorstep is sidelined in favour of his intense intellectual friendship with Edward Derby; and Thomas Olney's wife and family in The Strange High House In The Mist are a positive deadweight to his true, dreamer self. Elsewhere, the importance of love and sexual desire is dismissed as irrelevant - his utopian aliens in At The Mountains Of Madness and The Shadow Out Of Time procreate through fastidiously asexual spores rather than fuss about with all that messy puffing and blowing.

Neonomicon addresses Lovecraft's sexual hang ups head on. Moore doesn't break the rules of the genre or even add that much to Lovecraft's own efforts but simply lays it all out for us to see. His cultists are a bunch of dreary swingers, and the intentions of the Deep One are depicted unflinchingly. More subtly, the female protagonist - Agent Brears - is a recovering sex addict and so she's already suffered from the uncontrollable nature of the sexual urge. This is perhaps the element that some readers will baulk at. Monster rape is a creepy thrill when considered at the arm's length - as it were - of genre, but Moore takes us much closer up. It's left to the reader to navigate the misogyny and decide whether genre makes it right. As ever, Moore leaves the generic structure standing while showing precisely its logical consequence.

While Moore doesn't attempt to write like Lovecraft, both The Courtyard and Neonomicon have a distinctive shape that's familiar from many horror stories. Lovecraft relied quite heavily on the final shocking revelation. He used it with great effect in stories like The Outsider and The Statement Of Randolph Carter, and the well-turned shock endings of stories like Cool Air, From Beyond, or The Shunned House are almost the only thing that makes these stories enjoyable. He struggled with it in his longer works. It's a real problem in stories like The Whisperer In Darkness, At The Mountains Of Madness, and The Shadow Out Of Time, where the twist endings work against both the natural flow of the story and Lovecraft's desire to explore his philosophical and aesthetic ideas. Lovecraft ties himself up in knots in these stories trying to provide the twist ending that he thinks they need (or perhaps that Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright expected).

But at its best the twist is more than a gimmick. The shock ending is a pivot point for the protagonist of a good horror story, one that tips him hopelessly into the abyss. It's the moment of the vertiginous paradigm shift where they realise that what they thought was a shadow is the leading edge of a terrible unrealised reality that's been lurking just out of sight all along. A good shock ending is the essence of Lovecraftian madness, a dark epiphany that strips away the comforting falsehoods we rely on to frame our world, and plunges us into black reality.

In his Dunsanian stories, however, this moment of revelation can lead to a sort of rapture. Thomas Olney finds strange contentment with the mysterious old man who lives in The Strange High House In The Mist, while The Silver Key leads Randolph Carter to his idyllic childhood when he grows weary of life; and in Celephais, Kuranes is a real-world dreamer who becomes the king of an ancient kingdom. These happy endings are less common than the horrors, but they're structured in a very similar way, leading to a similar moment of illumination, but one that ennobles rather than destroys.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth brilliantly combines the horrific realisation of the traditional shocker with the rapturous paradigm shift of the dream stories. It has a fantastically subtle structure with two brilliant shocks for the reader, one that's far enough in the foreground to distract the reader from the second, which hits you when you least expect it. That moment when the narrator realises his ancestry and inevitable fate is one of the occasions where Lovecraft got the twist exactly right. The reader understands the horrific truth of the situation while the narrator dreams of the days when "We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses and Cyclopean and many-columned Y'ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever."

If The Courtyard is a tribute to The Horror At Red Hook, then Neonomicon is near enough to a sequel to The Shadow Over Innsmouth. It features the same terrifying pact with the Deep Ones and leaves us in no doubt about the types of ceremony they were interested in when they first made a deal with Obed Marsh. Like the Innsmouth narrator, Agent Brears finds herself coming to love what she's become and the final reveal brilliantly turns the idea of Cthulhu rising from the depths on its head in a moment of Mooreismatic insight and Lovecraftian gynophobia.

Women and sex and birth terrified Lovecraft. As I've said; there's more to him than this and it's not always about sex - sometimes it's about race, sometimes it's about loss of self-control, sometimes it's simply a matter of new ways to express self-hatred and nihilism. But sometimes it is about sex, and Moore's Neonomicon is a fantastic reflection of those aspects of Lovecraft's work. At the same time it cracks Lovecraftian gags, quietly addresses more modern notions of sexual dysfunction and is a chillingly satisfying horror story in its own right.

Neonomicon by Alan Moore




Neonomicon cover




Neonomicon



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