Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Alan Moore's The Courtyard

If I wanted to be flip, my review of The Courtyard would be "It's Alan Moore. Doing Lovecraft." Then I'd slap you upside the head, make out with your girlfriend, then run off into the endless stygian night. Fortunately, that's not what they pay me the big bucks for, so I'm going to continue. Besides, when I loaned this book to people in my social circle, most of 'em didn't like it. I really did, but I think it's because of my immersion in my source material.

Lovecraft has basically become a sub-genre unto itself. When people think cosmic horror, gigantic squiddy-things, descents into mind-shattering madness, and overwrought prose about clustering gambrel roofs, they think about the gentleman weirdo from Providence. I have a long and convoluted history with Lovecraftiana but that's another article unto itself. Suffice to say, I dig the dude's style and I was really keen to see what comics legend Alan Moore (whose Swamp Thing run will be another article sometime in the future) could do in his playground.

The plot is a routine Lovecraft pastiche: a person investigating unimaginable horror becomes part of said horror. The unfortunate seeker this go-around is Aldo Sax, FBI agent and anomaly theory specialist, who goes undercover in slightly sci-fi New York's underground rawk scene to investigate a series of bizarre murders. Shit happens, vistas of the reality are opened, and Sax ends up doing something terrible. So it goes.

I've read this sort of story before. It's the kind of so-obvious-it's-ugly notion that's dirt common in this genre, but this one was well executed by an expert's hand. I really liked the characterization of Aldo Sax. He's got your typical hard-boiled narrator's voice, but it's tinged with a really nasty edge of elitism, isolation, and racism that makes him pop out more than your standard Philip Marlowe knock-off. The quasi-alternate history New York he inhabits is also a fascinating backdrop, just familiar enough to be comfortable in but with a few touches casually dropped in the narrative to keep the reader off-balance.

The story name drops about a half-million Lovecraft references, from the sinister Club Zothique to the mysterious drug dealer Johnny Carcosa to the drug addled reality-stretching musician Randolph Carter. The underground nightclub Sax visits during his investigation is a really cool creation, painted beautifully in brief descriptive texts that captures the experience really well. Johnny Carcosa in particular is a brilliant creation, an effeminate ageless man whose lemon-yellow veil covers some sort of terrible deformity and whose small frog-like mother is an immigrant from somewhere terrible.

As to the contributors, I really like Jacen Burrow's artwork. He's generally someone I'm kind of hit-or-miss on, but his horror work is richly detailed, has a strong gift for conveying human drama, and knows how to do the terrible subtlety necessary in horror comics. Antony Johnston, who adapted the work from Moore's short story, did a helluva job trimming the tale down to a few choice text blocks and a brilliantly imagined visual style.

Yet when I passed my copy of The Courtyard around at work, most people didn't really like it.

I kinda get why people wouldn't like this book. If you're familiar with Alan Moore's work from the last few years, many of his stories wander into this mythical stream-of-consciousness thing. I don't share his spiritual point-of-view and I may possibly be too stupid to understand what he's talking about half the time, but some of his stuff reads like a man scribbling furiously on the walls of an asylum.

Moore's spiraling language games do something that hasn't really been done successfully (that I've encountered, at least): it gives voice and meaning to the horrible gibberish language that surrounds the Lovecraftian realms of monstrosity. Once we share Aldo's experience with the Aklo language, we get teasing glimpses of the metascience behind Lovecraft's language. Noise becomes concepts, concepts become perceptions, perceptions become actions, all within this strange multi-dimensional verbal construct. It is, bluntly, a trip, but you really have to know what Moore is talking about and how those eeeeevil phrases come into use in the source material. If you don't have it, the book has a weird pointless ending.

Anyway, yeah, if you like your Lovecraft and you want to see how the monsters and madmen think, check The Courtyard out. I dug it quite a bit, and it's going into an honored spot in my collection.

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