Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Year's Best Begins - Best Comeback goes to H. P. Lovecraft, Alan Moore's Providence

As 2016 hurtles to a close, I am starting my year's Best-Of-List. This will be piecemeal. This list will be sporadic, in both postings and lengths of posts. But, dammit, this list will be worthwhile and full of hypnotizing rabbit holes that one can explore. And I'm starting with H.P. Lovecraft.

Best Comeback for a Writer of Questionable World View:
H. P. Lovecraft

The amount of proliferating tributes to and controversy surrounding Howard Phillips Lovecraft is seemingly infinite. 

There are Lovecraft E-zine podcasts, for starters. Films about the author include the 2016 animated children's film, Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom and various documentaries. Comic books  from 2016 about the penner of cosmic horror fiction include Alan Moore’s reexamination, Providence and John Reilly's and Tom Rogers' upstart, Herald: Lovecraft and Tesla:History in the Making, not to mention the Cthulhu-themed issue of Afterlife with Archie (I kid you not).  Scooby Doo’s Mystery Incorporated, which ran from 2010-2013 and was yet another episodic iteration of the Mystery Gang, includes mythos references. One episode features a monster who is clearly identifiable as Cthulhu. Heated debates about Lovecraft's xenophobia and racism are regular occurrences at writers' conferences and awards juries. Enthusiasts, academics and aficionados attempt to reconcile the problematic author with his hugely influential opus. As well, plentiful other pop culture references abound across the board. 

However, if there was any doubt about the controversy and importance surrounding the author, in 2015, the World Fantasy Convention decided to stop using a bust of the author as its awards trophy, amid debate about Lovecraft's beliefs. 

All of these factors point to an obvious fact.

H.P. Lovecraft is back, and everywhere, and more in vogue than ever. Granted, the resurgence of interest in Lovecraft has been building for well near a decade now, and has had high and lows. This year, though, interest is clearly higher than ever. I detected the first rumblings while I was working in comic-book retail around 1999. At least, I first started noticing plush Cthulhu dolls appearing on retailers' shelves then.

Speculative fiction tributes to Lovecraft are so prevalent that Mike Davies of Lovecraft E-zine podcast runs an independent press of the same name that publishes weird fiction and cosmic horror. Publisher and editor Davies keeps up with the deluge of Lovecraft-related works on-air and in print. And thank gods, he does. Otherwise, I don't know how one would keep up with Lovecraftian works.

That said, I found two particularly notable speculative fiction works in 2016, Alan Moore’s and Jacen Burrows' Providence comic-book series and Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom. Two documentaries, while not from 2016 but still relevant, are Frank H. Woodward's illuminating Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown and Shawn R. Owens'  The Eldritch Influence: The Life, Vision, and Phenomenon of H.P. Lovecraft. First up is Alan Moore's mind-bendingly good 12-issue series Providence (Avatar Press).
Cover of issue five. Art by Jacen Burrows.

I hit Alan Moore’s Providence pretty hard. Each issue features two-thirds comic book and one-third prose. In a lesser writer's hands, the prose wouldn't soar. But with Mr. Moore, he demonstrates the subtle differences between graphic novels and the written word, fortifying the journal entries of a Commonplace Book with the protagonist's observations and emotional state that may not have been readily apparent in the comic-book panels. Between Jacen Burrows' intricately (and beautifully) detailed artwork and Moore’s thoroughly and lovingly performed research and the infusion of a queer hero into the mythos, I was wooed. I'm on the home stretch of Avatar Press' 12-issue series - issue 10 - and still quite in love with it.

The last literary contribution in for 2016 appears to be Victor LaValle’s much-praised novella The Ballad of Black Tom from Tor. It's a response to Lovecraft's most overtly racist story "The Horror at Red Hook" and features a black protagonist hustling in Harlem in 1924. Ballad is at the top of my reading list for 2017.

(Editor's note of April 17, 2018: Read it in early 2017 and was swept away.  The Ballad of Black Tom is an admirable piece of work. It's weird fiction steeped in literary conceits, and a tribute yet a rejoinder to H.P. Lovecraft that is still, at times, minimalist.)

Director Shawn R. Owens' 2003 documentary, The Eldritch Influence: The Life, Vision, and Phenomenon of H.P. Lovecraft, while featuring amateurish camera work and bridging segments with actors portraying Lovecraft's characters in awkward-at-best portrayals, did cement this renewal of interest. The film also included articulate bits from Brian Lumley and Neil Gaiman, among others. But the piece felt part biography, part fanboy highlights, and part loose ride through the author's works with no real linear or logical course.

Frank H. Woodward's 2008 doc, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, while clearly borrowing the motif of portentous quotations from the author and discomfiting music, was superior. Fear offered insights in a slicker, prettier package, a clearer, lucid arc covering Lovecraft's life and influences, with glorious and frequent artwork, a more coherent focus, and an examination of Lovecraft's less-than-admirable qualities that is now all the rage. Illuminating interview subjects included the likes of the descendent master of weird fiction, Caitlin R. Kiernan,  as well as Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell (again), and directors John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro, Neil Gaiman (again) and director Stuart Goron (again).

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