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The Shadow Over Northampton: The Transmogrification Of The Lovecraft Mythos By Alan Moore by Daniel L. Werneck

19 Sep

‘The Courtyard’ is a short story, written by Alan Moore and first published in 1994, as part of an anthology named The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute To H. P. Lovecraft. The prose was later adapted into comics form by Anthony Johnston, with artwork by Jacen Burrows, and published by Avatar Press in early 2003. The same publisher re-released this title in four different editions between 2003 and 2009. This success led Avatar to offer Moore the opportunity to continue the story, and Neonomicon was published in four issues from July 2010 to February 2011. It is a direct continuation of ‘The Courtyard’, to the extent of making the two stories indissociable.

One of the most typical aspects of the “Lovecraft mythos” is how the author designed his fictional world to be an open literary game that could be played by other writers. Lovecraft was joined in this game by some of his contemporaries, and even replied to them by reusing their characters or fake myths in his own stories, thus creating a rhizome of citations that grew without control, like memes, incorporating elements conceived by various authors into a masterful puzzle of fake occultism and make-believe mythology.

This continued even after Lovecraft died, in a peculiar phenomenon. Dozens of writers and artists kept his legacy alive, through various levels of reference, from adding the Necronomicon as a usable item in a video-game, to writing entire role-playing game systems or whole novels set in his fictional universe. This doesn’t happen very often, and some of the few authors who went through the same process were actually correspondents of Lovecraft himself, such as Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian.

When a writer of the stature of Alan Moore joins such a game, he can’t afford to lose. Even though neither Neonomicon or ‘The Courtyard’ are considered among his most important works, Moore faces Lovecraftian horror with both respect for the original author, and commitment to innovate, mixing his expertise as a fiction writer with a vast knowledge of the history of occultism.

In addition to exploring Lovecraft’s occult lore, Moore also brings his open inter-textual game to a new level by successfully updating the setting of his story to our own time, not only chronologically, but also in terms of the sensibilities of contemporary audiences, probably more accustomed to graphic depictions of sexual intercourse and gruesome scenes than most Lovecraft readers back in the 1930s.

Lovecraft (…) would only talk of “certain nameless rituals.” Or he’d use some euphemism: “blasphemous rites.” It was pretty obvious, given that a lot of his stories detailed the inhuman offspring of these “blasphemous rituals” that sex was probably involved somewhere along the line. But that never used to feature in Lovecraft’s stories (…) So I thought: let’s put all of the unpleasant racial stuff back in, let’s put sex back in. Let’s come up with some genuinely ‘nameless rituals’- let’s give them a name. So those were the precepts that it started out from, and I decided to follow wherever the story lead.

(Moore, in Gieben, 2010)

Surprisingly, this chronological update is made possible by drawing on elements already present in Lovecraft’s stories. Racism and anti-Semitism, for instance, have not ceased to exist, and therefore it sounds perfectly plausible when a deranged FBI agent refers to African-Americans as ‘spear-chuckers’ and describes his boss as ‘a know-nothing kike’. It also sounds current and naturalistic when fanatical Dagon cultists call Agent Lamper a ‘nigger’ and accuse a SWAT team of being Zionists. Instead of sanitizing the fictional universe and the writing style of Lovecraft stories, Moore kept these controversial subjects and perverted their use, not creating racist stories, but making some of the characters as racist as Lovecraft’s narrators, maybe more. He even goes so far as to take the mysterious rituals Lovecraft always mentioned but never described, giving them a very graphic portrayal thanks to the advantage of using images in comics, thus showing the actual fornication that takes place among cultists themselves, and between them and the object of their cult, a supernatural fish-like creature similar to those described in the short story ‘Dagon’. He goes even further to show Special Agent Brears of the FBI being raped by the cultists and the creature, and later reveals this rape to be the most important event in the entire storyline, turning the victim into a demigoddess of the new emerging Cthulhu cult, a Holy Mary of the Lovecraft mythos.

Moore also furthers the Lovecraftian practice of disseminating story elements created by other writers, making them all seem to be part of a believable larger scheme. The more obvious form of this practice is explained by one of the characters in Neonomicon: the name of the singer, Randolph Carter, is the same name of a character of many Lovecraft stories; Johnny Carcosa is named after a fictional city in Ambrose Bierce’s ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’ (the name was later reused by Robert W. Chambers in his ‘The King in Yellow’); the church in Red Hook, being the same of the original story, is renamed Club Zothique, after the futuristic setting imagined by Clark Ashton Smith, a close friend of Lovecraft. Moore is also smart enough to allow newcomers to understand the story: besides keeping all of these cryptic details around for Lovecraft buffs to find, he also makes his protagonist in Neonomicon conveniently schooled in Lovecraft’s fiction, allowing her to explain everything to her co-workers, as an excuse to allow the average reader to understand the general rules of this meta-fictional game.

The most intricate re-purposing of a literary element in these stories is Moore’s use of Aklo, a fictional secret language first mentioned by Arthur Machen in 1899, in a story named ‘The White People’, and later re-used by Lovecraft in some of his stories. Moore takes it one step further: instead of merely describing it as an ancient language used by cultists of obscure religions, he shows Aklo as a virtual drug that modifies the very thinking patterns of its speaker. Moore’s Aklo is a ‘language virus’, similar to the concept described famously by William S. Burroughs, but also tightly connected to Moore’s general view on actual magic and the role of words in modifying a human’s perception of reality. His Aklo connects the ancient sacred words of shamans and priests to more current trends of neuro-linguistic programming.

Finally, the main aspect of Lovecraftian horror summoned by the wizard from Northampton is the idea of ‘cosmic horror’, a feeling of dread as large as the universe itself that brought existentialism to popular culture. Lovecraft’s mythos had an underlying pessimism, and more often than not the reader is led to a feeling that when the Great Old Ones finally rise from the depths of the ocean, the demise of human race will actually be a good thing for the rest of nature and the cosmos. In consonance with that general feeling, Moore ends this dark tale by showing Agent Brears’ personal views on the inexorable end of the human race:

I mean, look at this species. We’re pretty much vermin. Never mind. He’ll sort all that out, once he arrives. (…) The strange aeons start from between my thighs. And for everything else, all this other bullshit… it’s the end.

(Neonomicon #4: 24)

With this pessimistic and exploitative ending, Moore’s closes (at least for now) his exploration of the Lovecraftian writing game, keeping alive not only the fictional characters and places invented by that writer, but also his meta-fictional literary game. Reality and fiction merge into a network of places, names, book titles and legends in an intellectual kind of entertainment that seduces the mind with mysteries both real and unreal, confusing the memory and stimulating the reader to research more, read more, and further their own investigations.

Moore is a great player of this inter-textual literary game, and examples can be seen in heavily researched works such as From Hell, and obviously in his most elaborate reference piece so far, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Thanks to this, he has managed to make a Cthulhu myth that successfully maintains the spirit of the previous original stories, but at the same offers a contemporary view on the themes so dear to Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Works Cited

Interviews

Gieben, Gram. “Choose Your Reality: Alan Moore Unearthed.” The Skinny. Radge Media Limited, 01 sep 2010. Web. 7 Sep 2012. http://www.theskinny.co.uk/books/features/100258-choose_your_reality_alan_moore_unearthed

Comics

Moore, Alan and Jacen Burrows. Neonomicon. Issue #1. Rantoul, IL: Avatar Press, 2010. Print.

Moore, Alan and Jacen Burrows. Neonomicon. Issue #2. Rantoul, Il: Avatar Press, 2010. Print.

Moore, Alan and Jacen Burrows. Neonomicon. Issue #3. Rantoul, Il: Avatar Press, 2010. Print.

Moore, Alan and Jacen Burrows. Neonomicon. Issue #4. Rantoul, Il: Avatar Press, 2011. Print.

Moore, Alan, Anthony Johnson, and Jacen Burrows. The Courtyard. Issue #1. Rantoul, Il: Avatar Press, 2003. Print.

Moore, Alan, Anthony Johnson, and Jacen Burrows. The Courtyard. Issue #2. Rantoul, IL: Avatar Press, 2003. Print.

Prose

Moore, Alan. ‘The Courtyard’. The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft. London, UK: Creation Books, 1996. 147-154. Print.

Daniel L. Werneck is a Doctor of Arts and professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Brazil, where he currently coordinates the recently-founded Graphic Narratives Research Group. He also makes his own comics, trying to complicate the scholarship of comics studies by mixing the analysis of comics with the actual production of them. He always dreamed of using the word “transmogrification” in a real-life situation.

This article is part of a series on Alan Moore’s short comics, guest edited by Maggie Gray. To read the other articles in this series click here.

 

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