Book review: At the Mountains of Madness

I have read some of Lovecraft’s work – ‘The Shunned House’ and ‘The Rats in the Walls’ are examples of stories I liked – but I have overall been less convinced by his alien gods and tentacles. At the Mountains of Madness may therefore not be the best choice for me, but as it is considered a classic, I thought I would give it a go.

Summary: The story is written from the point of view of Dyer, a geologist, retrospectively describing an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in the hopes that it may dissuade another, imminent research endeavour in the same region. The purpose of the Dyer expedition was to bore into ancient strata of rock, but this plan was quickly derailed as the biologist on the team, Lake, discovered odd triangular tracks in the rocks. After setting off on their own to explore these tracks further inland, Lake and his small team radioed the main group to report of the discovery of a massive mountain range and the desiccated bodies of ancient alien beings buried in a vast cave, just as a storm was about to hit. After the storm, there was radio silence. When Dyer and the rest of the group caught up to Lake, they made a series of horrific discoveries…

mountains

First of all, I love the concept, like the premise, and have no problem with the (now) historical setting. The vast landscape, the hostile cold weather and the madness that can spring from being so dwarfed and isolated – it all appeals to me in a story. I had hoped that this would be enough to keep me excited, and was therefore disappointed to discover that I did not like the book. Even with so many set pieces being spot on, I was a bit bored with the entire exercise. It was neither particularly entertaining, nor was it frightening.

After an encouraging, relatively tense, beginning, the story stalls when we get to the meat of the events. At this point, dry descriptions of murals, references aplenty to the Necronomicon and Poe, and long lists of technical details, distract from the events. Given that the tale is written as a personal account from a scientist’s perspective, it is not unexpected that the prose strays somewhat into drier territories. However, while a bit of technical realism goes a long way to induce horror, this felt excessive. As Dyer and Danforth (a graduate student, not particularly well fleshed out as a character) investigate the fate of Lake’s team, the details of their scientific pursuits become repetitive. After the umpteenth lamentation that they ran out of film for their camera, there was very little tension left in the tale. I am happy to accept curiosity in the face of fear, but the attention to technical detail here just made the plot seem a trifle banal.

In spite of this, there were elements that I enjoyed. Lovecraft’s prose, although its merit is often debated, works well within his universe of horror in my opinion. It is as archaic as the monsters that he describes. In this book, I particularly liked his attention to the setting, easily evoking a sense of being dwarfed by the landscape.

“Only the incredible, unhuman massiveness of these vast stone towers and ramparts had saved the frightful things from utter annihilation in the hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of years it had brooded there […]”

For a story set in such a vast expanse, this ability to convey age and size is definitely a strength. However, there are places where the prose falls flat. For example, “indescribably awful” as a description of a creature does not work for me. It comes across as lazy rather than too horrendous for words. The vagueness doesn’t fit with the retrospective aspect of the story, in that the main character should have been expected to at least attempt a more precise recollection in the years that he has supposedly had to mull over events. It also jars with the plethora of technical detail that is painstakingly inserted everywhere else in the story. Again, if the tale had been tense, I could have overlooked this, but given that it was already bogged down, the ‘indescribably awful’ sights became just that: not described.

In short, I found the book interesting from the point of view of it being a classic and I had no problems with the alien antagonists per se. I am glad I read it, but I would not pick it up again, nor am I in a particular hurry to recommend it to anyone not already a fan of Lovecraft (who probably would have read it already). As a caveat, I am not (and have never been) a die-hard Lovecraft aficionado. Rather, I am a dilettante and a dabbler in matters Lovecraft, preferring other styles of horror whilst recognising his contribution to the genre. It is quite possible that those who are more invested in his works would enjoy At the Mountain of Madness. It simply was not my cup of tea.

Horror, death and isolation

The more I read horror, the less I think of it as genre fiction. Sure, there are things that go bump, there are tentacles and fangs and clowns, but horror to me is not about monsters, it’s about the monstrous. So what is the monstrous, if not some alien beast wanting to devour the terrified protagonist? On the surface, what is and isn’t monstrous will probably differ from person to person, but there appears to be some universal themes. Death, for example, and isolation. Both are inevitable and inescapable, and if we dig deep down, they frighten us. They are part of a bigger pantheon of ‘ultimate concerns’ (according to existential psychotherapy), which also include gems such as meaninglessness and absence of external structure (dubbed ‘freedom’). Horror stories that tap into these anxieties work on an existential level, and may, in addition to terrifying us, help us process these unsettling topics in a safe setting.

Demogorgon

Let’s start with death. We have an instinctive fear of death. It may be conscious or unconscious, but most if not all of us possess a smidgen of death anxiety. It may not be something we think about every day, but it is there, ready to raise its ugly head if the situation calls for it. The loss of a loved one, a threatening disease, an accident – anything that reveal how thin the film of life truly is can bring about death anxiety. A few years back, I read Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, which is a tome on the theoretical and practical aspects of the same. It was a surprisingly interesting book given how dry the cover looked. In it, Yalom spends a great amount of time discussing death, fear of death and denial of death. “The fear of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as nothing else does; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness”, Yalom says 1.

Horror deals with death like few other genres, from the (usually) imminent death of the protagonist to the perversion of death in your average zombie, ghost, vampire or undead monster. We get the fear of death as well as the denial of death in one neat package. Typically, we also see the avoidance of death as the story tends to permit the survival of the protagonist. A fascination with horror often emerges in teenage years, which incidentally is when most first experience anxiety about death. Horror may thus be a way to contemplate and familiarise ourselves with death – a ‘safe’ venue to experiment with it and analyse it. Even a place to ridicule it, in some genres of horror. The role of stories in dealing with death is nicely put in the following quote:

“When we are young, we deny death with the help of parental reassurances and secular and religious myths; later, we personify it by transforming it into an entity, a monster, a sandman, a demon. After all, if death is some pursuing entity, then one may yet find a way to elude it; besides, frightening as a death-bearing monster may be, it is less frightening than the truth — that one carries within the spores of one’s own death.” 2

Horror may, in short, be a way to process death without having to break down the dissociation between intellectually knowing death is coming and truly being aware of the end. It is a way to deal with death without having to stare into its abyss, with all its associated dread and terror.

death

Then there is isolation. When referring to isolation, I am not talking about the trope of exploring the scary basement alone, although I am sure there is a relatively blunt metaphor in there. Existential isolation is more than just being temporarily alone. It is the awareness that there will always be an unbridgeable gap between yourself and others, even in their presence. We are born alone, and we die alone.

Horror is very rarely a rousing exercise in team building: the final chapter usually sees the protagonist alone in the face of terror. Isolation and alienation play key parts, sometimes building towards the end, sometimes existing from the first page. In Richard Matheson’s terrific I am Legend, the horror of the protagonist is both being preyed upon and the unbearable knowledge that he is completely alone. Without spoiling the ending of the book, isolation is a thread that runs through the entire novel and becomes almost beautifully poignant in the final chapter. Kafka’s The Trial is a tour de force of isolation (although arguably not horror in the strict, classical sense). Even the tagline of Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream”, might not have been half as effective if the horror of isolation was not such a familiar one. In the words of Joseph Conrad: “We live, as we dream, alone” (Heart of Darkness).

gravity

While these themes are prominent in horror storytelling, they are of course not restricted to the genre. However, what horror brings to the table, that other genres may not, are elements of fear and disgust. Horror deals in these elements as a rule and not as an exception. Fear/disgust can act as a shortcut, bringing the reader of horror closer to the anxieties of death and isolation than other genres typically do, such as sci-fi and fantasy. It can also provide a buffer or tool for dealing with such anxieties. Fear, unlike anxiety, is something that can be faced and conquered. By putting these ultimate anxieties front and center, surrounding them with fear and disgust to allow the reader to feel a visceral reaction that is close (but yet safely removed) to the edge of the abyss, horror allows us to be just scared enough. We can play with death and isolation, analyse them and inspect them up close (in a safe setting), before we personify them (using whichever monster that strikes our fancy) and kill them off. Horror, to me, is thus not so much niche genre as a natural part of the human condition.

 

References:
1. Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980) page 27
2. Irvin Yalom, Love’s executioner and other tales of Psychotherapy (1989) page 5

Salieri the villain

“I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

If I had to choose a favourite film, it would be Amadeus, almost solely because of my appreciation for Salieri. It is Salieri who carries the story, Salieri who narrates, Salieri with whom we identify. Salieri is the protagonist, and Salieri is the villain.

I have pondered this film often enough to figure out why I love Salieri’s brand of villainy so much, and have narrowed it down to four reasons.

First, Salieri and Mozart are similar. They share their love for music and their ambition to compose and be applauded. They occupy the same niche, even as Mozart is vastly more talented than Salieri. A relationship, even an antagonistic one, is built upon similarities as well as differences. The shared traits are amplifiers of the conflict. Without such parallels, the hero-villain dynamic becomes a simple black and white affair, but with them, we get nuances of grey. It is in these patches of overlap that relationships become interesting, but to achieve that, there needs to be common ground. Salieri is hopelessly fascinated with Mozart’s music, adores it like no other in the film. He is touched to the core by reading the sheet music for Serenade for Winds, and while he engineers the failure of The Marriage of Figaro, he attends all of its limited performances in secret. This fuels his hatred for Mozart but also creates complicating moments of sympathy between the characters.

Second, Salieri and Mozart are different. We see Salieri in the beginning of the film, a respected composer with reasonable talent, likable, civilised: a fortunate, content man. Enter Mozart, a loud and crass man, and from Salieri’s (and therefore the audience’s) point of view undeserving of his talent. Where Salieri is reserved, Mozart is boisterous; where Salieri is knowledgeable, Mozart is ignorant; where Salieri is manipulative, Mozart is naive. Interestingly, this is perpetuated throughout the film, but increasingly in reverse. As Mozart’s flamboyance, braying laughter, thoughtlessness and tactlessness give way to a much more subdued and arguably more sympathetic character, Salieri becomes aggressive, overtly nasty (see the scene with Mrs Mozart) and cruel.

This balancing of Salieri’s villainy with the tempered Mozart is crucial to allow the two characters to stay at opposite ends of the spectrum as the story progresses. It maintains the diametrically opposite relationship and forms the contrast against which Salieri’s descent can be more clearly seen. At the same time, the love for music tethers the increasingly villainous protagonist and his increasingly sympathetic antagonist to each other, never allowing them to drift apart.

Thirdly, Salieri’s justification is clear. From Mozart’s introduction and his tactless reworking of Salieri’s welcome composition in a public and humiliating manner, we understand Salieri. Who has not felt mediocre, envious, and bitter at the success of others, and presumably with less cause? His every petty thought is relatable on some level. Upon Mozart’s arrival, Salieri’s talent is instantly dwarfed, his self-image and ambition crushed. He is humiliated and insulted. It is no great stretch to see that he wants retribution. Maybe even deserves it. Unlike weaker villains, Salieri gives us someone with whom to identify, leading us every tiny step of the way into the role of villain. It is a well-crafted slippery slope, each move so easily justifiable almost until the end. Particularly since Salieri’s jealousy is ever tempered by his love for Mozart’s music. Even in his final deceit, Salieri supports the composition whilst working to destroy the composer.

Finally, Salieri is unable to win. Even though Mozart dies, poor and almost alone, Salieri still loses and destroys himself through his own inadequacy, jealousy and rage. If the story had ended with Mozart’s burial, the film would have been a much simpler story of one man destroying another. Instead, we are given the final scene: Salieri wheeled away, old, mad and bitter, having endured a front-row seats to his own destruction for 32 years, watching himself judged by time and found lacking. All to the tune of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor.

“Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all.”

Exit stage.

Painting the North

Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907-1994) depicted the nature and culture of northern Norway better than any other artist I know. He would typically start with a black surface, then scratch white lines in the pigment, and sometimes overlay this with paint and further lines. The result was dramatic: oddly dark and atmospheric, maybe even a bit eerie, but undeniably strong. The unusual technique sprang from a lifetime of poor eyesight, rendering his world in lights against shadow, rather than shadow against light.

I have visited galleries containing his work on several occasions, and have always come away with a sense of awe. Perhaps unintended, I have also left with the sensation of secrets and undercurrents, of history and stories untold. There is something visceral about the paintings that makes me want to pick up the pen and start writing.

It may be due to superimposing white on black rather than the converse, but these paintings tickle my love for horror. Not in the sense that I think they depict horror – they do not – but from a feeling of seeing things the wrong way around. It is that unusual, almost uncanny, quality that resonates with me. The uncanny is staple fare of horror fiction, and typically linked to representations of the self. Ghosts, twins, dolls, even zombies – they may all inhabit the uncanny valley. With Espolin Johnson, however, it is not the depicted humans or scenes I find uncanny, but the observer. Me. When I look at these paintings, it is my gaze that is the wrong way around. I find that much more interesting.

List of dystopian novels

A brief summary of some of the prime examples of the genre.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Encouraging passivity and egotism with a side order of pleasant distractions, Huxley’s dystopia is insidious. A system designed to keep the population compliant and docile is all too believable. It may be orgy porgys rather than lolcatz, but the parallels in Huxley’s cautionary tale are not too hard to find.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
The book which preceded 1984 and Brave New World, and inspired Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. We describes the One State, ruled by the Benefactor – a society with glass walls and mass surveillance which has abolished free will.

The Trial – Franz Kafka
Faceless opponents, senseless arrests and a realisation of danger that comes far too late is part of Josef K’s nightmare world. Kafka’s masterpiece may be as much absurdist/paranoid fiction, but the fight against an unassailable, relentless authority which does not follow neither custom nor law belongs at least partly in the dystopian genre.

Parable of Talents – Octavia Butler
Demagoguery is the villain of Butler’s second Parable novel. The antagonist is a populist, jingoistic politician, the success of which has catastrophic consequences. This is not an enjoyable tale. The punch that it packs, however, cannot be denied.

Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut
The automation of society comes with a downside in Player Piano, where machines replace the working class, widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Purposeless, ‘useless’ people is the core of Vonnegut’s story. And the societal effects of automation is not the spectre of some distant future – this world has already arrived.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
There are many ways to erase opposing thoughts, but book burning is one of the most egregious. Fahrenheit 451 has certainly been censored and banned enough times to prove its point. The eradication of dissenting ideas, whether it be by book burning or by authoritarian decree, is dangerous territory.

A Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Gilead is an unpleasant, uncomfortable and flat out harrowing place to visit. But revisit it we must, over and over again, until we no longer have to. Atwood’s tale of subjugation and lost agency is sadly still relevant, more than thirty years after its publication.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
The book that gave us doublespeak and the Ministry of Truth doesn’t need any further introduction.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Telling the story of fascism versus anarchy in the UK, this graphic novel concerns itself with the debate of freedom and resistance. In Alan Moore’s London, freedom does not come for free.

v_for_vendetta

Song for David Bowie

It’s been more than a year since David Bowie passed away, striking the first notes in what has at times seemed like a 12-month long symphony of grief, strife and unpleasantness (despite the occasional happy jingle). After he passed, the wonderfully talented Kat Robichaud wrote ‘Song to David Bowie’. It is a lovely tribute, which makes me both sad for the loss of a great artist as well as oddly hopeful for those who will stand on his shoulders to create even bigger and better things. I figured now would be a good time to share this, if only to remind myself that art is not dead and that forwards and upwards is still the direction we should take.

I’ll be watching this today

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

(Abel Meeropol)