Wednesday, January 19, 2011
At the Mountains of Ill-thought-out-ness
The painting above is Fire Blossom, by Nicholas Roerich...Roerich comes up shortly.
I've been on a Lovecraft kick lately, and having a very good time. Read Colour Out of Space, The Shunned House, The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, Whisperer In Darkness, Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow out of Time. Of all of them, I think Colour is my favorite so far, followed closely by Shunned House and Dunwich. I'm presently Reading Dreams in the Witch-House, and I'm saving Shadow Over Innsmouth for later on, because that's my favorite HPL story ever.
I had some real problems with Mountains of Madness, though. Lovecraft tends to be at his best when he's doing his New England thing---he knows a lot about New England, being a denizen, and he knows exactly where to plunk his weird stuff down in it...there are places that fired his imagination, he paid very close attention to them, and they make wonderful points of departure. The Shunned House comes immediately to mind...the Vermont stuff in Whisperer in Darkness is very persuasive, quite beautifully written, extremely atmospheric, and adds tremendously to the overall impact of the story.
But when he takes his show to the Mountains of Madness, he is, quite simply out of his depth. Oh, he's done a bunch of reading about Antarctica, and geology, and paleontology, and so forth, but he's never spent any time out in a really wild desolate place, and he hasn't thought things through at all.
The story starts out reasonably well...an expedition discovers a bunch of eldritch whatnot in the high plateau of Antarctica and dissects some apparently mummified critters....it's sorta like The Thing. Then a big storm settles in, and they lose radio contact with the other part of the expedition, seven hundred miles away.
So far, so good.
The other guys fly on out once the weather settles...they find that everybody's been massacred, one's been dissected, and the mummified critters have disappeared. Quite logically, they conclude that their colleagues all went nuts and ripped each other to pieces and tore open their canned supplies in ways that no human would...they nurture suspicions that they might be wrong about all this, because all the evidence points that way, but...oh well. Lovecraft's protagonists (usually learned but rather dense old men) are always doing that, and you take it for granted. I was still going with the program.
But then two of the old cooters get in their plane and head for the titular mountains, and things get way less good. Never mind that we're told over and over again that the mountains resemble the mountains in Nicholas Roerich's paintings. Okay. I'm sure they do. There's a big alien city on the other side of the barrier...the elevation is in the mid-twenties or so...our elderly protagonist shrugs off the whole altitude thing by saying that he and his equally elderly buddy are in great shape. Well, I should say so. When you climb Everest, you have to spend four weeks at base camp at similar altitudes, but whatever.
We're just getting started here.
Our codgers spend three-four hours in the city of the ancient barrel-shaped wierd organisms. Three-four hours. That's about as long as one of those Lord of the Rings movies. The oldsters make one discovery after another...they get into these ruins, which are evidently tens of million of years old, and between the available lighting (sheesh is this place well lit) and the fact that they have amazingly good flashlights whose batteries just last and last, they're able to find all these bas-reliefs, and figure out what's going on in them right off the bat...you heard me right. We're talking pictures from an alien civilization, and their meanings are so immediately transparent that our boys can identify points of interest in other parts of the city, and figure out where everything is and walk right on over...they can even divine three-dimensional information. They can figure out how the aliens raised their young, that their economic system was a kind of fascistic socialism, and correlate historical events with our own schema of geologic periods, Eocene, Oligocene, stuff like that. Our guys document their finds with lots and lots of flashlit-photographs (that would've produced some very high-quality images) and shitloads of drawings, which apparently take no time whatsoever to do...I wonder what they were using as a drafting-table.
They trek some distance to a descending ramp which, our narrator casually tells us, is about a mile deep. It's merely as deep as the Grand Canyon...having hiked the North Kaibab Trail, I can assure you, a mile deep is quite a haul, even when the vertical distance is distributed over fifteen miles of switchbacks, you're not old, and you're not at twenty-five thousand feet. I dunno, maybe the codgers didn't go down that deep...although the mere fact that they can locate the ramp at all is a testament to profound map-reading genius on their part.
Now I was reasonably happy that they finally got to the ramp and went down, because the shoggoths are down there, and everybody likes shoggoths (personally, I like them ever better than I like Raymond). But boy do we have to wade through a lot of half-baked stuff before our brush with the monsters. Lovecraft seems to realize he's digging himself in pretty far, and tells us that our two old fellows came to a lot of their conclusions after the fact, studying their drawings and photographs when they got back home...but it's hard to imagine they would've been able to figure out much of anything without decades of uncannily accurate interpretation and a whole lot of funding. The whole setup is simply nuts. Consider how impenetrable Egyptian heiroglyphs were until the Rosetta Stone was discovered...and they were the work of humans from mere thousands of years ago! My one-time Literary agent, Howard Morhaim, was studying cuneiform back when he was in Israel, and sometimes his assignment for the week would be to decipher a single cuneiform character! But Lovecraft's superfit grandpas can apprehend almost all the basics about a fantastically archaic prehuman culture on the basis of three and a half hours of photographs, drawings, and traipsings through some ruins...and find time to get up and down that ramp and escape from the shoggoths! And get back to their plane!
I understand Guillermo Del Toro is making a movies of Mountains of Madness, and I think it could be pretty cool...it could certainly make a lot more sense than the story, precisely because it would necessarily be quite compressed...that generally doesn't lead to greater coherence, but in this case it might. After all, there simply wouldn't be time for our old coots to jump to so many ridiculous conclusions.
When I trotted out my thoughts on MM to my friends Rich and Lena the other night, I think Rich was kinda nonplussed, and thought I really didn't like Lovecraft at all, which is not the case...I just think Lovecraft does rather better when he sticks closer to settings he knows about, and veers more towards fantasy than science, outright impossibilities frequently being more compelling than implausible possibilities....or ill-conceived rationalism. The attempt to shoehorn the Cthulhu Mythos with all its demonology and incantations into a scientific-materialist framework really isn't successful, in my opinion.
However, it works much better in Shadow out of Time than it does in Mountains of Madness. For one thing, Shadow begins with an excellent lengthy description of the mental state of a poor schmuck who's been plucked out of his body by cone-shaped aliens from the distant past, who used his body to visit our time, and stuck his mind in alien body way back when. Yes, there's a whole lot of business about the alien society, but we're not getting it from bas-reliefs and heiroglyphs...our POV character is actually remembering his experiences, albeit in drips and drabs. He's not jumping to conclusions...actually, the most irrational notion he has is that none of this stuff happened to him, even though all the appearances are to the contrary. Even after the discovery of an ancient cyclopean city in the Australian desert, which is completely confirmatory of his strange memories, and which he can find his way around in just fine, he's still not quite convinced...he needs to find a terribly old manuscript in his own handwriting, in English. But he isn't functional at great altitudes, doesn't descend improbable distances, or get three-dimensional info from two-dimensional depictions.
In short, the story hangs together vastly better than Mountains. I was fairly surprised, too...I remember liking Mountains better than Shadow when I was a kid. But really, I wasn't nearly so much of a smarty-pants then, and hadn't spent a bunch of time in the great American southwest.
By the way, I've also been reading about Lovecraft...was astounded to find out that he was having trouble getting his stuff published pretty much right up until the end. Editors would approach him about doing collections---they'd approach him---then ditch the idea themselves! What a world. You're H.P. Lovecraft, for Pete's sake, and they still treat you that way, and you die fairly penniless at forty-six.
Oh well. If Frazetta died, I guess anyone can.