Not Really A Review of Black Dossier, In Any Real Sense, More an Examination of One Tiny Part of It
In March this year Knockabout published the first British edition of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen sourcebook, Black Dossier. In theory, this should be the first time that this book is available on this side of the Atlantic, even though it was published in America in 2007, five years ago now. But, of course, we live in an Internet age, and by the time I got a copy of this edition to add to my collection, I already had three other editions – I have a foolish habit of collecting multiple different editions of Alan Moore’s work. The reasons that it took five years for a British edition of Black Dossier to appear are, frankly, bizarre, and have a lot to do with the fact that this was the very last work of Moore’s to be published by DC Comics, and the relationship between Moore and DC had been frosty, to say the very least, for quite some years. It’s a fascinating story, but not one I’m going to go into here.
However, part of the fallout of the bad relationship between the two sides was that we never got to see Black Dossier as it was intended to be seen, even when DC produced an ‘Absolute Edition’ of the book. There were meant to be a number of things that came loose with the book, and which were meant to fall out when you opened it for the first time. Only one of these items actually did make it in its originally intended form – the 3D Glasses – with almost everything else being incorporated into the body of the book itself in one form or another: an eight-page Tijuana Bible, a set of eight postcards from various places around the world, and a new chapter in the life of Fanny Hill, which was meant to be presented with unopened page edges, as books used to often be published, leaving the owner to decide whether to cut them or not themselves, surely the ultimate comic fan dilemma (apparently you should use a playing card, and not a paperknife…) And one of the items never appeared at all: there was to have been a 7” 45 RPM vinyl single (if you are young, and don’t know what this means, try asking a parent. Or even, now that I look at the year we’re in, a grandparent.) However, of all those items, I want to take this opportunity to focus on just one of the items that was meant to land in your lap, just to show where Black Dossier fits in the scheme of things, and because I’ve wanted to write about this particular thing for a while now. It’s one of the postcards.
There were to be, as I said, a set of eight postcards with the Black Dossier. These were sent by Mina Murray to Allan Quatermain or Campion Bond, by Quatermain to Campion Bond, or, in one case, by Orlando to Thomas Carnacki, all to one of two location in London, date from between 1899 and 1913, and come from all sorts of places, both real and imaginary. It’s one of the very earliest of these I want to concentrate on, a card from Allan Quatermain to Campion Bond, dated the 8th of September, 1899, send from Boston in Massachusetts, but originating in the town of Arkham, some distance to the north. Here it is, front and back:
So, this is what it says:
Coming home immediately. Met one R. Carter who took us to a ruin near Dunwich – beastly business. Mina almost abducted by something ghastly, and now very feverish. If you or Holmes had any idea this might happen, I’ll horsewhip you to within an inch of your lives.
There is a page of text accompanying the postcards, entitled ‘The Murray Group, Correspondence, 1899-1913,’ which includes this text [along with some explanatory notes from me]:
Perhaps becoming bored with the unending calm of Coradine [Where she had gone after the end of the events of LoEG Vol II], Murray accepted [a proposition from Bond that she and Quatermain go adventuring abroad] and in August she embarked along with Quatermain for the United States, there to investigate unsettling reports concerning the New England town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Returning during the September of that same year after some unpleasant exploits, Murray and her elderly companion next commenced investigations into the communitarian Phalanstery movement, then but recently established in the western English county Avondale.
So, what does this mean? Has any of this been mentioned in any of the previous books? Yes, actually, it has. And this is the thing about the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books that really intrigues me, and makes rereading them all such an ongoing pleasure: if you read all the text pieces, you find that there are a few other stories about the League unfolding in there that you don’t get by just reading the comics pages.
The first time this incident is mentioned is in LoEG Volume I, in the serialised text story that ran in the back of the six individual comic issues, called Allan and the Sundered Veil. Which is a story set a few years before the events of the first two volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen/ In it Allan Quatermain, after taking Taduki, finds himself in a dream world, where he meets Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter and H. P. Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter, who are related to one another, with John being the granduncle of Randolph. The three of them then meet H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, and they all find themselves on something called a chrono-crystal aleph, a sort of floating crystal whose surfaces allow them to see episodes from their lives, both past and future. In Chapter V: The Glint in Fortune’s Eye, amongst the things Quatermain sees, there’s this:
Now he saw the familiar small, determined woman [who he’d seen in another vision in the crystal, and whose identity I hope needs no further explanation] clad in nothing but a dirty blanket, shrieking, overcome by horror in what looked to Allan’s travelled eye like the interior of a dark and rural building, possibly in the Americas. Arcane symbols were inscribed in noxious, nameless fluids on the bare boards of the floor and on the walls, and there was something thrashing over in a distant corner of the room. Quatermain saw himself, screaming as loudly as the woman while engaged in combat with a tentacled and writhing shape that seemed to reach in some way through the walls of the dilapidated farm-house. To his great surprise, another man seemed to be aiding him in this horrendous conflict, whose demeanor Quatermain believed he recognized.
He glanced up from the fascinating and hypnotic vistas swirling on the surface of the gem and looked towards another of the stranded figures trapped there with him on the time jewel’s upper face, the young New England visionary Randolph Carter. Looking back at the horrific incident depicted in the gem, Quatermain shook his head in disbelief. The man assisting him against the squirming nightmare in the farmhouse was identical to the youth that crouched not far from the explorer, staring down into the crystal depths beneath him and absorbed in his own visions, with his long, underlit face transfixed by terror that was luminous. Could it be Quatermain and Carter would meet at some future point in the material world; fighting alongside one another in some as unforeseen, unfathomable combat? Was this drifting diamond atoll truly showing things that were, as yet, to come? Were the strange, flickering images that swam in its depths the genuine, predictive sparks that danced across the glittering eye of fate, of fortune and of destiny?
And, in LoEG Volume II, in The New Traveler’s Almanac’s Chapter Three: The Americas, we have this:
“September 7th, 1899. I must write it all down. Write it, or dream about it endlessly for the remainder of my life. When Allan came to visit me in Coradine and told me that the fat men had a job for us, I think that I was pleased and looking forward to adventure, with the nightmare of the men from Mars now safely in the past. Our ship put in at a bleak seaport called New Bedford, which I think that I remember Nemo’s first mate Ishmael mentioning to me once, and no sooner had we set foot on the quay than I was overcome by the most miserable foreboding and presentment of evil. We arranged a carriage that would take us to the old colonial city of Arkham, where M. had informed us that a high number of extra-normal events were centered, but our driver was a garrulous thickly-accented local of a type that I have since found to be common in the area, who regaled us with spine-chilling tales of ‘sartin mysteries, as you might say’ that were attached to the region’s many hideous locations.
Arkham, I have never known a town to be at once so frightening and so picturesque. Our driver set us down in Church Street, where we had arranged rooms in what seems to be the city’s sole hotel, a wretched, faded building where we sat and talked into the night about our mission. M. had passed on reports, mostly the testimonials of asylum inmates it would seem, which appeared to hint at a peculiar dream-territory accessible from certain (or perhaps I should say ‘sartin’) places in and around Arkham, such as the architecturally peculiar ‘Witch House’ that stood no more than a block or so down Parsonage Street from our grim and lacklustre hotel. We slept but fitfully, beset by hideous dreams that we could not recall upon awakening, and in the morning, after some discreet enquiries, were directed to the library of Arkham’s Miskatonic University where we were told could frequently be found a scholar, a young man said to have some knowledge of this world of dreams, names Randolph Carter. Allan seems perplexed, saying he recognised the name from somewhere, and when we eventually encountered the alarmingly young-looking Mr Carter, he grew more perplexed still, claiming that he’d seen his face before, though he could not think where. Carter seemed flattered by our interest and professed himself to be an Anglophile, promising he would help us all he could. Admitting to a limited familiarity with this dream-landscape, he confessed to fears that some of its more monstrous inhabitants might have ventured into our own world, citing a talking cat that had been seen on Mulberry Street in nearby Springfield, believed by Carter to hail from the dream-world town of Ulthar. He also mentioned a closer location, on the Aylesbury Pike between Arkham and nearby Dunwich, an abandoned house which he believed to be a form of gateway, and to which he agreed to take us. What followed seemed to happen with a frightening rapidity, and I have needed Allan to supply a number of the details.
Carter took us to the ruined house, which he believed had once been used by one of Massachusetts’s many diabolically-inclined and inbred families for their appalling rituals. Hearing what is best described as a much-amplified slithering sound from the adjacent woods, Allan and young Carter strode off manfully to make investigations, warning me that I should in no circumstances go into the ruin alone, although from what transpired it rather seems I must have done, although I have no memory of this. The next thing I recall, and which I hesitate to write down here, is finding myself standing in a state of undress (and, I am ashamed to say, of some arousal) staring as though drugged into what seemed be a beautiful and shimmering landscape, perhaps a painting by some ether-drinker, where a huge and lovely flower extended slender mauve-tipped petals out towards me. I was only roused from this delirium by a frightened yell from Allan, somewhere off behind me, which caused me to awaken and to comprehend the horror of my circumstances: I stood almost naked in a derelict and filthy room where, on the walls, were grotesque symbols that I almost understood, scrawled in what seemed to be long-dried ordure. Coming in some fashion through the walls towards me were transparent tentacles, about to wrap themselves around my flesh when Allan pulled me back and, cursing dreadfully, removed me from the house, where he and Mr. Carter wrapped me in their jackets. Since then, I have suffered a dire fever and shall be, for once, glad to see London. Allan, shaken by the episode, says he feels old, and thinks a holiday in Africa might be the thing for us.”
The thing is, we still don’t know what actually happened to Mina in Arkham – perhaps, when the third and final part of Century – 2009 – is published next month, we’ll get a bit more of the puzzle hidden away somewhere.
And, to conclude, this is why I sometimes think that Black Dossier is the most rewarding, the richest, of all the volumes of the League. Much like the chrono-crystal aleph that Allan Quatermain finds himself stranded on in Allan and the Sundered Veil, it allows us to see glimpses of the League’s history, intriguing insights into stories perhaps remaining to be told.
The recent Knockabout edition of the Black Dossier was also reviewed by Richard here on the blog