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A new kind of horror: How 'Black Stars Above' builds on both the Poe and Lovecraft canons
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A new kind of horror: How ‘Black Stars Above’ builds on both the Poe and Lovecraft canons

Issue #1 of the Vault series is an interesting study in exploring the terror and beauty of our world.

The following is a guest post delving into Black Stars Above, a new-ish Vault Comics series from writer Lonnie Nadler, artist Jenna Cha, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. Described as a “rural eldritch horror,” the series follows a young fur trapper who becomes “lost in a dreamlike winter wilderness that harbors a cosmic threat.” Issue #2 of the series debuts tomorrow (December 18). For more from Black Stars Above, check out our interview with the creators as well as the review of issue #1.

I.

“Carcosa”
By Richard L. Tierney

I sense, on crystal winter evenings
When constellations gleam through black-branched trees,
A night-dark star no earthly gazer sees
To which some dread malevolently clings.
No star-chart shows it–no–yet slumber brings
Its vision from the clustered Hyades—
Black waters over which a leaden breeze
Wafts the sad song that dead Cassilda sings.
No darker vision greets the sleeper than
That lake, from which the coiling cloud-waves pour
To break upon the long basaltic shore
Beneath the rays of red Aldebaran–
The lake whence dreamers flee in nameless dread
As Hastur rises from his slimy bed.

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A new kind of horror: How 'Black Stars Above' builds on both the Poe and Lovecraft canonsBlack Stars Above demands to be taken seriously not just as an individual story but as a contribution to grander literary traditions. It’s a comic about unknown and unknowable forces invading reality, about strange objects, mysterious strangers, and weird chants echoing in the darkness. Thus builds something pretty clearly Lovecraftian — but this conclusion should be the start and not the end of our account.

Whenever we try to decipher how a work fits into tradition, how it fits in a broader context, it’s useful to start by looking for a companion piece. For Black Stars Above, Tierney’s “Carcosa” isn’t a bad one. Tierney’s poem isn’t just similarly Lovecraftian: right there in the third line we see “a night-dark star no earthly gazer sees/to which some dread malevolently clings.” That is, we see the title image and the climactic revelation of the first issue.

There’s no Cthulhu here, though. “Carcosa” is a Hastur-sonnet, and that’s fitting; the strange, chilling chant which rises in the issue’s final pages, tekeli-li, tekeli-li” is tied to Hastur in the work of August Derleth. Both “Carcosa” and BSA aren’t just engaging with the man himself, but with the broader mythos surrounding his work.

By using that cry, though, BSA isn’t merely positioning itself to stand proudly alongside folks like Tierney or Derleth. It’s hearkening back to an older, more canonical figure: the father of American horror himself, Edgar Allan Poe. That chant, that cutting cry, was used by Poe before Derleth, in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. So we’re not just in the realm of the Cthulhu mythos, but in the broader context of Lovecraftian horror. We’re in the kind of much broader horror tradition that we see represented, for example, in Robert Price’s The Hastur Cycle, which opens with Tierney’s poem and grounds its narrative in the work of Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Machen.

But for a full account, we shouldn’t limit our consideration to the script. Consider BSA‘s setting: a bleak, vicious Canadian wilderness. The antecedents here aren’t just Lovecraft’s Antarctica; Nadler has cited Margaret Atwood’s survey of Canadian Literature, Survival, as an inspiration, and bleak realists like Jack London are also clearly relevant. Consider Cha’s art and Simpson’s colors, and the resultant images. Contemplate the nothingness that is somehow not-void, and the endless white of the opening page, the land of the second. It’s hard for me to read that opening scene, to picture the snow-erased colossal landscape, and not ask, with Melville: “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation when beholding the white depths of the milky way?”

A new kind of horror: How 'Black Stars Above' builds on both the Poe and Lovecraft canons

But Lovecraft, Poe, and even Melville — these aren’t surprising voices to consider in any discussion of supernatural horror. All creators in that genre must reckon with such giants. What I think makes Black Stars Above truly fascinating — and why I wanted to write this account — is that it’s positioned itself to also stand in a tradition that isn’t related to these strands of horror at all.

“Carcosa” is useful, but I want to suggest a different poem to keep in mind as we plunge forward into these woods, this storm.

II.

Pied Beauty
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

I might be blaspheming even by suggesting the comparison, but the danger is worth the risk. Hopkins’ poem is responding to an old, now probably alien way of looking at the world. Dappled things — stippled, spotted things — are composite things, are marred and material things. They are sublunary. Which is to say, those things which exist below the spotted moon, on this, our planet, are mixed. Here, things come together, and things fall apart. Above that moon is the perfect, unchanging cosmos: eternal, pure, shining spots of bright light. Hopkins flipped the script: the very aspect of our world that made it a place of death, a place where things decay, is the same aspect that makes it beautiful. We should be thankful that our world is something distinct from the cold, static heavens.

I think that Black Stars Above really wants its readers to think about our world and about dappled things. From its first page, Black Stars Above concerns itself with bright, empty purity — and with a mar, with a blotch.

A new kind of horror: How 'Black Stars Above' builds on both the Poe and Lovecraft canons

It begins with a nearly blank page. But some ink mars the near perfect whiteness: “a white space to be spotted with life and the darkness that distinguishes us from”– and the sentence is left blank, or else the sentence concludes with something too transcendent to be captured there. The mottled blankness then resolves into an image, into some piece of our world: a field of snow. The scene gains definition as it moves away from the opening purity, and soon we see a man, a book, a lynx. We have a scene — until the blackness of the lynx-thing’s eyes becomes a black spot on the page, until that spot itself grows, and overwhelms, and once again annihilates difference.

For a moment, another purity. Another perfection and uniformity. But then the void shrinks to a spot again, and becomes another spot of ink, and definition returns until we are, once more, in a scene in the world.

Nadler’s narration asks us to think of the world in dappled terms, and Cha and Simpson provide the visual tools we need to really see what that means, to examine the gulf between such a world and a world above us, a world beyond our limited material understanding. The result is that a white page, or a black panel, becomes a thing filled with dread. As we read, we might start to understand annihilation.

We should also consider the lettering. Otsmane-Elhaou gives us our lead, Eulalie’s, own manuscript in the narrative boxes. And because she is human, and because she is struggling to convey her story, the captions are marred as well. She writes, and strikes through her own words, and doubles back, and begins again. She blames her father, and then strikes that, thus forgiving him. In an extremely telling moment, she writes “people” and then corrects to “we.” We aren’t just given a polished narration. We are given the considerations and reconsiderations, the thoughts and the mistakes of a human mind — and the result is something fuller than most ordinary captions. We have the full thoughts of a fallible, human mind, not the pure artifice of a narrator. The narration is filled with mistakes, and it is beautiful.

A new kind of horror: How 'Black Stars Above' builds on both the Poe and Lovecraft canons

That’s what I think separates Black Stars Above from Lovecraft: its beauty. Even something as disgusting as skinning an animal is so lovingly, so carefully drawn, is given such deep warmth, that we react not solely with revulsion, but admiration. Here is something bloody, but here, also, is a human being working at a craft and creating something compelling.

The monstrous in this comic is in the purifying annihilation of things; a black star is horrifying because there is nothing to distinguish it from the void of the night sky. Our human world is dappled, freckled, mixed, and inter-mingled. All is not ugliness, because all is not emptiness.

So Black Stars Above doesn’t just participate in the tradition of cosmic horror. It’s not only about the terror of a cosmos we can’t comprehend, or the struggle to survive in a world, in a wilderness that does not even know, let alone care, that we are alive. It’s also about the beautiful, limited, flawed people who live in that world and fight to live in it and to make something in it. It’s a horror comic that can stand comfortably alongside a Hopkins poem. That sort of thing is rare.

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