At the Mountains of Madness: H. P. Lovecraft and Hollywood

While Universal’s planned version of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was being put on hold, I began looking as some of the dates when Lovecraft came up with his classic terror stories.  I was rather startled to see that Lovecraft’s work was mostly done in close harmony with the classic era of Hollywood horror in the twenties and thirties.

Lovecraft died in 1937, but he had  started writing as a child, around the turn of the century. Yet his work was so unique and advanced, it was never “recognized” during his lifetime, although he wrote most  of his best known stories in the same years Hollywood was going through it’s golden age of horror film making.

For example, during the years 1925 – 1926 Lovecraft was writing these classic terror tales:  The Horror at Red Hook,  In the Vault,  Cool Air,  Pickman’s Model, and The Call of Cthulhu.

In those same years,  Hollywood and the German studio UFA released such horror classics as: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE MONSTER, THE UNHOLY THREE, THE BELLS, THE MAGICIAN, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, and THE CAT AND THE CANARY.

In the classic Hollywood horror years of 1931 and 1932, Lovecraft wrote these stories:  At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Trap (with Henry S. Whitehead), The Dreams in the Witch House, The Man of Stone (with Hazel Heald), The Horror in the Museum (with Hazel Heald) and Through the Gates of the Silver Key (with E. Hoffmann Price).

Vincent Price and Debra Paget in THE HAUNTED PALACE

Vincent Price and Debra Paget in THE HAUNTED PALACE

Of course, Lovecraft’s own bizarre stories woudn’t reach the silver screen until almost 30 years after he died, when Roger Corman and Charles Beaumont opened the gates to his “old stories” by adapting The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward for AIP in 1963, which ended up being labeled as  “Edgar Allan Poe’s” THE HAUNTED PALACE, even though the film (by Corman’s own admission) had nothing to do with Edgar Poe or his stories. 

So it’s seems a bit strange that Universal was recently close to giving the green light to a $150 million version of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. In a way, I’m glad it’s been but on the back burner, as I don’t think anyone would be happy with the film if  Tom Cruise turned up as the leading man – least of all, Mr. Lovecraft!

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A SHORT  INTERVIEW WITH H. P. LOVECRAFT:
Q:  I  understand you lost your maternal grandmother?

LOVECRAFT:  Her death plunged the household into a gloom from which it never fully recovered. I began to have nightmares of the most hideous description, peopled with things, which I called “night-gaunts.” In dreams they were wont to whirl me through space at a sickening rate of speed fretting and impelling me with their detestable tridents.

Q: Where do you suppose you got the idea for these creatures?

LOVECRAFT: Perhaps from an deluxe edition of Paradise Lost with illustrations by Dore, which I discovered one day in the east parlor.

Q: You depict this night-gaunt image vividly in one of your Fungi From Yuggoth sonnets. Did the mad sorcerer referred to in your stories, “Abdul Alhazred” have a childhood source as well? And what of your fictional book of spells, the “Necronomicon”?

LOVECRAFT: The name “Abdul Alhazred” is one, which some adult devised for me when I was five years old and eager to be an Arab after reading the Arabian Nights. Years later I thought it would be fun to use it as the name of a forbidden book author. The name “Necronomicon” occurred to me in the course of a dream.

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THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH

by H. P. Lovecraft

The place was dark and dusty and half-lost
In tangles of old alleys near the quays,
Reeking of strange thing brought in from the seas,
And with queer curls of fog that west winds tossed,
Small lozenge panes obscured by smoke and frost,
Just showed the books, in piles like twisted trees,
Rotting from floor to roof-congeries
Of crumbling elder lore at little cost.

I entered, charmed, and from a cobwebbed heap
Took up the nearest tome and thumbed it through,
Trembling at curious words that seemed to keep
Some secret, monstrous if only one knew
Then, looking for some seller old in craft,
I could find nothing but a voice that laughed.

II. Pursuit

I held the book beneath my coat, at pains
To hide the thing from sight ins uch a place;
Hurrying through the ancient harbour lanes
With often-turning head and nervous oace.
Dull, furtive windows in old tottering brick
Peered at me oddly as I hastened by,
And thinking what they sheltered, I grew sick
For a redeeming glimpse of clear blue sky.

No one had seen me take the thing-but still
A blank laugh echoes in my whirling head,
And I could guess what nighted worlds of ill
Lurked in that volume I had coveted.
The way grew strange-the walls alike and madding-
And ar behind me, unseen feet were padding.

III. The Key

I do not know what windings in the waste
Of thos strange sea-lanes brought me home once more
But on my porch I trembled, white with haste
To get inside and bolt the heavy door
I had the book that old the hidden way
Across the void and through the space-hung screens
That hold the undimensional worlds at bay
And keep lost aeons to their own demesnes.

At last the key was mine to those vague visions
Of sunset spires and twilight woods that boord
Dim in the gulfs beyond this earth’s precisions
Lurking as memories of infinitude
The key was mine, but as I sat there mumbling
The attic window shook with a faint fumbling.

IV. Recognition

The day had come again, when as a child
I saw-just once- that hollow of old oaks,
Grey with a ground-mist that enfolds and chokes
The slinking shapes which madness has defiled
In that the same-an herbage rank and wild
Clings round an altar whose carved signs involve
That Nameless One to whom a thousand smokes
Rose, aeons gone, from unclean towers up-piled.

I saw the body spread on that dank stone,
And knew those things which feasted were not men;
I knew this strange, grey world was not my own,
But Yuggoth, past the starry voids-and then
The body shrieked at me with a dead cry,
And all too late I knew that it was I!

V. Homecoming

The daemon said that he would take me home
To the pale, shadowy land I half-recalled
As a high place of stair and terrace, walled
With marble balustrades that sky-winds comb,
While miles below a maze of dome on dome
And tower on tower beside a sea lies sprawled.
Once more, he told me, I would stand enthralled
On those old heights, and hear the far-off foam.

All this he promised, and through sunset’s gate
He swept me, past the lapping lakes of Flame,
And red-gold thrones of gods without a name
Who shriek in fear at some impending fate
Then a black gulf with sea-sounds in the night”
“Here was your home,” he mocked, “when you had sight”

VI. The Lamp

We found the lamp inside those hollow cliffs
Whose chiselled sign no priest in Thebes could read,
And from whose caverns frightened hieroglyphs
Warned every living creature of earth’s breed.
No more was there-just that one brazen bowl
With traces of a curious oil within;
Fretted wtih some obscurely patterned scroll
And symbols hinting vaguely of strange sin.

Little the fears of forty centuris meant
To us as we bore off our slender spoil
And when we scanned it in our darkened tent
We struck a match to test the ancient oil
It blazed-Great God!. . . But the vast shapes we saw
In that mad flash have seared our lives with awe.

VII. Zaman’s Hill

The great hill hung close over the old town
A precipice against the main street’s end
Green, tall, and wooded, looking darkly down
Upon the steeple at the highway bend
Two hundred years the whispers had been heard
About what happened on the man-shunned slope
Thales of an oddly mangled dear or bird
Or of lost boys whose kin had ceased to hope

One day the mail-man found no village there
Nor were its folks or house seen again
People came out of Aylesbury to state
Yet they all told the mail-man it was plain
That he was mad for saying he had spied
The great hill’s gluttonous eyes, and jaws stretched wide

VIII. The Port

Ten miles from Arkham I had struck the trail
That rides the cliff-edge over Boynton Beach,
And hoped that just at asunset I could reach
The crest tht looks on Innsmouth in the vale.
Far out at sea was a retreating sail
White as hard years of ancient winds could bleach
But evil with some portent byeond speech
So that I did not wave my hand or hail.

Sails out of Innsmouth! Echoing old renown
Of long-dead times, but now a too-swift night
Is closing in, and I have reached the height
Whence I so often scan the distant town
The spires and roofs are there-but look! The gloom
Sinks on dark lanes, as lightless as the tomb!

IX. The Courtyard

It was the city I had known before;
The ancient, leprous town where mongrel throngs
Chant to strange gods, and beat unhallowed gongs
In crypts beneath foul alleys near the shor.
The rotting, fish-eyed houses leered at me
From where they leaned, drunk and half-animate,
As edging through the filth I passed the gate
To the black courtyard where the man would be….

The dark walls closed me in, and loud I cursed
That ever I had come to such a den,
When suddenly a score of windows burst
Into wild light, and swarmed with dancing men:
Mad, soundless revels of the dragging dead-
And not a corpse had either hands or head!

X. The Pigeon-Flyers

They took me slumming, where gaunt walls of brick
Bulge outward with s viscous stored-up evil
And twisted faces, thronging foul and thick
Wink messages to alien god and devil
A million fires were blazing in the streets
And from flat roofs a furtive few would fly
Bedraggled birds into the yawning sky
While hidden drums droned on with measured beats.

I knew those fires where brewing monstrous things,
And that those birds of space has been Outside-
I guessed to what dark planet’s crypts they plied
and wht they brought from Thog beneath their wings
The others laughed-till struck too mute to speak
By what they glimpsed in one bird’s evil beak.

XI. The Well

Farmer Seth Atwood was past eight when
He tried to sink that deep well by his door
With only Eb to help him bore and bore
We laughed, and hoped he’d soon be sane again
And yet, instead, young Eb went crazy, too,
So that they shipped him to the county farm
Seth bricked up the well-mouth up as tight as glue-
Then hacked an artery in his gnarled left arm.

After the funeral we felt bound to get
Out to that well and rip the bricks away
But all we saw were iron handholds set
Down a black hole deeper than we could say
And yet we put the bricks back-for we found
The hole too deep for any line to sound.

XII. The Howler

They told me not to take the Briggs’ Hill path
That used to be the highroad through to Zoar,
For Goody Watkins, hanged in seventeen-four,
Had left a certain monstrous aftermath.
Yet when I disobeyed, and had in view
The vine-hung cottage by the great rock slope,
I could not think of elms or hempen rope,
But wondered why the house still seemed so new.

Stopping a while to watch the fading day,
I heard faint howls, as from a room upstairs,
When through the ivied panes one sunset ray
Struck in, and caught the howler unawares.
I glimpsed – and ran in frenzy from the place,
And from a four-pawed thing with human face.

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About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

One Response to “ At the Mountains of Madness: H. P. Lovecraft and Hollywood ”

  1. Regarding THE HAUNTED PALACE, I just want to say that, although the story indeed has nothing to do with Poe, the film’s visual style is completely in line with Corman’s earlier Poe-inspired efforts. The creepy old ancestral mansion, where most of the action takes place, is not really derived form the Lovecraft story; it’s a vestige of HOUSE OF USHER, PIT AND THE PENDULUM, etc.

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