September 1st, 2010
the sleep of cthulhu, aeons deep.
i’m not sure this is a really straight ahead argument, so much as it is a series of reflections and ruminations, and i’m sorry it’s all in lower case. it’s a bad habit, one of which zom, probably quite rightly, does not approve.
horror is rarely done right in comics, but occasionally, in the right hands, some books not only hit the mark but splinter the arrow already stuck there. upon a recent reread of the first collection of alan moore’s swamp thing i was struck by just how disturbing it was, especially after having just tutted skeptically at harlan ellison ranting about ‘escalating levels of terror [such a strong word]‘ and other hyperbole in the foreword, and with this being my twoogleplex millionth swampy go round (i wasn’t expecting many surprises basically), because it came as such a shock when parts of the book made me feel so wrong.
‘downtown, elderly ladies carry their houseplants out to set them on the fire-escapes, as if they were infirm relatives or boy kings.’
the image the narration paints of a weakling humanity subserviant to its plant rulers always got to me. in just two panels moore turns the world on its head, and suddenly we’re not the centre of universal teleology anymore – all hail the mandrake prince with his crown of fronds, vegetable-still in the pouring rain on his window ledge throne above the world! and we know right away moore isn’t really interested in blood and guts and that more often than not the scares in this book will serve specific rhetorical and philosophical ends, intended as they are not simply to repulse but to destabilise.
so we’re reading a mature readers book then.
the mild existential tilt of these captions foreshadows the more dramatic turn swamp thing undergoes later on, when he discovers never was human. and his profound and hopeless claustrophobia, his sense of being lost, buried beneath alien skin, is articulated by (albeit displaced into) the mr. sunderland-trapped-in-his-building thread bookending the story, the whole book suffused in a feeling of ‘I WANT TO GET OUT!’
and this is before moore gets onto the body horror that’ll feature strongly in the next episode. that’s nastier for me than the mind stuff. okay, i’ve experienced the soul destroying terror of consciousness invasion by hostile fungal entities intent on replacing my mind with their own – what self respecting teenager hasn’t had a bad trip? but thats just it, i was a teenager then. back then my body was clearly invulnerable so madness figured much more prominently in my rogues’ gallery than, say, disease. not so nowadays.
swamp thing’s is a body that doesn’t know what it is, flickering between subject and object, from man of moss to mossy simulacra, eyes pooling with rainwater. this is the horror of finding oneself trapped in a body where it’s all foreign, all that bark and stuff, none of it *should be there*, least of all selfhood. so it’s the reification of the mental dread expressed earlier, sure, but also equally revolting on its own, physical, terms, and when woodrue actually eats swamp thing’s tuber, it’s like someone cannibilising your tumour. wrong in so many ways. absolutely disgusting. obviously this conflict is resolved by the end of the first story arc as the titular hero begins the process of giving up alec holland, but this only serves to highlight the floronic man’s dilemma, the roles having now reversed. whereas initially it is swamp thing who cannot *choose* between the red and the green, in the end it is woodrue who is revealed as divided, thorns protruding awkwardly through his spray on humanity. a broken wicker man.
so that’s all horrible and we haven’t even mentioned ‘timber’ yet.
but there’s disappointment also.
while the second issue’s dream sequences detailing swamp thing’s attempts to cling on to his non-existent humanity have charge, they’re nowhere near as powerful as cliff steele’s personal psychopalypse in the pages of grant morrison’s doom patrol #58, in the land of the cuckoo, half a decade later, which i think builds powerfully on the basic framework moore provides, employing far more potent imagery and a subtler grasp of its themes and use of symbolism than its predecessor. perhaps moore’s imagination, while beautiful and crystalline, can’t keep up with the freewheeling dreamstuff, which, i accept, can lead its exponents, lynch and morrison being the most obvious examples, headlong into a creative car-wreck, but which in the end really moves me, and i think this is a clear achilles heel.
while one can pull apart cliff’s adventures in the land of the cuckoo and inspect the pieces (the heavy duty machinery behind the scenes of everything, the walls and his skin = his body; the bugs = the mindless automaton he’s afraid he is, the terror of depersonalisation, etc.), the story conjures the profound sense of the irreducible, the uncanny, which for it to play right on an emotional level it has to contain. moore’s attempt seems a bit dry in comparison. perhaps this is because he’s relatively new to comics at this point, but i’d argue, as i have many times before, that moore has an innate ability to ground even the most highfalutin ideas, that he makes too much sense of them, that they (clock)work too well, and that in the end this doesn’t help with the horror. his universe is too benevolent, too human afterall.
or so i thought. until i picked up neonomicon, a book the aforebabble would suggest moore’s approach is entirely unsuitable for, seeing as its focus is the cthulhu mythos, something that must always remain irreducible in keeping with its themes.
i needn’t have worried.
i think everyone agrees there’s one big scare in the neonomicon, but that i think we can agree is all a horror story needs to be a success, and even prior to that i had the feeling i was in good – calloused and taloned – hands. perhaps it was the weird theatricality full stopped by a blood freezing stare of the infected detective at the beginning, the idea of a dead body desecrated by medieval monkey demons (medieval demons rule. much more carnivalesque and scary than their latter day counterparts), or the way the staid, straightforward artwork and call of cthulhu plotting and tropes played off against the many-angled nightmare waiting in the wings, but, regardless, by the time we reached the courtyard and the mural, i was primed for the big guns. i mean, WHAT. IS. THAT. THING?
talk about collapsing the boundaries between subject and object….
a dreadful angel of the north, with robe and wings of mud and hair, warden at world’s edge, beyond whom only sky and an endless carpet of mountains. who knew the end of everything world would be so nonsensical and dismal? the dismal, that’s something that doesn’t get dealt with much in horror. the terrible futility embodied by this scene, a universe that is too bleak, too dreary, and on an epic scale, always there…. waiting, even in our brightest cities, in the throbbing heart of the world we made, down some grotty alleyway, out into a junkie strewn courtyard, the graffiti door swings wide. this is some masterful stuff by moore, the way as the cop approaches the mural expands to fill the panel, so that by the time she reaches carcosa brears could be there, the fourth wall collapsed. the sequence sums up perfectly the hopeless inevitabilty of lovecraft’s stories, where at first we only glimpse the gloomy cracks which in the end will swallow us whole.
all of us.
you can feel brears’ trepidation as she approaches. she can feel tomorrow locking into place around her, carcosa’s idiot babbling drawing her in, until she can reach out and… and at that point you want to puke. we’ve seen writers’ play with our undimensionality in relation to the great old ones before, however there’s something about carcosa being reduced to a two dimensional paint-smear that really drives the point home, and i suspect it’s not only the idea, but, credit where credit’s due, something about the aforementioned staid art, its apparent inviobility, that hones the moment’s edge. our reality is paper thin and will tear easily in two on the day cthulhu rises, bursting through the surface. poor lost carcosa has found his way there already, nothing left now but a hiroshima shadow scrawled across the flimsy partition separating us…and them. armageddon is here and the courtyard is the area outlying ground zero.
and even more so juxtaposed with the silly antics of cthulhu’s teen fanbase over there at zothique. there’s no pun laden punk rock where that ‘tree thing’ lives, no music, nothing we’d recognize at all. horror is always more powerful set against comedy, or at the very least whimsicality, and especially the kind moore’s aiming for here, the horror of the absence of humanity. because silliness, humour and whimsicality are human notions. in this way the neonomicon reminds us of what will be lost and how cold it is out there.
now, a couple of caveats. i haven’t read the courtyard itself for some time, so i don’t know whether or not moore undermines the horror here with too much rationalisation/tidiness, also i have no idea where this story is heading, and the same problem could lie in wait for it further down the line… but this issue… this issue sings like nyarlothep on the day of four motion, the alarm bell sounding ‘this is forever’.
and, finally, that’s another thing moore and gets right that you rarely see in horror stories of any kind: alarm. the stomach torpedoing jolt of waking up to an altogether hostile reality. because obviously people don’t respond to supernatural terror by shopping for a chainsaw, rather they’re lost for words, they call on the bright gods they never really believed in before (‘oh christ help us…’), the only gods they have, paper tigers to ward off demons, and they struggle to get the words out for the vomit pushing at the base of their throat. even without moore’s dialogue, brears’ thousand yard stare says it all. this is it. it’s all over. and i felt it.
so, in short, this isn’t just run of the mill stuff. and even in the little ways in which it is – the basic CoC adventure setup – this, it seems to me, only adds to the horror. the classical scenario structure serves is transparent enough that the story never gets in the way of the horror. it streamlines everything like a bullet aimed directly at that terrible wall. it serves the book’s gloomy fatalism, the sense of final destination, very well. i suppose if i had any complaints they would centre on the idea implied in the last panel (which shows the city embedded in a survival dome), which may suggest there’s going to be some kind of sci-fi resolution to all this. i don’t really want resolution in a straightforward sense. i want ideas that won’t fit neatly in my head. so come on alan, lets not make this too neat. let’s go out screaming like the ghost of alec holland.