Come in from the Cold: Gou Tanabe’s At the Mountains of Madness and the Comics Adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft

“Imagine a picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burn out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond.”

“I see. A roadside picnic.”

“Precisely. A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos.”

- Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

As the prologue to Gou Tanabe’s At the Mountains of Madness, the first part of which was translated to English by Zack Davisson and published by Dark Horse Comics, draws to a close, we get a series of double-page spreads showing the titular mountains. First, they are seen from a human angle, gazing upwards; then, we see them in their full terrible majesty, from above; finally, the “camera” pulls out even farther to the rim of the world — showing us that even these peaks are dwarfed in the context of the whole Antarctic.

It’s a perfectly executed introduction, setting the tone and introducing the themes of the story to come. Scale is key to Tanabe’s skill as a storyteller, both scale in the physical sense as well as within the dimension of time. The characters throughout the story must grapple with their place, both in a physical location and within the history of the world. These explorers stand to represent the beginning of one age, one in which reason triumphs over superstition, but they discover just how small they are in the grand scheme of global history.

It is this singularity of vision, tying story with visual presentation, that makes At the Mountains of Madness possibly the best adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft to the medium of comics. There have been quite a few: numerous short stories, graphic novels, and even ongoing series. Even if we ignore all the works that are based entirely on concepts and fictions created by the man (such as Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s Providence or Michael Alan Nelson’s Fall of Cthulhu), and focus singularly on direct adaptations, it could take the whole span of this article just to list them. This is not to say the bar is necessarily high. Many of these either fail as adaptations or succumb to the weakness of the original stories.

Tanabe’s work succeeds by focusing and expanding upon the science fiction aspect of the original story: A group of explorers venturing into the unknown and encountering something “other” and alien. In other modern takes on the story, such as the comics adaptation by I.N.J Culbard (SelfMadeHero, 2011), the authors tend to deemphasize this element, treating the journey to the titular mountains as something rather ordinary. John Carpenter’s film The Thing (an adaption of the Lovecraft story as much as it is a remake of the film The Thing from Another World) likewise neutralized some of the impact by transferring the story to modern times, though it found other ways to evolve the horror aspect.

It’s an understandable choice. To the modern reader, traveling to Antarctica is not as extreme of an activity as it was when the original novella was published (1931). The continent is no longer a riddle. It is within our understanding. Still, the result of this modernist framing upends much of the horror of the original – not just of meeting something alien but in an alien landscape.

As Tanabe’s draws it, the journey might as well have been to the moon. The land is harsh and barren. Life is seemingly non-existent, and those unprotected (not by space suits but by thick coats) will soon die by exposure to the elements. It is a place inhospitable not just to human existence but to life as we know it. Thus it is, in Lovecraft’s mind, a mirror of the universe as a whole. When one of the scientists involved in the expedition claimed that, “no purely terrestrial animal now survives in Antarctica larger than a tiny midge,” he spoke of the place of humans on this planet. Tiny things on a large orb, and of the same orb, in the infinite cosmos.

The manga even stresses the technological advancement needed to make the journey possible, describing the tools of the trade: “Sturdy old masted whalers … yet with steam auxiliaries, and five disassembled planes in the hold, we shall explore where we will.”  The journey is presented as another link in the chain of scientific progression, a natural continuation of journeys by the likes of Scott and Shackleton. They are impossible without the knowledge of the terrain and the tools developed to explore it.

This is probably the best approach to adapt Lovecraft’s attitude toward science, in general, and the arctic, in particular. In his massive, if overtly detailed, biography of the horror icon (I Am Providence, 2013), S. T. Joshi dedicates an entire chapter to young Lovecraft’s infatuation with arctic exploration: “Lovecraft reports that by 1902 [age 12] ‘I had read virtually everything in fact or fiction concerning the Antarctic awaiting the news of the first Scott expedition.’” An early favorite story of Lovecraft, The Frozen Pirate (1877) by William Clark Russell, also concerns a horror from the olden days thawing out in modern times.

It’s usually wrong to judge an author’s personality based solely on his stories, but in Lovecraft’s case, he wrote more for himself than for the sake of money, as Joshi notes. We can at least gleam general interests and ideas. He was not, at least by his stories, a “skeptic.” He seemed to fully believe science can uncover the secrets of the universe. Professor Lake, who receives much of the focus of the graphic novel version of At the Mountains of Madness, is never afraid. He is genuinely excited to encounter these new-yet-old forms of life. Tanabe draws these creatures in a manner that emphasizes curiosity over fear. They are slimy and pulsating and fascinating. You can get a sense of their texture just by looking at them.

Yet, Lovecraft believed that an uncovering of secret history, an unveiling of facts, would lead to catastrophe. It’s the general contradiction at the heart of his fiction, that the past is both glorious yet repulsive to modern people. It’s little wonder that “unveiling” is also the original meaning of the Greek “apocalypse.” It’s not a change in the world but a revelation of already existing truth. Cthulhu doesn’t appear. He was always there, long before we were. Once we understand that, we understand our true place in the cosmos.

In Moore and Burrows’s Providence, a meta-textual excessive in analyzing Lovecraft’s place in the American psyche, the story ends with an apocalypse. As befitting a piece of fiction by Moore, it’s a rather subdued apocalypse with people mostly getting on with it with little fuss (see also Promethea, The Tempest, Watchmen). One character asks, “Is this our new world?” Another replies, “I think it’s Yuggoth now. I think maybe it’s always been Yuggoth.”

H.P. Lovecraft’s posthumous success is extremely fascinating considering his real-life nature. The man was a racist, after all. This is not a controversial statement. This is one of the many of facts of his life that is known to us. Indeed, in parts of his fiction and in essays, you can find racist representation of “the other”: “The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists — eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist.” Yet, if you look at the cosmology running through some of his most famous and well-regarded stories, you would almost think racism would be an anathema to him. In what we nowadays call “Lovecraftian horror,” humanity is just an insignificant species on a small speck in the endless uncaring universe. The “monsters” in these stories do not destroy us because they hate us. They destroy us because they fail to notice we even exist. There is no spite because humans aren’t worth the spite.

In his book-length essay on the works of Lovecraft, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, self-professed fan Michel Houellebecq was surprised by the vile opinions his beloved icon held. “Never in the reading of his description of nightmare creatures could I have divined that their source was to be found in real human beings,” he wrote. Of course, the fact both of us, as early readers, failed to notice anything does not mean it is not there. It just means we, as well as many others, could afford to be ignorant of it, to treat the monsters as monsters and the fantasy as a general lark, rather than consider the deeper implications. This is also a form of privilege. Of course, Lovecraft’s prejudice makes no sense. Prejudice is non-special, borne not of any formal reason (though, Lovecraft could use reason, science, and sociology as a masque as much as any modern racist).

Later in his essay, Houellebecq connects Lovecraft’s racial hatred, or at least the freewheeling expression thereof, with the forced move to New York from his beloved birthplace of Providence. “This was no longer the WASP’s well-bred racism; this is the brutal hatred of a trapped animal who is forced to share his cage with other different and frightening creatures,” he wrote. It’s interesting to examine the rare and delightful empathy shown to the creatures, to the Great Old Ones, throughout At the Mountains of Madness (both the original novella and graphic novel). It is not they who are the invaders, but us. Humans are the unwanted immigrants, defiling the eternal peace of cold and clear ice.

The “bad” Lovecraft adaptations are seemingly those that simply take the surface elements of his stories at face value. Even if said adaptations enrich the stories with some visual flair, again I note the cycle of soft-edged graphic novels by I.N.J Culbard or the more angular and wild-looking shorts by Esteban Maroto (published by IDW in English as Lovecraft: The Myth of Cthulhu), they often appear as just another variation of the monster story.

Another SelfMadeHero effort, The Lovecraft Anthology (two volumes – 2011 and 2012) edited by Dean Lockwood, fails despite featuring some first-rate talent such as Pat Mills, D’Israeli, and Rob Davis. Part of it is due to the truncated space afforded to the story, The Call of Cthulhu. It feels more like a summation than a proper story, but even when the page count matches the content, too often the story feels offhanded. It’s as if the writer simply took Lovecraft’s words and added minimal visual direction.

The adaptation of The Color out of Space by David Hine and Mark Stafford (another excellent story that focuses more on the science fiction rather than the supernatural) also succeeds by stressing a singular element from the original story rather than adapting it as is. Stafford’s art turns the implicit into the explicit by turning the color into radiation sickness. There’s an added element of class warfare with the family stricken by an impossible burden but unable to move. It is stuck to a poisoned ground and looked upon with only mild interest and horror.

Tanabe’s works, both At the Mountains of Madness and the previously published The Hound and Other Stories, are the superior sort of adaption which engages with the material at a deeper level, not rejecting it but exploring it further. Providence did it, too, even if Burrows’s presentation is often stilted and overtly-mannered, attempting to find the buried heart of America in these tales of mystery and imagination.

Some of Richard Corben’s later adaptations, such as Haunt of Horrors: Lovecraft (2008), published by Marvel Comics of all companies, also achieve elevation at times. The horror-poem, “The Canal,” describing a feral and desolate city, became, in his hands, the story of two gay, black lovers separated from one another by a city drowning as if smitten by God. Lovecraft would probably disapprove, but his poetry still echoes in Corben’s twisted, exaggerated stylings.

Lovecraft’s fiction is, of course, tied to Lovecraft the man, warts and all. Yet, his success not just across generations but across cultures (including some he would probably find repellent) proves there is something in some of these stories that’s greater than the man himself. At the Mountains of Madness, in its original novella form, was an oddly positive effort. Despite the contractually required “protagonist-goes-mad” finale, the story explores not the differences but similarities between humanity and elder things. “What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn — whatever they had been, they were men!”

In the comics version, Tanabe succeeds by understanding the subtext of Lovecraft’s story, sometimes better than Lovecraft himself. The universe is big, scary, and greater than we can conceive, which makes all the prejudices of humanity pointless. In the end, we only have one another.