CCCBC: Alan Moore’s The Courtyard (Part 1)
by T. Hodler
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.