Choose Your Reality: Alan Moore Unearthed
The legendary writer, magician and cultural icon discusses his new album <i>Unearthing</i>, reinventing H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos for the twenty-first century, and the counter-cultural collaborations of his <i>magazine Dodgem Logic</i>
You think you know Alan Moore. A visionary, and mad as a bag of hammers, right? The seminal author of comics classics such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta – his body of work a fecund corpse for the maggots of Hollywood. A reclusive genius, who now sequesters himself in deepest darkest Northamptonshire, practicing arcane rites and worshipping a snake god called Glycon. True perhaps, but that’s a picture often painted and repeated in profiles of this seminal, controversial writer. In person, Moore is in fact gracious, eloquent, and unflinchingly rational: a long way from the mystical ‘old man of the mountains’ image he is often assigned by the unimaginitive.
Moore has been busy of late – his semi-retirement from the world of comics has opened the door for a plethora of new projects, including the self-published counter-cultural magazine Dodgem Logic, now on its fifth issue. Then there’s the new collaboration with photographer Mitch Jenkins, alongside musicians Crook & Flail (plus a small cast of indie music legends who jumped at the chance to contribute to a Moore-inspired musical endeavour). The album Unearthing was released last month to critical adulation, and accompanied by two live performances at London’s Old Vic Tunnels.
Moore intentionally let Jenkins and Crook & Flail (a duo comprising Anticon rapper / producer Adam Drucker, aka Doseone, and Andrew Broder of Fog) take the lead when it came to interpreting the spoken word recording he had made for them. “It’s all the better for me not being heavy-handed with lots of directions. Some of the images maybe wouldn’t have been ones that I would have chosen. There might have been pieces of the music that, if I’d been asked what I’d wanted, I would have suggested something different. But that’s part of the collaborative process, and in fact that’s the most exciting part – the fact that you’re seeing how other people are responding to the piece of work that you’ve done. That is really exciting, because you’re seeing other minds and other talents engage with something that previously had been just very personal to you. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way it’s all turned out. I only met Adam and Andrew just last Wednesday, before the two gigs at the tunnels. We were immediately in sync. We’ve all, in our own way, been preparing for this for a couple of years now, so it was nice to meet up and perform it. We got closure.”
The haunting, playful and evocative narration Moore brings to the recording reflects his deep interest in both the subject matter, and his own technique when approaching the piece. The subject of Unearthing is the life of comics artist and writer Steve Moore (no relation).
“He’s one of the most influential figures in my life, going back to when I was fourteen,” Moore explains. “I struck up an unlikely friendship with him back then. Steve has accompanied me through most of my exploits and excursions, and vice versa. It was Steve who made the first introductions to the comic book world when I wanted to become a writer; he kind of brutally corrected all of my early scripts. Later, it was Steve’s model I was following when I decided to plunge into magic and sorcery.”
Using techniques and theories from pyschogeography, the story of Steve Moore’s life is told: “It was an unusual act, in that it was more psychobiography mixed in with psychogeography. Applying the same techniques to a human life as someone like Iain Sinclair, or one of the other people who have delved into this area would apply to a street, or a neighbourhood. It’s a good technique – using poetry as a tool with which to shape the various facts that emerge from a person or a place. It enables you to see rhymes in a history.”
These ‘rhymes’ are the thematic patterns in Steve Moore’s life. “It was only when I’d written Unearthing that even he noticed how much of a part swords have played in his life. It was a kind of recurring motif that, if you were to be reading a piece of fiction, you’d spot it straight away. But when it’s just a series of things that have happened in your life, you probably won’t make a connection.”
The landscape of Shooter’s Hill plays a huge part in the story, emerging as a metaphor for both Steve Moore’s life, and the history of London: “It was an opportunity to not only excavate Steve and his life, but to also excavate the area that he is attached to.” Steve Moore still lives in the same house he was born in: “That is an unusual human story. It tends to bind him to the landscape a lot more thoroughly than most of us manage to achieve. Literally, he is that house, and vice versa. That is his landscape. I mean of course, all of our landscapes; we own them. But I think Steve has perhaps got a bit more claim to that particular landscape than people who haven’t lived there as long, or won’t be living there as long. He’s made himself a part of Shooter’s Hill, so you can’t really consider one without considering the other.”
The original script of Unearthing was commissioned as a piece of prose for London: City of Disappearances. The brief was to write about a place within the capital that was disappearing, or would disappear. Moore chose to write about a person and a place, and fused them together uniquely: “It struck me that, yes, all of us will disappear eventually, and all of the places we inhabit, but it struck me that Steve Moore’s story is so peculiar, so unusual on all sorts of levels, that when his particular story is finished, we’re probably not going to be seeing another one. So I thought it would be a good idea to try and get it down in detail, while the memories are still fresh. That’s pretty much why I chose Steve, and also because he was available, and was giving me access to his personal history because he trusted me. And look how I’ve repaid him! He won’t make that mistake twice.”
In a similar way to his friend Steve, Alan Moore has bound himself very tightly to his local community of Northampton. His new magazine project, Dodgem Logic, contains many descriptions of and articles about the local area. The magazine originated as a Council-funded community project, with Moore assisting and meeting with a group of young offenders from his home district of Spring Burroughs. This run-down and poverty-stricken area of Northampton is in the top two or three percent of deprived areas in the country. The group made a film about the area, and later Moore helped them produce a youth magazine called Ovr 2 U, a text-speak name, of which Moore wryly observes: “I have no idea what it means, but I’m assured that young people are able to decipher this kind of cryptography.” Moore stuck with the group after a piece he had written criticising the local council was held back from publication – hence Dodgem Logic issue one was born.
“We put together Dodgem Logic number one purely with people who were within reach – the people who we were around us socially, people we were friends with who said they’d like to be part of it,” says Moore. “The first issue is a bit of a mess, but it is a very well-intentioned mess. I think that they’ve got better ever since. The one that has just gone to press, number five, is the best one yet. We’re very pleased with it – it is making a lot of things possible that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Mitch Jenkins came back to us to say he would like another project, because he had enjoyed working on Dodgem Logic so much. It’s not like we pay that much, but there are certain other benefits. So he wanted to do a photo shoot, this time based solely on Spring Burroughs: just going down there and photographing the people. The idea was that he was not photographing them as victims. Not trying to elicit a response of ‘Oh those poor people,’ or ‘Jesus Christ, I’m glad I don’t live near them,’ which is the main response elicited by pictures of people who live in those kinds of areas. He wanted to photograph them in the way that they see themselves: in a heroic light. The way that we all see ourselves.” Moore laughs. “At least some of the time.”
Moore wrote a poem to accompany the shots: “I finally elected to write a three hundred line poem in heroic couplets, just because that’s about the most old-fashioned form of poetry you can get, unless you’re going to something unpronounceable and Anglo-Saxon. I’m really pleased with the result, because it is such an odd combination. This fairly antique verse-form next to these cutting-edge photographs, and all dealing with a very emblematic modern neighbourhood. Very similar to neighbourhoods which, I’m almost certain, are featuring very near you, and near everybody, especially during the current troubles.”
Moore is deeply concerned about the privation in his home town, and in the rest of the country: “Everywhere is getting run down. Places like the Burroughs, which have already been run down for years are just kind of a taster for where a lot of our districts and neighbourhoods are probably heading.” Moore is refreshingly honest and lucid when talking about the circumstances in the Burroughs, and confident that Dodgem Logic can help, by: “...disseminating information, and giving a voice to various grassroots political movements.”
Although he describes himself as “not much of a joiner,” Moore has helped out local anarchist groups by gathering media attention for a picket of the local council, when they covered up an exhibition of Chares Darwin’s correspondence at the behest of a visiting fundamentalist Christian group. “I have been given this kind of unasked for clout, in terms of people who know my work. It’s not something that I’ve ever sought, but it is there, and if it’s needed in some way to help stem the tide of idiocy, then I can do that.”
Politics is outmoded, and Moore has some very specific ideas about why: “I think everybody should work more directly on the problems in the community around them. I think the days of voting for someone who says they’re going to fix these problems are long over, because they don’t. They never do. Once they are in office, that’s all that they wanted. If they had to tell you a lot of made-up stuff to get into office, then yeah, that’s fine, that’s what politicians do. But unless we’re terminally stupid, we should be getting the hang of how this works by now. We are not being represented. Government is not doing us any favours. If we want something done politically, we should organise in whatever form suits us, and get it done ourselves. That is politics in the twenty-first century.”
Dodgem Logic allows Moore a flexible, artistic and socially important medium through which to offer resistance to the ‘tide of idiocy.’ It enables him to rediscover for all the likes of Tom Pickard: “One of the greatest British poets of the nineteen sixties, if not the greatest,” according to Moore, who will publish the first chapter of Pickard’s autobiography in the fifth issue of Dodgem Logic. “It’s brilliant! The first sentence is him talking to the great poet of the previous generation of Newcastle poets, Basil Bunting. The first line of the story is him saying, ‘Do you think this hashish is coated in opium, Basil?’”
Moore sums up the approach of the magazine: “It’s a matter of living up to the throwaway strapline on the first issue’s cover, where we said: ‘Colliding ideas to see what happens.’ As a strategy, that seems to be working out rather well.” Moore clearly relishes this kind of counter-cultural excavation and creation, and his latest (and possibly one of his last) comics projects is attempting similar things with the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. Neonomicon is a heady blend of body horror, magickal strangeness, word-virus mysticism and, very interestingly, ultra-realistic ‘procedural’ detective fiction techniques.
“I wanted to do a story that modernised Lovecraft – that didn’t rely upon that 1930s atmosphere – and that modernised him successfully, at least in my opinion. I suppose I was also thinking that it would be nice if you could bring some of the naturalism of shows like HBO’s The Wire to the impossible. Because that show has got such believability and naturalism, that it struck me that would be a very good way of approaching something so inherently fantastic and unbelievable as H.P. Lovecraft. That was one of the initial ideas. Another one was to actually put back some of the objectionable elements that Lovecraft himself censored, or that people since Lovecraft, who have been writing pastiches, have decided to leave out. Like the racism, the anti-Semitism, the sexism, the sexual phobias which are kind of apparent in all of Lovecraft’s slimy phallic or vaginal monsters. This is a horror of the physical with Lovecraft – so I wanted to put that stuff back in. And also, Lovecraft was sexually squeamish; would only talk of ‘certain nameless rituals.’ Or he’d use some euphemism: ‘blasphemous rites.’ It was pretty obvious, given that a lot of his stories detailed the inhuman offspring of these ‘blasphemous rituals’ that sex was probably involved somewhere along the line. But that never used to feature in Lovecraft’s stories, except as a kind of suggested undercurrent. So I thought, let’s put all of the unpleasant racial stuff back in, let’s put sex back in. Let’s come up with some genuinely ‘nameless rituals’- let’s give them a name. So those were the precepts that it started out from, and I decided to follow wherever the story lead. It is one of the most unpleasant stories I have ever written. It certainly wasn’t intended as my farewell to comics, but that is perhaps how it has ended up. It is one of the blackest, most misanthropic pieces that I’ve ever done. I was in a very, very bad mood.”
Asked to elaborate on the mood that inspired the darkest piece of horror he has ever written, Moore does not hold back: “I had just quit DC over the horrific stuff that went on around the Watchmen film [Moore was strongly opposed to Hollywood's adoption of his cult graphic novel]. I had decided that these people were actually scum, and I don’t use that in a rhetorical sense. I mean quite literally that these were people who were exhibiting a completely subhuman level of behaviour. I’ve known better behaved crack heads than some of the people who are working at these big entertainment industry conglomerates.”
Moore goes on to tell a story almost as unpleasant as the horrors of Neonomicon, with he and his friends and collaborators being financially jostled, bullied and mistreated by the entertainment giants. Avatar Comics, a publisher specialising in creator-owned works, offered Moore the right opportunity at the right time, and he poured all of his bile about the media into his script: “I was filled with a black rage, and I think it has leaked over into the story. It gets very ugly. I wanted to be unflinching. I thought, if I’m writing a horror story, let’s make it horrible. Let’s make it the kind of stuff that you don’t see in horror stories. Because William Christiansen [of Avatar] had, perhaps unwisely, said: ‘Look, you know you can go as far as you want.’ I just got him to repeat that, and said: ‘So... what, I can show erections? Penetration?’ He said: ‘Sure!’ I don’t know if he thought I was going to do it or not but... yeah, I did. It’s a way that I haven’t written about sex before. It’s very ugly. Jacen Burrows is doing an incredible job on the artwork... it’s dark as hell. But it’s kind of compelling. I went back and read through the scripts, and I thought, ‘Have I gone too far?’ Looking back, yes, maybe I have gone too far – but it’s still a good story.”
Returning to the Lovecraftian themes of his novella ‘The Courtyard,’ Moore conjures a world of paranoid, creeping horror, as reality starts to break down around his characters. There’s a treat for Lovecraft fans too: “By the end of the series it actually answers the question that always bugged me about the Cthulhu mythos. I mean, I know that the first God Lovecraft created in the mythos was Cthulhu itself, in 1926, in The Call of Cthulhu. Then Cthulhu became such a popular figure that he then came up with all the other Gods: Yog-Sottoth and all the rest of them, who are supposed to be inferior to Cthulhu. I mean, it’s the Cthulhu Mythos. His name is on the mythos! He’s pretty much the boss monster. And yet, he’s humanoid. He’s got tentacles for a face, admittedly – but he has got arms and legs. A head, a torso. Whereas Azathoth is a kind of eternal nuclear explosion or something, just a seething nuclear chaos. Yog-Sottoth is the cooling chaos. The thing that you glimpse at the centre of the dark. These are not human figures at all. So why is Cthulhu – if he is the boss monster – why is he humanoid? This is one of the questions we answer in the course of Neonomicon. And we do tell, I believe, a credible modern Lovecraft story, where it doesn’t happen in Arkham. It doesn’t happen in Innsmouth. It’s kind of agreed that these places only exist in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. But by acknowledging that, I can kind of make the story more credible, if you see what I mean. By acknowledging that this is something to do with the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, I can actually kind of make it believable as something that is happening in our world or a world much like it, rather than in Lovecraft’s traditional world.”
At this point in the interview, I realise Moore and I have spent so long talking about Lovecraft, politics and Dodgem Logic, that I have failed to ask him about his celebrated prediction in the superb documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore that as we approach 2015, our culture will be so saturated with information that it will pass a boiling point, and become a ‘culture of steam.’ When Moore filmed Mindscape, he commented that it was hard to envision human culture after this informational singularity, even for him. Is it any clearer to him now?
“More all the time. It was my suggestion that culture and everything in it – that means technology, human psychology – all of these things would be speeding up: that we were reaching a point where we would have more information every day than we would previously have had in the whole of human history. This is the logical end-point of the steep information graph that we seemed to be following as a culture. We’ve had ten years of the twenty-first century since then, and I don’t think that it is slowing down. If you think of the tumult and upheaval that we’ve had in the past ten years, I think it greatly exceeds a lot of the stuff that happened in the previous fifty. I would say that, unfortunately (and I’m not proud of this) that I think that I was probably right. I do wish that I could predict something nice sometimes... but no, it’s all monitor cameras; dodgy, deceptive plots that involve lots of people dying in New York; and all the rest of it.”
Another patented Moore concept is Ideaspace - the plane of reality where all our culture, ideas, identity and experience are located. Is Ideaspace more tangible now, what with the internet, this emerging virtual space that we have been creating?
“I think perhaps people are noticing more that Ideaspace is what it is. I don’t see a huge movement yet, but if people were to actually start thinking about the world of the mind as being separate to the world of the material – connected to it, obviously, linked – but separate, with separate laws and a separate agenda, then I think things would be clarified for a lot of people. I think that it’s the confusion between the stuff in our heads and hard reality [that causes problems]. Especially when it’s our politicians and leaders who are getting confused – I think that’s very unhealthy. I mean during the Bush administration, they used to think that they were organising actuality. There was that famous quote, about perceiving themselves as a ‘faith-based presidency.’ One of the top members was decrying their opponents in the ‘reality-based camp’. When you’ve got a representative of one of the most powerful offices in the world talking about their opponents negatively for being ‘reality-based,’ that’s worrying. It was like the Bush administration seemed to think that they were in control of reality. And to a certain degree, they were in control of a bit of reality. But they seemed to think that they could go to Baghdad and be in and out in a weekend, with children draping garlands of flowers over the tank barrels. That didn’t work. It was a disastrous attempt to affect reality. Or at least a certain kind of economic, petrochemical reality.” Moore laughs affably, pausing for a second.
“We’re still paying for it now, and we may well be paying for it for generations. I think that if people realised that the world inside your head is a valid world, and it’s yours... I think that could be very empowering for a lot of people. You don’t have to go along with whatever reality you’re being sold. Because there is nothing more inherently ‘credible’ about the born-again Christian, right-wing, repugnant, ‘neo-conservative project for the new American century’ reality than there is about your reality. In fact there are probably a great many more inherent absurdities in the former worldview than in the latter.”
So what is the solution? Moore – a prophet to some – leaves us with the following benediction: “People should trust themselves more. People should be aware of the incredible potentials that they’ve got in them, and I think one step towards that would be acknowledging that there is an Ideaspace, and that we are all kings and queens of it.”
Unearthing by Alan Moore, Mitch Jenkins and Crook & Flail is available from 6 Sep via Lex Records.
Neonomicon Issue 1 by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows is out now from Avatar Press: available at Deadhead Comics, Edinburgh and A1 Comics, Glasgow, and at all good comic stores.
To read more of Bram’s journalism, go to www.weaponizer.co.ukhttp://lexrecords.com