Some years back, Dave Sim conducted (via correspondence, if memory serves me correctly) a lengthy and fascinating interview with Alan Moore that he ran over the space of several issues as a backup feature in Cerebus. Moore was, at the time, in the midst of writing From Hell, and one idea that he kept coming back to as he expounded upon his creative process was something that he called “high-altitude mapping,” which is sort of a convenient shorthand term for “when you stand back far enough from the situation, there is no distinct separation between dreams and reality.”
It’s a powerful notion, when you really stop to think about it — after all, isn’t the whole point of living to “chase our dreams”? And don’t the limits imposed on those dreams by daily life’s practicalities whittle down and otherwise confine the scope of them over time? When you’re a kid, maybe you dreamed of being a movie star. Or a rock star. Or a famous author. Or a superstar athlete. Or president of the United States. It’s all technically possible for a time, of course, until our actions, or circumstances, necessarily begin to do away with some or all of those possibilities. Then at some point, after limiting the scope of your dreams for any number of years, you have kids, and you tend to transfer your dreams down to them — some of which they may be “on board” with, others of which they may cast aside in favor of their own. And so the cycle continues, our dreams affecting the course of our “real” lives while our “real” lives modify and alter the character of our dreams.
Then there’s the whole matter of the dreams we have while we’re asleep — that raw, unfiltered communication from our subconscious mind that informs our conscious mind in ways we still don’t, and may never, fully understand. In a very real sense we’re talking to ourselves in our dreams, and while they very often appear to make no “sense,” who can deny the power of a dream so “real” that it lingers in our waking thoughts for days on end? Say what you will for outer space, but with apologies to any Star Trek fans that might be reading this, the world of dreams is, in my own opinion, “the final frontier” of human exploration — just as it was, in many ways, the first.
We’ve been fascinated, intrigued, perplexed, and in some cases flat-out terrified by our dreams, and what they say about ourselves, since we first crawled from the primordial ooze, and yet they remain as alluring to us, and as tantalizingly out of our reach, as ever — and that’s never likely to change. Unless it does. But we’ll get back to that in a moment — for now, let’s just acknowledge that as a species we’re positively obsessed by dreams, and H.P. Lovecraft was no exception, devoting many a story to the phenomenon of dreaming, and to exploring the notion that perhaps our “dream life” was our true one, with corporeal, “consensus” reality being , for all intents and purposes, our “secondary life.”
Issue number eight of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence, entitled “The Key,” opens with our protagonist, Robert Black, being regaled with numerous “dream stories” by his host, amateur author/would-be decadent Randall Carver (an obvious stand-in for Randolph Carter, the central figure in many of the stories that comprise Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle,” with “The Statement Of Randolph Carter” being our de facto “anchor story” in this issue, but elements of said entire “Cycle” coming into play). The first one talked about/shown to readers is lifted directly from Charles Fort’s Book Of The Damned — and, really, given the thematic concerns of Providence and the time period in which it’s set it’s actually something of a surprise that this is our first exposure to so-called “Forteana” within its pages — but in fairly short order Black and Carver are discussing Lovecraft’s own Beyond The Wall Of Sleep and utilizing Carver/Carter’s “700 Steps” method for triggering “lucid dreaming” in order to journey through a semi-conscious landscape that incorporates numerous characters and story elements introduced in previous issues, stylistic homages to the great Winsor McKay, and hey — even some of the imagery featured in the “Dreamscape Wrap” covers that Burrows has lavished so much attention and detail upon. It’s a heady and intoxicating experience, to say the least, and its after-effects most certainly inform the rest of the issue.
One can’t dream forever, though, and if our characters want to make it to the reading being held later that night by Carver’s literary hero, Lord Dunsany, they do need to “snap out of it” and get back to “reality” — whatever that even means at this point. A casual stroll through the streets of Boston (that includes a perhaps-coincidental run-in with a now-obviously-quite-paranoid Dr. Hector North) soon gives way to an enraptured evening of listening to Dunsany talk that sees Black, and perhaps even the rest of the audience, re-enter the “lucid dreaming” state thanks, this time, to the power of the author/speaker’s words alone, and without the assistance of whatever it was that was burning in Carver’s incense pot earlier. Heck, not even one step is necessary this time around, much less 700 of them.
Don’t discount the ability of the physical world to hold surprises of its own, though, for once the lecture is over, the “big moment” that we’ve all been waiting for in this series arrives : Black meets Lovecraft himself for the first time, and the shock wave that this creates in the — I dunno, ether? — draws the attention of many a key player from earlier chapters in this sprawling epic. Could this, in fact, be the meeting of “The Herald” and “The Redeemer” long prophesied by the Stella Sapiente order? Black, as usual, is oblivious to this possibility, but at least he’s got a valid excuse — as he departs into the evening, Lovecraft’s invitation to come visit him anytime at his home in Providence having just been proffered, key early passages from Beyond The Wall Of Sleep are ringing in his ears so insistently and profoundly that he actually hears the people around him saying them, and this storytelling conceit is made all the more concrete thanks to their dialogue being rendered in a type-written font not unlike what one would find in the pages of one of Lovecraft’s books.
That bit of “fourth-wall busting” closes the main story out, but in the “Commonplace Book” backmatter that appends the issue, there is a curious fuck-up on page 29 that I don’t actually think is a fuck-up at all when viewed in the context of where this story has been heading all along — Black refers to Carver as “Carter” at one point on the page in question, and I humbly submit that this “blending,” if you will, of the “real” and the “dream” worlds is what Moore and Burrows have been building towards from the outset. It’s only a theory, mind you, but the insertion of Lovecraft into a narrative based on his works, the overall project of the Stella Sapiente being a “flipping” of the “real” and “dream” worlds, the assertion in the last issue that said “dream” world exists underground — it all fits in with the “high-altitude mapping” Moore discussed in his conversation with Sim, and leads me to believe that what we are witnessing in Providence is a slowly-unfolding occult ritual on the author’s part with an aim not so entirely different from that of, as Garland Wheatley called them, the “Stel Saps.” Moore may not be looking to actively overwrite our consensus reality with the “dreamscape,” but he’s actively blurring the distinctions between the two of them to the point where they either can’t be discerned anymore, or fade into absolute irrelevance. He and Burrows are playing not just with our perception of the world, but with the very nature of the world that we’re perceiving. If you want to be glib about it, you could say that they’re telling a fictional story — that’s becoming increasingly true. And if you’re still not picking this book up, you’re missing out on perhaps the most thematically, artistically, and, yes, magickally ambitious comics series not just of this year, this decade, or even this young century, but — no shit — of your entire life.