Somewhere deep in the bowels of the Internet, unbeknownst to all but the initiated, there’s an organisation that calls itself the Really Very Serious Alan Moore Scholars’ Group. Occasionally they get to actually communicate with the object of their adoration, The Great Moore himself. The most recent manifestation was in December 2015, when The Master chose to answer twenty-five questions through an intermediary – a bit like Moses and the Ten Commandments, but much more verbose, and with no mountain, or actual commandments, so nothing like that at all, really -which were duly shared with his acolytes, one a day, for the month of December. Alan’s Atheist Advent Calendar, if you like. Now, with the kind permission of at least most of the people involved, I, Anne M Kletcha, Cub Reporter, have been allowed to release these to the public. All names have been erased, to protect the innocent as well as the guilty, and some questions slightly rephrased, for clarity.
There are twenty-five Q&As in all, amounting to nearly twenty thousand words in total, which I’ve split up into eight (very) loosely grouped sections, which will be appearing here at (hypothetically) regular intervals. Starting with four questions about HP Lovecraft and Providence – or, more accurately five, with the first two lumped together. Anyway…
Seeker After Truth #1: Is the talked-about intense level of background detail and world building of Providence something that grew out of his recent working in film? All his works attempt to stage the world as detailed as possible, but this has been many times greater.
SAT #2: Lovecraft pastiches have been around for a century now and are as numerous as the eyes on a shoggoth. You’ve already written a few Lovecraft pastiches yourself–at what point did you feel that you wanted to revisit Lovecraft country? That there was something more to see?
Alan Moore: Firstly, apologies for lumping your questions in together, SAT #1 & SAT #2. While they’re very definitely two different questions, it turns out that the answers to both are substantially similar.
To begin with SAT #1’s question, I think that actually the process worked the other way round. While I’m sure that eventually some aspect of my film experience will find a way to translate into my comic work – in fact I can think of a terrific example that unfortunately you’re not allowed to know about for a few months – this really wasn’t the case with Providence. In fact, with the Jimmy’s End/The Show project I was consciously bringing techniques that I was relatively certain would translate from my comics work to this new and, for me, untested medium.
The principal such technique was probably that of building a world and a rich narrative texture out of background details; something that I’ve been doing in my comic work, on and off, for decades. I agree with you that the level of detail in Providence is more intense than in much of my previous work, but the reason for that is also the answer to SAT #2’s question. As for that question, yes, I have played around with Lovecraft’s ideas prior to Providence, but I think that with the exception of the strongly-related Neonomicon, ‘played around’ is probably the operative phrase. Not to demean the work that Kevin [O’Neill] and me did in Heart of Ice or The Black Dossier or elsewhere, but that was more in the way of Lovecraft references, in a continuum of literary references. It was part of the grand game of The League, and was not the much deeper and more purposeful interrogation of Lovecraft, his work, and his world that I’m attempting in Providence.
The reason that I saw sudden new and interesting aspects of Lovecraft that I could make into a new and interesting form of Lovecraftian fiction – I don’t think Providence is actually a pastiche in the usual sense – is the same reason that’s behind the intensity of detail that SAT #1 mentioned: in between finishing Neonomicon, which was perhaps an intuitive leap towards a new kind of Lovecraftian writing, and commencing Providence, I bought and read approximately four shelves of excellent modern Lovecraft biography, criticism and scholarship, by Messrs. Joshi, Mariconda, Schultz, Waugh, Cannon, Mosig, Burleson and so on. Simply put, this dazzling variety of new information, perspectives and insights allowed me to see a far different and more complex man and writer than I’d previously assumed to be the case, and to see his writing in a new and, to me, revelatory light. It was this sudden new appreciation, this ‘opening up’ of Lovecraft, that allowed me to see a way of approaching Lovecraftian fiction that I didn’t think had been attempted before. Presenting that new fictional approach with the degree of nuance that I wanted it to have suggested the need for a closely detailed world, to provide sufficient focus. Another factor in my approach to the detail in Providence was my desire, based upon my critical and biographic readings, to base my approach to the series as much upon Lovecraft’s own approach to his fiction as was possible, or at least as was desirable.
In Lovecraft’s later work, he seems to reach the conclusion that in order for the revelation of your wildly improbable alien horrors to be credible rather than laughable you must carefully construct a hyper-credible world for them to emerge from, as witnessed in the almost-tedious recounting of equipment details in At the Mountains of Madness. I simply applied this premise to the real America of 1919, conjured as convincingly and realistically as possible. I’ve even adopted Lovecraft’s habit of making sure that if I’ve given a specific date to the events of an episode, then if Jacen [Burrows] shows the moon in the sky, it will be the correct phase of the moon for that date. This alone has already allowed a subtle and creepy little story detail in Providence #5, while as usual the research into the period and the place has generated some absolutely perfect story elements. It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve got more assistance in my quest for detail on this project than I’ve ever had before, and that the internet exists now. Both Steve Moore and Joe Brown have found me some absolutely vital information that has shaped and enriched this project, while Ariana Osborne (who miraculously found that actual 1919 model document tube in issue one…it looks like an Art Nouveau stirrup-pump sticking up from the office floor) has been a continuing wonder of research and reference. Nor should we forget William Christensen, who entirely off his own bat hunted down and shelled out for that copy of The New York Times seen in issue one, which is the copy for the day the story is set on, nor the supernaturally meticulous Jacen Burrows for being prepared to actually incorporate all this detail in his beautiful artwork. (Although he can of course be uppity. After issue #4’s ‘Willard builds a hypercube‘ sequence, and issue #5 – you may not have looked too closely at the witch-house yet – Jacen said that if we were going to keep giving him stuff like that to draw, he was going to start charging us by the dimension. I think there’s twenty-six in string theory, so we definitely don’t have the budget for that.)
SAT #3: Alongside climate change and the possibility of nuclear war and things like that, technology has also given us access to more horrific international news than we can really process as individuals. One of Lovecraft’s recurring themes was that the sum total of human knowledge would open up ‘terrifying vistas of reality,’ and thus ‘ignorance’ equals ‘safety.’ Do you think this might partly explain the resurgence of HPL’s popularity over the past two decades or so, to the point of commodification?
Alan Moore: I think that when it comes to Lovecraft’s demonstrable rise in popularity, we are actually talking about two separate phenomena. One of these, perhaps the populist as opposed to the popular, is the one that points to a commoditisation of Lovecraft and includes Nyarlathotep plush toys, the absorption of Lovecraftian imagery into franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, and the (genuinely entertaining and funny) Cthulhu guest-shot on South Park. While this may in some way have been influenced or strengthened by the emergence of serious Lovecraft scholarship in the 1980s, I don’t tend to think of popular movements generally being spurred by academic discovery in some kind of intellectual ‘trickle down’ effect. Much more likely, I think, is that Lovecraft happened to be in popular ascent at the same time as his academic ascent was taking off, and that these were naturally enough seen as the same phenomenon. Perhaps the real reason for Lovecraft’s success in popular culture is all down to his endlessly novel and unfathomable monsters, creatures that can still be relied upon to provoke a genuine frisson in audiences who have grown jaded with zombies, vampires and werewolves.
The scholarly and academic rise of Lovecraft’s literary reputation that has accompanied this popular rise without being directly connected to it, is, I think, grounded in the much more serious issues raised by Lovecraft’s fiction that you describe. I think that in this area, it is precisely because academics have stated to realise that there is something very serious, if not actually prescient, in Lovecraft’s writing that he has finally been welcomed into the canon of serious American literature along with [Nathaniel] Hawthorne and [Edgar Allan] Poe. The famous opening from The Call of Cthulhu, in which Lovecraft describes humanity’s inability to correlate all of its information as ‘merciful’ and warns of a time when this no longer being the case humanity may retreat to the peace and safety of a new dark age, is an accurate prediction of the fundamentalist responses of the three Abrahamic faiths in the face of mounting scientific discovery and the cultural complexity it brings with it. Lovecraft, I feel, is one of the very few horror writers of his day whose relevance has not faded over the intervening decades, precisely because Lovecraft’s was primarily a horror of the present in which he found himself, and a horror born of the future which, as an intelligent man of his day, he to some degree saw coming.
Much as he loudly railed against [TS] Eliot and the rest of the modernists, I think that Lovecraft can be considered as a closet modernist in his use of techniques such as stream of consciousness and a glossolalia to equal [James] Joyce or Gertrude Stein. His story-structures and his literary strategies, despite all the antiquarian 18th century affectations, are relentlessly forward looking, and indeed towards the end of his short career he was inventing the unprecedented novel hybrid of horror and science fiction (possibly because of his atheist’s disdain for the supernatural) that would become his trademark. I think that it has been these genuine achievements, belatedly recognised, that have deservedly secured Lovecraft’s current academic status as one of the few writers capable of addressing our current psychological situation. The role-playing games, the Cthulhu for President campaign posters and buttons, the comedy Cthulhu & Hobbes T-shirt that Leah [Moore] and John [Reppion] got me a few birthdays ago – all of these things are part of a different phenomenon that is largely based, I think, on the eternal appeal of a huge monster with a barely-pronounceable name and a face like a seafood salad. To some degree, one phenomenon may even work against the other: one of the main starting points for my recent Lovecraftian work for Avatar has been the tenet “We have all grown entirely too comfortable with Cthulhu”. I think what is perhaps needed is an effort to refocus the readership’s attention upon the things that are genuinely frightening or disturbing about Lovecraft’s writing, such as his ruminations about our probable flight from knowledge and complexity, rather than on how cool a beard of tentacles looks. (Although this latter probably does account for a lot of my own popularity.)
SAT #4: You have said that you used examples of how not to do it when writing Lovecraftian fiction. Are there any examples of the right way to do Lovecraftian, which served as an inspiration in some way?
Alan Moore: Well, I can provide various examples of how to approach Lovecraft correctly, at least to my mind, which is to say authors who have taken some aspect of Lovecraft’s outlook or ideas as their starting point and have the gone on to craft material which is infused with their unique selves, rather than with a dusty simulacrum of how they imagine Lovecraft would have written it (a particular problem with a lot of the karaoke versions of Lovecraft that owe their basic form to August Derleth – allegedly a much better literary writer than his Lovecraft-derived work would suggest.) These people who have picked up Lovecraft’s shining trapezohedron and run with it would include the brilliant Ramsey Campbell, who started out in the Lovecraft mode and who still returns to it now and then, but who has matured into a uniquely British voice and could probably be considered as more of a successor to the sublime Robert Aickman than to his early inspiration Lovecraft. Another very interesting and far more obscure contributor to Lovecraftian fiction is the fascinating Fred Chappell, author of the extraordinary late-1960s novel Dagon (a collection of his weird work is due very soon, which will hopefully do something to reverse his underserved lack of acclaim.) Perhaps the most important of these post-Lovecraftian authors is the astonishing Thomas Ligotti: rather than progressing from Lovecraft’s notions of extraterrestrial gods and entities, Ligotti takes Lovecraft’s personal philosophy – a kind of pessimism that is cosmological in its reach – as his starting point and goes on to create a world of often unfathomable but always-haunting events that are redolent of those absolutely soul-paralysing dreams where you wake to clammy sheets and the knowledge that the simple facts of your dream, baldly recounted, would not convey the dreadful and lingering terror of your experience.
While all of the above writers have provided inspiration as benchmarks to aspire to in the writing of Lovecraftian material, to ape their writing styles would be as great a mistake as to imitate the highly individual and person-specific style of Lovecraft himself. For my money, Lovecraft is still the best example of ‘Lovecraft done right’, but the thing to pay attention to is not the reproduction of Lovecraft’s antiquarian tendencies or the desire to add some more tentacled exhibits to the fast-expanding menagerie of ‘The Cthulhu Mythos’, a creation of Derleth’s that Lovecraft always seemed ambivalent about. Don’t simply reproduce Lovecraft’s adjectival cascades unless you understand why he was using them as a deliberate alienating technique, such as the combination of three forms that Cthulhu doesn’t quite look like, the aside that the Colour out of Space was only a colour “by analogy”, or the description of Wilbur Whateley’s liquefying body as having so many different textures and surfaces that it is impossible for the reader to put together a coherent picture in his head – which was precisely Lovecraft’s intention.
Following HPL’s advice on the construction of a narrative, with the tale’s events first listed in their chronological order and then in the order of their presentation to the reader, is also not a bad idea. As I’ve mentioned somewhere already, it can even be beneficial to your tale to take up some of Lovecraft’s more idiosyncratic strictures, such as his insistence that things like phases of the moon be accurate according to the dates described, so long as you know why you are using them, and so long as you are using them in your own way. The opening of issue #4 – a device I’m rather proud of – emerged from thinking about the central problem that is unique to visual recreations of Lovecraft such as those in films and comic books, namely how (and more importantly why) does one physically depict a monster that Lovecraft has spent several artful paragraphs trying to prevent the reader from fully imagining? Like I say, it’s always good to learn from those few authors who have managed to use Lovecraft’s work as a kind of catalyst for their own vision, as long as you can accomplish this without being tempted to mimic their essential style. Best by far to return to the source, Lovecraft himself, but this time to read him with fresh eyes, and preferably eyes that have nearly sent themselves blind with their compulsive ingestion of modern Lovecraft scholarship. Then, when you have determined what Lovecraft’s work means, uniquely, to you, I suggest that you proceed from that point accordingly and see where it takes you.
SAT #5: In your current series, Providence, you have chosen a protagonist, Robert Black, who is very hard to sympathise with. Why is this?
Alan Moore: I’ll confess I was a little puzzled by your question. It may be that you’re confusing your perfectly legitimate reactions to a specific character with my intentions while writing that character, but I assure you that in Robert Black I haven’t set out to write an unsympathetic figure, and that until reading your question I’d never thought of him in that way. It may be that in attempting to write a character as realistic and credible as the possibly over-researched backdrop against which he is set, I have avoided writing a character that is conventionally flagged up as sympathetic (as this, I feel, would be cheap and manipulative and contrary to the spirit of a story like Providence), and that this in itself has made the character seem unsympathetic to you. Or it may be that you dislike some of Robert’s personality traits…his refusal to be open about his homosexual or even his Jewish identity; his abandoning of his lover when he felt his position at work might be compromised, an abandonment leading to their suicide; even his casual acceptance of the word “nigger” without protest or without even indicating that he’s noticed its use. Perhaps judged by the standards of the early 21st century Robert’s stance seems cowardly and unethical, but my point is that it is a very credible and realistic stance for a person of those times, whom of course we cannot expect to share the benefits of our modern insights. If we ourselves had been alive during those times and had been homosexual men, speaking only for myself I imagine I’d have behaved pretty much exactly as Robert does, with all of his weaknesses and failings, if the alternative was a kind of unemployable self-immolation. Other than these I think understandable flaws, Robert’s biggest crime seems to be indulging himself in wracking guilt over his suicided lover, to the point where he is engrossed in himself and his own misery and is not paying attention to the suggestive figures and circumstances which seem to be congealing around him. Most of the reaction that I’ve had from people who’ve read the book so far seems to be an understandably mounting anxiety on Robert’s behalf, and a feeling that he simply isn’t noticing or understanding the ominous portents surrounding him, which is pretty much what I’d hoped the audience would be feeling around this point. As with people in real life, however, not all of us find the same people sympathetic, and I can only assume that this is also true of characters in fiction. On the bright side, though, as a reader who finds Robert unsympathetic, you are probably going to be one of the very few readers who actually enjoys reading the next five or six issues, when the guilty, self-hating, reputation-preserving, four-eyed ginger bastard finally gets what’s coming to him.
TO BE CONTINUED: Next time, His Luminance talks about things he likes, including pens, Punk Rock, and Kieron Gillan…
Anne M Kletcha, although originally from Pärnu-Jaagupi in Estonia, now lives on Inishmore, the most westerly of the Aran Islands, nestled in Galway Bay, off the western shore of Ireland. When she’s not knitting, keeping sheep, or ordering books online, she talks to fellow comics fans all over the world via the wonders of the Internet. She has never met Alan Moore, but lives in hope.