Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What Else is Up There?

“And where, pray, is Myrtle’s head?”

Reading E.F. Benson’s The Horror Horn recently made me think of the mountains and other speculations of what lies above and beyond our familiar landscapes.  Two items came to mind, one a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle published in 1913, and the other an old black and white science fiction/horror film.

“This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.”

Readers of weird fiction may remember Doyle’s The Horror of the Heights, an interesting adventure about a strange ecology of ethereal creatures that live high above the clouds.  Although science and technology have long since overtaken Doyle’s imaginary expedition, the story is still effective as a horror story.  It would be surprising if a steam punk variation of this story has not already been written.

Doyle’s close attention to the scientific and technical details of early air flight puts this story firmly in the category of science fiction.  Technological advances in the early 1900s allow airmen to climb ever higher into the atmosphere, but soon a number of strange accidents befall the pilots. The discovery of a fragmentary blood soaked notebook leads to an investigation of the fate of wealthy aeronaut and inventor Joyce-Armstrong.  Joyce-Armstrong had suspected that “There are jungles of the upper air…” He sets out to bring back proof of their existence.  He discovers a world of great beauty, but also encounters a terrifying predator.

The Trollenberg Horror, better known as The Crawling Eye, is a black and white movie made in 1958.  The title is unfortunate, because it gives away the monster before the movie is even seen.  As monsters go, this one deserves a more suspenseful concealment in the film, since it is one of the more unique creatures for its time period.

The Crawling Eye has some genuinely creepy and hair raising moments, and here and there are interesting special effects—also some silly ones.  Inexplicable and gruesome accidents begin to occur at winter resort in the Swiss Alps, (probably not far from E.F. Benson’s Horror-Horn).  There is also a mysterious radioactive cloud that lingers over one side of the mountain.  The cloud sometimes descends, and its movements are somehow connected to disappearances and horrible deaths.  It appears that extraterrestrials have begun to colonize the tops of Earth’s higher mountains, where they are able to thrive in extreme cold. 

The alien minds are all powerful and able to influence humans to do their will—which almost always involves evil.  There is a suspenseful escape by cable car, a vehicle already designed to be intrinsically nerve wracking.  A child is accidently left behind with the creatures, causing additional and well timed angst.  There is definitely a Lovecraftian feel to the extraterrestrials, with their indeterminate shape, tentacles, and single glaring eye.  Following a climactic battle with the creatures at a fortified scientific observatory, it is still a question whether the aliens have been vanquished.  A “radioactive” mist, the demand for constant vigilance, and an inconclusive battle link this film to Cold War anxieties of the 50s and 60s.

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