Not so long ago — in fact, just last week, if memory serves me correctly — we did a mini-round-up of reviews of films based (sometimes quite loosely) on the works of H.P. Lovecraft in honor of his 125th birthday, and while I didn’t think I’d be re-visiting the world of so-called “Lovecraftiana” again nearly so soon, when Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence #4 hit comics shops yesterday I simply had to, given that it’s based so heavily on The Dunwich Horror , the 1970 celluloid version of which I almost-literally just did a little write-up on . Soooooo — since I figured it would be worth delving into these murky backwaters one more time to have a closer look at just how this four-color printed story differs from its literary and cinematic step-siblings, let’s get our hands dirty, shall we?
For those of you who have been following Providence from the outset — for shame! — the format is deceptively simple : in 1919, recently-resigned newspaperman Robert Black (who leads something of a double life in that he’s secretly gay and secretly Jewish) is trying to put together his own idea of “The Great American Novel,” one based loosely on the intriguing conceit that there is a “secret country” hidden beneath the public face of the United states, and is following up on the whereabouts of a tome of occult lore that he hopes will point him in the right direction for his literary endeavors. Every issue sees him come into contact with strange situations and characters that Lovecraft fans will immediately recognize as being featured in the author’s works, and it’s fairly obvious that at some point Lovecraft is going to either encounter Black himself or stumble across his notes and will extrapolate his fictions from him/them accordingly. Fun little “side clues” are dropped in along the way that tie into other stories of his, but by and large one famous Lovecraft yarn features as the “backbone” for each chapter, with issue one taking most of its cues from Cool Air, issue two delving into The Horror At Red Hook, issue three fleshing out the supposedly “real” story behind The Shadow Over Innsmouth, etc. At the beginning of issue four, Black is in the “company town” of Athol, Massachusetts, which served as the real-life basis for The Dunwich Horror, so you know from the outset which way things are headed here. And if you’re still unsure, well — by the time our protagnoist meets the inbred branch of the Wheatley family tree a few pages in, there’s no more room for guesswork.
These Wheatleys are, of course, the basis for the (alright, equally) fictional Whateleys in Lovecraft’s story, and while the first three segments of Providence have certainly come up trumps in the “creepy” department, things definitely take a turn for the overtly horrific this time out as the nature of isolated country living in the early part of the last century comes to the fore. Let’s just say that when there was no one else around to fuck, a lot of folks simply made do with who was nearby.
Maintaining the “purity” of one’s genetic stock was, of course, a particular obsession with the eugenics-crazed Lovecraft, and as anyone who’s read Smax knows, inbreeding is a topic that Moore has explored in the past with suitably cringe-worth results, as well, so if you’re going to base a contemporary horror comic around the love that damn well better not speak its name, these two are probably your best choices to serve as guides, so — I dunno. Congratulations, I guess, to Messrs. Moore and Lovecraft both for being the perfect autors to tell a story based on this admittedly nauseating premise.
And yeah, if there’s one thing Providence #4 can definitely claim to be, it’s nauseating. And I mean that as a sincere compliment, since making the reader uncomfortable is the whole point of good horror. Black cottons on to the fact that there’s literally no one else who could be the father of monstrous Willard Wheatley (or, as he’s known in the story and on the silver screen, Wilbur Whateley) than his own grand-pappy, Garland, and while his mother, Lavinia, was confined to a lunatic asylum in the film version, here poor, uneducated, albino (and quite likely inbred herself) Leticia still lives at home with her father, and spends most of her time attempting to piece together in her feeble mind exactly what the hell happened to her the night she was impregnated in 1912. Lovecraft hints at it The Dunwich Horror, but Moore drops all pretense here and rips the curtain of “literary respectability” away most violently indeed. Let’s just say it’s not a reading experience designed with the faint of heart in mind.
For us sick fucks, though, it borders on the flat-out revelatory. Needless to say there’s a lot more than a simple dip into the family gene pool going on here, and there’s good reason why Willard is a hulking full-grown ape of a man (the issue is titled “White Apes,” another Lovecraft reference for those who care to do the requisite leg-work) who can apparently fuse glass cubes together with his bare hands in order to form tesseracts, which presumably come in handy in his family’s more unconventional spare-time activities. And yeah, if molesting your own daughter is more “conventional” than the other shit they’re up to, it’s safe to say that the Wheatleys are into some far-out stuff —oh, by the way, has anyone seen Wilbur’s invisible sibling, John -Divine?
Silly me, of course not — I just said he’s invisible (at least to us). But his presence looms very large in this story, to put it mildly. I think I’ll leave it at that.
Moore takes the occasion of Providence #4 to make some spot-on criticisms of the elitism running rampant through the occult secret society that Garland and his clan have been unceremoniously booted from, and shines a pretty glaring light on the prejudices of the time (including those shared by Lovecraft himself), but it doesn’t feel too terribly heavy-handed given that the characters we’re directed to have sympathy for are engaged in some odious and twisted activities themselves, so maybe at the end of the day it’s fair to say that this is a story with no real “good guys” — especially considering what a self-absorbed — and frankly clueless — ass-hat Black himself comes off as being in the issue’s always-fascinating-and-necessary backmatter.
Top it all off with Jacen Burrows’ increasingly- confident and richly-detailed art (seriously, this guy’s going to be a superstar artist for “The Big Two” one of these days — assuming he’s interested), some intriguing hints as to where things are going in terms of the overall narrative (as an aside, it took me a few passes through to figure out what, exactly, was being depicted on page one of this issue, but once I did — wow), and what you’ve got here is a thoroughly masterful “re-imagining” of a timeless horror classic that certainly rewards multiple re-readings and re-mystifies Lovecraft’s original work by, ironically, de-mysifying its ugly underbelly for all to see.
I certainly had a damn good time watching Daniel Haller’s 1970 film adaptation of The Dunwich Horror again for the first time in many years (who can argue with Dean Stockwell’s turn as Wilbur?), but as far as “revisionist Lovecraft” goes, right now Providence is in a class by itself, and issue #4 is the strongest one yet — even if it requires an equally strong stomach.