At the Mountains of Madness

In the early 1930s the Antarctic was still a mostly unexplored remote wilderness, inhospitable and frequently lethal. Amundsen may have reached the pole but Robert Falcon Scott died trying, and Shackleton’s attempt to cross the continent ended before it even began with shipwreck and being stranded on the ice for years awaiting rescue. So what better place for H P Lovecraft to set a story about isolated humans discovering terrible ancient secrets half-buried in the ice?

The story takes the form of a report by William Dyer, a scientist on a survey mission into the deepest part of Antarctica, though this is not his forensic account of what he saw – this is his warning that nobody should follow in his footsteps. On arriving in Antarctic waters the expedition splits into three parties to take samples at separate locations. The party that goes the farthest starts to find fossils and repeated marks that could almost be animal prints. This suggests that complex lifeforms once existed out here, perhaps before they did anywhere else.

But the scientists are not prepared for what they find in a cavern at the base of a vast black mountain range – mountains so high that they would dwarf the Himalayas. Millions of years old, but perfectly preserved, ancient specimens are grouped together quite unnaturally. The advance party could have mistaken them for vegetables, except they appear to have wings.

Dyer and the members of his party are listening to this report over the radio from a safe distance. And then the radio goes silent amidst a storm. When Dyer and the others fly out to investigate they find all of their comrades either missing or dead, their corpses mutilated amongst scenes of utter carnage, as if everyone went mad and turned on each other. Worse, it appears that some had begun crudely dissecting their friends, and some may even have tried to eat the body parts. To find out what really happened, Dyer and his party must venture up onto the plateau above the mountains.

Right from the start, of course, we know that Dyer survives to give his warning, so there’s no suspense in worrying about his fate. The other characters are nothing more than names on the page, so it doesn’t really matter whether they have script immunity or not either. This is not a character piece, nor an exercise in manipulated chills that requires you to empathise with the characters who are about to die. Initially I found the story cold, detached and uninvolving. But then Lovecraft’s ideas started to flow. Everyone in the story, including its narrator, is rendered infinitesimal by its big ideas about mankind’s place in the universe.

At the Mountains of Madness was written in 1931 and finally published in serial form in 1936, becoming a clear inspiration on the more pulpish Who Goes There?, written a few years later by John W Campbell, and which itself went on to inspire The Thing in its various movie incarnations. These days satellites have photographed every inch of the planet’s surface so there’s nowhere left for lost worlds like these to hide. Not on this planet, anyway – there’s a reasonably straight line that could also be drawn between this story and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, though.

I haven’t read any H P Lovecraft before. The legend that grew up around him posthumously kind of put me off – he is the science fiction and horror writer that the nerdiest (and therefore most precious) of fans worship. But I’m going to read more. His ideas seep into your subconscious and make you feel very small, insignificant and helpless late, late at night.

The Year of the Rat

At sixteen Pearl thinks she’s too old to get a baby sister. But that’s what she’s going to get. She might consider her stepfather her dad, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that he doesn’t have a child of his own. Pearl is out with a friend when she gets the message on her phone to come to the hospital as quickly as possible. Her mum isn’t due for another couple of months, so Pearl knows she isn’t in labour. Yet when she gets to the hospital, her new baby sister is indeed waiting. Her mum is not.

The novel follows Pearl over the next year, a year in which everyone else is too busy trying to look after Baby Rose to notice how badly Pearl is taking her mum’s death. To Pearl, Rose is to blame for what happened to their mother. She doesn’t see a half-sister in the ventilator, or even something that looks like a baby – she sees some pink thing that looks like a rat. Shutting herself off from everyone and everything, Pearl has nobody to talk to. Until her mum starts to show up when Pearl is alone.

I can only assume Clare Furniss is writing from personal experience. Or perhaps in doing so I am insulting her creative talents. Because she got everything absolutely spot on. The unexpected, sometimes inappropriate feelings (particularly those that result in a good laugh) slipping in at inopportune moments. The slow, creeping alienation and self-isolation, because it’s too hard for others to understand and even harder to make them. Pearl’s increasing idealisation of her mum. And the denial, and then the denial of the denial, the wilful lying to herself that Pearl engages in because the truth is just too hard to bear right now.

Even if the book isn’t true, that doesn’t mean it isn’t honest or real. There’s been quite a bit of criticism recently of books aimed at teenagers that are about death, particularly in light of The Fault in Our Stars, which has even been decried as ‘death porn’ by some. But I would have appreciated having books like that and The Year of the Rat available when I was going through this at 15. They are a tool-kit, giving teenagers a language of their own to start articulating their feelings about mortality – theirs and other people’s.

And of course, like most books on this subject aimed at teenagers, it’s not actually about death and dying, anyway, it’s about life and living.

The Sea Wolf

Lost at sea after the ferry he is travelling aboard collides with another vessel, the quiet, bookish Humphrey Van Weyden is picked up by seal-hunting schooner, the Ghost. His relief at being rescued is short-lived, however, after her meets her captain, the brutal, nihilistic Wolf Larsen.

Caught between Larsen and his terrified crew, Van Weyden has to survive an attempted mutiny, a cataclysmic storm and the appearance of Wolf’s equally delightful brother – with an even more delightful name – Dearth Larsen. But everything changes, and not necessarily for the better, when Wolf preys on survivors of another maritime disaster, and rescues a woman from a lifeboat.

Van Weyden may be the main character of this novel, but he isn’t the most interesting. His soft-man-turns-hard storyline went on to become rather generic after Jack London’s untimely demise. Wolf Larsen, on the other hand, is fascinating. Amoral, unsympathetic and often cruel, he sees little difference between people and yeast.

He’s a survivor in an unforgiving natural world, but he’s not an unthinking animal. He’s an intelligent man – an intellectual, at least compared to his crew of rough sailors. He engages with Van Weyden about art and literature, and relishes the opportunity to discuss these things with someone. That makes Van Weyden his new favourite, which doesn’t help Van Weyden ingratiate himself with the crew, and means it’s not necessarily just Wolf Larsen he needs protecting from. Indeed, it may be Wolf who is doing some of the protecting.

It’s this dynamic – a battle of brains in a story full of muscle and brawn – that lifts an otherwise exciting adventure yarn into something all the more interesting, and which is made even more interesting by then dropping a woman in between them. As with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, I read this one because I’m working on a brand new edition of it at the day job, but it’s made me more curious about Jack London’s other books.

Now You See Me

Thirteen-year-olds Hannah and Danny are lifelong friends, and the children of two couples who have also been lifelong friends. But that changes following the sudden death of Hannah’s mother. Not only does Hannah’s dad become estranged from Danny’s parents, but she notices she herself is becoming slowly estranged from Danny too.

Then Danny disappears. Everyone expects him to reappear within a day or so. He doesn’t. The longer he’s gone, the more people expect it to be a body that shows up instead. But after three years there has still been nothing, except for hope and, more often than not, false hope.

And then Danny reappears, and of course he’s no longer a fresh-faced pre-pubescent. This version has stubble on his chin and sneaks off for an occasional smoke. Despite all that, Hannah is overjoyed, hopeful that they can forget all the time they have lost. It may have been three years, but Danny is still distant, however. Hannah knows he has a secret, perhaps about something that happened to him during the missing years, which he claims not to remember.

At heart this is a thriller, like Hitchcock for teens. It has a simple premise and a character-driven plot featuring normal people trapped in an inescapable situation, not knowing what (or whom) to believe. The story twists and turns brilliantly, daring you to come up with theories, then tempting you to second-guess yourself. However, it never calls for any suspension of disbelief.

As well as being such an effective thriller, the novel is also a portrait of two families linked by loss in some ways but later torn apart by it. It’s about how the longer you know someone the more secrets you will end up sharing with them, but how sometimes that isn’t always a good thing.