A few weeks back I blogged on the HPLHS version of Call of Cthulhu. It was sweet, in the way that only the insanely-tainted wine of dead aeons can be; but I neglected to mention that when I ordered CofC on DVD, I also ordered the HPLHS rendering, on CD and done as a radio drama, of At the Mountains of Madness, which is my personal favorite HPL story of all time.
HPL wrote it as an homage to Poe; it was meant, in some ways, to be a sequel to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Well, HPL couldn’t make it short; in fact, it turned out to be the longest thing he ever wrote. It’s longer than some pages of the reduced IRS tax code, yet shorter, less insane and much more readable than anything ever done by Jane Austen.
You’d have to be mad to convert it to any kind of performance drama.
Enter, again, the HPLHS.
Unlike CofC, they chose to render this title not as a period-piece silent movie; they decided instead to do it as a 30s-era radio play. Immediate comparisons to Welles’s War of the Worlds might crop up; but they’d be way, way off the mark. For one thing, the WoftheW broadcast was about 40 minutes in duration; for another, in Welles’s tale (as with Wells’s) the Good Guys — humans — win.
The HPLHS version runs long, at 71 minutes; but that isn’t meant to be a complaint. Though I believe I could have done without about half of the first fifteen minutes or so — the announcer’s regular nasal reminders we were listening to the Worldwide Wireless News got to be annoying, and the heavy bed of introduced static made some key points of dialogue nearly unintelligible, not to the advantage of the story — overall I believe their rendering of At the Mountains of Madness is genuine to its intent, and it is pretty damned good, too.
ATMoM is, briefly, a tale of an Antarctic expedition which discovers something ghastly and hideous. HPL wrote it back when missions to Antarctica were still fairly new; and in the story his explorers find themselves plumbing bizarre, ancient and Cyclopean architecture. The constructs, we are told, are 35 to 50 million years old.
This is a simply stunning gulf of time by almost any standard, far outside what is considered in most SF or horror fiction; hell, even most religious works don’t go back that far. Our own species is perhaps 160,000 years deep; yet HPL was writing blithely of times when our ancestors were little more than marmots and Terror Birds roamed the Americas.
Muhuminawah. And you can quote me on that, because when I say it, I mean it.
Aha, but here’s the big nail. What HPL meant to write, in our corrected scale now of geological time, was that the buildings were about four billion years old.
I’ll tell you how I know that in a minute.
The narrative takes us to the unplumbed depths of Antarctica, vast frozen wastes which are pierced by jagged-toothed mountains so high the explorers’ planes can barely surmount them … and in some places, they see evidence of regular stone outcrops, geometric deliberation — however architecturally insane — that show life and civilization was once present there.
One early probative group finds “fossils” which seem too well-preserved to be worthy of the epithet; they are still leathery of skin, barrel-shaped, with tentacles on the narrower ends, multiplane wings, and starfish-shaped heads. The expedition’s huskies are barking madly at the discoveries, they begin to dissect one … and then all contact is lost.
A rescue mission comes too late; the camp is a bloody mess, torn in disarray, the food stores ravaged in a lunatic, insensate fashion, dogs’ carcasses strewn haphazardly across the snow — and in the last of the tents, the medical/scientific one, they find something ghastly: A man, apparently deliberately dissected, but by someone either mad, or totally unaware of what human physiology and physiognomy are.
And several of the “fossils” appear to be missing.
A savvy culture of SF and horror knows, now, what this signifies; steeped in Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” — both movie versions named The Thing, and both, like Campbell himself, obviously indebted to this story — we know that our Antarctic explorers have found a damned, benighted starchild race that fell to Earth long before there were humans, and they are probably doomed for their insouciant curiosity.
Intrepid, our heroes probe further and find, behind a particularly-impassable range of peaks that can only be bested by chance and careful flying, a massive, ancient and largely ice-packed ruin of a city. They land there, find a way into its nether depths, and explore.
They discover, among other things, carvings along the walls which seem to show, through time, the development on Earth of a civilization whose members are not even remotely human — and yet who, by fiat of biological engineering, developed a race of ameboid proto-animals dubbed shoggoths.
These shoggoths were the slaves of the master race, the Elder Things — for a while. They could take almost any form, they were large and powerful and graced with rudimentary intelligence, and eventually they rebelled against their masters.
We’ve been trying to figure out for a long time how life came to be on Earth. We have our religious myths; and we have “panspermia”, and we have Brin’s “Uplift” — but before the biology, after the religion, we had Lovecraft, calmly suggesting that life here came into being because it was needed to be a servant to an ancient, incredibly-advanced culture of entities.
That ties back into my earlier comment about how long ago the Elder Things visited Earth, according to HPL. In his day, Earth’s age was gauged at a few tens of millions of years. When he wrote that his race of Elder Things came to Earth and began the entire process of evolution on an otherwise-sterile planet, 50 or 60 million years ago seemed about right.
We now know better, of course. There is simply no way a civilization that existed here at the dawn of our planet’s epoch could have left buildings that would have survived four billion years of time — and yet, and yet; it is a romantic and compelling thing to want to retcon HPL into, say, 65 million years ago, when an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan and extincted the dinosaurs.
Or did it? What if that was simply how it appeared? What if the Elder Things saw promise here and there, but decided the dominant life was too dangerous — and used mass drivers to sterilize Earth, for all intents and purposes, so they could descend and use it as they saw fit?
But with the improbability of this shoved aside, again we’re left with something new, something that had not existed in either SF or horror literature before HPL suggested it: That our world was not created by divine fiat, that life here occupies no special place in the universe, that we may exist simply as a kind of cosmic accident — or a sort of macabre cosmic joke. The equivalent of a spilled test tube, improperly cleaned up.
This is not a story that lends itself well to the screen, though tragedies such as Alien Vs. Predator have tried. It’s something to be relished, with logs crackling in the fireplace or kerosene lamps casting an uneven, sputtery glow, as words on the printed page — or, quite possibly, as a radio dramatization.
HPLHS did a respectful, honest job in reworking At The Mountains of Madness, and I can recommend it to any HPL fan.
Oh — the CD jacket included some very nice little extras, not the least of which were some carefully– and lovingly-crafted replicas of “newspaper clippings” appropriate to the period for the story. As with their Call of Cthulhu, the HPLHS reverence to time, place and setting were simply delightful in helping set the tone for my appreciation of their work. I am by title and preference a graphic artist, and I have to say that these touches were really beautifully done: Very convincing, very authentic. The Fleurs-De-Lys cigarette ad was especially amusing in context; and it caused me almost physical pain to part the “Miskatonic University Arctic Expedition” seal in order to open the jewel case.
A well-crafted, not-overwrought homage to 1930s radio drama that is meticulously true to its source, At the Mountains of Madness is a CD I will continue to listen to, Worldwide Wireless News and all, for years. I’m very glad I discovered it in the eldritch complexities of the internet, and I believe Lovecraft would have approved.
Turn off the TV. Silence the phones. Sleep the computers. Douse the lights. And listen, and feel the call of darkness all around you for an hour or so. Welcome the madness.
And if Something rattles at your front door, Something that slithers with tentacular horror, that seems to cackle with insane glee words you almost hear, almost understand, almost remember from your worst nightmares … don’t open it.
UPDATE: In fairness, this idea of ancient cultures we cannot imagine, but which have left relics — still potent, to be discovered and bearing deep implications — is something I’ve used myself in my story The Seven-Year Mirror, though my revealed chapters in that narrative don’t show it yet.
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