"There are some things man was not meant to know" is not a worldview I share. That has not stopped me from enjoying the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who made that (among other, far less palatable things) the central philosophy of his work. Most great artists traffic in an attitude or a mindset, rather than a rigorous philosophy. Lovecraft wrote about one thing over and over, the incomprehending dread of men — sometimes disciplined men of science, sometimes men already uneasy about their world — faced with a universe that's not just indifferent to them but outright hostile. At The Mountains Of Madness, adapted to manga by Gō Tanabe (who also gave us a superb anthology of Lovecraft stories before), works for both longtime Lovecraft fans and newcomers. For the fans, it's as definitive an adaptation of the story as it gets; for those who just walked in the door, it's two volumes of the kind of slowly ratcheting dread that shows why Lovecraft, despite his troubling legacy, still commands such attention.
Men of science, but still men under it all
The premise of the story is simple enough. Scientists from Miskatonic University (a recurring feature of Lovecraft's universe) have voyaged to Antarctica to survey as much of the continent as they can manage with the technology, tools, and supplies available to a scientific team in 1931. Professor Dyer, along with his bookish sidekick Danforth, the bearded and husky leader of the expedition, believes it'll be a way to confirm his various theories about life in previous epochs. His ambitions are shared by the other team members — especially Lake, the biologist, with a sidekick of his own, Gedney, a young graduate student.
At first none of the difficulties the team faces are out of gamut for a polar expedition: the cold, the vast distances, the absolute bleakness of the landscape. They believe they have every advantage possible over previous teams — not just airplanes instead of just sled dogs, but also the work done by previous explorers, and the mistakes they don't plan to repeat. And it isn't long before the first significant discoveries come rolling in, like patterns in the rocks below the snow that hint at ancient life.
This captures Lake's imagination far more fiercely than the others, and soon he's off on his own expeditions to find more of the same kind of evidence. He's determined to get answers before anyone else does — that is, to put his name on them first — and so he leads several of Dyer's men into a black mountain range far from the camp. There, they find even more jaw-dropping discoveries: a cave full of dead organisms that bear little or no resemblance to any life ever seen elsewhere on earth, not even in the oceans. What else is a biologist to do but dissect them?
Then Dyer loses touch entirely with Lake, and he and Danforth risk their lives to follow Lake and find out what happened to him and his team. This quest covers more or less the entire second book, and we already have some idea of what they will find — not just because this is a Lovecraft story, but because Tanabe provided us with a chilling flash-forward at the very start of the story that hinted at how none of this would have a happy ending. What they find confirms things Dyer learned in the bowels of Miskatonic's archives — how a lifeless earth was once settled by an alien species, how that species made use of artificially created life forms to do its colonization work, how those slaves rebelled and left their masters at the mercy of even darker and more terrifying things ... and how mankind himself arose from all this. It's unsettling enough to see confirmation of it, and even worse when that confirmation arises from the dark and pursues them.
From a word here to an image there
Folks only casually familiar with manga have something of the same prejudice against it exhibited by folks only casually familiar with comics: they think one specimen stands in for the whole thing. They know at arm's length of Naruto and Dragonball, etc. and the art styles they use, but they often blink with (good) surprise when they see Blade Of The Immortal, or Berserk, or Black Lagoon, or most anything by Tsutomu Nihei. Tanabe's work is very much in the same company — highly detailed, flawlessly composed and drafted, reminiscent of what the plates for a high-end illustrated edition of Lovecraft might look like. (The double-page spread of Cthulhu is poster-worthy.) It took me twice as long to read Madness versus most other manga in big part because every panel demanded such attention.
What Tanabe has also done, as he did with his previous adaptation of Lovecraft shorts, is find a good balance between quoting Lovecraft's own words on the page and illustrating what they are meant to depict. The balance he strikes, I think, breaks down to this: when there's something to be shown, he shows it; when there's something to be dwelled on or thought about, he gives us the text over some other imagery to advance the story. A fair amount of the runtime of Lovecraft's works are taken up with the narrator ruminating about the (usually awful) meaning of what he's seen, and a wise reader will recognize how much of that is the story. Tanabe keeps the most crucial bits of it — especially the chilling closing paragraphs and lines, which he lays over successively more distant images that are in keeping with the story's cosmic scope.
Any reading of Lovecraft always brings me up against the things I hated most about him as both a a person and an artist, mainly his xenophobia and nativism. Him being dead for decades puts distance between me and the worst aspects of both him and his work. Because of that it's easier to see him as a product of both his unhappy circumstances and his moment in time. And I say that knowing full well nativism and xenophobia are making an ugly comeback these days and need to be fought actively and not merely passively. I'd never scorn someone for passing on Lovecraft because he reminds them too much of all the things in this world they can't stomach. But at the same time, I don't think that makes an interest in Lovecraft morally equal to supporting all his worst impulses in the real world.
For those reasons I always go to any treatment of Lovecraft's work on tiptoe, as it were. And even if it weren't for his reactionary social attitudes, there's the rest of his worldview. Then again, I look at my own history of exploring Japan's cultural artifacts, and my many encounters with skilled creators who also hold questionable worldviews (ahem, Yukio Mishima). I came away from those unhappy about the person, but wiser about the material. It's hard to plumb what good there is out of a work we want to hold our nose around, because we don't want to get too used to the stench of anything. But there's as much of the good and as little of the bad as seems possible in this adaptation — not just "some things man was not meant to know", but also a little "there is more in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy", and if that is what's given, I'll take it.