At Public Books, Gordon Douglas reviews a series of graphic novels that reimagine the fictional world of H. P. Lovecraft, even as they critique his racism and reactionary politics. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Jacen Burrows, the Providence series of graphic novels depict a Lovecraftian world that turns the tables on the famous (and famously anti-modern) horror author, humanizing the "monsters" and vilifying the supposedly objective (and always white) protagonist. Here's an excerpt from Douglas's review:
If primarily an inquiry into Lovecraft’s writing and literary influence set in 1919, Providence is an ideal engagement with the author for today’s America. It is fitting, for one thing, that the story begins actually in New York, with a Jewish gay protagonist named Robert Black exploring the city of immigrants as a journalist. (In earlier, related work by Alan Moore to which Providence serves as a sort of conclusion-by-extended-prequel—The Courtyard and Neonomicon—protagonists include a woman and a black man, while the villains are racist psychopaths devoted to Lovecraftian cosmology.) As Black encounters characters and events from Lovecraft’s stories, Moore and Burrows continue to introduce themes and personalities that Lovecraft would have been uncomfortable with, including the sympathetic portrayal of many whom the writer vilified as monsters in his stories. The “unusual colony of unclassified slant-eyed folk” in “The Horror at Redhook” (1927), for instance (implied to be Kurdish Yazidis, today under persecution by ISIS), are subtly humanized in Burrows’ illustrations. In exploring Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931), Moore and Burrows draw out its anti-immigrant and anti-miscegenation sentiments by showing explicit acts of prejudice and discrimination faced by the fish-faced townspeople (ultimately presaging World War II-era interment and genocide) as an oppressed minority. Providence likewise makes graphic the “unnamable” and “unspeakable” horrors to which Lovecraft alludes, including incest and rape.
Following Black as he travels the Northeast in search of inspiration for a novel he hopes to write, the series puts a focus on the settings of Lovecraft’s stories, whether New York and Boston or fictional towns like Innsmouth and Arkham (which Moore anchors in the real world as Salem, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire, respectively). All of these places are rendered beautifully and in great historical detail by Burrows: we see all the gables, steeples, and gambrel roofs of Lovecraft’s architecturally vivid writing, and even seemingly random streets and buildings are drawn so accurately that many exact locations can be identified on Google Street View. Of course the city of Providence, Lovecraft’s beloved home and the setting for some of his most famous stories, gets the spotlight it deserves. In these ways, the series highlights the fundamental role of both Providence and New York in shaping Lovecraft’s fiction, and his urbanism and spatiality more generally, tying them to his anti-modernism and xenophobia.
Image via Public Books.