Thursday, May 28, 2015

PROVIDENCE - Issue 1 - a review

Providence: Issue 1
Issue #1 covers the events of 5th June 1919.  Robert Black interviews a Doctor Alvarez for his newspaper, and later learns that a Jonathan Russell has committed suicide. 

Underneath these surface events lies a hidden world. In Alvarez words: ‘it lurks behind our pretences. This truth, it is a land sunken beneath many fathoms. Were it one day to rise and confront us all, what would (we) do?’ 
In terms of the Mythos, Doctor Alvarez’s hidden secrets stand for the sunken city of R’lyeh, which rises to make men mad, and madness is already signposted by the train of ‘imaginary destroying books’ – The King In Yellow – mentioned explicitly and attributed to Robert Chambers (hence the ‘short stories', and not 'the play’), and its predecessor Sous le Monde attributed to Claude Guillot which Black interviews Alvarez about (and which seems to be fictional, in our world, although Alan Moore’s knowledge of French sensational literature may be greater than my googling skills) and the Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya mentioned by Alvarez which translates as The Book of The Wisdom of the Stars.  The Starry Wisdom is of course the heretical church investigated by Robert Blake in H P Lovecraft’s story The Haunter of the Dark (written November 1935), as well as the (real) anthology title in which Alan Moore’s Lovecraftian short story ‘The Courtyard’ appeared.
Robert Blake is a form of Robert Bloch, a writer and friend of Lovecraft, but perhaps we are supposed to think him also a form of Robert Black – our protagonist. Doctor Alvarez, is obviously Doctor Munoz from Lovecraft’s Cool Air (written March 1926) with his body slightly better regulated at this time, and his housekeeper differently named and portrayed sympathetically and without Lovecraft’s racism.  Is Lovecraft then, later to be channelling (or reporting / writing up) Robert Black’s account of Alvarez, Robert Black’s own death?  If so this seems a little reductionist (like those bad Doctor Who stories where H G Wells is too stupid to invent (the idea of) a time machine unless he’s had an adventure with the Doctor). However this would be to prejudge, perhaps Alvarez is 7 years ahead of Munoz’s researches, perhaps something else is going on. (Most simply perhaps he changes his name and moves after Seniora Ortega's death, which as he says would 'see him go to pieces' - Doctor Munoz in Cool Air claims to have been preserved for 18 years, which would mean - if he is the same man Alvarez has been 11 years dead.)
The footpints of the Jersey Devil, just mentioned in passing, are not unlike the footprints of the Mi-Go, hooves or claws.
In terms of emotions : what is hidden is that Robert Black is both Jewish and Gay (both of which become apparent in issue #1) – his name may be a pseudonym to conceal the former.  We learn the latter from his reaction to Jonathan’s death. That the letter written to Jonathan (12th April 1919) is in Robert’s handwriting we learn from the commonplace book entry at the end.  That Robert is ‘cold’ we learn in Jonathan/Lily’s own words, in Robert's memories – but I think we would know it from the letter ‘it was the most wonderful fun yet’ is not a sentiment that befits a letter of deep love, but is rather a shallow, rather distancing response to love making. That it already meant more for Jonathan we can I think safely deduce.  12th April to 5th June is less than two months to get from ‘wonderful fun’ to ‘suicide’.  Even so Robert is shaken by Jonathan’s death.
That Jonathan is also a transvestite (or a gay man who prefers to present as a woman or perhaps as we would say now a non-cis woman, or 'a woman') which enables us to ‘see’ him/her obliquely as ‘Lily’ in Robert’s memories – and reminds us that, much was/is hidden even in the hidden world.  (Is Charles' 'Vera' the same? Perhaps.)
In terms of society: what is hidden is, perhaps mostly visible to us, by the power of history: we (the readers) know, that prohibition will come, we can see how patronising the newspaper men are to their typist/secretary ‘Prissy’ Hunter.  We can see that she holds a torch for Robert, and that – perhaps Mr Freddy Dix, who seems to fail to impress her, holds one for her. 
In terms of departures from our world: there are suicide chambers in New York parks were the lonely and the depressed and the heart-broken can go and be gassed while listening to music.  These, as Robert Black notes were predicted in Robert Chambers King In Yellow (specifically in the future set story: The Repairer of Reputations which is set in 1920) – one wonders if, in less than a year’s time Robert Black will need to apply to Wilde for the Repair of his Reputation.  Have others of Chambers' weird predictions come true? The history of the war and prohibition seem to be as per our world - rather than the German/US War Chamber's wrote of in which German troops are beaten in New Jersey - but we see no black faces on the streets – have they all been moved to Chamber's great Negro Free State, of Suanee?  Or is this a flaw in Burrow's art (or part of a long plan of Alan's - Lovecraft's unfortunate racism is part of his fear of the Other, which makes his horror effective and disquieting, and may be up for discussion, as it was in part in Alan's other Lovecraftesques). [Note: my friend Philip Purser-Hallard suggests to me that, part of the absence of 'black' faces (see above) might be addressed if Freddy Dix is a black man, 'passing' as white. This is historically quite possible and might explain the stress that makes him so on edge.]
So: Issue #1 has much potential, and a few possible pit-falls. The art is clean and Jacen Burrow’s standard work with Alan Moore, which is to say the faces are sometimes less expressive than they might be for the subtlety of the text, and parts of the background are occasionally so understated as to make it seem like a possible subtext (the shop windows having neither reflections nor visible contents, make the town streets seem like movie scenery). [It's only fair to say that Jacen's depiction of Robert's growing grief is very very well done.]
I did really enjoy this – but if I am wary it is because the main pitfall is precisely that into which Moore’s earlier The Courtyard (which I liked a lot) and Neonomicon (which I didn't like as much) - both of which may or may not be set in the same world - fell, namely making a setting so allusive that it overpowers the audiences’ mimetic identification with the narrative by drawing attention to artificiality.  (Why *are* people either named after a Lovecraft character or playing a specific role from a Lovecraft story, why not write a 'new' story set in the same world? When a character called Warren dies and another is told, "You fool, Warren is dead" in Neonomicon - yes it echoes Lovecraft's Statement of Randolph Carter, but what does it add to the current narrative, or does it distort it?).
Neonomicom had other problems also, that so far the stress on ‘love’ is doing much to address here!   Doctor Alvarez is not (yet) in a horror story because he is loved, Doctor Munoz is (will be) because he is not.
As a first issue :  8/10,  as a series so far 7/10 because that flaw is still built in and if its not foregrounded in some way later it may reduce the overall effect.
Oh, and it's not yet set in Providence, despite the end-papers but New York, so when Black says 'If Providence permits' he really is referring to God / Fate, and not the city's readers: and yet of course H P Lovecraft, is in 1919, in Providence - whatever that may imply!

Note: amended review slightly on a second reading, and to include Philip Purser-Hallard's insight.

I will also make a prediction:  Robert Black has not yet realised that he has met a man, who claims to be aware of a technique of "reviving cadavers", just as his lover dies.  When he does...

1 comment:

Skætos said...

Great review. I'm from Brazil and I'm reading/translating this book to portuguese. Your notes are very useful. Thanks.