All About Alienation: Alan Moore On Lovecraft And Providence
, August 31st, 2014 13:23
As an extension of their recent interview, Nick Talbot speaks to Alan Moore about the language and philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft and his upcoming ten-part Cthulhu Mythos work Providence
Towards the end of a recent interview with Alan Moore on his relationship with the writer Iain Sinclair our conversation drifted towards another topic: Moore's upcoming Lovecraftian work Providence. A huge number of writers, including Ramsey Campbell, Colin Wilson, Steven King and Robert Bloch have contributed to the 'Cthulhu Mythos', the shared fictional world created by H.P. Lovecraft, in a tradition Lovecraft himself encouraged via voluminous correspondence with younger acolytes. As a result of his creative generosity, Lovecraft occupies a rare status as a writer whose vision has taken on a life of its own. While much written work suffers a reductive blow when undergoing adaptation, by respectfully borrowing elements from Lovecraft's world, new comics, games and films contribute to its expansion, and the Cthulhu Mythos creeps further into popular culture every year.
Yet Lovecraft has rarely been judged a good writer, and many decades of critical derision – often objecting to his tendency for baroque adjectives – relegated him to the status of an eccentric hack in an already ghettoised genre. But as the Cthulhu cult became too popular to ignore, the last decade has seen a growing stream of Zeitgeist-wary cultural theorists publishing analytical works focusing on various aspects of his vast imagination, and Lovecraft is now finally taken seriously as a writer of ideas.
After Alan Moore's short 1994 prose piece The Courtyard was converted into vivid, gloaming comic book form by Jacen Burrows in 2003, Moore decided to work on Mythos scripts specifically intended for illustration by Burrows; the result was Neonomicon, a critically admired and controversial four-part work. Moore is currently working on a ten-part Mythos work, Providence, set for publication this year. In the following short interview Moore explains how Providence was informed by the growing body of Lovecraft scholarship and along the way scotches some common misconceptions about Lovecraft the man.
I enjoyed The Courtyard.
AM: Did you see Neonomicon?
AM: Neonomicon is really fucking horrible
I read a review on Amazon that said that.
AM: But it's really good, and well, you know, I was asked to do a horror story, you know... so.. I did one. Just as Neonomicon is a follow on from The Courtyard, Providence is both a prequel and sequel to Neonomicon. It's all set in 1919, or at least the first ten issues are, and I have researched the hell out of it. But one of the things I've realised, I've got about two shelves of just Lovecraft criticism – Lovecraft And Philosophy, Lovecraft And The Decline Of The West – and it's changed my opinion of literary criticism, which I suppose, having come from a background as an autodidact, having had my school career terminated at a brutally early age, and not having gone to college, I have had to educate myself, and that had given me a bit of inverted snobbery regarding some academic language. I was thinking “These people are up their own arses, they don't know what they are talking about, they don't know about the practical considerations of writing” etc. But reading these pieces has completely changed my mind. Not about all of them, some of them are basically saying very little in as many words of as possible, but that is not a fair characterisation of a lot of them.
Did you like [Michel] Houellebecq's book on Lovecraft?
AM: Was that Against Nature, Against The World?
Something like that. [Against The World, Against Life]
AM: No – that was one that I really couldn't get on with. He wasn't saying very much that was new, and pointing out Lovecraft's misanthropy – well, yeah, you can support that with lots of quotes from Lovecraft because Lovecraft wrote, it is estimated , a hundred thousand letters during the course of his life. And at least one of them was seventy pages long. So it's not difficult to find a Lovecraft quote to support this view of somebody that hated existence, that hated his fellow man; a sort of early existentialist like, say, the Jean Paul Sartre of Nausea. But, when you read more widely about the guy you see he loved his friends, he loved Providence, he loved the landscape around him, he was not a cold man; he was possibly neurasthenic. And possibly he laid it on a bit thick sometimes; like during up until the age of about 30 he refers to himself as a cripple... and he had nothing wrong with him. He was a really robust, big man who would take people on long hikes around Providence that would leave younger people breathless and gasping for air, yet all the time he was insisting he was an invalid and wasn't really suited to the world.
The thing is that Houellebecq is usually writing about himself anyway isn't he?
AM: I think that that is possibly true. There was other stuff I found that was fantastic though – it was Lovecraft and Philosophy – it was about 'Speculative Realism'? It wasn't talking about Lovecraft's philosophy but about Lovecraft from the standpoint of philosophy. In particular the standpoint of this, I gather, fairly recent Speculative Realism movement. It was fascinating; talking about the way in which Lovecraft creates an 'existential estrangement'? Such as the way in which he describes Wilbur Whateley in The Dunwich Horror, when Wilbur's body is disintegrating on the floor. He over-describes it, which is one of the things people say is a fault in Lovecraft, but no: he'll describe a bit of the back, which has sort of yellowish skin, with kind of brown blotches on it a bit like giraffe skin; and then there is the furry legs but they are articulated like a dinosaur's, and the eyes set into the hips... What they are saying is, like David Hume, the philosopher, who talks about there being not so much objects or entities but bundles of qualities; there is no banana, there is a bundle of qualities, like 'curved' 'sweet' 'soft' and things like that.
What Lovecraft is doing is taking the body of Wilbur Whateley and then creating a bundle of qualities that cannot possibly be tied together in a bundle; he's covering the surfaces of Wilbur Whateley's conceptual body with these things that you can't possibly put into one picture. They don't work. And [the authors] make a convincing argument that this is a deliberate attempt on Lovecraft's part to increase the 'estrangement'.
He tried to write the un-writeable didn't he? He was constantly grasping at language to write things he felt he couldn't write.
I loved the way he repeatedly used words like 'Cyclopean'...
AM: It's all about alienation. The way he talks about his monsters – in his first description of Cthulhu he gives you a list of four things that Cthulhu isn't quite like. Which is brilliant! It's a tactic, it's not a weakness. But relating it back to our earlier discussion – I'd realised, you wouldn't call this psychogeography – that would be wrong. But in stories like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which is set entirely in Providence, and draws up Providence's history, it probably would have been called 'regionalism' in Lovecraft's day. And that's still not a bad term. And what Lovecraft seems to be doing in works like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is attempting to embed the cosmic in the regional. He was doing his writing where he loved the New England landscape around him, he loved its history, he loved the way it looked, he loved everything about it. In that sense he was a very provincial person. He found his stay in New York unendurably horrific. But at the same time he was keeping up with the science of the day. And he understood the implications of that science; he understood the implications of relativity; he understood the implications of the quantum physicists; perhaps only dimly, but he understood how this decentralised our view of ourselves; it was no longer a view of the universe where we had some kind of special importance. It was this vast, unimaginably vast expanse of randomly scattered stars, in which we are the tiniest speck, in a remote corner of a relatively unimportant galaxy; one amongst hundreds of thousands, and it was that alienation that he was trying to embody in his Nyarlathoteps and his Yog-Sothoths.
And that's the heart of the terror isn't it? The anthropocentric view of the world – he shifted it.
AM: Yes – the anthropocentric view of the world – he saw that that was all gone. And I think tellingly he said that his entities should not be seen as evil. He said things like 'good' 'evil' 'love' 'hate' – these are all human concepts that mean nothing to the vast infinities. But as a person he loved the world around him. And he found great meaning in it and great warmth. As an intellect he understood that that area around him was just part of a gigantic chaotic meaningless random universe. And I think that in his stories of transcoding horrors manifesting in New England settings he was trying to bridge the gap between the personal, intimate human world as we know it and the vast, inhuman cosmos as we know it. Yet that's not psychogeography but its not a million miles away from it.
Providence is planned for release as a ten part series later this year published by Avatar Press