Review: ‘Illuminations,’ by Alan Moore

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ILLUMINATIONS: Stories, by Alan Moore

There are many comics cognoscenti who consider the British writer Alan Moore the Greatest of All Time. Moore has written everything from “E.T.” knockoffs to weird “Star Wars” shorts, but his legendary status rests on comics that he created in his 1980s and ’90s prime — “V for Vendetta,” “Miracleman,” “Watchmen,” “From Hell,” a run on “Swamp Thing” that is too wild to paraphrase — all of which transformed mainstream comics forever.

Few comic-book writers past or present could match Moore’s subversive mythmaking (and unmaking) or the piercing psychological plangency he brought to a field that was widely derided as disposable nonsense. With the help of a few contemporaries (Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, Michael Zulli), Moore helped elevate comics from the depths of the sub-zeitgeist to the stratosphere of literature. His genre-shattering work is part of the reason that superheroes have saturated our cultural landscape — ironic, considering that Moore has been one of the most unsparing critics of superhero narratives and the often septic politics that undergird them.

Moore retired from comics a few years back, a huge loss to his admirers and the profession. Even his loopiest work — the last few volumes of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” for example — had something searing to say about matters mundane and sacred, and his feverish creativity was worth every bizarre digression and self-indulgent turn.

Fortunately, Moore hasn’t retired from storytelling. He is now an estimable writer of fiction with three books, including his latest, the story collection “Illuminations,” and while none of these volumes have the gamma-ray punch of his comics, all of them burn with Moore’s soaring intelligence and riotous humanity.

His first novel, “Voice of the Fire,” was a millennium-spanning myth cycle centered on his hometown, Northampton, England. The opening chapter should be required reading for anyone interested in dialect; it’s “Riddley Walker” with a heart. Next up was “Jerusalem,” a 1,200-page secret history of a patch of Northampton called the Borough. (Northampton is to Moore what Indiana is to Michael Martone.) “Jerusalem” might be longer than the Bible and nigh as vexing but it also happens to be Moore at his mad best. This is a novel in whose multitudes can be found Lucia Joyce (daughter of James), Oliver Cromwell, Asmodeus, angels and a game of trilliards played not with ivory balls but with human souls. If you’ve ever read prophetic phantasmagorical novels like Samuel R. Delany’s “Dhalgren” or Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Almanac of the Dead” and wondered what could possibly come next, “Jerusalem” is the answer. It has longueurs and overreaches aplenty but is a bona fide masterwork, a vastation of a novel built for the type of contemplation that smartphones were designed to destroy, and it casts a spell not only on the reader but also against the society that has made being a reader so challenging.

“Illuminations,” Moore’s first collection of short fiction, finds the writer working on a smaller scale but still swinging for the firmament. An assemblage of eerie sublimities with more pyrotechnics than Guy Fawkes Day — and just as many shadows — the book showcases all of Moore’s strengths as a fantasist.

It opens with a troika of tales that give you a sense of Moore’s prodigiousness. The first, “Hypothetical Lizard,” is a coldblooded chiller set in an otherworldly brothel called the House Without Clocks. Among its “employees” are Loba Pak, who could “adjust her features into the semblance of almost any woman”; Mopetel the corpse mimic (what a concept); and Jazu, who “had fine black hair growing all over his body and would walk upon all fours.” Som Som has been cruelly mutilated so that she might better service a very select clientele: wizards. The particulars of the mutilation are best left to the reader to discover, but they keep Som Som imprisoned in Silence, unable to move or communicate easily.

Som Som is the story’s gnostic frame narrator — our Marlow — and the heart of darkness that troubles her is the tragic affair between her mysteriously charismatic friend Rawra Chin and Foral Yatt, an intense and darkly attractive male actor. Eager to make a mark in the wider world, the ambitious Rawra uses Foral to learn the actor’s trade and then abandons him for a dizzyingly successful theatrical career.

When, years later, Rawra returns to the House Without Clocks to visit her former lover, Som Som wants “desperately to call out, to warn Rawra Chin … that she should leave immediately.” But the Silence renders her unable to caution Rawra, much less stop the sorcerous nightmare unfolding before her. This dark, decadent fantasy alone is worth the price of admission, and troubled me for days.

Same with the ingenious “Not Even Legend.” A group of sad-sack supernatural investigators decides to put aside familiar targets (ghosts, etc.) and hunt for “entities that our taxonomies have made us blind to.” Little do they know that among their own members lurks one of these exotic entities, a Whispering Pete who looks human but has an unusual relationship to time. Realizing his group’s latest turn could “threaten the concealed people with exposure,” this Whispering Pete enlists another paranormal species — a jilky — to help with “the disassembly” of his colleagues.

Moore has never encountered a genre he cannot subvert, often fiendishly — the most dangerous of the supernaturals in “Not Even Legend,” for example, resembles a pile of laundry — and yet what lingers is not his creative irreverence but his ability to inhabit his human and inhuman characters alike.

By the third story Moore’s organizing principle snaps into view. “Location, Location, Location” concerns the last woman on Earth, tasked with closing out a property deal with the vape-obsessed son of the godhead, while abominations right out of the Book of Revelation loom impossibly on the horizon, and angels and devils incinerate one another overhead. Let not the absurdist comedy nor the killer lines (“The white-gold carpet looked like a steamrollered ghost”) distract you: Moore has written both a dynamite story collection and a dynamite monster manual. Rather fitting, considering that this is a book obsessed with revelations; nothing, after all, reveals our logics, our fears, our desires — in short, ourselves — quite like a monster.

Half of “Illuminations” is taken up by a novella that recounts the history of the Comic Book Century by tracking a group of wildly dysfunctional creators and the character that kicked off the superhero craze, Thunderman — Superman in all but name. I admire what Moore was reaching for here: to show how this seemingly innocuous institution is its own kind of Beast, both in its business practices and in the undemocratic desire and unethical loyalties that its costumed monsters awaken in its fans.

This is the story that Moore, the true prodigal son of superhero comics, was born to tell — but unfortunately, “What We Can Know About Thunderman,” for all its satirical dexterity and sly impieties, is too cryptic, too diffuse to land any killer blows. There’s a lot of inside baseball about the superhero biz that will delight nerds like me (and fly over the heads of the uninitiated) but I wish Moore had imbued the work with more compelling characters; I wish he had taken more seriously the industry’s racial and gender inequities, which he adumbrates but never really explores, a failing that threatens to reproduce the very cruelties he condemns.

But let me not overstate the book’s maluses. Moore’s failures are few, his radiances many. By the end of this remarkable collection of tales and monsters, I found myself recalling Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s contention that “the monster exists only to be read: The monstrum is, etymologically, ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns,’ a glyph that seeks a hierophant.”

The question Moore seems to raise in “Illuminations” — and I can’t imagine a more appropriate one for our monstrous times, nor a better writer to thread its labyrinths — is what happens when one is both the hierophant and the monster: What is revealed then? Or scarier: What is hidden?

Junot Díaz is the author, most recently, of “This Is How You Lose Her.”

ILLUMINATIONS: Stories | By Alan Moore | 456 pp. | Bloomsbury Publishing | $27

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