Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Other Side of the Mountain, Revisited

I was very lucky to find an inexpensive used copy of The Other Side of the Mountain (Houghton-Mifflin, 1968) by Michael Bernanos to replace my copy (missing for 25 years) which was the subject of an earlier post. I sat down and read it cover to cover as soon as it hit my mail box. As I mentioned previously, it was the cover art that first attracted me. Now I see that it is credited to Leo and Diane Dillon, a talented team of illustrators. (I remember them best for their Caldecott Medal-winning book Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears.)

And I still love the story it as much as I did when I read it the first time back in high school. For an English assignment I created a series of red clay human figures which I then photographed to create a slide show. I remember using the vine-tangled woods of the Ipswich River Bird Sanctuary as my backdrop, and the arms and legs of my sister and my friend Betsy as props to actualize my vision. One slide featured my sister's bare arm, darkened with mud, reaching around to clutch at a boulder which obscures the rest of her body.

Of course none of this makes sense if you don't know the story. The jacket reads, in part:
This eerie and horrifying short novel. . . begins as a straightforward adventure story and gradually becomes a haunting odyssey through underworlds of despair, drugs, and death. A young boy hires out on a French galleon. . . He is befriended by the elderly cook. . . After the ship has been becalmed for many days and the crew has gone berserk, a violent storm erupts and the ship sinks. The boy and his friend, the only survivors, regain consciousness convinced that they have passed into a different world. This becomes certain as the two arrive at a body of land highlighted by a chain of reddish volcanic mountains. All about them are lifelike statues. . . the faces fixed in a fellowship of fear. But there is no sign of human or animal life, only lush vegetation . . . Everything is covered by the same blood-red light by day and imbued with a bizarre life of its own by night. The travelers decide that their only chance of survival is to reach the highest mountaintop.
Today I understand the "despair" and "death" part but question the "drugs" reference in the description. Unless, perhaps, it is meant to imply that the author himself had to be using drugs to envision such a nightmarish fate for his two characters. Because at no point in the story do I interpret their visions as hallucinatory. Although they are truly and forevermore captive in a hell outside of normal reality, I see it as a physical place, not a chemically-induced phantom of their minds.

As I read the story this time, some of the more fantastic descriptions inspired collage ideas, one utilizing some old engravings from Figuier's The Ocean World (1872). There is this passage when the two are still adrift at sea:
Toward the middle of the day the appearance of horrifying animals plunged us into terror. Truly monstrous, at least ten yards in diameter, they resembled giant Medusas. . . with the exception of one peculiarity that made them more repulsive: umbrella-shells strangely speckled with red. Their numbers increased at an alarming rate and they swam between the waves. . . when the blood-red orb drowned in the infinite expanse of the sea, the animals continued to glow a phosphorescent red in this night of unfamiliar stars. (p. 42)
As the pair first approach the island, this description (which brought to mind Australia's Uluru) reveals that they aren't in Kansas any more and provides a premonition of their fate:
A gigantic ring of red sand, as fine as talcum powder, encircled the base of a thick red wall that towered toward the sky. Majestically, it displays time's erosions--wounds shaped like grimacing masks resembling giants solidified or petrified by countless centuries. There was no vegetation. The atmosphere was sepulchral, but there was no odor of mildew, as if nothing were left of the compost heap made by the dead. (p. 51)
This passage made me think of the ash-covered victims of the ancient volcano at Pompeii:
Here and there statues gradually emerged from the shadows. There were many, each in a different pose. Their features were frightful, tortured, filled with anguish, as if the sculptor wanted to shape them all into a unique kind of suffering, his great artist's hands tolerating only the hideous death brought about by fear. Their bodies were chilling. Men and women, each with a distinctive form, vulgar or elegant, were thrown into relief, as if they had all been cut from the same stone. (p. 54)
In the hope that salvation lies on the other side, they journey to the mountain, passing though woods uninhabited by animals or insects where: "The silence was broken only by the distant song of the crystalline waterfall which the immense carnivorous flowers watched over jealously." But a strange transformation gradually overcomes them, so by the time they are near the summit, the boy describes his companion this way:
He was horrible to see! His mask of mud had become solidified, but his features, so molded as not to resemble him, made his countenance appear as if it were being refashioned. The only flicker of life in his poor old face was the look in his eyes. Their expression left me in no doubt about my own appearance. This should have driven me out of my mind, yet a strange calm inhabited me. Was this the beginning of renunciation? (pp.102-103)
Well, I will leave it to your imagination to visualize what lies on the other side of the mountain. For unless I stop here there will be no reason for you to seek out the book and enjoy it for yourself. Someone should make a film of it!


Cyth said...

Well I'm not quite sure that I want to find out what's on the other side of the mountain. It's all too ghastly on this side. But I have to tell ya, when I began reading the intro that you'd provided, it sounded , just a wee bit, like the tv show LOST. And most of them are still on the island---the others are returning to the island. Interesting.

Cyth said...

I do love the illustrations !