Sunday, December 22, 2013

At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft

Cover of the Astounding Stories science fiction magazine where the novella was first published It is difficult for me to not admire Lovecraft and at the same time just as difficult to fully enjoy his stories. He was admirable because he was a true horror writer, haunted by his dark visions so completely that a lot of his stories are set in the same world, undoubtedly filling his mind at all times. And it is difficult to enjoy his stories because the horror feeling in his books comes from a very subjective and I dare say outdated place in the human mind. Most of his characters attribute adjectives like "abhorrent" or "grotesque" to mere shapes or smells and they actively attempt to filter out anything that might challenge their peace of mind and established world order. That's a silly and disgusting thing to do, I think, and perhaps this is what repels me most from writings of "the master".

But let me tell you of At the Mountains of Madness. The first thing that came into mind when I started reading it was "The Thing". It is placed in Antarctica where an expedition finds some frozen aliens who then defrost. There is even mention of shapeless things that can assume any form or function. Of course, this is as much as the similarities go. First and foremost the story is told by a scientist, in the pompous and highly descriptive manner in which most Lovecraftian work is written. This geologist, one of the few survivors, decides to write a more detailed account of what happened in view of a new expedition organized to go in the same region. His motive, and here is where I scoff the most, is to dissuade people to ever go there again, as some things are too horrible and evil to be explored by man. Say what? How is that guy a scientist? Anyway, he writes this as to fill in the gaps that he consciously and deliberately left out when he returned from the expedition, all of its members sworn to secrecy on some aspects of the trip. He sounds more like the leader of a cult than a member of a scientific group, doesn't he?

The end is more satisfying, though, where even Lovecraft's roundabout and subjective exposition has to give when describing the things they actually discover, explore then run away from. Even if I cannot abide the motivations of his characters or enjoy the way things are made more or less horrible or grotesque by their close minded whims, I have to declare some affection to the universe Lovecraft describes and perhaps some lingering interest on what one could make of it.

And indeed, people have been trying to resurrect Lovecraft's work in various ways: board games, graphic novels, sequels and prequels, movies. I seem to remember a 2005 movie that I liked, made after The Call of Cthulhu, but even that was made as a silent black and white film using the exact text from the story. And even if it achieved its goals of bringing Lovecraft's work to the screen, it did nothing to make it less dated or more accessible to a modern audience. Guillermo del Toro wanted to make a movie after At the Mountains of Madness, but he was deflected by film studios and his other work, mainly Prometheus. Del Toro even said that he would not make the ATMOM adaptation because it would have the same premise and twist as Prometheus. I am not so sure they should have been similar, but hey, that's how he saw it. What I am trying to say here is that modernizing Lovecraft for the present audience takes most of the love out of the craft :) Even this novella, which was a little bit longer than a short story, had so much roundabout storytelling and filler descriptions that if you took them away you would remain with a skeleton idea that could mould over anything.

So, my conclusion is that At the Mountains of Madness is one of the most accessible Lovecraft writings. It seems less dated than others and actually brings some clear descriptions of what is going on, not just randomly used adjectives testifying to the bizarre mental state of the characters. I can see no way to modernize or take the story and bring it to a modern audience without breaking the plot and turning it into something else, so if you want to experience it, you need to read the novella. It's relatively short so it shouldn't take much, unless you find it hard to go past the most descriptive parts without falling asleep, as I have.