Thursday, April 14, 2011

*The Antarktos Cycle: At the Mountains of Madness and Other Chilling Tales, ed. Robert M. Price

Chaosium, Call of Cthulhu Fiction 6031
572 pp

You'd never know it, based on the books that I normally read, but for years I've been a huge fan of HP Lovecraft, a pulp-fiction writer who died in 1936.  A number of his stories, which can be classified as both horror and fantasy, appeared in the old pulp journal Weird Tales and other pulp mags of the time.  It really wasn't until after his death that he became popular, as is the story of many a writer, and thanks to renewed interest, not only are his books being published and his stories anthologized, but a number of modern authors have acknowledged the influence of Lovecraft on their own modern works.  Robert M. Price and Chaosium publishing put together a series in which Lovecraft's works are featured, generally showcasing not only Lovecraft's writing, but authors who influenced HPL as well as stories by writers based on Lovecraft's influence.  The Antarktos Cycle is just one of these collections, and I've been collecting the first edition publications in this series for years.  This volume features stories set mainly in Antarctica, although there are two oddballs at the end. In The Antarktos Cycle, the main theme that runs throughout is that there are some things that humankind is not yet ready to know about -- and that maybe Antarctica is a place better left alone. 

The centerpiece of this book is Lovecraft's work "At the Mountains of Madness," but it begins with Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, (described earlier, so no need to reiterate here).  Poe is followed by Jules Verne and a sequel to Poe's work,  "The Sphinx of the Ice Fields" which picks up the story about ten years later.  Verne continues Poe's tradition of racism and very bad science, and adds a few incredulous explanations as to Pym's fate as well as the inhabitants of Tsalal.  Hmmm.

John Taine (pseudonym of Eric Temple Bell) follows next, with his "The Greatest Adventure," first published in 1929.  Taine's story begins with the delivery of a strange creature to wealthy scientist Dr. Eric Lane, whose very ambition in life was to "trace life to its secret source and lay bare its mystery."  The creature was purportedly still warm when the visitor,  Captain Anderson,  picked it up, and the Captain reveals that it came from  the South Polar Seas. Lane is intrigued, and eventually is talked into mounting an expedition there. Thus the adventure begins, and the scientists discover a secret that could potentially doom mankind if released. But really, I'm not sure why this one was included in the book -- it probably could have been easily left out and no one would have been the wiser.  This story is more suited to an anthology of "evolution run amok" kind of book.

And now, the main event, Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness."  Originally written in 1931, it was first published in 1936 in a pulp mag called Astounding Stories.  This is one of my favorite pieces of all of the Lovecraft lore, one which carries a theme reiterated throughout his stories: a warning to mankind to stay away from forces that could bring about the end of humanity.   Narrated by geologist William Dyer from good old Miskatonic U, the story is meant as a warning to the leaders of an upcoming expedition to the Antarctic against any further plans of exploration there.  And Dyer should know -- he was part of an earlier group of scientists who went to Antarctica, discovered a mountain range much higher than even the Himalayas.  The scientists were split into two groups -- those who first found the mountains by air and landed to explore, and the one headed up by Dyer, monitoring the group by radio. The first group tells of an amazing discovery -- and then radio silence sets in.  When Dyer goes to find out what might have happened, he comes across a set of ruins in the mountains, and what he discovers there is enough to drive his companion Danforth to madness.  They decide to keep their findings secret -- but the upcoming expedition compels Dyer to break his silence.

"The Tomb of the Old Ones," by Colin Wilson follows next. Matthew Willoughby, is swept up in his grandfather Daniel's belief in an ancient civilization existing under the Antarctic ice.  Sadly, technology hadn't advanced to the point where Daniel could offer proof, but that's not the case for Matthew.  Along with Trask, an inventor, he travels with an expedition to Antarctica and with the help of lasers, begins his search.  As in previous stories mentioned here, he comes away with the belief that there are some things better left alone.  This one is tough to get into, with a lot of extraneous stuff to sift through, but it's okay.  "The Tomb of the Old Ones" actually incorporates Lovecraft's work, including "The Mountains of Madness."

Arthur C. Clarke also has a mercifully short piece  here, "At the Mountains of Murkiness," which is a rather silly spoof of Lovecraft's story.  The editor mentions in the introduction to this story that Clarke was a fan of HPL, so it's all done in good fun.  This one absolutely could have been left out with no consequence.

The movie "The Thing" in its various incarnations (1951 directed by Howard Hawks; 1982 directed by John Carpenter),  came from the next short story, in this volume called "The Thing From Another World," written by John W. Campbell, Jr.  Its original title was "Who Goes There," and was written in 1938.  An expedition went to Antarctica to investigate the discovery of a second magnetic influence at the South Pole, and discovered an alien aircraft in the ice, evidently there for 20 million years.  Using thermite (an ice softener),  they try to get to the inside of the ship, but make a mess of things when the ship is destroyed.  The pilot, however, the group captures.  After it is thawed, it has the remarkable ability to take on the form and persona of anything or anyone.  The question is -- who is it now?  And how can it be stopped?  This one is good, a classic sci-fi/horror mix that will keep you reading.

The last two short stories are "The Brooding City," by John S. Glasby (which is set in Africa, so why it's here I don't know) and "The Dreaming City," by Roger Johnson, which also doesn't claim an Antarctic setting. Both are written in a very Lovecraftian tone, but I'm not sure why they ended up in this novel otherwise.

As is the case with any anthology of stories, you have to take the good with the not so good and that is the case here. There are some stories that could have been left out (and I haven't seen the updated version of this book so perhaps they were), but there are also some really good ones here.  My guess is that this book is most suited to Lovecraft fans, but I think also that there's enough of a mix that sci-fi/horror/fantasy fans could find something they like as well.  Modern horror readers that prefer blood, guts and gore probably won't find this one's much more of a cerebral mix where the horror comes from inside the reader's head rather than being splashed about the pages.

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