Shiny Shelf

At The Mountains Of Madness: A Graphic Novel

By Mark Clapham on 19 November 2010

While the merits of HP Lovecraft’s work can be debated back and forth, whether in terms of the stories’ literary merits or the political and social views of their author, it’s undeniable that the morbid, epic worldview of Lovecraft’s work has been hugely influential.

The motifs of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror have been seeping through the horror, SF and fantasy genres for decades, with hundreds of books, comics and videogames featuring pantheons of ancient gods very similar to Cthulhu et al, and of late these influences have creeped sideways into more mainstream media, albeit in distinctly cultish blockbusters like ‘Hellboy’.

However, Lovecraft’s original stories have rarely been adapted with any kind of profile or fidelity. Like it or not, adaptation is part of the validating process that cements a writer’s place in the culture, and while ‘Hellboy’ director Guillermo Del Toro’s movie of ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ remains trapped in development hell, that’s unlikely to change.

It’s therefore refreshing to see UK publisher SelfMadeHero, specialists in graphic novel literary adaptations, adding an adaptation of ‘Mountains’ to a list that includes the Manga Shakespeare line and adaptations of classics from the pulpy (the Sherlock Holmes novels) to serious literature (‘Hearts of Darkness’, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’).

It’s unsurprising in such esteemed company that this is a very classy, well presented adaptation. INJ Culbard, artist on the Holmes adaptations, provides the works here, adapting Lovecraft’s text as well as a illustrating it and designing the cover too.

This attention to detail has created a beautiful object: Culbard’s cover illustration takes an image from the interior and textures it with hostile scratches and blotches, the cold whites and blues reflecting the book’s Antarctic setting. The cover introduces the pervasive colour scheme of the book, the gloomy chill of Lovecraft’s fantastical version of Antarctica.

Culbard’s art is a joy throughout. He has an open style reminiscent of Herge which not only suits a story that transitions from exploratory adventure to science fiction (all with a building subtext of Jamesian horror), but also captures the 1930s setting and paraphernalia without cluttering the story with period detail. There’s a suitably epic sense of space to the visuals, aided by such clean lines, which really suit the story’s desolate landscapes.

‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ isn’t really a character piece, but Culbard draws out some distinctions between the various academics on the expedition, not only in terms of clear, emotive character design but with some subtle human moments in single-panel reaction shots.

It’s Culbard’s use of colour that really interested me, though. For most of the book there are two competing palettes – the blue/white cold of the Antarctic wastes, and a warmer palette of reds and oranges within base camps and tents. This contrast really sells the idea of warm oases within the pervasive, relentless cold. As the story proceeds shelter is left behind, the ice-blues increasingly dominated by heavy blacks. The use of orange text for sound effects renders them alien, hostile and intrusive as they pop out against the art.

‘Mountains’ is a story of creeping tension rather than non-stop action, riddled with exposition and mythologising, but Culbard manages to keep the pace up even when pages of narration are required. If anything, it’s when the action has to bite towards the end that the book is at its weakest: eldritch horrors inevitably become less mysterious when they have to make an appearance, and implied existential horror becomes, well, a chase scene with a big monster. It’s perhaps inevitable that the beast can never quite live to the build up, but an unsettling coda resets the more creeping sense of dread by the book’s end.

This is an excellent, skilfully executed and all-round classy adaptation, one which captures the essence of the original work while playing to the strengths of a visual medium. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing other pulp and adventure classics getting the Self Made Hero treatment, and I eagerly await their forthcoming Lovecraft anthology, as well as whatever Mr Culbard does next.

You can buy ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ at Amazon.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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