Strange Flesh: The Use Of Lovecraftian Archetypes In Queer Fiction: Providence (2015-2017)

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains drawings of nudity and sexual violence. Please be cautious if this sort of thing can have an effect on you.

Providence is a 12-part graphic novel series by the author of such noted works as “The Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” – Allan Moore. Providence is the follow-up prequel to Moore’s 2010 graphic novel “Neonomicon” and is set approximately 88 years prior. Because the series began late 2015, is still going and covers a lot of ground, this article will simplify the plot for time’s sake and focus on two important aspects and their relation to Lovecraftian tropes and the Queer perspective.

Providence is set in 1919 and follows the investigations of ex- New York Herald reporter Robert Black as he travels around Massachusetts and New Hampshire, researching and interviewing people for a book he hopes to write about a “a buried or concealed America composed of everybody’s secret lives… …a whole hidden world of individuals trading occult or exotic science lore and information, a society of characters as striking as Alvarez that conducts itself unseen below the daily fabric of America.”

Robert Black has his own secret life, which he protects fiercely. Not only is he Jewish, but also, a gay man. Moore writes in regards to his choice for making Robert Black both Jewish and homosexual:

“I wanted somebody who provided an example of the “new American man” around about 1919. I wanted somebody who was young, who had a sense of purpose, but who was an outsider. Somebody who was not related to the mainstream of American society, whatever that was. I chose some parts of Robert’s character specifically because they resonated interestingly with some of Lovecraft’s prejudices. I thought this would be a good way to actually make some of Lovecraft’s views emotionally explicit by showing them from the point of view of someone who could not help but be hurt by them. …(Robert) is planning to write a Great American Novel where he is planning to use the “Outsiders”, perhaps “occult Outsiders”—whom he is on the trail of across New England—as a metaphor for social outsiders. Perhaps for his kind of social outsider. He’s looking for a metaphor but what he finds is far from metaphorical. He also starts to question the notion of what a “real” outsider might be.” (Moore, 2015)

Moore goes on to explain that Providence was a way to question whether Lovecraft was even an outsider himself, considering his fears and views were exactly that of the white, middle class Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual men of his time. Providence, therefore is an in depth examination of the outsider archetype. Of who a real outsider is?

Robert Black, while technically a part of the fringe community by being a homosexual man, spends most of his time pretending to be straight, and passing quite well with this. However, his character is rather complex in the fact that part of what spurs him on in his character arc is the suicide of his gay lover, a man we never explicitly see, who he refers to as “Lillian.” Lillian was just before his death trying to convince Black to come out and be open in his love for him, but Black, a coward of sorts refuses to, and eventually leaves the relationship because Lillian’s connection to his boss at the New York Herald threatens his careful constructed façade:

(Moore & Burrows, 2015, p. 11)

Craig Fischer, a columnist for “The Comics Journal” an online journal, writes regarding this scene in his essay “Providence: Lovecraft, Sexual Violence, and the Body of the Other”:

“Like Lovecraft, Black is much less of an outsider, and much more of a mouthpiece for “normal” society, than he thinks he is. Because he has this inflated sense of himself as an “outsider,” even while he espouses and practices the same conservatism as Lovecraft, Black is often unsympathetic and unlikable.” (Fischer, 2016)

Moore continues to Yo-yo Robert Black’s character back and forth in regards to his outsider-ness verses his insider-ness. For example, in his travels, Black often comes up against people whom all are a part of this “secret America”, whether they are members of the secretive cult – the Stella Sapiente – or just people aware of the secret worlds of Lovecraftian horror existing all around them, Black is often the “outsider” in the sense of never quite being in the “know” or believing that there is any truth to the occultism he is researching. However, Black yo-yo’s again as it becomes apparent to the reader that he is a kind of prophesized “herald” for a coming dark age of Cthulhu. Robert of course interprets any references to him being “the herald-man” as in regards to his prior profession.

Again, we can view Robert as an outsider to the rest of society due to his sexual preference, yet an insider as being an active participant in the underground gay scene, yet again outsider in the way that he snobbishly views his conquests in his journal entries at the end of each issue.

The second aspect we need to look at in regards to Providence is that of sexual violence within the story. In possibly one of the most controversial and uncomfortable pages in comic book history, Moore places his protagonist right in the middle of a scene which combines rape, body swapping and pediastry all within a matter of moments.

While visiting Manchester, New Hampshire and St. Anselm, Moore’s protagonist meets a young 13-year-old girl named Elspeth Wade, whose father was a member of the Stella Sapiente. It is revealed soon after this meeting that Elspeth’s body is being used as a vehicle to house the spirit of Etienne Roulet, another cult member whom has been possessing others bodies as a way to maintain his immortality (one of the four methods to prolong life – a story line that the series has been dealing with up until this point, and is about to conclude in this scene.) To prove his power to Black, Roulet lures Black to his/her home as Elspeth before possessing Black’s body, forcing Black’s spirit to enter Elspeth. He then proceeds to rape Black in Elspeth’s body, before swapping the two characters spirits back.

(Moore & Burrows, 2015, p. 23)

This scene is important in the narrative for two reasons. For one, it signals a major shift in the narrative, from Black being an outsider and unbeliever of the dark magic and supernatural events at play all around him. It signals an end to his blissful ignorance, as from this point coming into the next issue, he rationale for the events happening him grows rapidly weaker in its explanations, even to the point of trying to interpret his encounters as being his unconscious trying to tell him something:

(Moore & Burrows, 2016, p. 22)

Fischer explains the secondary reason why this scene in particular is important for the narrative:

“…the rape is Black’s “punishment” for his lack of empathy. He’s a character who relentlessly judges and privately insults (in his Commonplace book) most of the people in his life, and considers himself a sexual and intellectual “outsider” even while he constantly passes as a straight man to avoid the difficulties that a true outsider would endure in early twentieth-century American society. The migration of souls puts Black in the literal body of the Other… …The rape of Black/Elspeth brings the “four methods of prolonging life” narrative arc to completion, gives readers a unique moment of horror, and most importantly forces Black to experience life (and abuse) as a woman, as one of the Others he’d been belittling in his Commonplace book. Perhaps his experience as Elspeth will teach Black greater empathy, and provoke him to grow past knee-jerk Lovecraftian prejudices.” (Fischer, 2016)

Providence, which is still ongoing, will most likely continue to play with these themes as it draws to a conclusion. It holds a very different take on the Lovecraftian tale, and in the words of its creator, it comes from his interest: “…to tell a different kind of Lovecraftian story, one appropriate to the 21st century and how we see and understand his work now.” (Moore, 2015)

References:

Fischer, C. (2016). Providence: Lovecraft, sexual violence, and the body of the other. The Comics Journal. Retrieved from http://www.tcj.com/providence-lovecraft-sexual-violence-and-the-body-of-the-other/

Moore, A. (2015, March 5). Alan Moore heralds Providence: ‘It’s time to go for a reappraisal of Lovecraft’ – Bleeding cool comic book, movie, TV news. Retrieved from http://www.bleedingcool.com/2015/03/05/alan-moore-heralds-providence-time-go-reappraisal-lovecraft/

Moore, A. (2015, April 23). Alan Moore writes a gay, Jewish protagonist for providence to address Lovecraft’s prejudices – Bleeding cool comic book, movie, TV news. Retrieved from http://www.bleedingcool.com/2015/04/23/alan-moore-writes-a-gay-jewish-protagonist-for-providence-to-address-lovecrafts-prejudices/

Moore, A., & Burrows, J. (2015). Issue 1. In Providence [Comixology version] (p. 11). Retrieved from http://www.avatarpress.com/

Moore, A., & Burrows, J. (2015). Issue 6. In Providence [Comixology version] (p. 23). Retrieved from http://www.avatarpress.com

Moore, A., & Burrows, J. (2016). Issue 7. In Providence [Comixology version] (p. 22). Retrieved from http://www.avatarpress.com/