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Friday 5 May 2023

Friday Fiction: At the Mountains of Madness Volume II

At the Mountains of Madness
is horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s longest and one of his most famous stories. It takes the form of a series of letters, written by Doctor William Dyer, a geologist from Miskatonic University, who in late 1930 led an expedition to the Antarctic which would end in disaster, madness, and death following the discovery of the remains of prehistoric lifeforms unknown to science, buried in the permafrost and the remains of a cyclopean city behind a mountain range the height of the Himalayas—previously never seen before, the city long abandoned for terrible reasons which are ultimately revealed at the denouement of the story. Specifically, Doctor Dyer’s letters have been written in an effort to prevent a second, and much more important and widely publicised expedition which is being mounted to the Antarctic from following in the same path. The story has a strong sense of atmosphere and environment—the ice and snow, and extreme low temperatures play a major role in the narrative, serving as a starkly frigid backdrop against which its events take place and its equally stark revelations as to the horrid and horrifying events in the past and their dark influences upon the origins of mankind.

Originally serialised in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories, At the Mountains of Madness has been published many times since and in more recent years adapted into songs, musicals, graphic novels, radio serials, and more. The very latest adaptation is none of these, but an illustrated version of the novel. At the Mountains of Madness is published by Free League Publishing, a publisher best known for roleplaying games such as Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, this is not the publisher’s first such title. That would be The Call of Cthulhu, the classic of American horror literature and the short story that is arguably H.P. Lovecraft’s most well-known. As with that classic, the Free League Publishing edition of At the Mountains of Madness is fully illustrated by French artist François Baranger and presented in a large 10½ by 14 inches folio format.

At the Mountains of Madness Volume I only took the protagonists as far as the upper reaches of the Elder Thing city, it closing at the point where the protagonists are preparing to enter the city’s subterranean depths. Baranger’s final illustration was subtly ominous, the stonework of the wall around the entrance to the tunnel below the Elder Thing city casting a skull-like shadow… It is Baranger’s gorgeous artwork that stood out in the first volume and again, his superlative illustrations capture the frigid, shattered, and alien of the Elder Things on the other side of the Mountains of Madness in the second volume, At the Mountains of Madness Volume I. If the first volume was dominated by wide panoramas of the Antarctic wastes, his artwork balances that here with a sense of height that dwarves the explorers, Doctor William Dyer and the student, Danforth. As they delve deeper into the city and Dyer begins to translate the hieroglyphic murals, the art changes to match, illustrating it in time to Lovecraft’s text as both men learn the long history of the city and its strange inhabitants. Thus there is a switch back and forth between the city in ruins and the city as a living place for the Elder Things, sense of stillness in the former and movement in the latter. No more so than in the terrible confrontation between the Elder Things and the Cthulhu Spawn, an eldritch battle over which great Cthulhu looms. In the text, Dyer notes the sense of awe at the alien city and again that is matched by the Baranger from the first page to the last.

The tone changes as the Elder Things devise and develop the terrible protoplasmic intelligences known as Shoggoths. Even their appearance seems to overawe the Elder Things, imbuing the alien creatures with sense of sympathy and even fear on their behalf...! This though turns shock as the two men first discover the remains of the missing Gedney and his dog—whose disappearance was detailed in At the Mountains of Madness Volume I
—and the strange giant albino penguins! Then find out what happened to the Elder Things that were woken in the first half and who were responsible their nemesis—the dread Shoggoth! The final scenes are a rush, as the Shoggoth threaten engulf Dyer and Danforth and the two men make a desperate escape from the city and to their aeroplane. Only in the final scene, do we focus at all upon either of the men, a look of sheer terror upon Danforth’s face as he takes one last terrible look at where he has just come from!

The text for this second volume of At the Mountains of Madness, as with the first, are taken from the standard version of Lovecraft’s story. Although there is no change to the text in terms of content, there is in terms of emphasis, there in places being sentences and paragraphs being placed in a larger font. This is often jarring and does not match Lovecraft’s story, feeling unnecessary given that Branager’s illustrations are there exactly to deliver that emphasis.

If the reader was disappointed to have to wait for
At the Mountains of Madness Volume II is after At the Mountains of Madness Volume I, then that wait has been worth it. At the Mountains of Madness Volume II is a stunning book, but then again, so was At the Mountains of Madness Volume I. François Baranger fantastically depicts and contrasts the present and the past of the city beyond the Mountains of Madness in this second volume, just as the second volume as a whole, contrasts the stark alienness and openness of the Antarctic with the oppressive heights of the ruins of the Elder thing city. Of course, At the Mountains of Madness Volume II is not a standalone book, yet its artwork almost transcends the necessity for the first volume. Together, At the Mountains of Madness Volume I and At the Mountains of Madness Volume II combine to retell H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness in a glorious fashion that will delight readers who already know the story and readers who are new to his cosmic horror.

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