CCCBC: Alan Moore’s The Courtyard (Part 1)


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Welcome to the preseason for 2010’s Comics Comics Comic-Book Club, which will feature a discussion of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s new series Neonomicon. Before getting to that, though, it probably makes sense to start with Alan Moore’s The Courtyard, the 2003 two-issue miniseries to which Neonomicon is a sequel.

Garth Ennis, of Preacher and Punisher fame, introduces the comic with some effusive praise:

Here he is now with his latest effort, ably assisted by Antony Johnston and drawn by the always excellent Jacen Burrows: Alan Moore’s The Courtyard. And yes, it’s brilliant, and yes- sob– he’s as good as he ever was, but what The Courtyard really does is confirm the effortless quality of the man’s talent. A story bursting with ideas and characters and nice lines and spooky twists, enough to keep most writers occupied for a couple of years—but where just about anyone else would stripmine a concept like this to death, what does Alan devote to it? Forty-eight pages, no more.

Actually, Moore actually didn’t even devote that many pages to the concept, because Moore is not in fact the author of this comic; his “able assistant” Antony Johnston scripted the book on the basis of a short prose story Alan Moore wrote for the 1995 H.P. Lovecraft tribute anthology The Starry Wisdom, which also included contributions from the likes of J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, John Coulthart, Grant Morrison, and Ramsey Campbell. (“The Courtyard” has since been reprinted in Alan Moore’s The Courtyard Companion. How many comics inspire this much ancillary material to be published?)

That particular overestimation is only the most obvious of the ways in which Ennis’s introduction may mislead the unwary reader (I am tempted here to make a joke about the “effortless quality” of Moore’s work here), and if he is right that other comic-book writers would have “stripmined” the wealth of ideas herein “for a couple of years,” then that is a damning indictment of contemporary genre comics.

The original prose story does in fact display flashes of Moore’s trademark wit and invention, but it is end still fairly typical of Lovecraft pastiches (of which thousands have been written), from its inside jokes (a band named The Ulthar Cats) right down to the story’s final phrases, in which the narrator’s language inevitably devolves into unintelligible invocations of the Old Ones: “N’gaii fhtagn e’hucunechh R’lyeh. Iä, G’harne ep ygg Rhan Tegoth …”, etc. There’s no harm in that kind of playing around—nearly every fantasy or horror writer succumbs to the temptation to parody Lovecraft at one time or another—but it’s not really worth Ennis’s breathless enthusiasm either.

So what’s the story actually about? It’s basically a near-future sequel to Lovecraft’s most notorious and distasteful story, “The Horror at Red Hook”, in which the ultimate horror is not so much the cultic rituals hinted at and described but rather the great unwashed immigrant hordes of New York’s slums. (Representative quote: “Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor … The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another… It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles.”) Lovecraft had lived a reclusive, bookish life in Providence before a brief marriage, during which he moved to New York and was overwhelmed by the multitudes there, and after which his already present “genteel” racism suddenly got much, much uglier.

As the French novelist Michel Houellebecq (who knows from literary offensiveness) puts it, “racial hatred provokes in Lovecraft the trancelike poetic state in which he outdoes himself by the mad rhythmic pulse of cursed sentences; this is the source of the hideous and cataclysmic light that illuminates his final works.” Houellebecq believes that Lovecraft’s descriptions of the monstrosities of his fiction “spring directly” from his racial animus, and compares his fictional terrors to a letter Lovecraft wrote to his friend Frank Belknap Long describing the 1920s Lower East Side and its citizenry:

The organic things—Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid—inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption…

It gets worse from there.

But there’s time for more on Lovecraft later in the club. For now, let it be simply stated that Moore has chosen Lovecraft’s most infamously indefensible story as his model. The protagonist of “The Courtyard” is himself a virulently (if not quite credibly) racist federal agent named (also incredibly) Aldo Sax. Sax isn’t very likable, but apparently he has “high abstract patterning skills,” which in theory has something to do with “anomaly theory” and the ability to recognize obscure clues that other detectives would overlook, but in practice means that he has the magical propensity to choose the perfect actions which will help Moore resolve his plot.

Anyway, Sax has gone to Brooklyn to solve the mystery of fifteen identical murders, in which the victims have been decapitated, been relieved of their hands, and had their torsos carved into exact replicas of the same elaborate rosebud-like pattern. Various clues lead Sax to a Red Hook establishment called Club Zothique, where the aforementioned Ulthar Cats perform, and where patrons indulge in what is apparently a popular and dangerous new drug called “aklo.” Sax meets up with a mysterious pusher named Johnny Carcosa, who agrees to sell him the aklo later that night, in a—you guessed it—courtyard. Various creepy things happen until Carcosa finally drugs Sax with a mild hallucinogen, and then reveals the secret of aklo: it is not a drug, but a language. In the true Lovecraftian spirit, this language has rather indescribable effects, which Moore goes on to try and describe anyhow, in very Lovecraftian purple prose (“a pinwheel of nautilus fronds is dissolved into sparks by my vitreous humour as huge old grammatical structures collapse into place”). These effects involve time and destiny and other things to big for puny humans to understand, but the most terrifying result (SPOILER) is that Sax is moved to murder his neighbor, and kills her in the same elaborate fashion in which the earlier victims were dispatched.

All in all, “The Courtyard” is a gimmicky and flawed but sorta fun pastiche, one that captures Lovecraftian atmosphere and themes well without moving them anywhere particularly novel. Sax often sounds a lot more British than he should (“What I’m bothered about is the depth of my cover on this”), but that’s easy enough to overlook in a story as unambitious as this. More seriously, I am not convinced that Moore successfully integrated his protagonist’s racism into the story as a whole—the racist remarks seem more exploitative than relevant. (I am curious to hear if any readers disagree on that.) Still, in its original context, “The Courtyard” is an unremarkable but largely unobjectionable lark, and if not for Moore’s position in the marketplace, it is more or less impossible to imagine a publisher being moved to adapt it into comic-book form nearly a decade later. But that’s what happened, and that adaptation will be the subject of the next session of the CCCBC.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

8 Responses to “CCCBC: Alan Moore’s The Courtyard (Part 1)”
  1. DerikB says:

    Not a word about the images? Are they that bad?

  2. T. Hodler says:

    This part was just about the original prose story, Derik. Next post, I will discuss the comic adaptation, and the art. (I meant do it all in one, but the post just got so long…) Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  3. DerikB says:

    Ah, sorry. Missed the distinction.

  4. bobsy says:

    I think Sax’s seemingly throwaway and exploitative racism actually offers a sliver of redemption, basically saying, ‘Cthulhu can only get in to places that are bad already’. C.f. the ecstasy-casualty/alcoholic nark guy (name escapes me) who gives Sax the Carcosa lead (and is alive enough years later to grass Carcosa a second time in Neonomicon 1), painted as a bit of a loser but, perhaps due to his considerable contact with pilled-up bliss-states, not a bad sort. Beyond his taste for booze, bad clubs and worse music, he’s presumably immune to the Old Ones’ famously indescribable charms.

    Interesting that you teased out the connection between Lovecraft and his racist creations and Sax – Moore perhaps indicating R’lyeh can be found nowhere other than between Lovecraft’s own temples. Maybe Houllebecq makes that point himself in that essay? Been a long time since I read it.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Hmm. That’s an interesting theory. If you’re right, it might weaken the “fear factor” of the story (not that strong in the first place), but it does redeem some of the nastier bits. Future issues of Neonomicon will probably provide evidence one way or another on its validity.

      And Houellebecq definitely believes that Lovecraft’s racial fears (and genetic fears—syphilis and mental instability plagued some of his family members) were a prime source for his artistic vision, but I don’t remember him making your particular point. But then again, maybe he thought it went without saying: after all, I don’t think he believes R’lyeh exists outside Lovecraft’s temples!

      (I know what you mean—I’m just being a jerk. Your comment was great. Thanks!)

  5. Alistair says:

    Interesting. I had the same (or near as dammit) reaction as your goodself. I know that Alan actually wrote the story a few years before it was published and that it was, as you say, just another story in an anthology where certain authors were asked to go play with the Cthulu “mythos”.

    What really gets me and the biggest crime in my book, is the fact that Garth Ennis completely bullldozers over Antony Johnston’s work, as t’was he wot scripted it. the story in and of itself is a pleasant piece of bunk, but not one of Alan’s best, though _Neonomicon_ looks like it’s going to be an interesting riff on the “Courtyard”.

  6. BVS says:

    I’m not saying I’ve looked at everything avatar published but what i have seen i’ve noticed it all seems to fit into 2 camps art wise. either they use hyper detailed geof darrow esq( Or geof darrow wanna be if your feeling unkind) type art that is very clear line and hyper detailed with little spotted blacks giving the page a feeling of being a confusing jumble of grey. or it’s standard vertigo style art work layered with way too manny different grey tones, also giving you muddy grey pages. neither of which I’ve cared for. interesting that Neonomicon is apparently in full color, although the pages I’ve seen seem to be taking full color as close as possible to jumbled muddy greys.

  7. […] comment on comicscomics that ‘Cthulhu can only get in to places that are bad already’ – be that a racist cop, a […]

Leave a Reply