Moloch, Mo' Problems
All Hellboy/Mignolaverse art in this article is
Words and Art: Mike Mignola, Color: Dave Stewart, Letters: Clem Robbins
“Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches' Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing scare or ring true” - 'Pickman's Model' HP Lovecraft 1926
The uncanny valley is a term which has become increasingly commonplace in recent years, usually in reference to robotics or computer generated animation. It describes the fuzzy border between an abstract and a realistic portrayal of a human being. There is a point where the abstract representation becomes almost real, but the off-ness triggers our sense of unease or revulsion. While this term was coined in the 1970s, the fascination with the nearly-human, has existed for millennia, a trope which remains deeply fundamental for story telling as we understand it today.
We see it in the old Jewish stories of the Golem, inanimate clay given life. Also in the tale of Pinocchio, the wooden boy considering what it means to be real. More recently in the BBC series 'Doctor Who', the monstrous Weeping Angels, immobile while being observed, then lightning fast and malevolent when unseen. It is a theme which recurs frequently throughout 'Hellboy', helped in no small part by Mike Mignola's love of representing statues, sculptures and of course homonculi.
2008's 'In the Chapel of Moloch' draws upon this tradition and stands out as one of the finest examples of Mignola's approach to his craft. In the space of twenty three pages, He gives us a microcosm of what makes a great 'Hellboy' story; deftly tying together such disparate strands as a pre-Christian deity, the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Francisco de Goya and Ovid, mythology and history both existing and invented, all presented in the form of a Raymond Chandler-esque roman noir.
Here is a story which revels in the uncanny. Narratively it mirrors two existing stories which concern the blurring of what is real and what is the creation of the artist, specifically the H.P. Lovecraft short story 'Pickman's Model' and the classical poem 'Pygmalian' by Ovid.
'Moloch' reads as a close parallel to 'Pickman's Model'. Lovecraft places us in a decrepit Boston slum, though his description of the city feels similar to the jumble of winding Portuguese streets in which Hellboy finds himself:
“...crumbling looking gables, broken small-paned windows, and archaic chimneys that stood out half disintegrated” - H.P. Lovecraft
Both stories feature an artist being visited by subterranean creatures, driving them to create works beyond the normal understanding of humanity. Jerry, the unfortunate artist from 'In the Chapel of Moloch' is guided to sculpt an idol of the titular, Canaanite god, he does so in an in-between state of consciousness, unaware of his creation. In Lovecraft's tale, Pickman is far more aware of his actions, delighting in reproducing the scenes he has witnessed, played out by the ghouls beneath the city.
“The madness and monstrosity lay in the figures in the foreground – for Pickman's morbid art was pre-eminently one of daemonic portraiture”
In both stories we see a fleeting, but significant glance at the mouth of the tunnels through which these creatures pass. We are not given a concrete sense of what is to be found inside but instead given hints of the chthonic world that exists so close to our own. Again we see the blurring of borders, the above ground world that we can process and understand, blending with a mysterious and terrible world below.
“'The deuce knows what they eat Thurber,' he grinned 'for those archaic tunnels touched graveyard and witch-den and sea-coast'” - HP Lovecraft
The uncanny reveal in the two stories are based upon the works of these artists, Thurber, the narrator in 'Pickman's Model' discovers that the awful, abhorrent subjects of Pickman's paintings are not figments of the artist's imagination but are being drawn from figures captured in photographs. For Hellboy, the reveal comes in a delightfully macabre moment as he takes a spatula to the clay idol, revealing a trickle of blood.
This notion, that within the uncanny shell of the inanimate statue lies flesh and blood, seems to stretch back as far as stories themselves. We see echoes of it in modern day tales of zombies, in Mary Shelley's sublime 'Frankenstein', all the way back to the Old Testament:
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” - Genesis 2:7
One of the earliest and most influential interpretations of this trope is the aforementioned 'Pygmalian' a poem that appears in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' from around 8 CE, and which feels like an inversion of what we find in 'Moloch'. In place of the creatures of darkness emerging to influence the artist, we instead have Pygmalian, a sculptor who devotes his time to sculpting his perfect woman and falls in love with his creation. It is a prayer to the goddess Aphrodite that breathes life into the statue, rather than the dark and bloody sacrifices that give strength to Moloch, but the moment of uncanny revelation is still present.
“Hard as it was, beginning to relent,
It seem'd, the breast beneath his fingers bent;
He felt again, his fingers made a print;
'Twas flesh, but flesh so firm, it rose against the dint:” - Ovid
It would be near impossible to list the volume of work inspired by 'Pygmalian', but one notable example is Edgar Alan Poe's story of obsession and resurrection 'Ligeia'. The poem 'The Conqueror Worm' appears in this short story and would later be prominently quoted in both 'Hellboy' and 'Baltimore'. This ability to reference existing material, seamlessly infusing it with original creations is one of Mignola's defining traits. “Using the old to define the modern” as the unnamed friend in 'In the Chapel of Moloch' states.
Indeed this is possibly one of the most quietly self-referential stories in the 'Hellboy' run, Mignola openly hangs a lantern on the comparisons that his art draws to Goya, even going so far as to add a little “after Goya” to the signature on the issue's cover. Simultaneously self deprecating and drawing another link with 'Pickman's Model' where the central artist is also compared with Goya.
“I don't believe anybody since Goya could put so much of sheer hell into a set of features or twist of expression” - HP Lovecraft
Mignola's writing sits in another grey area, between the classic supernatural horror of Poe or Stoker and the more modern cosmic horror of Lovecraft or Ligotti. Equal time is given to scheming, aristocratic vampires as it is to be-tentacled nightmares. But it is not the case that Mignola takes or plagiarizes these ideas, he's not simply 'ripping off Goya' but he subverts our expectations, he blends our familiarity with these established ideas and then subverts them to create something which is truly his own.
The classic Lovecraftian story arc tends to be the academic or artist descending into madness after acquiring arcane knowledge. Instead Mignola drops in Hellboy and gives us the 'What If?' scenario of a near indestructible, demonic Philip Marlowe turning up and punching that arcane knowledge until it stops moving. We see the strangeness of the bombastic and horrific, blurring with the deadpan reality of the procedural detective.
Alongside these manipulations of horror fiction tropes we have the bending of history itself. Enough factual basis is given to offer a sense of verisimilitude, Moloch really was worshiped as a deity and according to the bible child sacrifices seemed to be involved:
“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech” - Leviticus 18:21
These historical details are then muddied with the fictional accounts of the “Knights of St. Hagan” and the inexplicable “Carpathian Goat”.
Again we see that grey area of uncanniness, this is where a great deal of good horror writing sits. Between the boundaries of life and death, the awake and the dreaming, sanity and madness even truth and fiction, this is where an author or artist can push at our suspension of disbelief. Mignola is constantly bringing us into these liminal spaces, his heavy shadows and minimal dialogue allowing for our own interpretations of what he presents.
'In the Chapel of Moloch' feels incredibly complete in this respect, Mignola's art has matured so much by this point and his pacing has never been better. To again draw that HP Lovecraft comparison, Mignola knows how much space to give a story. In the Lovecraft mythos there are days when you have to stand atop a mountain screaming unspeakable spells at an unknowable evil; there are days when you have to smash a yacht into a star-spawned god's tentacled head, but there are also days when your upstairs neighbour is playing mysterious, unplaceable music at all hours or running their air conditioning suspiciously cold. In the same way Mignola knows when to give us an omnibus spanning saga and how to condense all of that knowledge and experience into a clean, dense two pager.
On being asked to choose my favourite Hellboy run, I'd probably answer “Whichever one I'm reading”, and in terms of emotional impact there are other stories that pack more of a gut punch than this. But 'In the Chapel of Moloch' encapsulates everything that fascinates me about Hellboy in such an effective and concise way. Couple that with Dave Stewart's magnificently otherworldly colours and perhaps Mignola's most accomplished artwork outside of 'Hellboy in Hell'.
And that's... no...bull…