Thursday, 14 June 2012

Neonomicon by Alan Moore, Jacen Burrows etc

I've written a lengthy review of this for The Zone, and it's up now. It took me ages, because I've been very busy and it's very long.

Before writing about Alan Moore’s ‘Neonomicon’ I wanted to “finish off” my thoughts on HPL after reading the essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’. I wanted to get the hang of what Lovecraft though Lovecraftian horror is, and I thought that would be the place to look.

After a while, though, I realised I was never going to get around to writing about 'Supernatural Horror in Literature'. It is, unfortunately a very boring essay.

I hoped to get an idea of Lovecraft’s general thoughts and opinions on what makes a good horror story, but it’s more a catalogue of books he thinks work well for one reason or another. His critical evaluations of the stories are kind of obvious and banal, and finally don’t really give much insight into his own processes and principles. I guess I was expecting a manifesto, when what I got was a historical review. In the end I decided I didn’t have anything to say about it, and with time being what it is – which is to say in short supply these days – trying to turn it into a statement about Lovecraftianism didn’t seem like a great use of limited time. With sadness I put the project aside.

What a relief I felt! When Neonomicon won the Bram Stoker award in April, it seemed like a good time to talk about this comic and incorporate some of my ‘final thoughts’ on Lovecraft.

As it turns out they’re not really my final thoughts. While this review talks a lot about erotophobia, it doesn’t talk about the more interesting and fundamental root of his horror, his mental health problems. The breakdown in his teens plays a significant part in his horrors. It was a significant illness: if it had been a physical injury or affliction that took him out of school and left him unable to leave the house for months at a time then we’d certainly consider that a formative experience. Maybe it's something to do with our attitudes to mental health that mean it gets such scant attention in comparison to, eg, his somewhat pedestrain atheist and materialist views. He eventually got himself back together and re-entered the world, but that experience, or whatever caused it, haunted him all his life. It’s expressed in different ways in the horror and the dreamlands stories. Both show how true knowledge can transform the spirit, towards rapture or towards destruction, sometimes a bit of both.

Alan, of course, decided to write about sex. Actually, 'The Courtyard' isn’t about sex at all, it’s about drugs and the general idea of fucking with your brain, but those aren’t themes that occur much in HPL’s horrors. It’s closer to the the experiences of the earthly Kuranes searching for his dream city or the jaded Randolph Carter in The Silver Key. I think this is why it’s a bit lacking. It’s a bit cold where HPL’s best stories are feverishly impassioned fantasies of self destruction and self-loathing (or in the dream stories, sobbing self pity and self aggrandisement). While HPL’s attitudes to sex and women aren’t all there is to his stories, it’s definitely there, though, and Alan knows just where in the canon to find it.

I’m also quite interested in Lovecraft’s contemporary appeal. He seems to have gone from been a very marginal figure when I was young to a well-known and influential ancient master of horror. When I was a kid, I’d heard of him but his name had a kind of mysterious allure, and he was spoken of in hushed tones. I read The Dunwich Horror in a Scholastic books horror anthology, where it accompanied bowlderised versions of stories by Edgar Alan Poe, Ambrose Beice, M R James and the like. My next exposure was the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which included the full text of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ story, and had all the background of the mythos I could want, It was actually a couple of years after that that I found Lovecraft anthologies for sale in the local SF bookshop (the Huyser Bookshop when it was in the Willis Street Village, if there’s any grey-beared Wellingtonian SF fans reading).

I think the RPG was instrumental to Lovecraft’s popularity today. Familiarity with the game is common to a lot of geeks my age, and they’re the type of people now writing the books and movies, and shows and comics that I love today. This gives his name a wider recognition than before, but he also, I think, says something to that particular age group. Lovecraft is an outsider, and in modern terms an outsider artist. His appeal has sort of gone from nerdy to cult. For long time I’ve thought of him as a contemporary of Franz Kafka, and the appearance of a Penguin Classics edtion of Lovecraft’s stories just makes the comparison closer. There’s definitely a similarity between the cruel and pointless worlds they depict, and this sort of dark imagery looms large across pop culture. Lovecraft also comes across as a natural nerd. It’s a cultural stereotype that’s gone from a Jerry Lewis or Frank Spencer style figure of ridicule to the modern hipster everyman. These days he’d be a character in a Jared Hess movie. The game’s probably also responsible for a certain ‘take’ on the stories, one about genre furniture and unsubtle ideas of madness and death, although in fairness Lovecraft could be pretty unsubtle himself.

So, maybe that’s all about Lovecraft for a while. I know I’m not blogging regularly at the mo, but things are a bit busy at my end – consider it as if the summer hiatus came early this year. In fact, judging by the weather it’s still the middle of winter. Presumably we will progress straight from here to mists and mellow fruitfulness and maybe I’ll start doing a bit more then. In the meantime if you want to follow my reading, why not be my friend on Goodreads?

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