At length we observed a total change in their demeanour. From absolute stupor they appeared to be, all at once, aroused to the highest pitch of excitement, and rushed wildly about, going to and from a certain point on the beach, with the strangest expressions of mingled horror, rage, and intense curiosity depicted on their countenances, and shouting, at the top of their voices, Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)
Of course common reading is what prepared us both to make the interpretation, though Danforth has hinted at queer notions about unsuspected and forbidden sources to which Poe may have had access when writing his Arthur Gordon Pym a century ago. It will be remembered that in that fantastic tale there is a word of unknown but terrible and prodigious significance connected with the antarctic and screamed eternally by the gigantic, spectrally snowy birds of that malign region’s core. “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” That, I may admit, is exactly what we thought we heard conveyed by that sudden sound behind the advancing white mist—that insidious musical piping over a singularly wide range.
—H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness (1936)
Black Stars Above was published as a five-issue series from Vault Comics in 2019-2020, and collected in a trade paperback in 2020. The creative team was Lonnie Nadler (writer), Jenna Cha (artist), Brad Simpson (colorist), and Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou (letterer).
They tread rare territory.
Canada, 1887. Eulalie Dubois, a young Métis woman living on the edge of things with her family, trading moccasins and skinning muskrats. Yet at night she reads The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and hopes one day to escape this life. There’s fascinating intersectionality there—youth and gender and race, all mixed up and coming together. Then it gets weird.
There were Canadian pulp magazines. Not just the Canadian edition of Weird Tales, but home-grown pulps by Canadian artists, writers, and publishers, set in Canada. Where the United States had Westerns, there was also a market for Northerns, pulp stories and novels set in Canada’s Northwest Territories, often investigated by Mounties as in Tales of the North-West Mounted Police (Sep 1933). Like the Westerns, the Northerns were concerned with Canada’s frontier—the extremes of climate and survival that comprised man vs. nature, the stress on human relationships that added frisson to man vs. man, and out at the edge of the known world…sometimes things slip over into man vs. supernature.
There are a few “Weird Westerns” out there. Not so many “Weird Northerns.”
Contrast Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” (1902), which is a straight survival story with shades of psychological horror, and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” (1910), where the extremes of the environment is only the beginning of the horror, the prelude to things. There are stranger things in the Northern woods, and plenty of mundane horrors—Nadler and Cha give us a taste of that in the opening chapter. A grandfather whose leg was cut off by Mounties. A mother discriminated against for being First Nations. A daughter sold into marriage, as long as she passes for white…
One of the key aspects of frontier fiction—Western, Northern, Sword & Planet, etc.—is the primary motivation for going into that frontier. Sometimes it is altruistic: Star Trek went on a mission to explore and investigate, to scribble in the borders of the map. Often, it’s meaner: people want to exploit the resources and indigenous peoples, make their fortune, and get out, as in H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling’s “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939).
Black Stars Above plays with motivations very strongly and with great intent. Not just Eulalie Dubois in her mission, but everyone else in the story has some reason to be there, some hope or need or order that drove them beyond where they should have gone. Which drives them still, far past where they should have turned back. That is part of what makes the story work, above and beyond the weirdness that is very Lovecraftian but which does not make any attempt to tie in explicitly to the Cthulhu Mythos or any other; despite the reference to “black stars” and the obvious influence of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow there’s no other direct connection to the Yellow Mythos as with “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files or “While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder. It borrows the weird cry from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but that is exactly all that it is: the cry of the weird. Out beyond the unknown, signifying something that can’t be deciphered.
There are great and terrible hints, but this is a narrative that does some of its best work by choosing to show rather than tell. Jenna Na’s art works well because when things are real, the panels are sharp and defined, close and intimate; and when she pulls back for the wider shots…when the gutters fade away…the dreamlike quality is stark and beautiful but somehow more epic in perspective.
Brad Simpson’s colors add depth to the artwork. It would have been easy to leave this black-and-white, let the chiaroscuro hit the reader between the eyes, but the colors make the “real” portion of the story seem more real, and the “unreal” portions more strongly bizarre by contrast. There are a lot more shadows of darkness that can be shown with blues and reds than just white and black.
With the handwritten journal pages and Lovecraftian focus, it’s tempting to compare Black Stars Above with Alan Moore and Jacen Burrow’s Providence (2015-2017), and Lonnie Nadler does acknowledge the influence:
And just in terms of trying to do similar things, Alan Moore’s Providence. It’s definitely an influence on Black Stars Above, but I think it does different things, and more powerful things with responding to Lovecraft, in that it’s a direct response to Lovecraft and only to Lovecraft. (Well, I guess Chambers, too). I love that book. It doesn’t get enough credit in Alan Moore’s body of work. He said what he was trying to do was what Watchmen did with superheroes, Providence was trying to do for Lovecraft. And I think he very much accomplished that. And anyone who is a fan of Lovecraft, I think should read it, because it’s, it’s densely intelligent and rich. And I might like it more than Watchmen. And I say this, like, as someone whose favorite comic is Watchmen. I don’t know why, but people didn’t seem to latch on to that one like they do some of his other work. Maybe because Neonomicon was so off-putting to people.
—Robert Secundus, “Lonnie Nadler Part II: On ‘Black Stars Above,’ Margaret Atwood and why trains are weird” (28 Jul 2020)
Black Stars Above does do different things than Providence. For one, Eulalie Dupois does not follow Robert Black in suicide after the final revelations. Both of them faced the choices of simply going with the flow, to continue to exist without making waves. Neither of them could face that. Simply existing on the edge of things is not winning, even if the heart is beating and blood is pumping. Settling for a life of quite desperation on the end of everything, trapped in a life you don’t want…
For so many characters in such narratives, death is the only escape from the frozen hell.