Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #188: At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft and Culbard

Since Guillermo del Toro's film version was red-lighted, hopes of seeing a movie adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's great novella "At the Mountains of Madness" this generation have dwindled to basically zero. A movie requires hundreds of people working for a year or more, and costs tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, so getting one going is a huge undertaking. But there are visual representations that can be done with vastly fewer resources -- one devoted creator, enough light, a flat surface, ink, colors, and time.

British cartoonist I.N.J. Culbard adapted At the Mountains of Madness as a graphic novel a few years back for the small British graphic-novel house SelfMadeHero, and that book found its way to the US via Sterling, the publishing arm of the beleaguered Barnes & Noble chain. (Culbard, I just realize, has since made graphic novel adaptations of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Shadow Out of Time, both of which I will have to look for.)

Culbard's adaptation is a faithful one, with lots of text narration directly from Lovecraft (starting with the famous first line) and a clean illustrative art style that has resonances with classic adventure strips of the '30s. He tells the story as Lovecraft did, in Lovecraft's words, adding or changing very little besides the mere act of illustrating it.

Though that is a big change: Lovecraft's creatures are often explicitly described as having shapes that would drive men mad to look at them, which means any visual representation of his work has that one big problem to deal with. (The human mind, as far as we know, doesn't actually work that way, and there have been a lot of strange and unlikely things discovered since Lovecraft's day.)

Like most of Lovecraft's stories, At the Mountains of Madness is very talky: it's narrated entirely after the fact, of course -- by one "forced into speech because mean of science have refused to follow [his] advice" -- but even within the main narrative, it's all radio broadcasts and reports and the question of what's really going on. Culbard maintains that feeling, and underplays the same ways Lovecraft does, to keep the slow stair-step of revelations: tracks, dead Elder Things, dead men, hidden ancient city, actually dead Elder Things, and then the shoggoths to top it all off. (Culbard's shoggoths are magnificent: almost an absence on the page, an inky blackness keening that horrible sound.)

At the same time Culbard's faithfulness means that the weaknesses of Lovecraft's story -- primarily the way Professor Dyer is able to miraculously decypher the entire history of Elder Thing civilization from a few inscriptions and tell them to us -- are as clear and obvious in this telling as in the original. But, for Lovecraftians, that isn't likely to be a bad thing.

Culbard's At the Mountains of Madness is very close to Lovecraft's original; probably as close as the illustrative work of another man could be. It's chilling and thrilling and magnificent and lovely and fascinating -- a great illustration of why Lovecraft at his best is still worth reading and studying today

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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