Comic book horror miniseries, published by Avatar Press in 2010. It was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Jacen Burrows. In the 2012 Bram Stoker Awards, it was the recipient of the first award in the new "Graphic Novel" category. The trade paperback for the series begins with Moore and Burrows' short series "The Courtyard," from 2003.
Moore has been working as a writer of cosmic horror, in one form or another, in many of his comics. The themes of nihilism, madness, and alienation, the sense that something has gone wrong with the world, have been present in "Watchmen," "V for Vendetta," "From Hell," even superhero comics like "The Killing Joke" and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" He had a psychic space squid kill New York City. He had Jack the Ripper dream the 20th century into being. He turned Mr. Mxyzptlk into a fifth-dimensional monster-god.
Moore put the story together because he said he wanted to make explicit what H.P. Lovecraft had kept merely implicit. He felt that Lovecraft's conservatism had kept him from writing specifically about sex or racism in his stories, and Moore planned to remedy that. In an interview with Wired, he said:
It’s got all of the things that tend to be glossed over in Lovecraft: the racism, the suppressed sex. Lovecraft will refer to nameless rites that are obviously sexual, but he will never give them name. I put all that stuff back in. There is sexuality in this, quite violent sexuality which is very unpleasant. After a while of writing and reading it, I thought, "Hmmm, that was much too nasty; I shouldn’t have done that. I should have probably waited until I was in a better mood." But when I saw what Jacen Burrows had done with it, I thought, "Actually, this is pretty good!" (Laughs) I wanted to go back and read through my scripts. And yes, it is every bit as unpleasant as I remember, but it’s quite good. I think it’s an unusual take on Lovecraft that might upset some aficionados. Or it might upset some perfectly ordinary human beings!
So did Moore manage to one-up Lovecraft by making the sex and racism explicit? Does the book upset Lovecraft aficionados and perfectly ordinary human beings?
All discussion of this series will involve spoilers. And trigger warnings. Be warned, and be aware.
In "The Courtyard," the first part of the larger story, we follow a federal agent named Aldo Sax -- I really do not know if this is supposed to be an intentional pun or not. Sax is a vehement bigot -- he hates blacks, Jews, women, everyone -- and he's been given a deep-cover assignment in New York City's Red Hook slums, an area boiling over with crime, violence, and poverty. Sax is in town because he's investigating three ritual murders, each from a different part of the country, each with no connection to each other. But Sax is a genius at finding patterns, and he's figured out that there's a connection between all three sets of killings -- a low-rent punk club specializing in occult rock called Club Zothique.
Sax visits the club and watches a band called the Ulthar Cats, whose lead singer, a woman named Randolph Carter, sings in a demented gibberish. He asks an acquaintance what's her problem and is told that she's on a drug called Aklo. How do you get Aklo? You gotta talk to Johnny Carcosa, a lisping, veiled dealer who is the only source for the drug. Sax orders three hits of Aklo from Carcosa -- and learns that Aklo is not a drug. It's a language, which Carcosa whispers in Sax's ear, opening his mind to horrific visions, blasphemous concepts, and mind-shattering realizations. Sax stumbles back to his apartment, and starts working on his own ritual murders.
The main body of "Neonomicon" is set several years later. It focuses on FBI agents Merril Brears and Gordon Lamper. They briefly interview Aldo Sax in a psychiatric facility, telling him there's a copycat killer out there doing their own ritual murders. He refuses to speak in anything but Aklo, but clams up when they mention Club Zothique. After a raid on the club, the feds almost catch Johnny Carcosa, but he turns into a graffiti painting right before their eyes. During their subsequent investigation, they note the vast number of references to H.P. Lovecraft's works that keep turning up and conclude that some sort of criminal conspiracy may have built up around the pulp author's creations. They also trace some of the occult paraphernalia and sex toys to a bookshop in Salem, Massachusetts.
Brears and Lamper then visit Salem and go undercover as a kinky married couple looking for sex and occult thrills. They're accepted by the bookstore's owner and invited back for a late-night orgy with the other members of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. They're led down through a trap door into an underground complex, including a large swimming pool. Unfortunately, after everyone's naked, one of the cultists finds the agents' guns. They kill Lamper and rape Brears before the group gets another visitor -- a monstrous deep one, which spends several days raping her. Finally, the fishman tastes her urine, realizes she's pregnant, and helps her escape captivity. Once Brears tells her bosses about the secret trap door, the feds raid the shop, find most of the cultists slaughtered by the deep one, and shoot the monster to death.
Brears again visits Sax at the psychiatric facility, reveals that she can now speak Aklo, and tells him that Lovecraft's stories were actually a prophecy: the end of the world is coming, and her baby, Cthulhu, will be the cause of it all.
Now, what do I think of it? It's got some excellent moments, some incredibly deep flaws -- and in some ways, it's just complete crap.
What works? Almost everything about Johnny Carcosa. He's legitimately creepy and bizarre, while also interestingly human. The scene where he's talking to the agents pursuing him just before he turns into a realistic chalk drawing is gloriously mind-twisty. He's the most interesting and most charismatic character in the series. Really, anything delving into real cosmic horror is great. Nearly all of "The Courtyard" and Brears' revelation of the coming apocalypse at the end of the comic are excellent cosmic horror, and they do everything good cosmic horror should do. In addition, Burrows' artwork is outstanding and detailed -- as it is on every project he works on.
What doesn't work? Pull up a chair and get comfortable -- we'll be here a while.
Characterization is almost nonexistent. The only personality trait Brears is given is that she's a recovering sex addict -- and Moore doesn't seem to have any understanding at all about what that means or how to realistically write someone with a mental illness. Lamper doesn't even get that much -- he's a personality-free black guy, and that's basically it. Both of them aren't much more than cartoons.
The FBI is written as an astonishingly incompetent organization. In "The Courtyard," Sax is undercover and entirely on his own. Only his direct supervisor knows what he's investigating, and he has absolutely no one to turn to if he needs help. The raid on Club Zothique is a complete screw-up -- everyone comes in the front door, with every other exit unguarded. They just barely attempt to apprehand Carcosa, though it would be hard to arrest a supernatural being. And Brears and Lamper's undercover visit to Salem is implausibly badly handled. Brears, a sex addict, shouldn't have been cleared to investigate a sex cult. And both agents have absolutely no backup. They aren't wearing wires, they don't have anything to let the feds trace where they are, there aren't even any other agents in town to watch the shop. The FBI shows up the next day and interrogates the bookshop owners -- and that's really all they do. Two missing agents, and the feds don't even take the shop owners somewhere to question them? They don't jail them on suspicion? They don't do anything but look aimlessly around the shop? That's irritatingly unrealistic.
And then there's the rape scenes. Listen, it's become something of a bad joke at this point, but Moore seems almost incapable of writing a comic book that doesn't include rape. Even "Tom Strong," which is considered one of his most all-ages-friendly comics, includes a scene where the hero is knocked out and then raped by a female villain while he's asleep.
So Brears is gang-raped by the cultists, then turned over to the fish monster for several more days of rape. This goes on for several vile pages. And then it all wraps up with Brears giving the deep one a handjob. A full page devoted to a woman jerking off a fish monster.
So what about Moore's own pre-release statements that he was going to fix Lovecraft by putting in the racism and sex that HPL left out? Did that work? Well, Aldo Sax is a huge racist -- he really hates everyone, no matter what race or gender they are. And the cultists make a few references to Lamper's race, but they only use the N-word once. Of course, the big problem for Moore is that Lovecraft didn't leave racism out of his stories -- many of his works were outrageously racist. As a result, "Neonomicon" actually ends up feeling less racist than "The Horror at Red Hook" or the last chapter of "Herbert West: Re-Animator."
As for sex: Well, it's definitely explicit where Lovecraft kept things implicit. Brears is raped multiple times, and though things are depicted in fairly graphic detail, it ain't a damn bit sexy unless you really groove on rape. If the purpose is to depict the horror of rape, well, that's the way to do it. And then it all gets thrown away and turned into a tasteless comedy when Moore has a woman give a fish monster a tug-job. Because there's no way to make that scary. It's like the writers of "Porky's" took over the comic book for a few pages. It's a woman giving a fish monster a tug-job. Way to go, Alan Moore: Super-Genius.
So how 'bout it? Does the greater explicitness of Moore's comic improve on Lovecraft's tendency to gloss over all the impoliteness? I think it's clear the answer is going to be no, not even a bit.
Yes, Lovecraft was sexually repressed and certainly preferred to glide over the horror of the human-deep one couplings. And yes, while Lovecraft was alive, no publisher would've accepted a story with explicit human-monster sex. But it's been remarked upon many times that imagined horrors are often more terrifying than more explicit horrors. Horror movies that hide their monsters in the shadows allow audiences to imagine much, much more terrible things than the makeup department could've ever devised.
There's a point in the story where Aldo Sax experiences a vision of the various entities of the Cthulhu Mythos, all rendered in Burrows' perfectly detailed pencils, all full-color, all bright light. And Lovecraft's sanity-crushing gods end up looking almost mundane. Yes, too many eyes, too many mouths. But there's no mystery, no sense of the indescribable, no fear. It's a bunch of anatomical illustrations. Cthulhu himself looms in the background -- and he looks like a mind flayer from Dungeons & Dragons.
Does Moore's comic add anything that improves Lovecraft or his Mythos? Well, it adds rape. And in fact, the whole story was seemingly put together just to add rape. It's cynical and crass. And it shows that, for all of Moore's skill as a writer, Lovecraft still might've understood horror better than he does.