Welcome to The Sinister Reader and the official start of February is for Love(craft)!
For those who missed out on the intro post last week, The Sinister Reader is going to be a monthly installment for the site but to celebrate the start of it, I’m going to kick things off by doing weekly reviews of stories inspired by the cosmic, unknowable horrors from beyond made famous by H.P. Lovecraft. That said, we aren’t going the easy route for this set of reviews. In fact, we’re going to get good and political (sorta) by presenting stories that were inspired by or adaptations of tales done by Lovecraft but each story in this list has to be from the point of view of a character that is LGBTQ or a person of color. No stereotypical characters allowed and no sideline comic relief or convenient plot dumpers. The stories I’m highlighting for my list have to be from a voice that has been marginalized for a mainstream audience and something that Lovecraft himself would have been wildly offended by. And while it took some digging, I assure you that I found some pretty interesting gold for this list. This is a ranked list but, as I said in the introduction post, all of these are good books that are well deserving of your attention.
If you missed the intro post, there is a review of my honorable mention book (placed there only because it’s not from a marginalized perspective), but since we’re in the list proper now, I will give a brief overview of what it was about these four books that made the cut. The first and foremost, of course, is that it had to be a Lovecraftian story, either an adaptation of one of his stories or an original work that uses his themes and mythology. That might seem a bit broad but there are certain elements that I look for that, to me, signify that this is a Lovecraftian story. To be completely honest, there’s a very large amount that could fit into this category and, just like anything else that involves a complicated mythology, it can start to get a little bit difficult to figure out what does or doesn’t qualify as being part of the genre. If we get too stuck on minutia, we can get unnecessarily exclude really good stories that totally fit the bill but on the other hand, if we include absolutely everything, the mythos can get a lot on the diluted side really quickly and suddenly everything is part of the mythos if you squint. Basically, if we don’t set at least some minor ground rules, what does qualify is going to get muddy pretty fast so I’m just going by what I look for and what really strikes me as being a Lovecraft story. What we are going to look at hardly encompasses all of what Lovecraft created in his lifetime, but for the purposes of keeping this a manageable task, let’s just go with the following and I’ll give a little bit of a reason why I feel like this counts as definitive as a Lovecraftian story.
For me, one of the defining elements of Lovecraft and his tales was that of the horror of the giant unknown. He was one of the masters of high concept fiction that boiled down these mighty ideas into to something accessible and for a lot of his stories, there is something that casts a huge, uncompromising, usually malevolent, shadow over the world as we know it that only slowly reveals its nature. The one that we know of because it became a pop culture phenomenon is undead dreamer himself, Cthulhu. In recent years, it’s almost become a punchline with everything his tentacled face showing up on everything from Hello Kitty to something to keep your dildo warm (yes that really was something that someone made), but in the mythos, this massive, hulking monstrosity is a creature that lies dormant and dreaming beneath the waves of the ocean as he awaits the time when he will rise and bring him him the destruction of the world with the arrival of the eternal elder gods. Some of the books on my list do reference Cthulhu but that wasn’t enough to really make the cut as a Lovecraftian story.
Taking into account this idea of what Cthulhu and the other elder gods really represented, that incredibly awe inspiring sense of not only how cosmically big they were but also the insignificance of what people were to such creatures, is a large part of what makes a Lovecraftian tale, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not just about writing something nihilistic, either. There’s a lot that an author can play with in these power dynamics and even Lovecraft didn’t always do much with it. After all, most of the time his main characters were so mentally scarred by what they encountered that they ended up dying of their own madness. That’s pretty horrifying initially but it gets old after about the third time it happens and it doesn’t allow us to advance any sort of plot so, once again, that isn’t really going to cut it on my list. To land on this list, the author had to take something with those huge cosmic elements and the ephemera that typically surrounded them (the cults worshipping a lost deity, the books written in lost languages dedicated to them, the haunted or tormented minds of the people who came in contact with something that touched the deity’s robe hem, etc.) and either use them creatively in a new way where they were still recognizable but did something new that adds to the foundation of what Lovecraft originally brought to the table. If you’re looking for a good place to start, again, I will point you to the book that I reviewed for the introduction. And with that out of the way, let’s look at today’s book and number four on my list.
The beginning of this list is a bit if a weird one because it is a series, just like the honorable mention, but unlike the Cabal books, this series has Lovecraft at its core. It’s also a comic series so it’s a bit more impossible to break it up. Despite being at number four on my list, a reason I will get into soon enough, this is a very strong entry and it’s a must have for Lovecraft fans looking to expand their horizons. My number four book is Alan Moore’s series, Providence. The series, set in 1919 on the cusp of prohibition, is the story of Robert Black, a New England journalist embarking on a journey for research as he tries to write his Great American Novel. The wholesome quest is a ruse, however, to cover up for the many things that Robert is hiding, not the least of which is the death of his secret lover. You see, Robert is not only in the closet about his sexuality but also his Jewish background. To those around him, he is able to present the image of a white, heterosexual man who fits the societal standards of what it means to be normal but he is well aware of and lives in fear of the guaranteed social ostracization that he will face if he is found out. This becomes too much for him when his former lover, a man he’d left heartbroken because Robert was afraid that he would be discovered if they continued their affair, commits suicide. He sees his novel as a way of expressing all his secrets in code and finds himself wandering around the wilder areas of rural New England to conduct his research. As tends to happen to those who seek in any Lovecraftian tale, Robert finds a darkness that lies in wait, its horrors slowly seeping into him and exposing all those things he’s trying to hide from himself. The mix of Robert’s own tormented guilt and shame over who he really is and the horror that he experiences as he gets closer to seeing the big picture of what he’s found in the crevices of New England that no one ever looks in take its toll as the story goes on and as he digs, the things he discovers start to take an interest in him as well.
There has been quite a lot made of the kind of background research that Moore put into this series, including spending quite a lot of time going into Lovecraft’s inspirations as well as his works. It’s impressive, even if it’s likely to be lost on more novice readers in this genre, but it does go a long way into building up the world and really giving some depth to the mythos as they are presented in the story. It’s what really sets this story apart from just being a simple adaptation because his passion for getting all that detail hidden in every crack really shines through, even if you don’t know quite what you’re looking at. And at the end of the day, that’s exactly what Lovecraft is all about. Moore has given us a unique experience in this story because the work he put into making this story really does make you feel a bit like one of the main characters in a Lovecraft story or even Robert Black himself, giving you hints of things that might threaten to swallow you if you get too close and by the time you realize exactly what it is that you’ve been dealing with, it’s so much bigger and more horrifying than you expected or prepared for. It really is satisfying to read into the level of detail that has gone into making this story work, with many parts of Lovecraft’s tales, specifically The Horror at Red Hook, being woven into the narrative so seamlessly, you really only know what they are if you’ve read the stories. What’s even better is that he took those old elements and gave them actual life. Like others that we’ll see later, Moore took what was just really generic characters and infused them with more for the reader to get a grip on and in that sense, he really does take the clay that Lovecraft started with and made a masterpiece out of what was there. A haunting, very disturbing masterpiece.
I could drip praise on this and the writings of Alan Moore all day but you might be wondering why, if that’s the case, he only made it to number four. Again, I can’t overstate this but all of the books I’m going to list here are well worth your time and very much worth reading. The thing is that some of these books have either taken Lovecraft’s works into some incredibly interesting and unique territory where others might not have. Nothing about Providence is bad and it is arguably the most Lovecraft of all the books that I will include on this list. With the names and locations of the tales coming straight from his stories, there’s no denying that if you’re looking to get your disturbing cosmic horror on, this is a great place to look. The one thing it doesn’t do as much of is color outside the lines. This isn’t a failing but in this list, for all that it delivers in the Lovecraftian horror elements, it didn’t really play that much with them.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I applaud Moore for bringing Robert Black to the helm of this story because it really does carry the weight of how much secrets can destroy us, even if they aren’t cosmic horror secrets. There has been a lot made of Lovecraft’s overt racism but very little has been brought up about how homophobic and generally sex negative he was. It’s not exactly a secret that LGBTQ people have had a rough go, to put it lightly, over the course of history and attitudes about them in the 1920s were hardly what you could call progressive. It didn’t take very long before I found a sample of Lovecraft’s own writing on the topic and let’s just say that for the father of modern horror, you would have thought that he would come up with something a little more creative than the standard “non-hetero sex will lead to incest and bestiality” argument about why the idea of gay people morally outraged him. And this story would have outraged him for how well it fits Robert’s sexuality into the creeping terror around him, making the spectre of being exposed a part of the supernatural aspect that terrorize him. The fact that it juxtaposes both the secrets that Robert carries with the cosmic horror makes this so much more than anything that Lovecraft actually gave us and that’s what makes it such a great story. That said, it’s still sitting squarely in the same lane as the white male protagonists that have generally populated these stories prior. Again, this isn’t a failing or it wouldn’t even be on the list at all. After all, it’s taking what Lovecraft did write and giving it more depth and giving us a perspective that allows us to walk with someone who had to hide who he was. Being incognito with the protagonist gives us so much more than just the random dummy who stumbles on something and goes insane and that alone is worthy of its spot here but there was more to play with, as we shall see.
Again, I could praise this series all day but there are a few things that I think that should be put out there for anyone who is going to pick these puppies up. For one, they are hard as balls to find in physical book form. Seriously, I have the first collection of the series in a hardcover volume and I had to grab the rest through Kindle or look down the barrel of trying to cough up an obscene amount of money for just the second hardcover book with the next four issues in it. If you have a Kindle, this might not be a big deal as those ebooks of the comics are pretty good for being big enough that you catch details easily enough. If you are stuck with your phone and don’t have access to a tablet this might prove a lot difficult to read on. And if you do happen to have this on a tablet or you managed to find the physical book for something less than an arm and a leg (they do pop up sometimes), be forewarned that this is NOT A BUS READ!!! Or a public read, for that matter.
This piece of advice comes to you from someone who learned the hard way. Now granted, this is something that comes with reading any kind of graphic novel that tackles the kind of plotlines that Moore is known for. If you aren’t sure of the contents, it’s not always the best idea to sit in a public space like the park or at grandma’s to read it if you aren’t sure that you won’t get a full page spread of Dr. Manhattan in all his full naked blue glory. (I learned such a lesson on the bus and a friend of mine learned at grandma’s. Don’t be either of us!) The thing is that at least Dr. Manhattan’s junk was less detailed than all that but there are some intense, dark and thoroughly disturbing images that will be difficult to explain away to bus patrons and elderly relatives. Read with some discretion of who you are around unless you are looking to get your newest bus friend to find a new seat. (Also: this doesn’t work. Trust me on this one, you will not have a seat to yourself but you may find yourself stuck in an awkward conversation for the rest of your commute.) I supposed this also comes with the understanding that this is a visual medium and you are going to see some pretty shocking images sometimes and depending on who you are, you might not enjoy them. The comic doesn’t shy away from these things so be aware that it is a great read but it will haunt you.
And that, friends, is the best thing you can hope for when you’re reading a Lovecraftian tale and I hope that if you are able to, you will track down Providence. It’s an excellent story and Robert’s journey into the horrors of New England and his own secrets will definitely scratch that itch if you are looking for something dark, brooding and building to a devastating end.
Thank you all for joining me for The Sinister Reader! Again, after this month, you can expect these reviews once a month but next week, we’ll have the third book in my ranked list for February is for Love(craft)! In the meantime, Friday Nightmare Reviews is starting up again this week and, as always, you can expect the next update for Hello Dolly’s Young Bucks this coming Monday. If you are wanting to get in on any of this early, check out my Patreon for this and other goodies. Thank you all again for joining me and until next time, happy reading!