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James Chambers’ The Engines of Sacrifice is a collection of four short novellas linked through time, place, and Lovecraft. The stories (Investigation 37, The Ugly Birds, The Hidden Room and the titular Engines) move through the decades gathering nightmare fuel, from Vietnam-era dark psychedelia through to the nuclear hysteria of the 1980s and into a not-too-distant moment in the future when the stars are almost right, and mankind is bowed and broken even before the imminent return of the Great Old Ones.
This is a good collection, with many fun kicks to make the reading experience enjoyable: historical references to the Love Generation New York-based occult scene are bang-on (Investigation 37), and the shout outs to Warren Publishing era weird comics illustrators (The Ugly Birds) help ground the fictions in pop cultural bedrock. With the latter, I kept seeing, in my mind’s eye, the evocative colours of Tatjana Woods during her run on DC’s Swamp Thing.
And, like the best stories of that series, Engines is overtly Lovecraftian in tone and subject matter; Chambers has here assembled a greatest hits package of Mythos references. All the big players make appearances: Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin in Investigation 37; Shub-Niggurath in The Ugly Birds; Nyarlathotep makes an effective and utterly chilling cameo in The Hidden Room, and Cthulhu itself festers and seethes inside of and between nearly every sentence in the final novella. The book is so Lovecraftian, in fact, that it could read as pastiche, were it not for the subtle meta-critical stance Chambers takes with the narrative, particularly towards the final moments.
It’s this aspect of Engines that I really enjoyed, the way Chambers directly addresses the erroneous “kaiju terror” interpretation of the Mythos that lesser writers seem to be fond of running with: the idea that Cthulhu et al. are, at base, giant scary monsters escaping their submarine, subterranean, or dimensional prisons to engage in a stomp-fest across the planet. Monsters that are, somehow, physically limited to their singular manifestations. In stories of this ilk, Cthulhu is comparable to Godzilla, and therefore reduced in potency, made manageable… and that way lies Plush Cthulhu, friends. Chambers is aware of this Delta Green-washing of the Mythos and doesn’t allow it to happen in Engines, thankfully…
I sensed an ancient horror dwelling deep within the ruined metropolis, its unstoppable corruption edging outward and remaking the city in a new image. R’lyeh was already rising, but it was rising here and in cities all around the world. Whether or not the dream-city emerged from the Pacific didn’t matter. When Cthulhu awoke, every city would become R’lyeh, and Cthulhu would rule them all. The Old One wouldn’t walk out of the sea to crush humanity … he would exist everywhere and nowhere, a nightmare from which there could never be any escape, one that would show no mercy to whatever remained of humanity.
Here, Cthulhu is Madness: a Platonic, universal ideal smeared greasily across all levels of reality, high and low, beneath the waves and down the street and between the stars, and therefore inescapable, inevitable.
A bleak, and therefore genuinely Lovecraftian world-view, and one that informs and feeds the dread hopelessness that characters in the first three tales experience… before taking an inexplicable Lumley-esque turn towards the stalwart hero-narrator in the final story! And it’s this note, coming as it does at the end of the book and sitting cheek-by-jowl with an innovative interpretation of Cthulhu, that sounds a little false for me.
Without giving anything away as far as the plot of Engines is concerned: in an otherwise harrowing climax, the narrator, in the face of actual personal interest from the manifesting Cthulhu (itself a problem, given the narratives previously mentioned conceits vis a vis the Big C’s trans-cosmic Platonic nature), somehow finds the stones to alter what is largely a text-based reality, and, perhaps not surprisingly, opts for a happily-ever-after.
An opting-out that works, in context (a little) and which, I suppose, is entirely up for interpretation: “or does he?” one could reasonably ask. As humans (and specifically as humans with that strain of the language-virus whose side-effects include writing) who of us has not been tempted to leave a light on at the end of the tunnel for our characters/victims? I get it. But as far as my interaction with the text goes, this sudden philosophical U-turn made my neck hurt and caused me to wonder if it didn’t invalidate everything that came before.
There were some other less-than-sweet notes in this book, most of which happened in The Hidden Room: the replacement of Standard Lovecraftian Invocation Boilerplate with common English words strung together (say them quick to break the code!) was fun the first couple of times, but quickly felt forced; and the dropping of one of the Million Names of Nyarlathotep into the regular boilerplate (when it happened) came off as clunky. Random Aklo or what-have-you sprinkled with English will always feel weird to me. But it’s a complaint I have with The Whisperer In Darkness, too, so take that for what it’s worth. References to Azathoth as ‘the Chaos King’, although I suppose technically correct, made It sound like a pro-wrestler or animé character to me. Again, that’s my pop-cultural bias kicking in and really, Lovecraft’s ‘daemon-sultan’ is no worse. Ignore my unfortunate spasm of geek-pride at your leisure.
It should be noted, too, that Chambers removes his characters from the usual Lovecraftian locales, basing most of the action in the fictional Long Island town of Knicksport. I don’t know that this was an effective move: aside from some interesting set pieces (a desolate factory, weird topography), I saw no point in using a fictional town that seemed no different from any number of actual towns. For this reason, I would class Engines with more traditional Lovecraftian fiction, and less with the New Weird school, which prefers settings that utilize complex, real-world environments. Arkham is fine, and Knicksport is okay, but I could have done with more happenings in New York proper.
All this aside, though, I enjoyed The Engines of Sacrifice quite a lot; any negatives here listed were minor indeed, and did nothing to lessen my enjoyment of the book. James Chambers has been extensively anthologized everywhere from Hardboiled Cthulhu to Bad-Ass Faeries and his writing style is polished with just the right amount of grit added (in language and mood) to make the reading fast-paced and pleasantly bumpy, like barreling down a bad road at three in the morning, slightly drunk, with a head full of philosophy. When his shocks come, they arrive at speed from out of the dark with an intention to spin you into the ditch, and that’s just how I like them.
(this review appeared originally in the Lovecraft eZine on August 14 2012)
How to slice into this appalling pie? is a question I had to ask myself going into this review of Alan Moore’s one-off story for Avatar Press, The Courtyard (2003), and his follow-up four issue mini-series Neonomicon (2010 & 2011). How big a piece to consume? How much of my sanity to let go?
As it turns out, not all that much actually, although it must be said that if you are a reader with a weak stomach, there are scenes in issues 2 and 4 of Neonomicon that you would be wise to avoid entirely. This is a series that takes the implied sexuality of Lovecraft’s fiction (the barely-hinted-at Freudian creatures, the prudish horror surrounding ‘unnameable couplings’ and ‘certain blasphemous rites’) and brings them front and center.
In just about every way (including a number of admittedly clever Fourth Wall breaks), Moore shoves the reader’s face into the subconscious truths of HPL’s fiction, which should be an entertaining experience but rarely rises above a kind of pedantic revisionist scholarship. Moore is known for not writing characters who are smarter than himself, and since readers who dig Moore are also no slouches in the intelligence department, we are almost never surprised by what happens to his creations. He sees it coming, and so do we. This makes it difficult for us to care about them; clearly their demiurgic creator does not and this apathy bleeds into our own perceptions of them. Just their bad luck to find themselves living in an Alan Moore book.
Anyway, we’re supposed to enjoy the ride: the punning word-play, the in-on-the-gag references, the stylized inter-textual choices, all of which are classic Moore. And perhaps we would (these are, after all, many of the reasons why HPL is still read and enjoyed) were the subject matter not so brutal.
This is a nasty piece of work, a heavy and unappetizing meal with very little levity. I dug in so you don’t have to…
The basic skeleton of this series is a cop procedural spliced with the Cthulhu Mythos; an ungainly hybrid at best. It begins with The Courtyard, in which special federal agent Aldo Sax employs ‘anomaly theory’ in tracking down a serial killer, or rather, the inspiration for a horrific series of killings carried out by three separate individuals, each of the men unknown to the other. Here’s Sax on his suspects and ‘anomaly theory’, which is his own invention…
So. There’s a noise album owned by a kid with a strong predilection for Mahler; a club ticket found on a bookworm who never goes out; a confirmed alcoholic with happy dust jammed up his ass … The next part is largely intuitive. Having selected your set of anomalous facts you will find new connections arising which, in my experience, often yield data more useful than that gained by orthodox means … it’s like taking the leftover pieces from various jigsaws and seeing what picture they make when you put them together … Of course, that’s not saying the picture will make any sense.
For the reader not familiar with Lovecraft, this is fine. Darkness prevails still and there are surprises ahead. But for the fan, well, it’s already making sense, as the one thing held in common between the three killers is the use of a ‘gibberish’ language: the kid likes to noodle around on his guitar while laying ‘godawful scat-singing over the top’; the bookworm writes short stories which used to be lucid but now show evidence of a ‘spelling disorder’; the wino speaks in drug-addled tongues. That, and the Lovecraftian in-jokes and puns that swarm thick on the page from this point on, clue us in to our final destination.
Sax investigates a Club Zothique, where a neo-hardcore punk band called The Ulthar Cats mangle their lyrics into base phonemes with primal tongue thrashings. A rave-era burnout informant lets Sax know that the band is ‘using Aklo’, which Sax concludes is a drug connected with the case. He seeks out the local source, an ageless and effeminate dandy called Johnny Carcosa. Johnny lisps; he wears a yellow chiffon veil over the lower half of his face; he sports an anachronistic pompadour and a frilled blouse: a real stand out in the crowd of punks and metalheads. Sax arranges to purchase ‘the Aklo’ from Johnny.
Of course, it’s not a drug. It’s a language, an Ur-syntax that rewrites the mind of the user, so that a trans-temporal perception of the reality of the Great Old Ones occurs. Three whispered statements from Carcosa into the abyss of Sax’s ear do the trick…
Events have a new continuity now. Disassociate clusters of data in pregnant, post-linear arrays … the wza-y’ei of this is, of course, that the future extrudes a curtailing force into the present … All events are time roses, the clenched fuck uncrumpling into a life as the species folds back to annelidan ancestors. There lies our dho-hna; a meaning bestowed by forms as yet unachieved but implicit.
Brilliant stuff, pure mind-melting ideas presented cleanly and powerfully, and the most enjoyable sequence of panels in the entire series, for my money. Look closely and you’ll see in each panel a representation of the previous panel, the framework of the comic folding through itself just as the Inhabitant of the frame undergoes his creepy transition from human to not-quite-human. Sax’s dark enlightenment comes with a price, naturally, and all the accumulated weirdness pays off in the final panels…
Time being a function of matter, this freeing of ultimate forms may be hastened by pertinent sculpture…
… with the medium being the human body, and Sax the latest practitioner of the murderous art form that lies coded within the Aklo language. Never has Lovecraft’s barbarous FHTAGN held actual horror for me, but here, used as the final punctuating statement, as a ‘fin’, it comes very close.
The Courtyard is strong, and interesting enough to bring me to Neonomicon when it began its run in 2010. Sadly, Moore, instead of extrapolating on the great ideas laid out in his original effort, phones it in with a wooden ‘gosh, this Lovecraft guy was nutty, maybe he was onto something’ story, complete with unnecessary explication about the connection between Lovecraft’s fiction and the events of the series (another example of Moore talking down to his characters and readers: “Yeah, we get it. We got it the first time. Thanks”), stilted Bochco-style cop dialogue, and stomach-turning portrayals of assault and rape.
We start with a full page panel, depicting a reddish fog vaguely studded by fuzzed-out globules of light, and a dark serpentine shape crossing the panel diagonally down in the right corner. It’s the end, and the beginning, we’re informed by an unidentified narrator…
He’s beneath the waters now, but soon, in only a few months, he will come forth. And until then he sleeps. And dreams.
Promising stuff! We open to find that Sax is now in a psychiatric prison after personally upping the death toll by two. He speaks Aklo almost exclusively. FBI agents Gordon Lamper and Merril Brears are on his case. He’s an archetypal ‘cool black cop’, she’s a leggy, nerdy blonde recovering from sex addiction: neither character goes anywhere you wouldn’t expect in the following narrative. Some of the territory explored in The Courtyard is covered again in #1, and a sequence of bizarre events bring the agents to encounters with the lead singer of the Ulthar Cats; Johnny Carcosa and his loathsome suicidal mother; and finally to an occult sex shop run by Dagon cultists in #2.
The agents, who we’ve been led to believe are professionals, make spectacularly bad choices while undercover in the sex shop, choices which serve Moore’s narrative purposes but not their own. We’re left saying things like ‘oh, come on!’ and ‘seriously?’. Granted, we have the same reactions with Lovecraft’s hapless professors and antiquarians, too, but these are Moore’s people, hard-boiled FBI agents: when they make some glaring error, it’s a note that rings false every time. Enough of this kind of unprofessional behaviour and before too long Lamper and Brears find themselves in far too deep. Moore doesn’t explicitly make that pun, but then again, he doesn’t have to. There’s a Deep One submerged in a pool in the basement: cue the ‘nameless couplings’ and ‘blasphemous rites’, or, in common parlance, the rape and murder.
Moore and artist Jacen Burrows spare nothing and no one in the following orgy sequence. Depending on where the scene crosses your personal comfort line, it’s a very graphic and repulsive six to ten pages of unpleasant looking people doing unpleasant, evil things to each other and to the agents, before introducing Agent Brears to their guest of honor.
Interestingly, we’re not shown the Deep One clearly until #3, instead viewing what we can of it through the severely blurred vision of Agent Brears, who isn’t wearing her contact lenses: see ‘spectacularly bad choices’, above. I feel this is an interesting visual choice, considering what the reader experiences in #2. For, unlike the cultists, who are dull and unattractive specimens at best, the Deep One, though monstrous, is amazing looking, even beautiful. Considering Lovecraft’s unequivocal description of that species as loathsome, batrachian, flabby, etc. it makes me wonder why Moore and Burrows would choose to portray one with the physique of an Olympic swimmer and the head of a lion fish. That’s a pretty fish-man right there.
Which shouldn’t make getting sexually assaulted by it any easier, but then Moore has gone out of his way to make the human couplings of #2 so thoroughly repugnant, banal and degrading that the initial rape of Agent Brears by the Deep One (which we never actually witness fully, as it happens between issues) cannot help but merit a favourable comparison. Following close on the heels of that event, the ‘relationship’ between Agent Brears and her amphibious assailant actually improves, with rudimentary communication, signs of something that could pass for tenderness, an uneasy solidarity against the Dagon cultists, and by the end of the issue, the Deep One helps her escape confinement! Or drags her to her watery death.
No, it’s the first thing. Her little blonde head pops up to the surface, far out to sea and away from the Dagon cultists, on the first page of #4. Thanks for saving me, hideous submarine abomination!
What is going on here?
In this final issue, Moore reveals his hand: it’s a Rosemary’s Baby scenario. Everything is wrapped up: there’s a gratuitous gun battle in the tunnels beneath the sex shop, the Deep One returns to dispatch his former captors before being killed by federal agents, while Brears explains (again!) how Lovecraft was almost right, but didn’t have all the details.
In a visit with Sax at the end of the issue (reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs — Sax actually says “I mean, I’m the psycho, right? And you, you’re the Jody Foster role,” which is as post-modern as you can get) Merril Brears displays her mastery of Aklo and her new understanding of Time and how it relates to the Great Old Ones. Of course, the difference between her and Sax is that, despite knowing the murder-language, she hasn’t tried to “personally convert more people into tulips” as Lamper once said way back in #1. But then, she doesn’t have to. Because she’s pregnant by her Deep One rapist-cum-paramour… with (it’s implied) Cthulhu Himself. When Sax realizes this, he says that she’s a goddess, that no one deserves her presence. “No,” she answers…
No. Maybe not. But they deserve His presence. I mean, look at this species. We’re pretty much vermin. Never mind. He’ll sort all that out, once he arrives.
Bad news that we all saw coming, sure, but the real positive here is that Merril Brears is over her sex addiction!
I feel good. I feel good about myself, about all this. For the first time, y’know. For the first time I got no problems with my self esteem. The strange aeons start from between my thighs. And for everything else, all this other bullshit… it’s the end.
Well, you go girl. Good for you. And with that, we’re at the last panel, which is the first panel from #1. The dark serpentine shape in the lower right hand corner is now, obviously, an umbilical cord; the crimson miasma just the view from Baby C’s uterine throne room, a red R’lyeh.
Third Slice: Ram That Totem Right Through the Fourth Wall!
The mirrored first and final panels of Neonomicon and the few moments when characters, though ostensibly speaking to other characters, gaze directly out at the reader, are really the key, I think, to understanding what Moore was trying to say with the series, about Lovecraft, his mythos, and us.
Just one example: there’s a panel in #3 where Perlman, the lead agent on the case, deep in a morass of confusion and frustrated over his missing agents, casts his beady eyes out beyond the frame and into our space…
Who knows what any of this means? Is it Lovecraft fans who’ve graduated into psychopaths? Is that what his stuff does to people? Then there’s the Brit occultists … those guys think Lovecraft’s monsters and gods are real in some way…
Here Moore (yes, the Brit occultist) shows us what he thinks of Lovecraft fans, which is an interesting choice to make when trying to sell Lovecraftian fiction to that demographic. That panel is really where Moore lost me on this series, and in general.
Back to those mirrored panels, though: by giving the reader the abominable infant’s viewpoint, Moore is effectively asking us to identify with Cthulhu. The implication is that we, as a species, somehow contain this mad god-thing. This is a totemic feint, using the most humanoid of Lovecraft’s beasties to garner our sympathy. I believe he may be attempting a kind of pop-culture invocation through the comic, tempting the reader to eroticize the other like they never have before, calling the beautiful monsters of chaos home: the Deep Ones (given the much classier French title of ‘gargouille de la mer’ in the final issue) and Cthulhu, who’s going to fix this mess we’ve made, gosh darn it, if we only let him in. Basically, Moore is pulling a weird, almost evangelical, Robert Blake-style switcheroo on us, an “I am it and it is I” gag and it works, a little.
But as a satisfying ending to a series that began so well with The Courtyard? It works not at all.
Fourth Slice: Paper Dolls in the Urban Wasteland
A final word on the artwork. I haven’t seen much of Jacen Burrow’s other books, but from this sample alone I can’t say I’m a fan. He has a great eye for detail and his depressed city and streetscapes enjoy a realism rarely seen in comics (series colorist Juanmar’s dull earth tones throughout the series really help the mood), but the characters in Neonomicon are flat and not given to a lot of expression, unless placed in an extreme situation. Thankfully, that happens quite a bit, but even so, it would have been good to see it more.
His staging of scenes is also kind of stiff, but this may be less his fault and more something to be laid at Moore’s door; he is apparently notorious for locking down panels and positioning in his scripts long before such things get to the artist’s consideration.
Pass the Antacid Tablets…
What an uncomfortable meal. Neonomicon makes you glad Lovecraft didn’t go into all the details, actually. Make sure you’ve a strong stomach and some kind of palate cleanser ready to go for dessert before you dig into this shoggoth-meat pie. Definitely not for everyone.
The kinky folk over at BDSM Book Reviews have just posted a review of our own Justine G‘s RED MONOLITH FRENZY, the first book in her BLACKSTONE Erotica series, and people, it’s what you’d call glowing. The reviewer (who we’re suddenly extremely fond of) called RED MONOLITH FRENZY “fucking magnificent” and “sublime” before going on to say…
“This is the best entertainment I’ve had in ages that did not involve booze, polyhedral dice, renfaire wenches, and/or my hideously deformed cat. That is really saying something,because when I break out the polyhedral dice and the wenches, shit gets real. I don’t know if I have ever laughed this hard at porn that was trying to be funny. (I’ve laughed almost to the point of throwing up over unintentionally bad porn, but this is absolutely not unintentional or bad.)”
Y’know, we’re not sure if funny was what Justine was shooting for, but we’ll take it! (Actually, we lie… humour is definitely part of the BLACKSTONE DNA!)