I. N. J. Culbard’s At the Mountains of Madness opens in silence. A graphic novel adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella, there’s a man in a yellow suit. His face is obscured, but Curious George. Dick Tracy. Sinister figures don’t wear yellow suits.
We watch him buy a newspaper at a subway station in Boston. The headline reads, “Starkweather-Moore Expedition to the Antarctic.” This is when the man in the yellow suit starts talking, or at least the narrator does.
Talk about an opening! The first line out of the narrator’s mouth is, “I am forced into speech…” and because Culbard opens in silence, with a character who’s trying to conceal his identity, it doesn’t feel like hyperbole. Whether or not they’re the same person (and I’d argue they’re not), the man and the narrator share a divide in their nature. They both want to keep to themselves, yet the man’s wearing yellow. That’s not a color you wear if you want to blend in.
Using the darkness of a subway tunnel to transition to the past (this is also when we first hear the sound, “Tekeli-li!!,” the source of which is an ongoing mystery), the man in the yellow suit’s reaction to the newspaper makes you think At the Mountains of Madness will be about his efforts to stop the Starkweather-Moore expedition. Instead it’s about why he wants to stop it, with an extended flashback to when he was on his own Arctic expedition.
Culbard creates some drama with the lettering once again when he places all of the narration boxes on one side of the page. There the narrator talks about what the trip was supposed to be like. Meanwhile there’s one narration box on the opposite side of the page. This one (the last one) is where the narrator tells the truth – that, “Little did we know of what was to come in that cryptic realm of ice and death.”
While the narrator is ambiguous (he has to be one of the scientists who survived the expedition), Culbard gives each of the professors their own nose and distinguishing features (like a moustache or glasses). He also introduces the main professors all in a row, so you can learn who’s who, right at the start. Bundled up in their winter garb, maybe it’s not realistic, that they’d be easy to tell apart, but it sure does make it easier as a reader when you’re trying to remember where each professor stands.
While hip enough to associate Lovecraft with Cthulhu monsters and tentacles, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know Lovecraft’s work. At the Mountains of Madness contains both tentacles and Cthulhu monsters and feels like a good primer into his mythology.
The real reason I wanted to pick up this book was The Terror season one, and while they do have a lot in common (namely the setting and an unexplainable monster), they diverge a lot, too. Watching The Terror,it’s all about the building fear that they’re not going to be able to get back home. In At the Mountains of Madness, Professor Dyer is trying to keep them on schedule, but nobody seems concerned that they won’t be able to leave. Then again, the goals for both these expeditions were different. The sailors in The Terror wanted to find a passage through the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. The scientists in At the Mountains of Madness came to Antarctica with the intention of exploring the land.
As a bridge between these two settings – the sea and the land – Culbard draws snowflakes to look like little circles. When it’s night, and the sky is a darker blue, these snowflakes can be mistaken for bubbles, and it ensures that the story always keeps one foot in the sea.
At the Mountains of Madness is available now from SelfMadeHero. While the story takes place more on the ice than the water, it should appeal to fans of high seas adventure.