In the concluding line of Providence #1, our protagonist Robert Black lamented the death of his lover and his failures as a writer with the line “I never want to dream again,” written in his commonplace book. But as his trail of The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars heats up in issue #2, it seems that while Robert Black may be done with dreams, dreams are not quite done with Robert Black.
With Providence being a Lovecraft deconstruction so intent on blurring the lines between reality and narrative, it seems strange that we had to wait all the way until issue #2 before the fine line between reality and dreams became a prominent theme. Dreams are one of the most mysterious aspects of day-to-day existence, a near-daily, personal indulgence in fictions seemingly without origin, narrative causality, or purpose. The idea that they come from without to deliver horrifying messages and implications for mankind was always one of Lovecraft’s favorite and most powerful plot devices. Dreams were how Cthulhu manifested in the minds of man. It is in dreams that the narrator of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” makes the frightful realization about what he is and what he is becoming. And the stories of The Dream Cycle deal entirely with an alternate dimension only safely accessible through dreams. This issue of Providence offers numerous references to an unseen and uncanny world only accessible by leaving the day-to-day surface world behind. As Robert Black seeks The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars, it seems the man most capable of showing him the way is an occultist named Robert Suydam, and Suydam has a preference for doing things underground, including holding “philosophical lectures” in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, and perhaps playing host to something a little more… eldritch, shall we say?
Lest you start to think that connection is stretching things just a tad, along comes an Irish policeman called Thomas Malone to name-drop Jung. In dialogue, Suydam also makes references to “dreams or impulses of which we are not consciously aware” underlying our waking actions — referring perhaps to the supernatural, or maybe to base human desires like, for instance, sex, a topic which Lovecraft shunned but Moore has been more than eager to include in Providence. And may we never forget how much ruminating Robert Black did in Providence #1 on the hidden aspects of American society, and his desire to explore what lies below the surface.
If the names Robert Suydam and Thomas Malone sound familiar to Lovecraft fans, it’s because they’re both characters from his “The Horror at Red Hook,” in the same way that Dr. Alvarez from issue #1 is a version of Dr. Muñoz from “Cool Air.” It’s very League of Extraordinary Gentleman, but in a far more accessible manner. These versions of Malone and Suydam are given enough context within the pages of Providence that the reader will be able to enjoy the story without needing to do their homework, though some previous knowledge will probably be helpful if you are to understand what Moore and Burrows are trying to accomplish. “The Horror at Red Hook,” is well-known as one of Lovecraft’s more racially offensive tales, a cipher for his xenophobic attitudes concerning the real Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn where he lived. Our Lovecraft stand-in Black, however, seems to hold no animosity for the immigrants he encounters, feeling, as he has stated, that he is part of a similar American subculture of “undesirables” — a fact further compounded when he starts to believe that Thomas Malone may have a greater interest in him than just curiosity at his writing carer (not content to re-imagine Lovecraft himself as gay and Jewish, Moore decides to re-imagine his characters as gay, as well).
The horror in “The Horror at Red Hook” is laid on the shoulders of the neighborhood’s immigrant population, yet Moore makes no attempts to modify what Black finds under Suydam’s house from its original incarnation. Given this, it’ll be interesting to see how Black comes to interact with what he manages to uncover as his journey progresses since he already seems to consider himself not wholly other from it. Will he reject it and his connection, therefore birthing the bigot that Lovecraft was, or will he be more accepting — à la the narrator at the end of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” perhaps with the idea being played less for shock and more for catharsis?
The work of Burrows and Moore continue to compliment each other well. Burrows’ faces are still expressive enough, and his compositions and background work varied and visually engaging enough, to keep interest in the story high even when certain scenes feel like Moore indulging his knowledge and love of literature and occult history above everything else. Moore’s story in some ways follows the “antiquarian ghost story” model of such authors as M. R. James: some privileged young chap seeks out some old artifact for a scholarly pursuit or as a leisurely hobby, only to discover horrifying consequences. Robert Black’s journey is a little more character-driven, given that it’s grief, ambition, and a sense of “otherness” that drives him, but there’s still a dry, erudite aspect to the story that may put some people off. This is especially true in the supplementary prose material at the back of the issue, which once again retells the story we just read in Black’s words without any new insight, and also adds ten pages of a pamphlet written by the Suydam character tracing the history of the The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars. If you have an interest in real-life occult objects, lore, history, and/or conspiracy theories, it may amuse you to see how Moore works a sense of verisimilitude into his fictional mythology (which for his part he does quite well). But anyone looking for a greater understanding of the object at the heart of this story may find these pages to be a real slog.
Providence #2 continues the cycle of using a pastiche of Howard Phillips to comment upon the man’s works, and then turning around and using a pastiche of his works to comment upon Howard Phillips, the man. It’s literate and it’s dense, but it knows how to tell a classic horror story, as well. Burrows draws a damn horrible monster, and Moore knows how to indulge a horror cliché — here the “you must have bumped your head and imagined some monsters!” — to masterful effect. Providence #2 keeps the series in its place as one of the best new titles of 2015, and is putting up a good fight for some of the best stuff of its creators’ careers — it’s just that good.