Before we delve too deeply into the events depicted in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence #6, a brief item of housekeeping : in the two-fold interests of time and maintaining the attention of those who are following both this series and my admittedly sporadic reviews of it (one day I really should go back and do write-ups on issues two and three, I suppose, just for the sake of completeness), I’m going to skip over re-hashing the basics in terms of plot set-up, etc. in this and future installments simply because, who are we kidding? If you’re not “on board” with Providence already, odds are very slim indeed that you’ll be jumping on at this point, so it’s fairly safe to assume that anybody reading this right now already knows what the book is all about and anybody who’s reading it, say, a year or two down the road (hi there future! Hope everything’s alright with the world!) is someone who decided to “trade wait” on the series and if they’ve made it this far in, then they, too, will be well familiar with the general particulars of what our guys Alan and Jacen are up to. So no more “Robert Black was a journalist for the fictitious New York Herald who chucked his job to write a novel” and all that.
Besides, with this latest installment we’re really getting into the “meat” of things, anyway — the rumor-shrouded tome that Black has been after, Hali’s Booke (the Providence equivalent to/antecedent of H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon) is finally in his, as they used to say in the ’80s and ’90s, “hot little hands,” and while the overly-eager among us were certain that Herbert West, Reanimator was going to be the HPL “anchor story” at the heart of this issue, Moore has faked us out once again by forcing his stand-in for West, one Hector North, off-stage fairly early on when an unexpected message arrives for him at his heavily-formaldehyde-scented home, the contents of which force him and his hen-pecked boyfriend/assistant to beat a hasty retreat back to Boston. Okay, yeah, the first few pages of this issue take place in West’s home, to be sure, and the scenes that play out there are rife with the sort of “gallows humor” that has been ever-present in this series from the outset, as almost every line spoken is rife with double-and even triple-meanings that will be especially obvious to, and rewarding for, longtime Lovecraft fans, but, once again, the inevitable confrontation with North (errrr, West) has been shunted down the line just a bit.
That’s okay, though, because not only is what happens here a plenty acceptable substitute for the Reanimator-centric issue that fans have been waiting for, this actually proves to be the chapter of the story (titled, incidentally, “Out Of Time”) where the storm that’s been brewing slowly since #1 finally begins to break. Where the shit hits the fan. Where Moore starts to pull out all the stops and finally “goes to far,” as he always does, serving up the horror in a manner so shocking, and so thick with import, that you get the distinct feeling that he’s basically daring you to keep going. But first, Hali’s Booke.
Black decides to tour St. Anselm College (Miskatonic University in all but name) one more time, only to discover that the librarian he’s been expecting to wait a few more weeks to see has actually returned, which means either that his travels were cut short, or that, more disturbingly, our protagonist has actually been in Manchester a lot longer than he figured. Given that the concept of “nested time” has been breached in the backmatter pages of previous issues, and that time seems to pass differently for Black once he sits down to actually read the contents of the volume he’s been in such single-minded pursuit of (Burrows kills it on the art in the panels depicting the strange fourth-dimensional flow in the library), it’s pretty clear what’s really going on — to all but our ostensible “hero,” of course, who remains as clueless to the nature of events taking place around him, as well as his increasingly-important role within them, as ever. All that’s about to change, though, and in a very big way.
Perusing through Hali’s Booke is every bit the brain-bomb we’ve all been figuring it would be, but it’s what comes next that shifts Providence into a new, higher, and decidedly more dangerous gear : unnerved from his experience with the book, Black accompanies 13-year-old Elspeth Wade (Providence‘s answer to Asenath Waite from The Thing On The Doorstep, who also walked to the college with him earlier and, indeed, was the bearer of the bad news that sent Dr. North scurrying) back to her rooms in order to “decompress,” only to have the absolutely unimaginable happen to him. And to her, I suppose. But mostly to him. I’ll say no more at this point, and allow the following image to do some of my talking for me:
So — yeah. It gets worse. Much worse. And here’s where we have to side-step for a bit.
Moore has been criticized over the years for his supposed “over-reliance” on rape and sexual violence in his comics, and this once-tiny “buzz” reached a veritable crescendo semi-recently due to his aggressive responses to said complaints — responses that saw him engage in a rather heated debate, albeit by proxy, with some of his most vocal detractors and nobody emerging from the conflagration entirely unscathed. On the one hand, the naysayers do have a point : rape was a central event in Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, in Miracleman, in the third volume of The League Of Extraordinary Gentelmen, in From Hell, in Lost Girls, in Neonomicon — it’s a long list. And if you throw in the attempted rapes in Watchmen and V For Vendetta, as well as the implied rape in The Killing Joke, well — it gets even longer. But it’s also true that Moore never presents it in a titillating or otherwise-glamorized way. It’s always ugly. It’s always scarring. It’s always unspeakably horrific. And so it is here. But there’s a whole other level going on in Providence #6 that bears a little bit of closer examination, unpleasant as it is. So that’s what we’re going to do next — as well as indulge in a bit of speculation.
I won’t kid you, friends — much as I admire, respect, and in many ways even fawn over the work of Alan Moore, I do think the man has a bit of a petulant side to him, as his numerous “fallings-out” with various former collaborators can attest to. I have no problem with the big middle finger he’s given to DC, to Hollywood, and to the vast majority of the entertainment industry in general (quite the contrary, in fact — I respect the hell out of him for it), but he has occasionally, in my view, demonstrated a mean, or at the very least ornery, streak . And I think that when he started to catch a certain amount of flak for the sexual violence in his work, even if much of the criticism was off-base in its intent, he took it a bit personally. His critics poked a bear — and now the bear has poked back. And you’re not gonna win a fight with a bear.
Rather than shying away from ever presenting rape in another one of his comics, Moore has instead decided to give us the most fucked-up, brutal, offensive, soul-searing depiction of rape one could possibly conceive of, and has enlisted H.P. Lovecraft’s The Thing On The Doorstep (which turns out to be the “anchor story” for this particular issue) as his accomplice. It’s all so very darkly ingenious, really — take a story about an evil old bastard who has learned how to live forever by effectively “hijacking” a younger body when he places his own consciousness inside it and forces the old one out (into his dying form), and borrow its central conceit in order to give us the perhaps the most psychologically, and even physically, harrowing scene in horror-comic history. Elspeth Wade, you see, isn’t Elspeth Wade at all. She’s someone far older (keen readers of the Providence backmatter will figure out exactly who “she” is pretty quickly once “she”starts talking), and far more malevolent. Someone who transferred their consciousness first into Elspeth’s father, then into Elspeth herself. And as for where Elspeth “really” is — she’s dead, and has been for some time. But the “person” inhabiting her is still very much up to his old tricks, and puts himself into Black’s body, thereby forcing Black into Elspeth’s, and then rapes her/him. So, yes — a malignant force residing in Black’s body is raping Black’s consciousness as it resides in Elspeth’s body.
Need a minute to take all that in? I don’t blame you. And Black could use a minute himself, as you’d expect — but he isn’t given one, since his assailant quickly “trades back” once the unspeakable deed is done, and “enjoys” a “post-coital” cigarette inside/as Elspeth while Black is left to do the one thing almost anyone would have to do in his situation in order to hope to preserve some tiny fraction of their sanity — run.
The full-scale mind-fuckery isn’t over yet, though, folks, because as Black runs out into the rainy Manchester night, he passes — himself, riding in the car with Jenkins, as depicted at the beginning of Providence #5. And lo and behold, when you open that issue up again and look very closely at the figure running along the side of the road, barely visible through the rain-soaked windscreen, it is, in fact, Robert Black. “Nested time,” remember?
So, yeah — this is getting in-fucking-tense.
Maybe even too intense for some. If there are folks who throw up their hands and say “I’m out!” after Providence #6 I’m not going to hold that against them. The story is visceral, ugly, hard to stomach, and unforgettable in the truest sense of the term, and Jacen Burrows’ art, while lush and gorgeous, is a velvet glove over an iron fist. This is a comic that lands body blow after body blow and doesn’t let you get up off the mat. It hurts and it hurts and it hurts again.
Still — it’s horror, you know? Shit or get off the pot. We’ve become so you used to comfortable, safe, inconsequential quasi-scares that a true tale of mind-numbing terror almost feels alien at this point. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows are here to remind us that this shit is supposed to be uncomfortable, maybe even unconscionable. We’re talking about a story where it looks like a 13-year-old girl is being brutally raped — and the reality of what’s happening is actually even worse. I can’t say that I “enjoyed” Providence #6 — but I’m never going to forget it. And there’s no way I’d ever back out of this series now, even though staying with it will almost definitely have consequences — as it should. Love it or loathe it, this is what horror — real horror — is meant to do.