Off The Shelf: At The Mountains of Madness
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. – H.P. Lovecraft
That quote was one of two reasons I became addicted to H.P. Lovecraft stories (the other being a good friend of mine who worshipped him). Lovecraft’s stories were twisted tales not just of monsters, but also vague ideas of multiple characters all cobbled together and speaking of the world’s end. Nothing was straightforward with Lovecraft, he wrote from an angle of intelligence that no writer has even touched, especially in the world of horror. Some find Lovecraft confusing, and I understand that. What he writes about is implied horror. Stories people tell, recollections of horrible scenarios, dream states that bring about visions of the end. You get glimpses and whispers of the horror, not giant monsters crushing cities.
When you’re dealing with an idea-rich universe told specifically through the imagination of the writer, it’s hard to translate it. Film, TV and other mediums have latched onto the mythos of Lovecraft’s head monster Cthulhu in order to exploit it for common horror themes, which has yet to work. It becomes more like showing somebody a picture of a story in a language they can’t understand and then expecting them to love it. With all of that swirling around in my brain, I was more than a little apprehensive about the translation of Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness into a graphic novel.
Published in 2010, this adaptation was brought to us by writer/artist I.N.J. Culbard. (The New Deadwardians, The Valley Of Fear). To his credit, the graphic novel is a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s work in both style and prose. Taking place in the 1930s, At The Mountains Of Madness tells the story of a scientific expedition to the Arctic where two men stumble upon and ancient city that has stood almost as long as the earth itself. Within the city, they find gigantic, blind penguins as well as creatures that, if discovered, could bring about the end of everything we hold dear. The two men vow to keep their discovery a secret but, in the end, this benevolent power and the idiocy of mankind unite to unleash it.
Bringing visual life to words, especially words as ambiguous and yet focused as H.P. Lovecraft, can be a herculean task. Culbard plays it smart with At The Mountains Of Madness. With the more poetic style, he uses quotes from Lovecraft and then connects the dots with dialog. Culbard allows us to feel the uneasy tension that Lovecraft’s writing brings but also gives us enough plot development and interaction to care about the characters. In the last pages you feel bad for the one scientist who is still troubled over the journey. It isn’t easy to blend Lovecraft with modern comic storytelling, but Culbard does a great job.
The art in At The Mountains Of Madness is very "take it or leave it." If you enjoy Culbard pencils, then you’ll love this, if not, then you’ll be left a little cold. Culbard doesn’t modify his art to fit the story. The work is still bold lines and minimal backgrounds. Culbard isn’t much for detail, but his work has such weight to it that he fills the page enough with his basic figures and faces.
One splash page of the small plane flying towards a huge arctic mountain is an outstanding look at how Culbard works. The plane is a small black outline pressed against a monolithic mountain presence. There are wind lines but little else and it communicates so many things. The danger these men are in, nature vs. man, the tiny truth of science in the thralls of reality. Imagine a one page version of the Hamlet quote “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.
For those who enjoy Lovecraft and those who have never really read his work, At The Mountains Of Madness is a graphic novel everybody can get into.
(5 story, 4 art)