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“Black Stars Above,” Cosmic Horror that Looks Forward by Peering Back

By | July 27th, 2020
Posted in Longform | % Comments

Sometimes you find comics or films or really any kind of media that you wish everyone was talking about. You fall in love with something that feels special and you’re left waiting for the rest of the world to notice it, “Black Stars Above” is that for me. It comes from three criminally underappreciated talents: new artist Jenny Cha, rising star Lonnie Nadler and Vault Comics, one of the most underrated publishers on the scene right now. This piece is going to be my attempt at explaining what makes this book as interesting and modern as it. I’m now trying to do a full review or a critical analysis (I don’t think I have the conviction for that), it’s just going to look at how this book moves forward by looking at what has come before. “Black Stars Above” by Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha and Brad Simpson is the latest text in a new wave of burgeoning cosmic horror stories that break new ground in terms of period, genre and abstraction; thereby creating narratives that, though they might not empower their human protagonists, certainly lend uniquity to the manner in which they collapse under their own revelations.Spoilers ahead, just read it if you haven’t already.

I remember the first thing that really stuck out to me about this book was that it was a cosmic horror period piece, I don’t know why that’s what got me interested, but it felt unique to me. If I’m right about this, Lovecraft’s novels usually would be set contemporaneously or outside of time entirely. In later works inspired by him, creators tended to emphasise the ‘cosmic’ in cosmic horror with films like Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing (and even “Watchmen’s” phony monster-squid). However in the last ten or so years we’ve started to see an emphasis on cosmic horror that looks backwards rather than forwards. This can usually be split into two categories: either narratives gets synonymised with the usual 30 year nostalgia cycle, as in It and Stranger Things, or they are pushed back to a stylised 1920s, the era the genre was conceived in (Brubaker and Phillips’s “Fatale” or the TTRPG Call of Cthulhu). “Black Stars Above” sits outside of both these categories by looking back even further to Canada in 1887, with this setting it draws a comparison between the solipsistic horror of cosmicism and the cultural paradigms of colonial fiction. It’s these sorts of comparisons that let us find new layers in both genres, namely through how the different social groups perceive the eldritch child, a creature that would essentially represent insanity manifest. The protagonist, Eulalie, is French/Inuit (Métis), essentially embodying a very new and precarious kind of identity. She is split between coloniser and colonised, building her own identity in that contrast.

This identity is absolutely not a new perspective to bring to colonial fiction (especially when you see how common it is in imperial history all over the world), but genre themes intermingle when we see how Eulalie interacts with the eldritch child. It harries her and breaks down her sanity, but she still understands this creature which is itself a mixed-breed that was “miscarried from another world.” It’s interesting since we see how the native fauna is cast out by the cosmic arrival, and how the religious threat (the ephemeral Christ vs a tangible, transactional elder god) it poses to colonisers is too much for them. But Eulalie, who straddles the divide between these two worlds is still capable of surviving. Old genres, new revelations. I think the moment that really cements this for me is in the final issue where the forbidden knowledge granted by the Black Stars allows Eulalie to see the future, getting a glimpse at the modern Canada to come. It’s then that we see our own place in these irreconcilable paradigms of competing cultures and cosmic insanities, how our modern world has changed those paradigms to an unimaginable extent. I’m not going to try too hard to speculate about what that all means, mostly because I have pretty much no idea what it could. But I hope it shows why a cosmic horror period piece stuck out to me so much at all, and how it uses an atypical setting to comment more specifically on the modern day.

Continued below

So now that we’ve established how Nadler and Cha have created a more intersectional kind of cosmic horror, I thought it’d be interesting to analyse how it uses different subsets of the horror genre between issues to leave the reader in constant uncertainty. At its core, horror is all about suspense; dread through uncertainty. This essentially makes tropes the enemy of horror. The moment you expect something to happen in a horror story, it is rarely going to be as scary as something surprising. In film, the solution is usually just to use tropes as a jump-scare, you don’t need to put the person through any kind of uncertainty if you can just prey on a sudden, physiological reaction. But obviously, those don’t really work in books, so horror novels have to find smart ways to be scarier. “Black Stars Above” achieves this by being diverse, it throws so much genre, philosophy and imagery at you that you’re not only reeling with uncertainty of what’s to come, but also of what you’ve seen already.

Issue #1: While the first issue serves as a pretty good contention for the series to come, the central genre seems to be closer to an abstract environmental cosmic horror. Similar to The Lighthouse, the element of insanity comes from a central environmental object, rather than an entity, in this case the woods, rather than the eldritch child.

Issue #2: From there we step into outright Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the revelation that Eulalie is carrying an actual cosmic monster with her. There’s a million film comparisons I could make here, Dagon, In the Mouth of Madness, whatever you want, this one is the book’s bread and butter.

Issue #3: Here we take more of a turn into gothic horror as we look at how Eulalie is cornered by an insane and hostile environment alongside insane and hostile individuals whose true natures are revealed progressively through monologue and epistolary prose. This is fairly similar to Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights or even Wolf Creek.

Issue #4: In what I dubbed ‘The As Above, So Below issue’ before we even got to that classic line, this issue uses symmetricality and contrast to analyse the hidden aspects and dichotomy central to Eulalie and her environment (y’know, just like in As Above, So Below)

Issue #5: Finally our last issue works to again merge many of these elements, while placing a particular focus on human evil through societal constructs. The use of religious imagery, colonial imagery, contemporary allusions and the dissection of morality helps to analyse the place of cosmicism alongside the ‘rational’ world. You can see this in a lot of Ari Aster’s work, like Midsommar and Hereditary.

Not only is this mesh of genres a great trick for making engaging, intelligent horror, but it also simulates the central feeling of cosmic horror, that sense of overwhelming, mania-inducing knowledge. By creating this kind of range, Nadler and Cha give a richer, more interpretative text that uses its influences as springboards rather than crutches

Finally, I want to look at how these two elements: greater intersectionality and more open-ended genre, coagulate to allow for a more abstracted, and therefore ambiguous evil. Now obviously I already touched on how issue #1 introduces how the environment of “Black Stars Above” can be perceived as a cosmic threat, and that is definitely built on the historical context of colonial Canada in 1887, but what does that actually allow Nadler and Cha to do? Generally speaking, when placed in antagonistic roles, monsters have agendas and environments have effects. The Xenomorph in Alien wants to strand and kill the crew of the Nostromo; but in Aliens, LV-426 pushes the xenomorphs to grow in societal complexity, and the heroes to sink into animalistic survivalism. So by creating an overriding environmental threat in the woods that are corrupted by the Black Stars, as well as an accompanying premature eldritch monster, the series is able to revel in the tropes of Lovecraft while extending past them into the realms of modern, abstract cosmicism.

Essentially, “Black Stars Above” gets to answer questions with the agenda of its monster, while posing far more through the effects of its environment. So how can we see this? Well Nadler and Cha use their natural dichotomy to give the environment and the monster their own philosophy and symbology, respectively. This can be seen well in the division between ‘male’ colonists and ‘female’ Indigenous Inuits. The grimoire in issue #3 presents the philosophical idea of explorers who are drawn to mystery yet naturally sink from it when they pass the point of self-destruction, yet still haven’t reached the point of reconstruction (in terms of actual philosophy I’d say this vaguely epistemological, while drawing on the divide between male and female gothic conventions). This is then met with the symbolic ideas of contrasting archetypes and environments in issue #4 as we see how Eulalie has a descending ascension into the Black Stars by crashing through the ice, encountering the aforementioned male invader and female invaded in this journey. See? Now we’re left with questions and effects; which side of her duality does Eulalie lean towards? How does she approach forbidden knowledge? Which aspect carries her through this journey?

A good example in terms of a monstrous agenda would be how the eldritch child reflects a solipsistic ideology and supernatural imagery. Like all good Lovecraftian creatures, the eldritch child is prone to whispering in Eulalie’s ear, pushing her further on through the woods. This is what drives her back into a philosophical debate from the first issue, is human experience cyclical or cumulative? Are we perpetuating inescapable habits, or working towards an ultimate achievement? In terms of symbology, the eldritch child echoes the supernatural Wendigo, a spirit that turns humans into cannibals, or in this case symbolic auto-cannibalism, as Eulalie derives warmth from the creature, yet is driven to visible hypothermia by it. She’s finding temporary fulfillment through long-term deprivation. So through this mix of imagery Nadler and Cha present a belief, rather than a question as with their environmental threat. I’d guess that they’re saying experience is cumulative, that we lose parts of ourselves and are crippled in the process, but we eventually reach our village in the north, even if the culmination doesn’t live up to the promise. So, in this way we can see how “Black Stars Above” uses its mix of forms and elements to engage in a dialogue with the reader, both asking them questions and presenting ideas through a mix of contemporary, abstracted cosmicism, and classical, embodied cosmicism.

Anyway, that’s “Black Stars Above,” or at least my read on it. It’s a book that tries to find the best middle ground between its inspirations and its contemporaneous texts, while throwing together a huge variety of genres and ideas. Here’s hoping one day I can actually find out what it all means.

James Dowling

James Dowling is probably the last person on Earth who enjoyed the film Real Steel. He has other weird opinions about Hellboy, CHVRCHES, Squirrel Girl and the disappearance of Harold Holt. Follow him @James_Dow1ing on Twitter if you want to argue about Hugh Jackman's best film to date.