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…

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

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.

Comics: Stand Still. Stay Silent.

“Stand Still. Stay Silent” may be best described as a post-apocalyptic Nordic mythology inspired adventure story. The brainchild of Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish artist and writer, it reintroduces mages, myths and folklore against a backdrop of the ruins of the modern world. And it does so beautifully.

The setting is 90 years into the future. Disease has swept across the world but a few remote areas were spared: Iceland, the Finnish lakes, some inaccessible Norwegian fjords and a handful of isolated Swedish settlements. The rest of the world has gone silent, its technology and culture feared or forgotten. The safe settlements are constantly under siege by monstrous beings. No attempts has been made to reclaim any of the knowledge of old, and no expeditions have been sent into the infected zones. Until now. The story follows a small, underfunded and under-qualified team on their daring expedition into troll-ridden Denmark, seeking to harvest as many books of old that they can find for research (and profit, of course, plus possibly also a bit of fame).

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“Stand Still. Stay Silent” is a rare blend of uplifting and terrifying. On the one hand, it is a story about a thoroughly mismatched group traveling together, which translates into themes of bravery, loyalty and (slowly) emerging friendships,with a rich sprinkling of humour. On the other hand, it is outright horror. The monstrous entities lurking in the silent world are a perpetual presence, growing in menace as the expedition strikes deeper and deeper into the dead cities. Deformed remnants of the long-since deceased, man and beast alike, merged into shapeless hungry creatures, wait in the shadows. This is a story that goes from funny to frightening in the span of a page.

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The artwork is astonishing, growing prettier with each chapter. Even the gore is beautifully done (see above). The style includes elements from Nordic art and culture, and the filler pages often contain tidbits of information about mythology and folklore, again beautifully drawn. Maps and schematics are plentiful and gorgeous, and there is enough backstory about the disastrous pathogen to keep my inner scientist quite contented.

If there is one small point to deduct, it may be that the expedition takes a while to get underway. For those interested in plain horror from the get-go, the wait may be on the long side. But it is worth it. Also, the longer backstory serves to introduce the characters thoroughly, which is essential for such a diverse ensemble cast.

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The comic updates regularly (four times a week) and the artist is rarely if ever late. For those of us who have followed near-abandoned and sporadic comics, this is an absolute treat. At present (Jan 2017) there’s an archive of more than 650 pages (13 chapters plus change) to enjoy. This is also one of those rare occasions when I can wholeheartedly recommend that you DO read the comments, as the readers are a vocal, friendly and informative group, offering translations of the (odd) segment in Finnish/Swedish/Norwegian/Icelandic as well as comment on the story itself.

“Stand Still. Stay Silent” is a gem – an unusual story, nicely written and beautifully illustrated. Go read!

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(All images belongs to Minna Sundberg and can be found on the webcomic here.)

2017 in horror, fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction

As usual, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to read in 2017. My goodreads reading challenge is at a modest 35 and I have no specific plans for which ones I’ll choose, but there a few new releases in my preferred genres this year that I’m particularly excited about.

Horror: In the past I’ve tended to seek out older horror novels, but several upcoming releases have caught my eye this time around. Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, which centres around disturbing disappearances in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, looks great. As does Little Heaven by Nick Cutter, a tale set in a ominous New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. I’m also keen to read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, described by the author as one part Penny Dreadful and one part American Horror Story. Should be fun! Finally, there’s Sarah Pinborough’s Behind her eyes, which I am getting simply on the back of knowing Pinborough’s knack for deeply unsettling and menacing storylines.

BrimstoneBehind Her Eyes

Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Having read the two previous Aftermath books, I’m keen to see how this Star Wars space opera featuring Norra Wexley and her rag-tag team ends in Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig). I’m also looking forward to the final installment of V.E.Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, A Conjuring of Light, in which the fate of the four Londons will be settled. Oathbringer, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic Stormlight Archive series, will be released in November, and I’m salivating at the promise of another visit to Roshar. M.R.Carey releases the prequel to the excellent apocalyptic zombie story Girl with all the Gifts, titled The Boy on the Bridge, and on top of that, Neil Gaiman is fictionalizing Norse mythology in the book by the same name, which should be a treat. 2017 looks like it will be a good year for fantasy and sci-fi.

Empire's End: Aftermath (Star Wars) by Chuck Wendig

Non-fiction: In terms of non-fiction, I have singled out Beyond Inifinity: an expedition to the outer-limits of mathematics by Eugenia Cheng and In Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Both come highly recommended and the topics are intriguing and wonderfully complex, so my expectations are high.

 

The Pyramid in the Arctic

Is there anything more fascinating than abandoned towns? There’s a sense of drama in a hollowed-out building that is hard to replicate. Horror novels are full of them, dystopian fiction and sci-fi have seen their share, and post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing but the shells of yesteryear.

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Pyramiden (the Pyramid) was a small coal-mining town on Svalbard, which is an island in the Arctic Ocean. Swedish-built in 1910, Pyramiden was bought 17 years later by the Soviet Union and kept in business until 1998, when the coal ran out. At one point, the town had 1000 inhabitants, a petrol station, swimming pool and a library with Tolstoy and Dostojevsky. Now, the streets have been empty for nearly 20 years, save for the odd polar bear.

Houses were left in a hurry. They remain much the same as in 1998, decay slowed by the frigid climate. There are long-dead flowers on the windowsills, faded posters on the walls and rusted swings in the playground. The old coal mine is still in place, with its buildings, coal cars and tracks. It could remain like this for decades, if not centuries, if left undisturbed. The cold keeps the town preserved.

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While Svalbard is Norwegian territory, Pyramiden retains the feel of a Russian outpost. Signs are written in cyrillic and latin script, and an old bust of Lenin is silently surveying the settlement from the front of the old culture house. Tolstoy and Dostojevsky are still on the shelves.

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Pyramiden is named for the pyramid-shaped mountain by which it lies. It is 50km north of the nearest city, Longyearbyen (which is the world’s northernmost settlement with more than 1000 inhabitants), and there is a research station with 30-130 inhabitants about 100km to the west. Transport is by snowmobile or boat, weather permitting. And the weather does not always permit.

Part of the appeal of this place is its location, miles from everything else, tucked away amidst freezing water and held in the grips of permafrost. Svalbard holds vast expanses of glaciers, a fair share of mountains and fjords, and populations of arctic foxes, reindeer, whales and migrating birds. Much of the land around Pyramiden is protected in the form of two national parks: Nordre Isfjorden (which roughly translates to Northern Icefjord, see photo below) and Sassen-Bünsow Land National Park. I’d probably go for the landscape and wildlife alone, even without the added attraction of a ghost town.

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There is a small, recently opened hotel in Pyramiden, so staying in town is possible. While it at first seemed disappointing to have a human presence in the abandoned place (although not a permanent settlement), a small haven for visitors is probably not a bad idea given the remoteness and climate. Also, there’s the polar bears to consider… I’m not an avid camper nor much use with a firearm, so Hotel Tulip may be just the ticket after all.

pyramidenThe Tulip.

A few days at the Tulip could spin enough ideas to fuel horror stories for a decade. Whatever your monster of choice, I’m sure this town can house it. A ghoul? Sure – it is a ghost town after all. Disease? Absolutely – imagine frozen contagions freed in a thawing landscape. Vampires? Of course – this is north of Barrow, Alaska, and darker than 30 days of night. Sea monsters? The waters are dark too, and cold. Land monsters? Already have those if you count the polar bears. Below ground? There’s the mines. Dystopia? Well, if you needed a place to hide from the horrors of the world, or stage the revolution, this is pretty far way. I might just put it on the wishlist for 2017.

 

(All images credited in title (hover for information and links). Photos from (in order) ser_is_snarkish, Frode Ramore, Bente Nordhagen, Bjoertvedt, Jerzy Strzelecki and google maps).

Book review: Rabid: a cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a summary of rabies, its history, cultural significance and the ultimate unraveling of some of its secrets at the hands of science.

As non-fiction books go, it is an easy read. Perhaps a bit too easy in places, leaving out the drier details that might interest anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis. For example, the book provides little to no detail on any mechanisms by which the rabies virus modifies behaviour, be that in animals or humans. It gives a very brief nod to rabies altering communication between brain cells as well as killing neurons, but it doesn’t delve into the specifics. This is a shame, as the mind-altering properties of rabies, its defining characteristic, is perhaps the factor that has embedded it so solidly in history.

This can be forgiven, because there is no firm consensus yet as to how rabies operates in the brain. However, there are plenty of hypotheses that the authors could have explored. For example, it has been suggested that in addition to killing cells, rabies disrupts the release and binding of chemical messengers in the brain 1. This includes serotonin, which, among other things, is negatively associated with aggression. Less serotonin equals (typically) more aggression. There is also some studies that suggest that rabies targets brain structures associated with memory, fear and emotion: the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus 2. I may be biased, but in my opinion, a few paragraphs on the intricacies of the rabid brain would have been the icing on the cake.

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Apart from this omission, Rabid provides a rather thorough introduction to the history of rabies treatment. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus (a lyssavirus), the numerous host reservoirs (dogs and bats in particular), and attempts at rabies control (culling and vaccines), as well as last-resort treatments (a very good description of the not yet proven Milwaukee protocol). This highlights both the unrelenting force of the disease and the almost paradoxical drive to beat it. With only a handful of people ever surviving, this is the stuff of nightmares and a strong element of the book.

However, it is in describing its impact on society that Rabid truly shines. From the uneasy relationship between humans and dogs (the source of most human cases) highlighting how man’s best friend can turn into man’s greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central to our culture and literature, and after reading the book, I doubt anyone would argue that there isn’t some element of truth to that.

“Stories evolved, too, as they spread, and so we can consider what remained after centuries of such ‘audience testing’ as having a perverse sort of evolutionary fitness. […] The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.”

I have written before about some of the mind-controlling horrors in nature and how they relate to our modern monsters, but rabies is the mother of all such links. Rabid touches briefly upon the most likely modern suspect, the zombie, and goes on to provide a much more substantial discussion on the old classics: vampires and werewolves. It’s not a novel idea by any stretch. For example, a paper in medical science journal Neurology outlined the link between rabies and the vampire legend in 1998 3, and while Neurology is a good source for new developments in neurology, one suspects it may not be the first to report on vampirism. Despite it being an old idea, Rabid does a fine job of describing the numerous links between vampires, werewolves and rabies, spanning the entire range from Byronic ghouls to 28 Days Later.

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In short, Rabid is an accessible, well-written popular science book, which gives a good introduction to rabies-the-disease and an even better one to rabies-the-history. Given the subject matter – one of the most interesting (and feared) diseases in human history – it could hardly be anything but an exciting read. It’s thoroughly recommended for the non-squeamish.

1. http://www.kliinikum.ee/infektsioonikontrolliteenistus/doc/oppematerjalid/Referaadid/Rabies.pdf
2. http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:neuroethology-of-parasites-that-alter-host-behavi#toc8
3. http://www.neurology.org/content/51/3/856.short