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Alan Moore’s Nemo: River of Ghosts

By Richard Marshall.

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Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Nemo: River of Ghosts, Top Shelf 2015.

Nemo, River of Ghosts is another great yarn out of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series and the final part of the ‘Nemo’ trilogy. As ever, the narrative is fiercely plot driven, yanking itself through familiar tropes of a boys-own, steam-punkish adventure but with the added guilty pleasures of post-colonial critique, anti-nazi politics and sexy feminist high jinks. It also looks mighty dazzling, the bright colours and great lines of O’Neil adding to the immense pleasure of Moore’s writing.

As the Top Shelf blurb explains:

In a world where all the fictions ever written coalesce into a rich mosaic, it’s 1975. Janni Dakkar, pirate queen of Lincoln Island and head of the fabled Nemo family, is eighty years old and beginning to display a tenuous grasp on reality. Pursuing shadows from her past—or her imagination—she embarks on what may be a final voyage down the vastness of the Amazon, a last attempt to put to rest the blood-drenched spectres of old.

With allies and adversaries old and new, we accompany an ageing predator on her obsessive trek into the cultural landscape of a strange new continent, from the ruined city of Yu-Atlanchi to the fabulous plateau of Maple White Land. As the dark threads in her narrative are drawn into an inescapable web, Captain Nemo leads her hearse-black Nautilus in a desperate raid on horrors believed dead for decades.

Through the exotic spectacle of an imagined South America, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill steer their fifty-year-long Nemo trilogy to its remarkable conclusion, borne upon a RIVER OF GHOSTS.

After that, the chase is on for any reader. Clearly Nemo is Ahab as Cain, travelling the ‘immense gulf of waters’ ‘followed by alligators’. We even catch glimpses of the ‘slimy things with legs’ who will eventually drag Martin Boorman and the clownish German-Tomanian ‘Great Dictator’ Adenoid Hynkel’s scum boys to hell late on in the narrative. But Nemo is moreover the ancient mariner of the Coleridge poem, and braver than any Cain, meeting an old nemesis named here Ayesha and in reality a woman of erotic allure, the Ebon Ebon Thalud ‘who thicks man’s blood with cold’ and in dreams attacks the right eyeball . What comes from these dreams? For poet Ted Hughes it is how ‘… comic cartoon inner scenarios, accompanied by metaphysical terror, and actual physical breakdown, correct the errors of ego.’ Coleridge’s life was spent having ‘spectacular nightmares about terrifying usually grotesque women’ and in Ebon Ebon Thalud we have surface links to the ‘Ebon’ blackness of Arabic sacred wisdom that , via Latin, comes ‘out of goodness’ and in Tha the stem of Thalassa, Greek for the sea, Thanatos, Greek for death and the Aramaic Anathema Maranatha of the most religiously accursed thing.

This is what we hear in the cold heart stopping use of it in Corinthians 1 xvi:22 of the Christian New Testament. Anathema was the gift to the whores of the Jehovan Temple in Jerusalem. Maranatha means ‘our Lord has come’ and so coupled with Anathema becomes an unspoken accursed violation of sacred hygiene taboo of ultimate weight. Moore would delight in the dangers and reversing possibilities of the sexed up God of the Alfathers and his debt to the Goddess Anatha. It’s a short glide from Anatha to Ayesha, no glide at all in fact. In the first of the trilogy Janni Dakkar is screwed into a plot featuring ‘… a grand expedition to surpass her father’s greatest failure: the exploration of Antarctica. Hot on her frozen trail are a trio of genius inventors, hired by an influential publishing tycoon to retrieve the plundered valuables of an African queen. It’s a deadly race to the bottom of the world — an uncharted land of wonder and horror where time is broken and the mountains bring madness…’ and if you hold your nerve you can see it’s the same terrain Coleridge explored. The white mountains of the ice pack bring us to the Alph of whiteness and the Alphos of leprosy and the Alphitos who is the white-faced Goddess who healed the disease. Moore’s English magic has easily picked up the link between Alphito and Albina – Goddess of death and poetic inspiration who is Albion. What you always find in Moore is a code for a new, refreshed and better stocktaking of a magical land for living. This Nemo is thus a high goddess of Britain, Albion turned to destroy – or replace – the preternatural black phase of the Coleridgean female of his three great poems, a mother of the seas, spirit of the sea, Arnaquagssak or Sedna, and where, at the very end of the story becomes a titan who even the legendary giant ‘don’t recall her lookin like that.’

Moore’s stories are places where you linger and take stock. They’re conduits from one place to another, from the apparent dismal dreariness of life to something of infinite richness. The patterns and stock characters that rely on our knowing some of the back stories don’t forbid innovation but move on the assumption that it’s in the backstories that the pathbreaking gestures have already happened. The stories are a kind of consolidation of the older stories and myths that Moore is haunting (and not, notice, vice versa). The stories are stitched together and provide arteries through which the older stories can live again as a form of assertion. What they assert is a symbol of community and life. The community contains not only the living but also the dead and the unborn. This is what his readers find. Some readers have complained that the characters taken from the books and the films are not fleshed out enough but I think that’s because Moore is chasing them, not the other way round. He’s in pursuit and they’re fleet footed and always escaping. The other way, and you end up like Coleridge, renouncing poetry (by being renounced by Wordsworth for the lesbian erotic consciousness of his ‘Christabel’) and becoming some kind of metaphysician. It’s a worry for all of us!

Moore brings us Nemo, Mabuse, Cuchulainn, Hynkel, Bormann, Ishmael as truths about the human condition, as concepts of the subject out of which the mystery of the world is owed. Moore is a writer who really cares about the soul and his spirit world is one which he sees as vanishing but important. His strange, strong plots repudiate a secular contract and oblige us to stir in wonder and admiration, remind us that there’s another world behind the disenchanted one of our routine negotiations. In the face of annihilation these stories give us contours of some courage that allows us to lift ourselves up, despite the inevitable fall, into a refashioned covenant. Fear of death of course remains. When a person dies what is left behind is the object that belonged to her. We should treat this with reverence. Hence in Moore ghosts of the dead live side by side with Nemo, signs of another order, of things that arrived by fiat and are swept away without cause. And with us, the readers, are all the literary and mythic characters that gasp for breath in the plot hairs, characters that are often enough hazy and ghostly, barely fleshed out, demanding a personal interest or obsession to delve further outside. In the first two outings we were in an Antarctic hell of Lovecraftean, Poe-ish furnishings and in the last one a dystopian Berlin out of Lang and Chaplin. Here the aging heroine – daughter of the original Captain Nemo of Verne’s Nautilus – is troubled by her fading past as well as the iterating dead and plunges into the jungle.

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Beneath the luxurious colours and fizzling drama is a strata that speaks to sacrifice, another realm, a Coleridgean ghost riverrun from ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’ through ‘Christabel’ to the reanimating ruins of ‘Kubla Khan’. Through the acts of his heroes and villains the sacred and the magical come into being. The spectacle of Moore’s book, its visual display, is where being and nothingness contend with the victim. There’s an odd force working through many of Moore’s stories – and its here again in this latest offering – where there is an emphasise on forgiveness earned by contrition, penitence and atonement. There’s a half-mad scheme in this story where it seems no one has a right to forgiveness and no one obliged to offer it. The sacred comes in the middle of all calculations. It comes when we set ourselves aside. A division enters the world between the void and the subject. Inscrutable imperatives beckon from the other side. Moore recognises that all possible human convulsions are now available. The meaning of the sacred is based on the lost horrors at the basis of religion and magic. Emile Dermengham talks about ‘privileged instants’, as does Sartre in Nausea. A kind of laughter comes with a convulsion at the peripheral region of consciousness when reading this stuff. There’s a sense of tragic annihilation unleashing itself at the moment when death is cynically recognised. There’s a spasm that comes when you realise the ground is slipping under your feet and a void is opening.

And then the critical faculty reverses its original direction. In its place an hallucinatory existence states explanations in terms of an intellectual disorientation. There’s a realisation of hidden gestures to orgiastic impulses established in the fictions opposing political, juridical and economic institutions. Sex activity is death and the cult of cadavers a sublimated cannibalism of ritual ecstasy. Women are here brilliant, lubricious, muscular, perverted, machine-like and brutally ruptured. The violence of the subjectivity of women in Moore is luminous, appropriated, impulsive and a mania. The marvels are the marvels of half decomposed eviscerated cadavers filled with baboon lust. The worst vulgarity takes on ever stronger spirit value, phases of scandal and revolt appropriated by a poetical data base.

The violent gratifications of the social world are reversed by Moore’s process of alternating antagonisms and loves. Degradation is a typical chain of painful upheavals in Moore’s lexicon, a wild, violent celestial space of ruminations and deposits, some buried existence in the heart of a night written over by Rimbaud. There’s a terrestrial globe in his works, a huge disastrous wonder that has a nude flesh its target through its labyrinthine narrative erections. Each flame of story is a sunburst , deductions to a free relationship with immediate and various consciousness of human life and what not. The stories are held tight in an exasperated fist as if painting the countryside at night. It’s not easy.

Moore’s stories are freaks, aggressively incongruous, comic and obscurely seductive. They are monstrous, irreducible to their parts and less than their sums, more a malaise than a mannerism. But mostly they are the prodigous outpouring of the augury twisting on the hallucinatory abomination of today. There’s a despair leads to violence and deliria , horrible shadows in the head that then dislocate to aphrodisiac ideas and shrill, incendiary blasts. Moore raids the literary canon to find the characters that he then aborts into his distractions. A repugnant voracity reduces their roles to his troubling decisive harmony. The terrible monotony outside his stories is broken by the seductiveness of the general push of his cunning, thrusting from high to lower, a kind of fantastical and impossible swarm of roots under the surface of the whole book, nauseating and nude. The characters are caught like this when you sink back to the root of the concoctions here and the dread of evil comes precisely because of the striking character of the appearance, the decisive movements of Moore’s appropriation and theft. It’s impossible, in other words, to discount the morbid in the fascination Moore brings to his re-pitched characters, the twists that amount to barely repressed unpleasantness in the reimagining. A kind of creepy hideousness plays out in the dramas, a filthy and glaring sacrilege.

In the protean fertility of the image and story lies the immensity of a protracted futility sheltering us from the violent absurdity of what lies outside. Moore knows we are needing a magical literature that can cast great shadows to protect us from the daily indifference. He writes to the fathomless insignificance of our lives, working through spells to find magical charms to rescue consciousness from our absurdity. Throughout his fictions are journeys to monuments of razed affirmed principles. He raises monoliths of stone, vast plinths and shadows of calm grandeur and significance in states of glory or audacious immutable foundation. The toxicity of his visions is captured throughout this piece: it’s there in the machine Nemo commands, it’s in the plateau of the dinasaurs, the river of the aquatic race, in the Nazi jungle hideaway and in the pile of the dead Nemo presides over near the end.

The disappeared plinth of modern sculpture and the nomadic sitelessness of modern architecture is refused by Moore: his imagination erects the dominination and madness of the older manner to regain time and flight again. His is the world of the obelisk, which Bataille describes as belonging ‘… to the present and empty world… projected to the ends of time. It rises , immutable – there- dominating time’s desperate flight. But even while it is blinded by this domination, madness, which flits about its angles in the manner of an insect fascinated by a lamp, recognises only empty time escaping in the noise of successive explosions.’ What is it for? It is to focus ‘… the attention of the guillotine.’

The long torments and abrupt violence in the stories are peppered with humour and modesty. There’s always the sign of a discriminating intelligence and an acceptance of the possibility of error. At times he evokes a quest without making it substantial, and sometimes there are digressions that are too thin to trifle with for too long. But that’s ok. He has enough in his bag to always close in on the sacred instant where we might discern a hidden meaning or two. It’s this willingness to play with vulgar things like meanings at all that makes Moore such a wizard. Moore’s stories are indestructible tombs. In religion we worship our ancestors, meeting the dead and refusing their departure through our worship. Moore is a magical naturalist where the whole of nature is alive. His are novels of panpsychism, directly speaking to Leibniz and the crazy gang who solve the hard problem of consciousness this way. It’s a beautiful approach: first assume there’s consciousness, that there’s only one kind of stuff and that there’s no such thing as emergence. Once you do that then you have to conclude that the world is made out of stuff that is all conscious. Voila! Not that Moore argues for it like this but it’s there in what he’s showing in his books. A magical conscious universe like Galen Strawson’s, the contemporary philosopher who defends the view , construed as a river of ghosts stuffed full of ancestors in mashed up plots of resistance to the entropic sweep to the void. Moore’s small vortex of strange haunting intelligibility is a world of the Lebenswelt, a world of subjects reminding us at the very deepest most fundamental level who we are and how we might be united with the soul of the universe.

This is of course a different course to take than is usually taken with texts that hint of hermetic interpretation and a magical Plan. As Umberto Eco pointed out years ago, ‘ Every object… hides a secret… The ultimate secret of hermetic initiation is that everything is a secret… hermetic thought transforms the whole world theatre into a linguistic phenomenon and at the same time denies language any power of communication.’ From this perspective, ‘… everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else…[by exploiting]… a false transitivity.’ No doubt there’s a tincture of this in Moore – he will exploit whatever he finds at hand to concoct his marvels, but what you sense is that he isn’t one to follow the Derridean joke of turning the world into a text all the way down the rabbit hole.

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He’s too earthy for one. His characters are fleshy and even his machines are too. There’s a haunting erotic edge to everything he writes and O’Neil captures the scent of carnality in each of the frames he sets up. Anyone who can both laugh and feel the horny arousal of stormtrooper grrls in bikinis kickin’ ass is going to get the deviant humour of the Moore oeuvre and the physicality of his magical game. This is the opposite of Appollonian asceticism or tame nose-holding transcendence. Even without the worm-hole narrative complexities of previous Moore outings the story is constantly flexing a Dionysian tone and a pulsing body. But there’s always a grin here too, something that owes something to the rude postcard art of the English seaside resort and the Carry On Films. Sex isn’t just a cruel and dark thing in Moore but what reminds us of being natural and hilarious. The sublime has to carry a joke or else it’s nothing for Moore. It’s why Nazis and the remaining vestiges of Germany’s notorious ‘Twilight Heroes’, a dark Teutonic counterpart to Mina Murray’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are such a good enemy: no humour at all alongside their genocidal nonsense.

Moore shows us a way of reproducing reality against what the spectacle of history would force down on us. A concern with history can lay pre-formed images on our minds, images that bewitch us whilst the truth lies elsewhere, away from there, somewhere undiscovered as of yet. The phrases we use too become hackneyed but, for all that, implanted and insistent. The more words and images are repeated it becomes an ignominious flaw changing, flying off into a heinous mushroom skirt of bright light. It’s hard not to consent to this, to not resist the suspended words and pictures that hover as if A-Bombs in the air before our tired eyes for an eternity. But Moore draws us back into the images and the words and then throws us out of the other side of them and forces something else to rise into view and into the noise stream. He invents new voices and new sights out of the old ones, and O’Neil’s art is able to scratch at pre-existing signs and find something underneath, or at an angle to it. We’re planting new secrets, sanctioning a different set of futilities. We’re given the freedom to wander about in history and fiction and trying to take new bearings from the same places as before but penetrated by different light, newly discovered passageways, ravines and interiors blocked by our dismal authoritarian inheritances. He did it on a massive scale with Watchman, and has ever since given us our bearings from a new sky over courtyards never penetrated by any ray of light.

Reading Moore we’re given another glimpse of our crazy Albion Beat inheritance. The mind wanders to its own place here. The thrones of the underground literature become animated by nothing less than a momentous hallucination. It’s a matter of feeling the pulse of old transports reviving keenly, like singing heard from the top of an old crazy vessel in a harbour, a mariner’s hymn of alien sounds and sights sounding our soul. He writes to our other state of existence as if moshing dreams. Nothing is domesticated and as Tom Waits says, ‘the moon is broken and the sky is cracked… all you see is what you lack.’ We need to be nearer to the animated stars and further away from humankind when we read or else what’s the point? He’s in the tradition of that other Englishman of visions who knows we need to see through not with the eye.

But though Blake’s spirit is a great presiding demiurge over all this, so too is Coleridge’s. Here is a clue to Moore’s accomplishments so far. The Nemo trilogy works like a fast meditation on Kubla Khan’s paradise, a classic hell of first ice and then fire. The infernal translation from the Antarctic’s ‘sunless sea’ turned to ‘ a hot and copper sky’ is caught in the arc of an Ancient Mariner’s tale, the sun a hellish moon like the alien eye of an alligator, ‘small and sunk’ which ends in the slithering horrors of ‘Christabel.’ What Nemo is charting is a journey where the awesome fountain of the centuries erupts and there’s a demon lover wailing something dreadful under a waning moonshine. She’s gone to a sacred universe where all the women are lunar women. It’s a reaffirmation of what happened a long time ago in a dreamtime. Coleridge, recall, wrote three poems out a shamanic flight and one of them, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ had the Scots ballad ‘Thomas Rymer’ as a prototype. Here is a ballad about a great Scots wizard carried off above the River Tweed by the Nightmare-Life-In-Death Fairy Queen and held for seven years in the underworld. It’s all about the haunting of prototypes, about the possibility of negotiating two worlds, Kubla-Coleridge and Blake-Moore, existing twice at once.

I read Moore and O’Neil with the spontaneous care of balancing a faulty switch-blade. The tales are virtuoso primitives, a sort of unconscious riffing invented for the terribly urgent job needed for what’s left of literature. They jostle their spirits like some sort of spur-of –the-moment improv using whatever is lying around. The result is an inspired signalling of a home-made futurism – which is kind of what steam punk fiction is.

And why do people talk about Moore transcending the genre of the graphic novel? Moore is a brilliant graphic novelist and pulp comic strip writer. He doesn’t need to do anything else because it’s enough.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 1st, 2015.