Thursday, 23 December 2010

Snow | Fiction | There's Something Nasty Lurking In The Glacier

People flee into snowy places. There’s no other reason to venture there. That seems to be our main literary thesis. Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein himself, and Robert Walton are all running away to the wastes of the North Pole (the Creature himself, of course, finds a smaller, less well-fortified wilderness earlier in the book in the Alps) but the latter two both convince themselves falsely that they’re not fleeing so much as chasing something.

The other obvious association is that snowy places are dwelling-places for the uncanny. Frankenstein is an amusing exception to the rule, because while our first suspicion during Walton’s framing device is that something weird lurks in the fog and the ice, the Creature actually originates from a seat of learning and culture in the midst of European civilised society. For most of our uncanny literature, though, that theme is played straight. Consider the presence of ice and snow in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' as the gateway to the otherworld, the natural torment that leads to unnatural torments. In one sense, this is simply practical; the snowy landscape is, as should be made clear by the number of Stephen King novels set there and the number of B-movies and B-novels in which an alien craft crashes there, a perfectly isolated and frightening setting for horror. But consider the way the uncanny seeps into otherwise realistic thrillers as soon as they venture into the snow-filled wilds – Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, for example, or Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights (and for those of you keeping track of just how ridiculous a piece of literary genre fiction can get while still being acclaimed – SPOILERS -, that’s one count of ‘alien parasite inside a fallen meteorite’ and one count of ‘talking apes at a Soviet research facility.)

All of this intrigues me in part because of the upcoming movie version of Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness – for my money, the best story by old H.P., which is going to be made by James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro and has, therefore, both the most suitable and utterly unsuitable team behind it that anyone could hope for. Suitable because both of them know how to make damn good, memorable sets, and you think they’d be able to capture the weirdness of an ice-filled land effectively. Unsuitable because…both of them really, really like monsters, and they like to try and capture those monsters visually, which is the wrong approach for any Lovecraftian tale and especially for Mountains, which barely contains any visual monstrosities at all, especially not living. The horror has to come from the alien purity of the snow itself, the twisted reflections of the ice, the white fog that conceals the world around you, the empty flats and the bottomless crevasses. (All right, and the penguins. The horror partly comes from the penguins.)

The black pit! The carven ring...the proto-Shoggoths, the windowless solids with five dimensions!

No, if an adaptation of Mountains is going to work, it requires the spirit of my favourite cryptid – certainly the one with the best name – Am Fear Liath Mor, the Gaelic term for the sense of unease experienced by lonely climbers in harsh mountains; the belief that one is being followed by an unseen presence, or even the flitting glimpse of a humanoid figure. Fear Liath has been, very obviously, connected with the legend of the yeti, and it’s been attributed to loneliness, exhaustion, the effects of high altitude or low temperatures, or the reflection of sunlight off snow or low-lying mist.

It could, conceivably, be an explanation for the fascinating Dyatlov Pass Incident from the late 50s, when nine skiers in the Ural Mountains were discovered to have torn themselves forcibly out of their tent in the middle of the night, as if in a sudden panic, and ran out into the woods in their underclothes. They scattered into the trees, refusing for some unknown reason to return to the shelter of their tent, until eventually they died from the cold. No footprints were found other than theirs. Chilling details began to emerge later, such as that one of the women had had her tongue removed, and that several of the men were heavily bruised, as if they’d been struck by an unknown force. There were plenty of obvious explanations – small carnivores are plentiful, the men could have tripped and injured themselves – but it remains one of the 20th century’s most genuinely intriguing real-life cases of the uncanny.

The slashed tent.

This, perhaps, is snow’s appropriateness for horror – a landscape designed as if by nature to confuse and unsettle us, playing sensual tricks on us, distorting our perceptions, in much the same way that dilapidated old ‘haunted houses’ sometimes have carbon monoxide leaks. A natural world that appears very much to be unnatural, the sense that we are not alone in the loneliest of places. The horrid state of mind, in fact, that connects the Ancient Mariner with Frankenstein, encapsulated by the lines which purportedly caused Percy Shelley to faint in utter terror;

“Like one, that on a lonesome road

Doth walk in fear and dread,

And having once turned round walks on,

And turns no more his head;

Because he knows, a frightful fiend

Doth close behind him tread.”

A very happy Christmas to you all.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

1 comment:

  1. Lost in the blinding whiteness...