"Objection!" This series which ran for twelve issues last year and is currently in the middle of of being collected is too new to be considered an obscurity, you say. I say, had you heard of it? The fact I couldn't walk into Forbidden Planet and pick up this volume relying instead on Amazon and the fact it's another for the small publishing company Avatar Press really makes it an obscurity from the start. Which is a shame because, at least on the basis of this first trade, it's something of a return to form for Moore. Now I must iterate that I am writing this up before reading the next volume in the collection, but on the basis of these four issues we've got something rather good forming. It's a return to the Lovecraftian themes that inspired the repugnant Neonomicon (links to a very NSFW post), but unlike that vile piece of filth this captures the subtle building horror that so defined Lovecraft's work and lacks the unpleasant reflections of the real Lovecraft's asexuality against a backdrop of extremely graphic rape and abuse. Set in the 1920's we follow a journalist called Robert Black who has decided to write a book based on the underbelly of American small time life and the sinister things he discovers as he keeps probing deeper. Each chapter ends with text diary entries that at first seem like padding but actually start expanding the story in a most interesting fashion while allowing us to get to know Robert more intimately via his ruminations and theories. I'll be concentrating mainly on the comic portions which are drawn by the talented Jacen Burrows because adding in summaries of the prose sections would probably triple the length of this already lengthy post. So let's begin and see long Moore can hold out before the inevitable rape happens.
We begin in New York 1919, a man called Jonathan whose face we never see is standing on a bridge in a park tearing up some romantic letters and tossing the pieces over the railing. Then we cut to the offices of the newspaper The Herald. There the boss, an older man called Mr. Posey is lecturing the others - Prissy the secretary, journalist Mr. Dix and our protagonist journalist Robert Black - on how journalism is trailing in the gutter now thanks to the antics of Hearst. Journalism was once known for its courage, now "it's a badge of shame is what it is."
|Robert Black, foreground.|
Robert says she means "The King In Yellow" by Robert Chambers, which was written round the turn of the century, which was based allegedly on the scandal round Sous Le Monde. He decides he will investigate further because it'll get him out of the office and his bickering co-workers. There is a doctor who lives locally who wrote an essay on it, so Robert looks up his address as they had previously interviewed his landlady on an unrelated matter and leaves.
We then see Jonathan silently walking towards a building in the park, to jump slightly ahead, this is an "Exit Garden" where people can go to end their lives peacefully. As Robert walks we get some flashbacks, first to him as a young boy and our first hint that he is from a family of German Jewish immigrants as first they argue about what he'll be when he grows up, then him as a young man leaving for New York while his father asks him "what do they have in New York that's not in Milwaukee?"
He stops off an an automat to grab some lunch and bumps into a friend called Charles who asks if he is still seeing "Lillian?" Robert says he and "Miss Russell" broke up, "it was getting too close for comfort". Charles says he recalls Robert saying he was going to write a book wasn't he? Robert says he's been doing lots of planning, very little writing, he doesn't have a subject yet to be truthful.
Robert: "I want something that cuts to the heart of this country and these times. That's talks about things nobody's dared talk about before. You know? Not just another slice of life in the City of Bachelors."
After that he leaves and we get more flashbacks. Him getting the job at the Herald where Posey tells him his personal life is his own business and not to bring it to work. Then him skulking down the docks. Then a woman whose face we don't see introducing herself as "Lillian Russell". Then him naked in Lillian's bedroom as he admires all her books. Finally he arrives at where Dr. Alvarez is living. The landlady, Mrs. Ortega, wearing a furcoat and nothing else, lets him in warning that it will be cold inside Mr. Alvarez's rooms.
|Memories haunt Robert.|
Alvarez: "Love is the only substantial thing. It is noble in its noises and its odours. From where I look at this, to not love is to waste the existence. Even life is a small matter beside it. You see, it is not interrupted by death. Without it, the world cannot be endured."
Another cut to Jonathan now inside the Exit Garden, choosing some music to listen to on the gramaphone. Then back to Alvarez and Robert. Robert asks him what attracted him to Sous Le Monde?
Alvarez says it has a mention of an Arab alchemical text which had connection to his work at the time, "Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya" which means "Book of the Wisdom of the Stars". For many years it was considered a fiction, but Guillot, the author of Sous Le Monde has read it. It linked with Alvarez's interests and work at the time. That was the prolonging of life. Guillot reported that the Arab text had four methods, two of which - reviving cadavers and transplanting souls - seemed mystical. "Others, perhaps, were more scientific" says Alvarez.
|Dr. Alvarez and Robert chat.|
Alvarez: "Before my illness, I greatly admired its offices. The statue of Athena, the brass owls with electric eyes flashing... 'Al-Hikman Al-Najmiyya', there, too, is wisdom among the twinkling stars, is it not?"
Robert says it's a lovely thought, then questions Alvarez about his illness, did it start in 1905? Alvarez says it was then he and his colleague Doctor Este tested their proceedures on themselves, but Este died and he is now confined to his cold rooms.
He doesn't seem all that bothered by his predicament, "life does not trouble me". Robert notes that most people in New York mind their own business. Then Alvarez gives him an idea.
Alvarez: "In America, we are allowed our privacy, yes? We are allowed our secrets. I have my secret and you have yours, I think other people, also. There is a concealed country, therefore, hidden below the society we show the world. Uncomfortable truth, it lurks behind our pretences. This truth, it is a land sunken beneath many fathoms. Were it on day to rise and confront us all, what would you do, Mr Black? What would any of us do?"
After a cut to the man overseeing Jonathan's death checking if he is dead at the Exit Garden, we return to Alvarez and Robert. Getting ready to leave, Robert thanks him for giving him a lot to think about and then asks Alvarez about the tragedies surrounding Sous Le Monde. Alvarez says it was just coincidence exploited by the publishers. Robert says he guesses that sinks his story, but talk of the hidden America is an idea he'll be chewing over.
|Alvarez bids Robert farewell.|
Robert walks down the street, it's night now. He remembers a conversation with Lillian who had met Mr. Posey at a charity function and this has freaked out Robert for some reason. Then we see him walking out on her because of this and she pleads with him, saying she loves him:
Lillian: "How can you be so cowardly? You hide your religion, you hide the truth about us... you cover your feelings, it's like you don't have any. You're cold, Robert. You're really cold."
And Robert finds his way back to The Herald. Posey is bemoaning the laws that will become Prohibition and how they are a sop towards the women who will be voting for the first time. Although he thinks even if they pass it, it won't be enforced.
Robert tells them there wasn't a story in the Sous Le Monde business after all but Alvarez himself might make an interesting story. Dix then says he has filled the half page so they won't need a story afterall. It's about the man who ended it all that day in the Bryant Park Exit Garden. Robert mutters to himself about how The King In Yellow predicted it, while Prissy and Dix look for the biography file. Turns out his surname was "Russell".
|Robert controls his emotions.|
We begin chapter two with a short flashback of Robert taking his leave of The Herald for now to start doing research for the book he's decided to write based on his conversation with Alvarez who told him a man called Suydam had the copy of the Arab alchemical book. Posey wishes him good luck and says that The Herald has a police contact in Brooklyn he might want to speak to... and Robert is greeted by the very handsome Tom Malone who thanks Robert for his "eloquent letter".
|Detective Tom Malone.|
Tom admits that he's studied mystical and mysterious texts and had thought policing Red Hook might be glamourous and exotic due to the mixture of people there, "in plain truth, Red Hook's a heaving slum, with nothing extraordinary about it." After some chat about crime, and Robert admits he's here not as a journalist but researching a book and wants to try and track down the original alchemical text and Suydam who had a copy seemed the best place to start. Robert says that he finds the idea of alchemists in modern America interesting.
Tom says he'd be interested in reading a book about that, they talk somemore about Suydam's love of underground spaces and Tom brings up Jung and how cellars and caves correspond to the unconcious mind.
Robert: "Well, if dreams are parts of us that we've hidden away or buried, I guess it makes sense."
They've been walking all this time and have travelled close to where Suydam lives. Tom asks Robert to sit with him in a nearby cafe to watch out for Suydam when he comes out to take the air in the nearby park.
We jump forward a little in time and Robert has finished telling him about how the death of his "friend" had made him want to leave New York and if Suydam catches his imaginations he may never go back to The Herald. Sympathetically Tom slides his address over to Robert and when Robert goes to take it, Tom places his hand on top of Roberts telling him to come and see him if he writes the book or not. Then he spots Suydam and Robert goes out to speak to him as Tom watches thoughtfully and drinks his coffee.
|A significant touch.|
He says that his contacts in Salem and their associates are intrigued by a different world that may "precede or even underlie our own". Robert asks if that means prehistoric remains buried under towns?
Suydam: "Not exactly. It is more in the way that dreams or impulses of which we are not conciously aware may underlie our waking actions."
The Kitab explains it more fully, it is a book considered blasphemous and heretical amongst the Arab peoples. Robert says Alvarez had said it was relevant to his work about proloning life and avoiding death. Suydam says says the four methods concerned diet, temperature, transfer of the soul and finally revival of the cadaver of which the last interests him the most.
|Suydam adds to Robert's knowledge.|
Then a woman comes in and Suydam says that his business with Robert is concluded. Robert can stay and peruse more pamphlets and let himself out as Suydam has to hurry away to inspect some "merchandise". Robert can let himself out. But after they have gone, Robert is alone and as he makes to leave, he notices the basement door is open. He walks downstairs and finds a torch on some shelves and sees a pentgram in a circle on the wall and a stone staircase leading down.
|The black ocean under Suydam's house.|
He walks down the steps and finds himself in a dank cave system, the floor is littered with human bones and skulls much to his horror. Futher on he shines the torch out over a black ocean with strangely carved columns rising out of it. Then suddenly a luminescent female humanoid yelling "HooHooHoo" at him starts chasing him, he runs losing his hat as he runs. It get's closer and closed and he trips and falls and everything goes black...
....only for him to wake up on the basement floor, no steps down to be seen and no occult symbol on the wall. Standing over him is a sympathetic Suydam and Miss Gerritsen. Suydam says the fumes must have overcome him and he had a nightmare. Robert babbles about the cave and the ocean and being chased by Lilith, which Suydam puts down to his subconcious mind.
As he collects himself and leaves, he psychoanalyses himself, that Lilith was representative of Lily and the cave his subconcious guilt at not doing more to help her. He then asks them if he had a hat when he came in? Suydam and Miss Gerritsen say they didn't see one. And that seems to satisfy him. He waves them goodbye as they wish him well and the final image of the chapter is the three claw-mark like scars on the Kurdish seller's face.
The creepy manager gives him directions and Robert makes his way there and overhears a weird conversation as two men are discussing some "considerable bounty" which has come into Boggs' possession which sound like it might just be about rare bottles and also well, something a lot more sinister. Because when we see what they are, they are just bottles but have blobs inside them and tiny speech bubbles with unreadable text coming from a couple. One of the other men quickly covers them up.
|Tobit Boggs centre.|
Boggs returns and asks what Robert wants and Robert tells him he heard he had made a copy of an alchemical text about fifteen years ago. Boggs said he it was "Hali's Booke" and he had "old Garland Wheatley from out Athol way write that out in Fair for me". He was associating with The Order then before their split in 1912. Robert is surprised The Order was still going strong then.
Boggs says they are still going strong today, 1912 was just when the schism happened, " 'course my folks hadn't been welcome since Granpappy Jack forty year afore that" Boggs goes on to say. Boggs says Captain Jack Boggs got into it via the other sea captains although it was when he brought back "Granma Pathithia-Lee" back with him that seemed to be when they turned against him. Boggs says he can show the old sea tunnels to Robert if he wants and Robert says yes.
As they walk down the street Boggs tells Robert that his best bet as a next move would be to visit the Wheatley Clan out past Athol. There's a bus tomorrow, then they both come across a swastika drawn in chalk on the pavement. Boggs grumbles about the "big-eared, crowdy-eyed bastards" who did it, "they know this is our baptizin' season". Robert asks what it is and Boggs says it's a symbol from India, and out on the islands it's known as bad luck "or worse".
|An ominous sign.|
Boggs tells Robert that the tunnels were mainly used by his Grandfather to bring immigrants from the islands, "it's how we look out for one another". He opens a hatchdoor in the floor and tells Robert to go in first and he'll follow with the lamp. As Boggs follows he rather overshares describing his wife as a "quite a catch" and "them island women... they don't mind it in the mouth or nothin'" Robert notes the tunnels seem ancient.
There are dirty pictures scrawled on the walls, which Boggs says were done mainly by the women. It seems island women adapt to marriage with mainlanders better than the otherway round. Captain Jack also read about the island in the Kitab. They unlatch a heavy door and it opens out into a large cave with the sea, black and brooding in front of them. Suddenly reminded of his "dream" of being chased by Lilith in the cave, Robert gets freaked out and so Boggs takes him back out and he takes his leave.
|Some of Robert's dream.|
Next day he catches the bus for Athol, as the bus makes its way along the coast road, one of the kids calls "howdy, all you sunk 'un ones! Howdy" to something moving in the water. Robert asks if they are seals, then further words sputter out as everyone on the bus turns to look at him, all scowling all fishfaced. Then the father says, yeah they're seals. And a freaked out Robert goes back to his to the parish magazine of the fishface people which has some piscine priest's fishy takes on parables and signs off with the cheery "Oannes keeps you safe within his mouth".
|Creepy as fuck.|
As he walks there he reflects in a conversation he had with the local librarian, the Wheatleys came from Salem and most of the Wheatleys in Athol are fine, upstanding citizens but some branches are not.
Librarian: "Bloodlines can degenerate over time. Intellectually, morally... even physically".
She doesn't know Garland Wheatley and if he's from the declining stock she doesn't want to. The way these people live, well, "it's nothing to shout about."
He arrives at the farm and there doesn't appear to be anyone around. He approaches the barn, then Garland Wheatley appears and tells him to move away, there's slaughtering done in that barn and blood soaks into Robert's shoes. He is surly and when Robert tells him Boggs suggested he come here and Garland says "that wall-eyed bastard owes me thirty bucks".
|Meet Garland Wheatley.|
Garland: "See, this society I belonged to give Saint Anselm college in Manchester a copy o'the book aroudn 1890. That was when they was havin' all their big ideas. Anways, we had a fallin' out. They don't allow me in their library now."
He then grumbles some more about how they'd looked down on them and mentions a stone they brought back from farming land and they claimed it vanished before he could see it (shades of "The Colour Out Of Space" perhaps?). He was bing shut out by the "blue-bloods" they have their own plan for the Order. They want to fufill the "Redeemer prophecy" and the "poor relations wasn't consulted".
Robert notes that the Redeemer prophecy appears in Hali's Book. Garland says the Redeemer is the "feller gonna put the world to right again". The Order decided it'd be one of their own then gave the book to St. Anselms, "reckon they were done with it." But after a fire which destroyed pretty much all the books but never touched Hali's St. Anselms didn't want it either.
Garland bemoans their high-handedness and says he's a better "cunnin'-feller" that what they are. He waited and when the Redeemer thing still hadn't happened in 1912 he put his proposal togther and he and his daughter Letty were immediately expelled from the society. Robert says it sounds like the prejudice he heard aimed at Boggs and Garland decides he can meet his daughter.
|Garland's daughter Letty.|
Inside the house a dull looking woman called Letty is sitting at a table and doing some drawings. She is happy to see Robert and Garland leaves them alone to chat. Robert makes small talk about the renovations Garland told him they were having. Letty says it's for her boy, he's getting too big for his shed. Robert says that's Willard ins't it? Letty says "Lord, what did I say? I didn't say John-Divine did I?"
She then vehemently says John-Divine definitely isn't Willard's name and what is his book about? He tells her and she offers him the pictures she's drawn saying a book should have pictures. Robert takes them politely and asks if she still sees the boy's father.
|Letty's drawing of "John-Divine"|
Letty: "He was... just big balls, you know? Just hangin' there... It was fireworks, like what they say in the books. The love.. fireworks right up to the sky".
|Well done Alan, you managed to hold out until the fourth chapter|
Inside the barn is a large male, he's a dark grey colour and a definite bestial aspect to him. Robert says he's surprised he's not in college, Willard says he's six and-a-half and continues playing with the tesseract cubes he has. Robert tries some small talk saying his mother and grandfather seem like nice people.
Willard: "They's a hindrance, thuh both of 'un. On'y reason they's heeyun is cuz it's haow the story's gotta be. In the 'deener story, s'gotta be thuh crazy granpappy, un' thuh whaht-faced wunnun , un' thuh bad-lookin' bwoy. Thet's whah ah ain't warmin' tuh yuh. Yur aht uv a diff'run story awlduhgethuh".
Confused Robert says "I-I am?" and Willard says yes and he thinks he's putting a spoke in the Wheatley's wheel. Robert stammers that he is just here to meet his family. Willard tells him to stick around and leaves. So Robert takes a look around and sees a photo on the wall with Willard putting his arms round someone invisible.
He takes Robert to the front gate and apologises to him. Robert says that's fine and he he is grateful for telling him about Saint Anslem. Garland says he'll be heading to Manchester then and hopes he has better luck than him. He hopes "as you'll speak kindly of us Wheatleys when your books all done". Robert says he can't wait to follow his new lead. They wish each other well and Robert sets off down the road back to Athol. Bringing this chapter and the volume to and end with an excerpt from the HP Lovecraft story "The Ancient Track".
|Robert heads back to his hotel, deep in thought.|