At the Mountains of Madness is a novella by horror writer H P Lovecraft, written in 1931 and first published in Astounding Stories. The story is a summation of Lovecraft’s lifelong fascination with the Antartic, beginning from the time when he had followed with avidity reports of the explorations of Scott, Amundsen and others in the early decades of the 20th century. The early parts of Lovecraft’s tale also clearly show the influence of Admiral Byrd’s expedition of 1928-30. The story details the events of a disastrous expedition to the Antarctic continent in September 1930 and what was found there by a group of explorers led by the narrator, Dr William Dyer of the fictional Miskatonic University. Throughout the story, Dyer details a series of previously untold events in the hope of deterring another group of explorers who wish to return to the continent. The novella’s title is derived from a line in The Hashish Man, a short story by fantasy writer Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany: “And we came at last to those ivory hills that are named the Mountains of Madness…”.
Britain is a country dotted with mysterious stone circles, a legacy either of its original inhabitants, fairies or aliens (depending on whom you believe). Despite intense speculation over the years, to this day no one really knows for certain what function was originally served by the standing stones at Salisbury, Avebury or any number of other sacred sites. Many of the most intriguing theories have in fact been put forward, not by scientists or historians, but by creators of film and fiction. One television series which particularly springs to mind whenever anyone mentions stone circles to me is the profoundly disturbing, yet startlingly original, Children of the Stones. Broadcast in 1976-77, this one-off serial follows astrophysicist Adam Brake and his young son Matthew after they arrive in the small village of Milbury, which is built in the midst of a megalithic stone circle. Their terrifying experiences in Milbury are recounted in seven atmospheric episodes which culminate in a chilling finale. A series which has stood the test of time, I’ve never seen anything like Children of the Stones since. Even though it was nominally created for children, there is very little that is childish about the serial, either in terms of plot, acting, script or mood. In fact Children of the Stones is frequently cited by those who remember it as one of the scariest things they ever saw as children – even the director was surprised on seeing the script that it was intended to be broadcast at teatime! This is definitely one to watch with the lights switched on…
Despite being almost thirty years old, Ghostbusters has weathered well and still has the ability to elicit a wistful smile from a generation old enough to remember the likes of Madness, Reaganomics, legwarmers and the glory years of Liverpool FC. That’s because Ghostbusters, being made in the middle part of the decade that taste forgot, is as Eighties as it is possible to get. You would think that in the cold, cynical world of 2012 the film would be a bit like an old Status Quo album – so many good memories, but is it wise to revisit, in case you realise it is actually a load of rubbish? Okay, for those too culturally snobbish and those too young to have ever experienced the Ghostbusters phenomenon, here’s the spiel: three young(ish) paranormal investigators are sacked from their positions at Columbia University and decide, once armed with a fireman’s pole and an old ambulance, to set up a ghost-busting service. Meanwhile, Dana Barratt (Sigourney Weaver) is having trouble with her fridge, possessed, it seems, by the spirit of – bear with me – Zuul, an ancient Babylonian and follower of Gozer, the Destructor. Ooh Er.
It began simply. “In space no one can hear you scream”, cautioned the posters. There were no name actors, no fanfare, no star-laden premieres. Just a tale of seven people, all but one of whom dies at the hands of a seemingly invincible alien life form. Simple, but brilliantly radical, Alien was the grubby flipside of George Lucas’ fairytale utopia, a future where humanity was losing the war with technology and where exploitation and boredom prevailed. Alien was the heaven-sent antidote to the vacant escapism Star Wars’ success had borne in Hollywood, and an anomalous reminder of the power of cinema to terrorise and disturb. The film was conceived by Dan O’Bannon in 1976 but it was only a few years later, with the twin successes of Star Wars and horror films like The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, that Hollywood saw the opportunity to combine the two most profitable genres of the time in one movie. Even so, Alien was a massive risk at the time, especially since the director, Ridley Scott, had only one film under his belt when he came on board. This decision, risky as it may have seemed back then, proved to be a masterstroke as Scott stamped his unique vision on Alien with the memorable quote “To me, it was more than a horror film. It was a film about terror.” Now that the saga of Alien has come full circle with the recent release of Prometheus, it is perhaps the perfect time to look at how the original film came to define the genre of sci-fi horror.
Science fiction horror has a long and venerable tradition on both the small and big screen. At the very dawn of the movie age, science fiction films were hopeful, almost idealistic in tone, looking forward to a bright age of exploration and discovery. It did not, however, take very long for the visions of film-makers to darken considerably and between about 1930 and 1950 the first true ‘horrors’ of the sci-fi genre were made. Classics such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, The War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were notable for the genuine terror that they could inspire in their audiences, just as much as for the more traditional qualities of a science-fiction film, like special effects and imagination. These films really set the tone for the creature features that followed in successive decades, from the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the more sophisticated horror of Alien, Predator, Terminator and Species. This revolution on the big screen was reflected to some extent in television series which veered away from purely ‘futuristic’ science fiction to stray into horror territory, probably the best examples of which being Doctor Who in the 1970s and, of course, The Twilight Zone.
Who would have thought that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the frail, delicate wife of the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, would be responsible for writing, in 1818, what was to become one of the world’s most famous works of horror fiction, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In her preface to this Gothic tale of terror she records that she, her husband and fellow poet the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron had spent the wet summer of 1816 in Switzerland reading German ghost stories. Following this, all three agreed to write tales of the supernatural, of which hers was the only one to be completed (she also records that the original concept came to her in a half-waking nightmare).
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, where he also lived for most of his life and eventually died in 1937. Despite his relatively short life and modest literary output – three short novels and about sixty short stories – he left an indelible stamp on the field of supernatural fiction, of which he is regarded as the leading twentieth-century American exponent. Lovecraft was gifted with a fertile imagination which, fed by the independent study and reading that was forced upon him by frequent illnesses which disrupted his schooling, spurred him to write many essays and poems early in his career based on the wide knowledge he acquired. But it was in the writing of horror fiction that Lovecraft truly excelled, especially after the advent in 1923 of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, to which he contributed most of his stories.