It’s a way that I haven’t written about sex before. It’s very ugly. And yet, it took me years to actually see… because, Jacen’s doing an incredible job on the artwork, but I’ve still only seen the first issue. But I was very impressed with that. It reads very well: it’s dark as hell. But it’s kind of compelling. So I went back and read through the scripts for the following three issues, and I thought, ‘Have I gone too far?’ Looking back, yes, maybe I have gone too far—but it’s still a good story. (“Alan Moore: Unearthed and Uncut”)
One of the most horrific aspects of Neonomicon is the graphic rape and sexual abuse suffered by FBI Special Agent Merrill Brears, beginning in issue 2 and continuing through most of issue 3. While actual penetration is never shown, most of the act is starkly depicted for the reader—Brears being drawn into an unsafe place among people she doesn’t know, her routes of escape cut off, slowly shedding any protective gear she might have, her only companion and protection brutally murdered—and when she is at her most vulnerable, barely able to see, she is violently sexually assaulted, not just by the human Dagon cultists, but by an alien entity, the Deep One that has been summoned by their combined unnatural lust.
Nor does Brears ordeal end there, as the sexual assault apparently continues over a period of days, both while she is conscious and unconscious or drugged. The assault both does physical damage (Brears’ notes in issue 3, Page 18, panel 3, “You hurt me, doing it like that. I’m sore and I hurt!”), and also fed into Brears’ own issues with sexual addiction. Brears’ efforts to battle her negative self image of herself and her inability to control that behavior are ruthlessly undercut as she is thrown into a situation where she is nothing but a sex object, and all choice is brutally taken from her. Finally, the repeated sexual assault has the consequence of leaving Brears’ pregnant; the fact that her child is implied to be Cthulhu and will likely wipe out the human race after it is born does little to draw away from the very real personal horror that afflicts any woman carrying a child conceived through rape.
It is, as Alan Moore noted in his interview, “dark as hell. But it’s kind of compelling.” Horror and dark fantasy exist in part to give readers a release from everyday life, an avenue to explore and toy with the taboo in a relatively safe context. There is always an audience for stories, both fictional and nonfictional, that highlight sexual scandal, deviancy, and violence, and there is something to be said, given the complex spectrum of human sexuality, for literature that examines the issue of consent, or which unblinkingly examines the events and consequences of rape, both on the individuals and in the community. Rape, after all exists in the real world, and it must be considered if laws regarding it are to be passed and held up, and if the individuals that need comfort, counseling, and support are to receive the services they need.
Given, then, that rape is a fit subject for literature—whatever the medium—the question becomes one of treatment. Do Alan Moore and Jacen Burrow cross the line from sexually explicit horror to exploitation? On the surface, the issue is highly subjective; the length, detail, bizarreness of the Deep One, and sexualized violence of the encounters undoubtedly hit the right notes for some readers to become sexually excited, even as others register only disgust. To look deeper into the issue, we must consider not just the depiction of the act, but the purpose that the rape serves in Moore’s narrative, and the larger context in which the rape occurs. Both matters tie more or less directly into H. P. Lovecraft’s own use of rape in his fiction.
Given his lack of bedroom scenes (which would likely run afoul of the censors of his day), it is no surprise that Lovecraft says almost nothing of rape in his stories. However, even given its scarcity in the Lovecraft Mythos, rape carries with it a special kind of horror, as in this literary universe a woman can not only be sexually assaulted by alien entities, but bear the hybrid offspring from of a Mythos entity—a situation which crops up at least twice. In “The Curse of Yig,” Audrey Davis kills a nest of four snakes and is forced to bear four snake-human hybrids in return. The second case is a few lines in “The Horror at Red Hook,” where four women who were being held prisoner—and with ill-born children—are discovered after the police raid. In both cases, the act of rape (it is not much of a stretch to assume rape in either case) occurs off the page, and in both cases the results of that forced sexual activity are hybrid children. A more ambiguous case is the conception of the Whateley twins by Lavinia Whateley and Yog-Sothoth; there is simply not enough information provided in the story to clarify if it was a case of cosmic rape or consent; though Lavinia’s willing participation in other rites may be an indication against rape.
Women in Lovecraft’s fiction are never suggested to have been raped except when the act results in a child as in Arthur Machen’s “Novel of the Black Seal” (and, with regard to Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” its literary forebear Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan.”) With so few instances it is difficult to generalize, but it is possible that Lovecraft only chose to include the suggestion of rape in a story when a hybrid child is desired, as no form of consent would make sense within the framework of the story. Other Mythos entities, such as the Deep Ones in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” do not appear to commit rape—they desire willing human partners—although Lovecraft’s notes for the story suggest he may have been willing to hint at rape earlier on, as he remarked that when the Deep Ones invaded Innsmouth: “many women commit suicide or vanish.” (Lovecraft 249)
In the context of the Lovecraft Mythos, then, Moore’s use of rape in Neonomicon is both a logical outgrowth of Lovecraft and Machen’s basic fictional principles, but also true to his own goals for the story, i.e. it is necessary for Brears to become pregnant with Cthulhu for the arc of the story, and in the context of the story a consensual mating with the Deep One would be difficult to reconcile with the events and Brears’ personality. Likewise, it ties in to Moore’s desired approach to Lovecraft’s material:
This is a horror of the physical with Lovecraft – so I wanted to put that stuff back in. And also, where Lovecraft being sexually squeamish, would only talk of ‘certain nameless rituals.’ Or he’d use some euphemism: ‘blasphemous rites.’ It was pretty obvious, given that a lot of his stories detailed the inhuman offspring of these ‘blasphemous rituals’ that sex was probably involved somewhere along the line. But that never used to feature in Lovecraft’s stories, except as a kind of suggested undercurrent. (“Alan Moore: Unearthed and Uncut”)
If Lovecraft’s approach to rape is one half of the context, then Moore’s own approach to rape is the other—and Alan Moore has a history of using or depicting rape and sexual violence in his stories.
Notable instances include the rape of Silk Spectre in Watchmen, Abby in Swamp Thing, and Kid Miracleman in Miracleman; sexual violence against women is one of the key themes of several of Moore’s works, particularly From Hell (focusing on the Jack the Ripper murders of prostitutes) and Lost Girls. The appearance of rape in Moore’s comics also has to be balanced against the period he was writing in. As with pulp fiction in Lovecraft’s day, comics in the United States have been subject to censorship and restriction based on content; from 1954 to 2011, this was largely achieved by the Comics Code Authority, which largely kept sex, homosexuality, drug use, graphic violence, and elements of supernatural horror out mainstream American comics (although they flourished in rebellious underground comix and to a certain degree adult comics). Alan Moore’s breakthrough came in the early 1980s:
Well, quite obviously, the safest and most comfortable option would have been to go along with a censorious status quo and simply not refer to sexual matters, even obliquely. Indeed, as I remember, this is exactly the option that most of my contemporaries in the field back then tended to make their default position, since they were understandably reluctant to displease their editors and thus to jeopardise their chances of future employment. It seemed to me, however, that if comics could not address adult matters – by which I meant a great deal more than simply sexual issues – then they could never progress to become a serious and accepted artistic medium, and would never amount to anything much more than a nostalgic hobby for ageing teenagers. To my mind, the only mind I had direct access to, it seemed that such a potentially astonishing medium deserved more than this. Along with political and social issues, I elected to make sexual issues a part of my work. […] So perhaps it is the next decision that I made wherein I am at fault: my thinking was that sexual violence, including rape and domestic abuse, should also feature in my work where necessary or appropriate to a given narrative, the alternative being to imply that these things did not exist, or weren’t happening.
(“Last Alan Moore Interview”)
Moore goes on to claim:
[R]ape did not exist in the comic books of that period, save for the occasional permissible off-panel rape, such as when a tavern dancing girl might be pushed back into the hay by a muscular barbarian, her lips saying no but her eyes saying yes. Other than this, no overt sexuality of any kind existed in the mainstream comic books of that era, with the last of the underground comix having bitten the dust during the previous decade. (“Last Alan Moore Interview”)
This claim is essentially accurate (cf. Horn 57-64), though astute comic fans might quibble with possible exceptions like the early independent mainstream comics anthology Star*Reach (1974-1979). The question then becomes, to the degree that Moore has addressed sexual issues in his work, has he made a special focus on rape, or approached the subject in an exploitative manner which would undercut any high-minded ideals that he might espouse?
A full accounting of all sexual instances versus all instances of sexualized violence in Moore’s corpus is beyond the scope of this essay (and, given some of the complexities of the storylines involved, a bit complicated), but focusing on Moore’s Lovecraftian works we find:
- The Courtyard is effectively asexual; while violent, the violence is not sexualized in any way.
- Zaman’s Hill is effectively asexual; despite one image of a nude, chained woman, there is no indication of sexual violence.
- Recognition depicts one consensual act (Winfield Scott Lovecraft and a prostitute), and what appears to be a rape (Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft and a demon).
- Neonomicon depicts multiple rapes against Agent Brears, with one sexual act which Brears consented to under duress (masturbating the Deep One); the cultists participate in consensual sex acts as well during their orgy.
- In the relevant sections of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman series, sex and the Cthulhu Mythos is seldom mentioned, with no direct depiction of acts either consensual or nonconsensual.
Taking just Moore’s Lovecraftian works into account, then, there is little sexual action in most of the stories, violent or not, consensual or not, but Neonomicon tips the scales with its heavy depiction of sexual violence, without any of the more positive examples of sex such as in, say, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier or Lost Girls.
Yet if Moore has depicted rape in several of his works, it is never without purpose or consequence; whether readers are titillated or disgusted, thrilled or profaned or both, the incidents always tie in to the greater narrative of the story, and always is sympathetic to the victim. As Zoë Brigley Thompson puts it: “[…] though his writing about sex and brutality can verge upon the exploitative, he sometimes reveals an unexpected sympathy with dominated women.” (Comer & Sommers 76) and as Annalisa di Liddo adds in greater detail:
The series [Neonomicon] can prove a truly disturbing read, but nothing is shown for its own sake, or for the sake of mere provocation. As regards the extend of the rape scene, it complies with the above-mentioned determination to challenge common patterns of representation, and by prolonging the reader’s exposure to the horrific details of the story, a critique of his/her own voyeurism is also elicited. (Comer & Sommers 203)
For Neonomicon, the rape of Merrill Brears thus occurs in accord both with the Lovecraftian narrative (cosmic miscegenation) and Alan Moore’s stated approach to that narrative. The rape is depicted as horrific because rape is horrific, and the unflinching gaze of Moore and Burrows does not pan off the action, as Lovecraft did, specifically to show the kind of horrors that Lovecraft could only suggest. The rape is effectively necessary in the context of the story, and it is perhaps more appropriate that Moore and Burrows avoided any effort to mollify the horror of the act, which would only have had the effect of glossing over Brears’ ordeal and downplaying the visceral nature of the narrative. The rape is a sequence designed to upset people, and it accomplishes its mission well. In this regard, Brears’ rape in Neonomicon is not mere exploitation. Good and compelling writing need not be pleasant to read, and if Moore and Burrows dwelt on the subject for longer than is comfortable, that appears to be by design to make the readers uncomfortable, not to provide fodder for cheap thrills.
A final line of inquiry must deal with Merrill Brears herself, in her characterization and reaction to the events of the story. Casting Brears as a recovering sex addict is provocative to the readers; society as a whole does not quite grasp the issues at hand with sex addiction, as Brears’ partner Lampner attempts to downplay and dismiss her psychological problems in issue one. The fact of Brears’ sexual experience and her struggles with sex addiction lends psychological vulnerability to the character that exacerbates the physical and mental trauma of the sexual assaults she undergoes—and that she still deals with those issues despite her outward demeanor of confidence and competence is apparent in her dream-state conversation with Johnny Carcosa in issue 3. The crux of the issue is probably Brears’ reaction to the Deep One, after the initial trauma has worn off, and later when she has escaped from the orgone chamber. On the surface, this acceptance could be read as Brears accepting the rape as something she deserved, or that the handjob she gives to the Deep One is evidence that she secretly desired what happened to her. Certainly, she did assume the weeping victim pose that might be expected for her; the confidence and calm that she espouses in issue 4 would then seem, at least on the surface, to undercut the trauma she had just endured. Di Liddo notes:
As for Brears’ self-esteem, her “feeling good” does not seem caused by the conviction of her past sexual addiction. Rather, she thinks that the whole human species — including herself — has justly earned the frightful coming of Cthulhu[.] Declined in the horror genre, carnality ushers forth an appalling conclusion, where Brears is so alienated that the idea of the impending destruction of the world makes her feel “good.” (Comer & Sommers 203-204)
The effect of the rape on Brears with regard to her sex addiction is somewhat subjective; whether it released her from her negative self-image by figuring her as the Madonna of Cthulhu, filled with terrible purpose, or whether she came to accept who she was and thus no longer felt the need to be denigrate herself through sex is a matter of opinion. In either event, however, Brears has been transfigured and illuminated by the experience—quite typical of Lovecraftian protagonists, and echoing in some respects the perspective of the nameless narrator in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” who accepted that which he once fought against. So again, Moore has not ignored or downplayed the effect of the rape; he has perhaps undercut expectations that some readers might have on how a victim should act, but in doing so has turned the Brears’ narrative to the fulfillment of the Lovecraft prerogative.
- “Alan Moore: Unearthed and Uncut” (2010). By Bram E. Gieben. Weaponizer. Retrieved from: http://www.weaponizer.co.uk/onearticle.php?category=nonfic&articleid=181
- Comer, Todd A. & Sommers, Joseph Michael. (Eds.) (2012) Sexual Ideology in the Works of Alan Moore. MacFarland: Jefferson, NC.
- Horn, Maurice. (1985). Sex in the Comics. Chelsea House: New York, NY.
- “Last Alan Moore Interview” (2014). By Pádraig Ó Méalóid. Slovobooks. Retrieved from:
- Lovecraft, H. P. (2006). Collected Essays Volume 5: Philosophy, Autobiography, & Miscellany. S. T. Joshi, Ed. Hippocampus Press: New York, NY.