Paul Di Filippo Reviews Illuminations: Stories by Alan Moore

Illuminations: Stories, Alan Moore (Bloomsbury 978-1635578805, hardcover, 464pp, $30.00) October 2022.

Alan Moore is a sly old devil. Famed for his work in comics, his cultural commentary, and for two massive, sui generis novels (Voice of the Fire [1996] and Jerusalem [2016]), he has managed, all these years, to keep his production of short fiction on the downlow. I myself, reasonably conversant with his oeuvre, would have proclaimed, prior to the appearance of this book, “Oh, no Moore doesn’t do short stories.” But of course, I would have been wrong. Yet Moore’s slyness extends even further. Having gathered his short fiction finally into a volume (some pieces original, other reprinted), he then inserts a complete new novel into the middle of the book. The entry titled “What We Can Know About Thunderman” occupies pages 173 through 414: a novel-length work by any lights.

All the fiction showcases Moore’s patented virtues: spirituality blended with worldliness; transgressiveness mixed with honor for traditions and the classics; a maximalist approach to style and plot; and a prose that’s sometimes recondite but always assimilable, asking the reader to be a full partner.

We can look at the shorter pieces first, before talking about the novel.

Being written for the famous Liavek franchise, “Hypothetical Lizard”, the oldest piece, is the most conventional. The story of Som-Som, an inhabitant of the lascivious House Without Clocks, the tale exudes a kind of Huysmans-via-Tanith-Lee vibe. “Foral Yatt remained silent, the firelight behind his shaven head edging his skull with a trim of blurred phosphorescence as it shone through the stubble. The copper ball turned between his fingers, a miniature planet rolling from day into night.”

Do the fannish members of a “paranormal studies group” secretly harbor creatures known as “jilkies” and “Whispering Petes?” The surprising answer awaits in “Not Even Legend”.

“Location, Location, Location” is one of my two favorite tales herein, a bravura, off-the-wall masterpiece. A real-estate agent named Angie arrives for a house showing, only to quickly learn that her client, Jez, is not what he seems. One clue might be the things that begin to emerge in Jez’s presence. “Are you telling me that wasn’t an enormous locust with a man’s head and a scorpion’s tail crawling along Albany Road just now?” The tale mounts into a sex-infused phantasmagoria, with “burning angel carcasses” falling from the sky.

“Cold Reading” is a nifty, compact ghostly tale, where fake magic turns into real.

“The Improbably Complex High-Energy State” is the second of my two picks for greatness. It’s a philosophical slapstick adventure, Tom Jones in the Monobloc perhaps, that all takes place in the first femtosecond of recorded time. The obvious inspiration here is Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, with its immortal narrator Qfwfq, but Moore outshines even Calvino with his blend of high-energy physics and screwball activities.

The title story follows a man trying to recapture his past by revisiting a resonant resort town, but he soon discovers that the past, present and future are intermixed and mutable.

In the photograph he’s laughing on the snail, showing his overbite, but he’s alone. And yes, of course he is, because his mum and dad must be outside to take the picture when the car emerges into daylight, but how can that be when he knows that they all three share the ride, each year the same?

The shades of Lem and Nabokov look on appreciatively at the magisterial performance in “American Light: An Appreciation”. Cast as the scholarly review of a poem, the piece then delivers the entire poem, with comically pedantic footnotes that often overshadow the verse, which in itself is a pitch-perfect beatnik rhapsody.

Finally, “And, at the Last, Just to Be Done with Silence” is cast as the Beckett-style interplay between disembodied voices from the time of Richard the Lionhearted, existing in a kind of bardo where identity and history form the nut that needs to be cracked open.

Let us turn now to “What We Can Know About Thunderman”, one of the offerings new to this volume. As Moore reveals in an afterword, the story “exploded like a lanced boil between February and April.” An amazingly brief compositional interlude for such a dense, accomplished and lively piece. What we have here is Moore’s counterfactual yet journalistic novelized history of the comic book industry. It’s a roman à clef, with all the names changed to protect the guilty. In this sense it’s brother to Howard Chaykin’s ongoing series Hey Kids! Comics!, with a little bit of Evan Dorkin’s The Eltingville Club thrown in for good measure.

Moore’s impulse—a wise one, I think—is not to tell his saga in linear chronological fashion. Bopping around in time adds emotional resonance and suspense and mystery to the tale that might have been diminished if we just went on in the manner of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened…”

And so we start in 2015 with four old guys, comicbook veterans, having lunch together. With varying degrees of senility and sharpness, they parse the undying past. And pretty soon we too are bopping through time, from the birth of comicbooks to their modern decadence and dominion.

Obviously, so much of this material derives from Moore’s own unsavory and disappointing experiences in the industry. But plenty of it stems from canonical legends from outside his own era. The tale, of course, is not a pretty one, with treachery, commercialism, hack work, oppression (sexual and otherwise) running rampant. But down the middle of the valley of despair and failure and betrayal runs the silver river of love for the medium and what it accomplished.

The POV shifts around from one figure to another, but a dominant figure is Worsley Porlock, who starts out as a fan and ends up as one of the more savvy and nobler creators. His bildungsroman is one of the tale’s main engines.

What is most astonishing about this story is how Moore has translated all the realworld data to imaginary correlatives. It soon becomes obvious that Thunderman is Superman, Blinky is Archie, the Moon Queen is Wonder Woman, and so forth. But Moore gets down into the most minute, often chucklesome parallels:

There was Obese Olivia, Stripe-Crazy Sue, Armed Combat Laughs with Gloomy Grunt and Aubrey Avarice the Tiniest Tycoon, along with the infant mortality genre that seemed unique to Bullseye, like Cardew the Spectral Child and Dead Stuff, the Tuff Little Zombie…

The astonishing ending ramps up this naturalistic story into the fantastika stratosphere, and even offers some peace of mind and final reward for our beleaguered four-color heroes.

We can certainly hope that Moore finds success with this volume, and is motivated to give us more shorter fiction. Anthologists should reach out to him—despite his rep, he probably won’t bite!

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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