by Lynzee Loveridge,

At The Mountains Of Madness

At The Mountains Of Madness
Geologist William Dyer of Arkham's Miskatonic University sets sail towards the vast expanse of Antarctica with graduate student Danforth, biology professor Lake, engineer Pabodie, and a large crew ready to discover the secrets in the frigid depths of the Earth. The expedition quickly becomes more than collecting geological samples as Lake finds markings in prehistoric rock that suggest the existence of a complex lifeform. The men struggle for control over the expeditions resources as a determined Lake sets out into the frozen wilderness. What he'll uncover will shake the men's understandings of life's origins on Earth.

When H.P. Lovecraft published his novella At The Mountains Of Madness in Astounding Stories in 1936, there were few places as unknowable as Antarctica. The barren desert at Earth's southern pole conjured images of hostility; both to life as a whole and to man's hunger for knowledge. Its climate and conditions had conquered many explorers and it held its secrets close; we only discovered the existence of its subterranean volcanoes within the last 10 years. The desolate isolation of the polar regions would garner them a starring role in horror both classic and contemporary. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein sees the titular doctor face his creation against the backdrop of the North Pole. John Carpenter's The Thing, based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There?, also finds various academic types faced with cosmic horrors in Antarctic wastelands.

So too does the ill-fated expedition of H.P. Lovecraft's fictional Miskatonic University. Led by geologist William Dyer and biology professor Lake, the crew of thirty-some-odd men, a handful of small aircraft, and sled dogs take on desolate landscape in search of rock samples to shed further light on Earth's timeline. The group plans to dig, drill, and in some cases rip open the untouched lands in search of answers, but like many parables about man's relentless quest for knowledge, their egos will ultimately become their undoing. The crew quickly splits into two groups as Lake insists they divert from the planned course to pursue evidence of a complex, intelligent creature whose movements have left striations in the rock. Dyer is insistent that they stay the course and use their resources accordingly.

Undeterred, Lake sets on a trail of prehistoric life. The remaining crew stay behind at the base to await his radio calls. It is immediately evident that Lake, who artist Gou Tanabe renders as Benedict Cumberbatch-adjacent in appearance, has become crazed upon his discovery of possible life. He quickly becomes convinced of his own theory and takes on riskier and riskier methods in his pursuit of the creatures he believes to exist somewhere on the continent. He is, of course, correct in his estimations but there's an all encompassing sense of dread, not in what he might discover, but in who he might sacrifice to satisfy his own curiosity.

Lake's team flies deep into a previously unseen mountain range of ancient rock. The looming black crests are in stark contrast to the ice-covered terrain and resemble something akin to both glassy obsidian and calcified biological material. Tanabe is an expert in rendering highly detailed landscapes that translate to a palpable sense of foreboding. The scenes in the mountain ranges feel isolating, alive, uninhabitable, and impossible to fully understand. The layouts become a series of fractal pentagrams, giving the structures a sense of purpose, but are still too fractured to assign a method. Visually, I can think of no better way to interpret what must have been an earth-shattering discovery for the characters as they come upon the grounds of a civilization that upends their very idea of human history.

There is more to the horror of At The Mountains Of Madness than the feeling of discomfort that encroaches in the face of their own insignificance. Lake's hubris when he comes upon the corpses of the mountain's ancient inhabitants brings a quick end to his crew. It is then up to Dyer to go recover the lost biologist and his team, but he and Danforth quickly fall into the same pattern. Probing deeper, they discover murals retelling of three cosmic civilizations that all inhabited Earth millenia ago. The second volume goes into great detail, about three full chapters, discussing the rise and fall of the star-headed Elder Things and their interactions with the Spawn of Cthulhu, Mi-go, and the Shoggoths. This was possibly the weakest part of the book and the story overall. It felt incredibly indulgent, likely on Lovecraft's part, as a way to dump his particular cosmic lore on the readers all at once. Previously the environment and scientific evidence gave plenty to answer the biggest questions and left enough unknowable dread to seep over the reader. It is the point where the reader can no longer ignore that this is an H.P. Lovecraft story and with that must come references to Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, and Proper Nouns that are only explained if you've read the additional side-story material. You certainly won't be lost if you don't remember details of The Call of Cthulhu, but the narrative is written as though it expects you to have read it. Now, Tanabe has adapted Cthulhu into a manga format but it wasn't until after this manga's publication and I can't help but wonder why the adaptation didn't adjust for such references.

Universe-building aside, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the Shoggoth in the room. As Dyer and Danforth continue searching the architectural remains of the the Elder Ones and learn of their society, they discover that the advanced, psychic inhabitants built their vast civilizations through the use of slavery. The Shoggoths were a viscous, suggestible mass that neither thought for themselves nor acted on their own accord. Eventually, though, they revolted. They laid waste to the Elder Ones, their creations, and their society. The advanced civilization crumbles during the slave uprising. Dyer laments the loss, comparing the Elder Ones to mankind for their similarities in excess comforts: the aliens raised and ate flesh despite having no actual need to consume it. They created art. And they built luxuries on the backs of slave labor.

The issue of slavery in At The Mountains Of Madness can't be overlooked for two primary reasons. The connection between man and alien race is one deliberately made in the text. Dyer goes over in vast detail the rise and fall of the Elder Ones and their use of slavery is stated as a matter-of-fact with no criticism whatsoever before directly comparing the enslaving race to mankind. Attempting to brush this off as an oversight is pointless because I'm sure everyone who has read this far knows that H.P. Lovecraft was an out-and-out racist. He wasn't an insidious, underhanded kind of racist. He was a loud racist. He wrote and published racist poems, expected non-Whites to assimilate to what he considered "high culture". The "lower class" overthrowing the "civilized, higher" class is a common theme in his work, and as At The Mountains Of Madness shows, is present in this work as well.

The extended lore of H.P. Lovecraft and the foundations he laid for cosmic horror continue to thrive after his death without direct allusions to the man he was: a bigot. The stories have taken a life of their own, continuing to raise the hairs on the back of readers' necks without asking them to continue to live in the mind of a racist from Providence, Rhode Island. I would have liked to see Tanabe's version eschew the same hateful indulgences that shadow Lovecraft's work. The master was hardly infallible and adaptations could do one better by leaving his vile sentiments buried.

Overall : B
Story : C
Art : A

+ Establishes a deeply unsettling sense of dread, art expertly enhances the space between familiar and madness
Reaffirms the worst biases of HP Lovecraft: racism, slavery, and classism

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Story & Art: Gou Tanabe

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