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.

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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.

They shall.

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