This post is by John A. DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine Contributor.
“The fool, the meddling idiot! As though his ape’s brain could contain the secrets of the Krell!” (1).
“It interested us to see in some of the very last and most decadent sculptures a shambling primitive mammal, used sometimes for food and sometimes as an amusing buffoon by the land dwellers, whose vaguely simian and human foreshadowings were unmistakable” (2).
Few films shaped the Outer Space genre, as did Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956). The classic distinguished itself above a decade of B-movies, low budgets, and zipper-backed monsters The 1950s gave us cult-classics as Earth Vs.The Flying Saucers, Invasion of the Saucer Men, It Conquered the World and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, later household names such as Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis and Robbie the Robot made seminal appearances in Forbidden Planet.
Back when it was released, audiences for Forbidden Planet probably sat in the same stunned awe that moviegoers experienced in 1977 with Star Wars, or in 1979 with Alien. While Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner defined Sci-fi for their generations, arguably Forbidden Planet set the standard.
Decades before Forbidden Planet’s theatrical run, Howard Phillips Lovecraft broke new imaginative grounds in At the Mountains of Madness (1931). Set in Antarctica, remote as the surface of the Moon in HPL’s day, he rewrote the deep history of the Earth in terms that disturbed our already crumbling anthropomorphic view of our prominence in the universe. There, he traced the irrational history of the primal world, often shrouded in religious myths and shamanic legends, in rational terms.
In this article, let us explore the following questions:
1. What are some gothic elements employed by Forbidden Planet and At the Mountains of Madness?
2. What are some Cosmicistic crossover interactions between Forbidden Planet and other Lovecraft fiction?
Forbidden Planet: A Brief Synopsis:
To begin, if you have never seen or it has been ages since you have watched Forbidden Planet, here is a short summation of the classic movie (it contains spoilers).
In the 23nd century, with the invention of faster-than-light travel, humanity launches a wave of space exploration to nearby star systems. One such operation – the Bellerophon – journeys to Altair-4. Twenty years later space cruiser C57D, commanded by J.J. Adams, sets out to discover what happened to the overdue ship. Upon reaching Altair-4, all attempts to radio the missing colonists prove pointless.
Later Edward Morbius, part of the Bellerophon expedition, radios the explorers. Morbius states he needs no help and issues a warning. If the C57D crew lands, he cannot be held responsible for their safety. At an impasse with Adams, Morbius surrenders the coordinates for a landing near his home.
Once down, several puzzles confront Adams. One, they are driven to Morbius’s residence by Robbie the Robot, a technological marvel beyond anything earth sciences can reproduce.
Two, oddly, except for Morbius and his daughter Altaira, a mysterious planetary force murdered every other expedition member and vaporized the Bellerophon. News of the slaughter forces Adams to cannibalize his ship, to construct a Klystron transmitter, a device needed to contact distant earth for further orders.
Three, Adams stumbles onto the secret behind Robbie’s construction and Morbius’s smugness: the Krell. Highly civilized and hardly human, the Krell died out in one night some 200,000 years ago, according to Morbius’s linguistic research and intellectual enhancement by Krell machinery. The Krell created a subterranean power-plant some twenty-miles cubed, still running despite untold centuries. Its purpose, as fathomed by Morbius, was to allow the Krell to manipulate matter without machinery.
When the planetary force resurfaces, first sabotaging the Klystron transmitter then attacking the ship, Adams and the ship’s Doctor seek answers at Morbius’s home and the Krell lab. There while Adams argues with Morbius over the need to evacuate Altair-4 – Morbius refuses to interrupt his Krell study – the Doctor uses the Krell intelligence enhancer, in hopes of discovering the reasons behind the renewed assaults.
As the planetary force attacks Morbius’s home, the dying Doctor reveals the source of the Krell’s demise and a clue to the beast’s identity. When the Krell initiated the final psychic link up to their Colossus, any wish, want, or whim the Krell entertained instantly materialized. All the suppressed savagery, long buried in the multiplied Krell psyches, menacingly materialized in one night, annihilating the noble race.
As the beast breaches the shielded Krell lab, Adams confronts Morbius with the truth. When Morbius used the Krell intellect enhancer, his suppressed savagery became the beast that first killed the Bellerophon crew who voted to leave Altair-4 and now threatens them. Horrified, Morbius defies his savage alter-ego and both perish. Adams then throws a self-destruct switch that will destroy the Krell planet and the temptations it presents to humanity. As Adams, Altaira, Robbie, and the remaining C57D crew escape, they reflect on Morbius and the Krell’s legacy.
At the Mountains of Madness: A Brief Synopsis:
Next, if it has been awhile since you read this story, let us continue with a brief retelling of Lovecraft’s Antarctic adventure.
Geologist William Dyer, a Miskatonic Professor, recounts how he led a group of scholars and students, on a previous mission to Antarctica. There, they discovered sinister secrets in a range of mountains higher than the Himalayas. An advance group, led by Professor Lake, dug up fourteen primitive life-forms – some complete, some incomplete – previously unknown to science. The stratum where Lake found the fossils – approximately 40 million years old – places them far too early for their advanced features to have evolved on Earth. For their likeness to beasts portrayed in the fabled Necronomicon, the entities are nicknamed the “Elder Things.”
When Lake’s party fails to make radio check-ins, Dyer and company investigate. They find Lake’s camp devastated; the remains of men and dogs alike curiously hung, butchered, and salted. Also gone are a student named Gedney and a dog. Close-at-hand, they discover six star-shaped snow mounds, and one imperfect specimen under each. Coincidentally, they fail to locate the eight unsullied specimens.
Dyer and his assistant Danforth, fly an airplane to search for Gedney in the nearby mountains. There, they locate a vast stone-city, alien and ancient. As the twosome explore the ruins, they learn through cartouche murals that the builders – clearly the Elder Things – first fell to Earth soon after the Moon took orbit. They erected their cities using “Shoggoths” — biological beasts of burden they created to perform any feat, assume any form, and follow any hypnotic suggestion. As they enter other buildings, the men witness the Elder Things’ conflict with the Cthulhu Spawn and the Mi-go, both subsequent arrivals to Earth. Later, as the Elder Things struggled to retain supremacy over the rebellious Shoggoths, the etchings become random and crude. When Antarctica turned too cold for the Elder Things, they migrated to a warmer, underground sea.
Upon entering a deeper network of tunnels, Dyer and Danforth smell the unmistakable aroma of gasoline. Also, the men recognize their surroundings as the path to the subterranean sea depicted in earlier murals. Next, they find a debris trail that leads to battered sleds from Lake’s Camp and the dissected corpses of Gedney and the lost dog. It dawns on Dyer and Danforth that somehow, the missing Elder Things had reanimated, slaughtered the advance group, then traveled to the dead city. Further, they locate the eight Elder Things, freshly beheaded in pools of blood. Confronted by a vast, undulating mass – unquestionably a Shoggoth – the men flee. Later aboard the plane, Danforth sees something below that finally unhinges him.
Dyer surmises that the Elder Things, as men of another age, slaughtered Lake’s crew and dogs out of self-defense, scientific curiosity, and for sustenance. Their creations – the mutinous Shoggoths – exterminated them. Dyer warns, should an upcoming Antarctic expedition disturb the ruins, they may unleash a Shoggoth Apocalypse on humanity.
1. A Few Gothic Elements in Each Story:
Gothic literature derives its name from an architectural style. Ornate decors, soaring heights, majestic structures, maze-filled foundations, milling shadows, and extreme locales.
The birth of science spelled the death of the supernatural. Supernatural fictions conflict with scientific facts. Demons could no longer reside in the unseen spiritual world. The Old Darkness was replaced with the New Darkness – material forces that represent a break from the theological past into a materialistic present. The new demons reside in the commonplace, the world science had framed or that remains to be explained by science.
This is not an attempt to pigeonhole At the Mountains of Madness into a stereotypical gothic straitjacket. The use of gothic concepts is a means to frame the fantastic images in Lovecraft’s story and Forbidden Planet. In that sense:
“The Gothic creates horror by portraying human individuals in confrontation with the overwhelming, mysterious, terrifying forces found in the cosmos and within themselves” (3).
Like multiple wounds, one gothic category bleeds into another – there are no hard and fast rules. In the following paragraphs, I would like to mention a few:
1.A. Extreme isolation.
1.B. The Incomprehensible Unknown.
1.C. An Inescapable Curse
1.D. Reliable Versus Unreliable Narration.
I am basing my observations on the film version of Forbidden Planet’s storyline. Also, a comparison of Forbidden Planet to Shakespeare’s, The Tempest is beyond the scope of this essay.
1.A. – 1.C. Isolation, the Unknown, and the Curse:
Both Forbidden Planet and At the Mountains of Madness are replete with Gothic darkness.
First, extreme isolation is an element of the Gothic. As mentioned earlier, in Lovecraft’s era, the icy crags of Antarctica were as remote as the surface of the moon. In Forbidden Planet, the twenty crewmembers sent to rescue the Bellerophon expedition are a full one-year in hyperspace distant from any earth base. And they had no immediate means to contact earth command.
In essence, the Miskatonic Expedition and the J.J. Adams rescue mission faced the unknown alone. Whatever dangers they encountered, whatever problems that needed a solution, whatever incomprehensible mysteries they bumped into, they did so unaided. There was no recourse to outside help. They are stranded, subject to whatever perils that lay hidden in the shadows. In Lovecraft’s tale, the weather also becomes an unflinching opponent; the cold, wind, ice, and snow hampered Dyer and company’s every effort to understand and survive.
1.B. The Unknown: Second, man is dwarfed by story elements and ideas. Dyer finds mountains taller than mankind has every charted – dwarfing the Himalayas and Mount Everest. The dead city of the Elder Things runs from horizon-to-horizon, built in heights never traversed by civilized man. The fact that the cyclopean city existed while humanity was yet a shambling simian challenges the modern and religious mind alike.
And what mysteries do the ruins still harbor?
In Forbidden Planet, when Morbius says, “…Prepare your minds for a new scale of physical scientific values gentlemen…” it represents a pivotal moment in Commander Adams and Dr. Ostrow’s understanding of the universe. The Krell Colossus, twenty-miles cubed, 7,800 levels, 9,200 thermonuclear reactors, dwarfed the three men who walked through its atomic bowels. The technology needed to erect the Krell machine, an edifice that has run non-stop for 200,000 years – roughly the time Homo sapiens first appeared in Africa – staggers the imagination.
Both the wonders of the Krell and the civilization of the Elder Things unhinge our preconceptions. I liken it to the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where an ape-man falls under the influence of a Black Stone Monolith. Such stands the simian Morbius before the Krell Colossus.
1.C. The Curse: Third, there is a curse. A sense of doom pervades many gothic works. In particular:
“In a Spaceship Gothic story the characters set out to solve a mystery but discover a curse. It’s bigger than whatever they thought they were looking for, if they were looking for anything specific at all. It’s transcendent, inherently incomprehensible. Something beyond. The characters throw themselves against it, and break” (4).
In the maze of tunnels beneath the Elder Things City, Dyer discovers one of perhaps innumerable reasons the Old Ones perished eons ago – a living Shoggoth. If the Star-headed men of yesteryear could not conquer their multicellular, protoplasmic slaves, does modern man face a similar doom?
In a similar fashion, a divine death inexorably stalks the crew of the space cruiser C57D. First, the radioman, Chief Quinn, is torn limb-from-limb. Then in a skirmish at the cruiser, despite the massed firepower of the ship’s disintegrators, Lieutenant Farman and other crewmen die. Morbius’ self-described “Planetary Force” seems indestructible, as it picks off Adams’ shipmates, much as Moby Dick did in the crew of the Pequod. Will there be any Ishmael-like survivors to tell their tale?
Such is an element of impending doom, a sense of titanic tension, added by the curse to the atmosphere of Forbidden Planet and At the Mountains of Madness.
1.D. Reliable Versus Unreliable Narration:
“People trust their eyes above all else – but most people see what they wish to see, or what they believe they should see; not what is really there” (5).
What the narrator recites to his or her audience may or may not be true. Or the world, as seen through different perspectives in the story, is not as it seems either today or in the past.
One-by-one, the holy books that once guided humanity have been discarded. Many traditions no longer define the thinking person. Where once, we thought we were just a little lower than the angels, when Darwin came along, we found out exactly how much lower – apes.
Since then, we have tried to find our existential way without a reliable roadmap. The instincts that adequately guide other animals have proved inadequate for us.
That is why, in one of humanity’s first forays into science fiction/gothic, humanity remade man in his/her own scientific image Frankenstein, a piece-meal amalgamation of every dead thing that had come before them.
One writer described the role of Science Fiction in that process:
“Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode” (6).
1.D.i. Utterly Alien and Unimaginatively Old:
Consider Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, in reference to a definition of man and his origins.
Despite the photo-realism of the Elder Things murals, Dyer and Danforth faced a monumental challenge – how to interpret the Old Ones’ history? What of the Spawn of Cthulhu and the Mi-Go? They would be no more than random shapes, without an internal point of reference with which the men could interpret the images.
Plus the Elder Things’ dotted language, a sort of alien Morse code, was indecipherable without a lexicon. Dyer noted how the dot groupings served as either a key or narration of the alien murals:
“With the field-glass we could…make out…sculptural decorations in horizontal bands—decorations including those curious groups of dots whose presence on the ancient soapstones now assumed a vastly larger significance” (7).
Early explorers faced a similar dilemma when they tried to interpret Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Were it not for the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the translation of that ancient pictographic language might have reached a scholarly standstill.
What standard did Dyer and Danforth possess to test a conjecture or inference against? After all, as Dyer related, “Imagination could conceive almost anything in connexion with this place” (8). The Antarctic Old Ones, utterly alien and unimaginatively old, represented a linguistic nightmare. And neither academician listed philology as a sub-speciality.
1.D.ii. An Unveiling of the Veiled Necronomicon:
Lovecraft, through his tales, established to his readers’ satisfaction that the dreaded Necronomicon was fictionally true. Even today, some HPL fans search for any scrap of evidence that the legendary volume actually existed. Yet the Necronomicon remained largely a veiled curiosity, known more by its reputation than its obscure contents.
The key to Dyer and Danforth’s success lay in the excerpts of the Necronomicon that they carried inside their heads. The Elder Things’ murals depicted a prehistory that amplified and validated passages out of the Necronomicon. The reader listens to Dyer’s internal dialogue, as one after another, he experiences a series of “this is that” discovery moments.
The murals before Dyer, when combined with the Mad Arab’s cryptic words, left no doubt. While Dyer and Danforth’s experiences in the dead city disproved traditional origin myths, the evidence clearly supported those hinted at in the Necronomicon. As a result, the ideological moorings, which had hitherto guided the professor’s life, were no longer trustworthy.
Lovecraft was not one to write a story in order to teach the reader or impart a moral. HPL used words such as “mundane” and “prosaically” when he writes of the merits of such works:
“Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation. We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror-literature. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a ‘high spot’ must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down.” (9).
Even though Lovecraft penned fiction that fit his own tastes, did his literary opinions encourage others to think outside their closed minds? Were the traditional fictions of Lovecraft’s readers eclipsed by his fictional answers to humanity’s origins?
1.D.iii. Each New Ruin brought a New Revelation:
“…the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls…” (10).
Graffiti is street truth – the untold feelings and thoughts of those who have no voice in society. It is the unleashing of all the things pent-up inside people. Graffiti liberates those feelings quashed by the societal forces that demand an Orwellian conformity from its members (11). It reflects raw, freed feelings rather than polished, sanitized and sanctioned opinion. With its origins in cave paintings, graffiti reflects the day in and day out lives of the masses.
Artists who chose the streets as their canvas wish to be free of the stylistic constraints and approved subject matter of the art community. Is there any wonder that some graffiti artists drew their inspiration from H.R. Giger’s profound portfolio?
There was a brutal honesty to the scenes that played out before Dyer’s eyes. Each new ruin brought a new revelation into the Old Ones at the heights and depths of their civilization. Perhaps, like the Thermians from Galaxy Quest, there was no concept of lying and deception in the Elder Things’ intellectual makeup.
Lovecraft’s only tip-of-the-hat came in reference to the teleological moorings of the Old Ones’ thinking:
“Conceivably, the Old Ones might have invented a cosmic framework to account for their occasional defeats, since historical interest and pride obviously formed their chief psychological element. It is significant that their annals failed to mention many advanced and potent races of beings whose mighty cultures and towering cities figure persistently in certain obscure legends.” (12).
1.D.iv. The Elder Thing’s Raw Truth versus The Krell’s Sanitized Truth:
“…In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty, noble race of beings who called themselves the Krell. Ethically and technologically they were a million years ahead of humankind, for in unlocking the mysteries of nature they had conquered even their baser selves, and when in the course of eons they had abolished sickness and insanity, crime and all injustice, they turned, still in high benevolence, outward toward space. Then, having reached the heights, this all-but-divine race perished in a single night, and nothing was preserved above ground…” (13).
The tell-all remains of the Elder Things civilization, by some happenstance of climate and seismic forces, had not disappeared despite eons of time. That was particularly poignant, for the great city was located in the Antarctic, a region the Old Ones deemed sacred; it was the place of their first arrival. If there was ever an Elder Things Center of Learning, as remarkable as the great Library of Alexandria, there it was to be found.
In contrast, all the raw graffiti of the Krell disappeared, as the soaring, spires of their Adamantine and porcelain cities vanished. Did every vestige of the Krell civilization above ground erode over a mere 200,000 years? The vast Elder Things City remained largely intact despite 40 million years of earthquakes and elements.
No, the Krell civilization did not weather over time, despite Morbius’s assertions. It was destroyed during the Krell apocalypse.
Like homes washed away in a flood, all the records, all the personal artifacts, all the Krell’s great edifices were gone. There was no independent record, no other source to fact-check the veracity of the Krell electronic storehouse. Nothing remained to contradict the official “Truth” of the Krell.
All that was left was the sanitized, civilized version of their history, stored in the vast electronic Krell library:
“…on this screen may be projected the total scientific knowledge of the Krell from its primitive beginning to the day of its annihilation…” (14).
1.D.v. Morbius Marooned:
What factors led to Morbius’ unquestioning acceptance of Krell “truths”?
One, he had no choice. When the Bellerophon vaporized, Morbius had no recourse to the machinery of his civilization to survive. He had to embrace the Krell technology. He had to become Krell or life as he knew it would end. He had to accept Krell truth or perish.
And Morbius had to make things work for his family’s sake too.
Two, the Krell record proved scientifically accurate on one level. Perhaps Morbius, the lowly linguist, chose that field of study because of some mathematical deficiency that prevented him from pursuing a career in the hard sciences. Incredibly, after a few goes on the Krell enhancer, he was able to cobble together Robbie. He created mechanical life, on a greater scale than anything ever produced on earth. Robbie was Morbius’s alter-ego.
Since the Krell library worked in one instance, he felt it could be trusted in all instances.
Three, Morbius became personally invested in the truthfulness of the Krell record.
And why not? To Morbius, his interest was nothing more than a great enthusiasm for an unparalleled scientific discovery. He was convinced that the Krell knowledge should be released piecemeal, as a dispassionate conservator – namely Morbius – deemed each tidbit safe for humanity.
Also, as a linguist and not a hard scientist, Morbius occupied a less important role on the Bellerophon mission. His was a noncore line of research. He had a professional chip on his shoulder – and knowledge of the Krell elevated his professional standing. Morbius’s discovery would rank him among the greats of science, like Newton and Einstein. The feather in his cap could become a crown on his head.
1.D.vi. Morbius’s Unquestioned Faith in the “Divine” Krell:
Morbius idolized the Krell, to the extent that he called them almost divine. Would the nearest thing to divinity in Morbius’s mind lie? There is a naiveté, a child-like acceptance of things the way the Krell depicted things. Perception is reality, even though reality may be 180 degrees different. Like many, he believes everything, simply because it is in writing. Krell writing.
Or perhaps Morbius possessed a child-like, magical understanding of things, something that a person outgrows as they mature. Yet, Morbius could never grow-up; he was not Krell. He was part of a race that cannot correlate all the understanding we have now into some coherent train of thought. As Lovecraft noted:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” (15).
As a whole, we cannot comprehend what we know now. How in the world could Morbius expect to fathom the Krell?
1.D.vii. The Unknowable Noumenon:
Let us spin this around and look at it from one additional angle.
Immanuel Kant wrestled with the ideas surrounding the known and unknown. Noumenon refers to an object that exists by itself, in an unobserved state. Phenomenon refers to those parts of an object that can be observed by the senses. The phenomena are knowable since it refers to knowledge of an object gained through the senses. However, since knowledge of an object cannot be obtained apart from the senses, the Noumenon of an object cannot be known. Thus, like a reflection in a mirror – we can observe an object, but we can never understand it beyond its reflection. And like a fun house mirror, our senses can distort the image of an object.
The idea of an origin, a birth, a conception, a beginning and an ending – these are human constructs based on our limited perspectives. Death is but an interpretation of a perception.
What if there was no difference between the Noumenon and Phenomenon to the Krell? What if, no matter how many lifetimes and cranial enhancements Morbius went through, he could never comprehend what the Krell understood beyond a shadow of a doubt?
1.D.viii. Programming without Protests:
Morbius placed his faith in the plastic educator. To Morbius, the device was the Krell’s Delphi Oracle. His was an education by osmosis.
Morbius saw himself a visionary, an ideological purist. That delusion afflicts religious and scientific zealots alike, for the inquisition of yesterday and the political correctness of today are driven by similar dynamics.
The dark side of the Krell educator was its ability to program someone without his or her permission. Someone without scruples could program cogs in the Krell corporate machine without an individual’s consent.
In TV’s classic series, The Prisoner, during the episode entitled, “The General,” Number 6 tries to unmask and disrupt the controlling agents behind a new brainwashing scheme disguised as an educational breakthrough (16). Did the Krell Overlords use a similar innocent-sounding scheme to enslave their people?
The Krell populace finally got the worldwide free Wi-Fi their politicians had forever promised them. And look what happened.
Did the Krell educator brainwash Morbius into believing they had no savage side?
How much Krell propaganda did Morbius unknowingly ingest through the plastic educator? How much did he understand the aliens’ symbols, since his mind assigned meanings to those characters, based on human symbols and constructs?
Morbius called the doctor an “ape” for trying to access the secrets of the Krell. The path to Krell scientific enlightenment led to death, first for the Bellerophon captain, and then for Dr. Ostrow of the Adams mission.
But, by Morbius’s own admission, despite his brain’s enhancement, he was still a “low-grade moron” by Krell standards. Morbius had a “coloring book” understanding of the Aliens. And he said that cobbling together Robbie the Robot was “Child’s Play.”
In his defense, perhaps part of Morbius’s child-like faith in the Krell was simply because he was caught up in the wonder of it all.
2. Cosmicistic Crossovers and Alternative Scenarios:
Before we continue, I would like to define Lovecraft’s Cosmicism:
“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos…To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all…when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity—and terrestrialism at the threshold” (17).
When you reach out into Deep Space, you are bound to encounter creatures of deep time and radically-different thought processes.
Per Cosmicistic thought, we must release our minds, as much as possible, from human analogies when we think about the outside. Nothing is as it seems, especially from a human viewpoint. Deductive reasoning? Inductive reasoning? Often our perceptions are faulty because our five senses are so primitive.
For example, the Elder Things died at the hands of their own organic engineering. Moreover, perhaps the Krell faced annihilation at the hands of their inorganic engineering. This is a common pattern in the myths cycles we call science fiction, cosmic horror, and other apocalypse literature.
Yet, are all sophisticated civilizations, alien or otherwise, doomed to follow that fatal pattern? Or, is that notion simply derived from our unsophisticated, human perspective?
Contrary to our species unfounded sense of superiority and optimism, ours is not a common, nor shared perspective among other inhabitants of the cosmos.
Next, in a Lovecraftian universe where chance and accident drive the chaos we try to see order in, we will explore the chance juxtaposition of the elements of great cinema and literature – alternative Lovecraft, Forbidden Planet, and Star Trek timelines.
As the germs of various plot ideas incubate imagination, not internal consistency, drives our exposition.
2.A. Striking Similarities:
We will begin this part of our discussion with a review of four similarities suggested by ideas in Forbidden Planet and select Lovecraft tales.
2.A.i. The Krell’s Shape: The massive trapezoidal-formed Krell appear to be smaller versions of the Great Race of Yith. Professor Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee described the latter as, “…immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes…” (18). I cite smaller versions, as the Great Race on earth was said to be ten-feet high cones, while the Krell doorways look no more than seven-feet high at their apex.
Humanity is quick to believe that many alien life forms in its Science Fiction, even the god-like engineers from Prometheus, evolved into humanoid shapes. What if the Krell-shape was the dominate form favored by evolution over a classic humanoid?
The inference of the Krell’s form, based on the cone-shaped service doors in Forbidden Planet, may be an homage to Lovecraft and The Shadow Out of Time (1935).
2.A.ii. The Krell’s Sudden Disappearance: If the Krell were a sub-tribe of the Great Race of Yith, did they decide to migrate en masse to another world and species to escape an enemy in the Altair system? Even the Great Race on Earth faced an enemy they could not comprehend nor conquer – the Flying Polyps.
Did the Krell, shining beacons of sanity, travel to Vulcan, displace the savage pre-logic Vulcans minds, and become the logic-dominated Vulcans in the Star Trek timeline?
Was Surak, founder of all Vulcan logic, truly Vulcan or a Krell Elder in an off-world guise?
Perhaps the Krell machine was meant to close the portal and erase evidence of their migration elsewhere. And the Krell Colossus was set to kill any species that might try to follow their trail.
In the original Star Trek episode, “All Our Yesterdays”, the Sarpeidons, facing imminent destruction as their Sun goes Supernova, escaped into their planet’s past, to live out their lives (19). In their case, the superiors lived among the inferiors, given a brief preconditioning session that prevented their mode of speech, or other modernisms, from giving them away to the natives. In the same fashion, the migrating Krell may have been prepared by the plastic educator to blend among the native Vulcan population, once they occupied Vulcan bodies.
And the Vulcan Salute – a raised hand with the palm forward and the thumb extended, while the fingers are parted between the middle and ring finger – may have resulted from the Krell’s initial inability to manipulate objects with a humanoid body. For instance, in August Derleth’s pastiche on the Great Race, humans inhabited by Earth’s prehistoric cone-shaped Aliens could be identified by their lack of manual dexterity:
“…The two men seemed unable to grasp the pages, but were nudging them forward with strange, crab-like motions…” (20).
Also, notice that Robbie the Robot’s hands are made up of three-digits, not five. If Morbius followed a Krell schematic when he constructed Robbie, was that feature a holdover from the original Krell designers? Did the Krell possess three-digit analogous hands?
2.A.iii. The Abdul Alhazred Archetype: Morbius’ knowledge of the Krell was, at his own admission, incomplete. In that sense, Morbius is a type of Abdul Alhazred. They both communed with the Old Ones in a desert. Both dabbled in things they did not wholly understand. And the products of their researches led to their deaths and the death of others.
Perhaps, while thus engaged, Abdul Alhazred made enemies and allies among those in the outside spheres. His outside confidants, aware of a coming onslaught by others against their lackey, but unable to defend his fleshy home, prepared him for an ascension to their side and influence. There the Mad Arab’s spirit brooded until it gained access to another, one of weaker will and woeful defenses. One ignorant of the devices of those from the Outside. When the opening came, not on the Earth but faraway, in an instant–-for the speed of thought and power of the Krell know no limits–the psychic force, once known as Abdul Alhazred, took up flesh again. Morbius, naive in the ways of alchemy and the occult, became its host and Their tool. Thereafter, Robbie the Robot, able to speak 187 languages and their dialects, reeducated the new Morbius/Alhazred on language and culture, not to arouse the suspicions of astute others, as Joseph Curwen did on his transition.
2.A.iv. One-Upping the Invisible Man: This is modernizing the ghost trope since such creatures were supernaturally based. An invisible monster-haunted Altair-4 and Dunwich, Massachusetts. They could become visible, given certain conditions. Both were indestructible, except by extraordinary, esoteric means.
Did Wilbur’s Whateley’s twin die? Or did the Krell deposit a similar Colossus on earth during their visit, which awaits another Morbius? What was buried under the hillside home of Wizard Whateley? Had Wilbur succeeded where his Grandfather failed? Or did Wilbur’s death spell the eventual demise of his twin, once the power that generated his nuclear doppelganger decayed? A buffer would have allowed Wilbur’s Twin to remain active after Wilbur’s demise.
Did the error-ridden, John Dee’s translation of the dreaded Necronomicon provide the clue to Wizard Whateley where the Krell machine resided?
And why would the Krell place one of their machines on our young planet? Upon their arrival in the deep past, did they find Earth overrun with Alien species, who needed to be removed before they could establish a colony? Perhaps their plans were thwarted when Earth’s existing invaders proved as tenacious and advanced as the Krell. They were able to avoid annihilation by the Krell Colossus.
2.A.v. Altaira Morbius and Lavinia Whateley: What did madness drive both Father to do? Morbius lived alone with his daughter, Altaira – naïve to the point of blissful ignorance – on a deserted planet for eighteen years or there about. Lavinia – given to wild and grandiose daydreams and singular occupations – lived with her father, Wizard Whateley, aged and half-insane. An innocent enough arrangement? A tawdry Arkham Enquirer headline?
Or something completely different?
We know from the secretive union of Lavinia and Yog-Sothoth, perhaps through the incestuous instrumentality of her crazed father, Wilbur and his lumbering viscous mountain of a brother were born.
But what about Altaira Morbius? Was she truly human as the storyline assumes? Or the result of something else?
Perhaps the truth was revealed in Morbius’ use of the Krell educator:
“Morbius – Now then, for the primary function. Actually, to operate…Well, I’ll choose a familiar subject to start with to save time.There now, gentlemen.
CDR Adams – What’s that? What’s happening there? A statue. That’s Altaira.
Morbius – Simply a three-dimensional image, Commander.
Dr. Ostrow – But it’s alive!
Morbius – Because my daughter is alive in my brain from microsecond to microsecond…while I manipulate. There (Altaira disappears). Something of a strain.
Dr. Ostrow – Aladdin’s lamp in a physics laboratory” (21).
Perhaps the prospect of living alone after the death of his wife drove Morbius to a madness and the desperate measures spawned by isolation. In the movie Cast Away (2000), Tom Hanks’s character Chuck Noland staved off insanity and suicide through his handmade volleyball friend, Wilson. Did Morbius follow a similar course armed with Krell technology?
Was Altaira Morbius’s Wilson? When the Id Monster openly attacked CDR Adams and crew of the C57D, both Morbius and Altaira saw the same vision of destruction and carnage in their dreams. They both seemed to share the same psychic link with the Krell Colossus. Why didn’t the Id Monster’s prior activity bother the dreams of the C57D crew? That connection between Morbius, Altaira, and the Krell machine is significant. Maybe it is because Altaira’s unconscious was simply a reflection or extension of Morbius’s own Krell-enhanced consciousness.
Perhaps the final scene of Forbidden Planet should have been, upon the destruction of Altair-4, and the severing of the final psychic link with the Krell Colossus, Altaira would have faded from sight, her existence extinguished as the three-dimensional image in the Krell educator.
2.B. Why was Morbius Spared by the Krell Educator?
The preceding discussion invites a further question: “Why did the Krell Educator kill the Bellerophon Captain and Dr. Ostrow, but spared Morbius?”
There was a stated difference of 22 points between Morbius’ IQ of 183 and Doctor Ostrow’s IQ of 161. Could a 22-point difference be the demarcation line between life and death to our species when the plastic educator was used?
Or was the Krell Intellectual Enhancer programmed to spare some aliens while it executed others? Had the Krell planted some remnant of their DNA in selected hominins during their visit to earth, later recognized by the plastic educator?
2.B.i. Backwater World Procedures:
Why would the Krell visit an outback, young world like the Earth among their many destinations?
The Krell did not plant genetic markers in hominins because they had any special interest in our development and welfare. What if, as a matter of procedure, they implanted such DNA markers on any world they visited? What if they planted that DNA strain in the species they projected would dominate that world? That way, when that breed ventured into space, the Krell would have a genetic way to achieve instant dominance over the aliens, given the use of certain triggers.
This scenario assumes the Krell found no other Alien dominate species on the young Earth.
Perhaps Morbius was the only member of the Bellerophon mission that possessed the Krell gene sequence hidden in the junk DNA we all possess. When Morbius tried the plastic educator, his Krell inheritance manifested itself. He was spared, while the Bellerophon Commander died. Unbeknownst to him, Morbius became a weapon under Krell programming, first destroying the Bellerophon expedition, then unleashing the Krell “Planetary Force” on the Adams rescue mission.
When you are dealing with marginally sophisticated primitives, weaponizing one of their own to use against the infestation is nothing new. Human beings release sterile mosquitos among swarms of their disease-carrying counterparts to eradicate the troublesome insects.
What is the best way to clear off a planet or keep a solar system clear of unwanted, invasive species? If the Krell wanted to keep their quadrant of the galaxy clear of bothersome infestations, why not seed bordering star systems with the Krell technological equivalent of a Roach Motel?
Exactly how numerous were human expeditions at the time of Commander Adams’ mission? During Morbius’ time, starships were named, such as the Bellerophon. Twenty years later, there were so many space cruisers in service; they did not bother with naming each individual one, such as the C57D. Unlike the Star Trek universe – where starships carried crews that numbered in the hundreds to thousands – each space cruiser carried a crew of twenty. With minimal crew requirements, scores of the Forbidden Planet ships could spread humanity’s seed across the cosmos.
The Krell relics initiated other beings into exterminating their own kind. After the encroaching insects land, the plastic educators weaponized one of their own genetically-altered members. Soon the beachhead is decimated. It is years before the weed species becomes troublesome again.
What appears elaborate and immense to us may take a moment in time for an advanced species like the Krell to set up. Or the Krell may have used their A.I. units to plant the Machine traps since they were very advanced in that field.
2.B.ii. A MacGyver Species? Really?
We like to think of ourselves as a MacGyver species, based on the late 80s TV series of the same name. Angus “Mac” MacGyver. That name stirs up a lot of images and emotions. Our optimism as a species is formed around such myths. They represent variations on the ever-resourceful self-made man. Given nothing, we think we can come up with something. Our vocabulary is dominated by words such as improvise, adapt, overcome. Who needs divine powers when your cunning can conquer the devices of any that oppose us?
Yet, where will an ape’s brain and a MacGyver complex get us when we face a species as advanced as the Krell? When it comes to civilization, we are not babes in the woods, as we like to think ourselves.
We are lab rats in a researcher’s maze.
The Krell placed just enough non-lethal beginner’s technology in the trap “libraries.” to ensnare the imaginations of the targeted population. But, the more sophisticated elements in the libraries lead to non-problematic, unsolvable dead ends. The sophisticated mumbo-jumbo kept their Thralls bewitched with dreams of supreme achievement over their peers.
All pointless activity, achieving nothing, going nowhere, wholly unbeknownst to the insect.
Morbius was Reality TV for the Aliens, or educational TV, like a National Geographic or the Discovery Channel nature special. A modern title applied by humanity to ants like, “Get inside the collective mind of a genius superorganism,” the Krell might assign to Morbius. The Krell could watch as a POV, through the eyes of Morbius, as the drama unfolds. Or they could watch him through strategically-placed animals’ eyes or cameras.
In the band Soundgarden’s, Black Hole Sun, official Vevo Music Video, at 1:44, we watch two boys with magnifying glasses, as they gaze at a huge cockroach they have suspended in the air by the head with a set of tweezers (22). Will they tear his head off, to see how long its legs continue to thrash? Will they focus the sun on the insect, to see how long it takes to catch fire? How will the insect react to its burning up?
Insects, such as ourselves, hold much entertainment value for dominant species.
Once Morbius fulfills his purpose, before his death, the Krell could preserve in amber or some other means of suspended animation for later study. And dissection. They can compare his biological structure to the hominins they have on file from their previous trip to Earth, eons ago.
2.B.iii. Off-World Krell?
Morbius believed all the Krell had perished overnight on Altair-4. The Krell are viewed as victims of their own machines, based on the propaganda fed through the weaponized member of the invasive party. So, the blame for the tragedy is shifted elsewhere. Perhaps even the name “Krell” is one of the many aliases used by the dominate race to keep their whereabouts and identities out of the intergalactic limelight.
Perhaps even the name “Krell” is one of the many aliases used by the dominate race to keep their whereabouts and identities out of the intergalactic limelight.
But what of the off-world Krell? Based on Morbius’ limited perspective, we know the Krell visited other planets. Were the Krell such basket-cases of shining sanity that they ethically could not bring themselves to colonize other worlds? Or did the biological imperative to preserve the species overcome their “do-gooder” intentions?
What happened to them?
Morbius knew the C57D was coming long before Commander Adams reached the Altair system. Such were the unlimited resources at the earthman’s disposal. Why did not Morbius attempt to use the Krell machinery, with its unfathomable power, to contact Krell colonies elsewhere? He could have programmed Robbie to speak Krell, among the 187 languages, their various dialects, and sub-tongues. And Morbius could have set up a super-sophisticated SETI project of his own, to search for the lost Krell tribes. If Robbie’s creation was child’s play, so might such a SETI venture on scales never imagined.
Maybe Morbius’ programming prevented him from seeing the logical fallacy, in the same vein that many otherwise intellectual cultists cannot see inconsistencies in their group’s dogma.
2.B.iv. Lovecraft and Nuisance Sentients:
While this strategy may appear far-reaching from our perspective, for a long-lived race of supreme intellects, it is simply a matter of being thorough. They formed their systematic procedures based on experience with nuisance sentients that consider themselves “promising” species.
Not surprisingly, Lovecraft’s own estimation of humanity matched the nuisance species proposed here as the Krell perspective:
“I expect nothing of man, and disown the race. The only folly is expecting what is never attained; man is most contemptible when compared with his own pretensions. It is better to laugh at man from outside the universe, than to weep for him within” (23).
2.C. Re-thinking R’leyh:
Distances mean nothing to multi-dimensional beings. Unlike Randolph Carter, whose many facets each possessed a separate personality (24), Cthulhu knew no such limitations. As an entity of a higher order, he was aware of all things everywhere, in one sense observed through the multiplied eyes and ears of his countless facets. As Old Castro had noted: “…They knew all that was occurring in the universe…” (25). There was no question of supremacy in the Old One’s myriad facets. He ruled them all, with no loss of potency, presence of mind, or unswerving purpose.
What if Cthulhu lay dead and dreaming on the Krell planet? What if a vessel filled with Cthulhu and its Cthulhu Spawn crashed onto Altair-4 and survived, but did not survive? And what if the accident occurred after the Krell perished?
First, consider the effects on aliens, human beings, and animals across the cosmos. Think about the unparalleled Ids of Cthulhu and the Cthuloids – released and amplified by the unlimited power of the Krell Colossus. Rather than Darwinian forces being the primary dynamic behind evolution, what if another force were equally at play? What if the instinctive animal–savagery we assume all beasts have, beginning in our world, and across the cosmos are not facts hard-wired by our genes into our make-up, but are actually psychic-reflections of the dead and dreaming Demigod and his minions on the Krell Planet?
Second, consider how Cthulhu may have inspired God myths across the known and unknown worlds.
The same psychic emanations that energized our budding Ids may have caused God dreams and visions in the proto-humans here and primitive-sentients elsewhere. Perhaps, from mighty Cthulhu’s telepathic transmissions sprung the shadowy legends of a thousand gods.
Is that how rumors of the existence of a god, which echo throughout the galaxy, got started?
Third, consider Cthulhu’s potential shell game with his adversaries.
What if Cthulhu’s rumored imprisonment in R’leyh is just that, a rumor? What if Cthulhu left that fiction in place so that His enemies would think Him still under lock and key, while He was free to roam elsewhere?
The Old One intended to keep His opponents guessing in which dimension, in which world, in which facet, and under which shell He might be found.
The Cthulhu that attacked Gustaf Johansen’s crew was similar to the Id monster’s attack. Both remade themselves after a devastating blow. Perhaps that towering Cthulhu was simply a holographic projection, meant to lend credence to the fiction that He was sequestered in an earthly prison.
2.D. Not Dead Yet – What became of the Krell?
Did the Krell perish overnight?
Morbius never quite fathomed why. Or perhaps Morbius did understand and simply chose not to accept the truth about his “divine” Krell.
Dr. Ostrow thought he knew why, based on a brain-boosting session that far exceeded Morbius’s brain expansion. It was the Krell’s own primitive demons released by the Aladdin’s Lamp in a physics lab.
Had the Krell cast off their founding myths, only to believe in new myths about themselves? They believed their own propaganda, that they had conquered their savage selves. Their own racial delusions cast a net for them. They mistook societal fiction for scientific fact. It was not that they forgot about their instinctive, primitive Ids. They were simply in denial about them.
But, was Dr. Ostrow correct?
Had the end come at Krell’s own hands, or had they been at war with an alien species, as suggested earlier? Perhaps the great machine was a war machine. Like Skynet, from the Terminator movies, the Krell Colossus promised to protect them. Instead, the Machine initiated a worldwide war against the organics it outgrew, as AI someday might outgrow us.
Did the Krell really die or morph into something else? After all, death is an interpretation of a perception.
We know from the original Star Trek episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, that passion-ruled Aliens, who had access to tremendous power, did not necessarily kill off entire races in a fit of sleepwalking (26). Otherwise, the alien Apollo and his fellow alien gods, around who grew up the myths of the Olympian gods, would have decimated humanity, long before we ventured into space.
In the original Star Trek episode, “Shore Leave,” the planet Riza was one great machine, comparable to the Krell machine (27). The Riza machine also created experiences out of nothing, based on the telepathic wishes of any being that walked its surface. But, it did not permanently kill them off.
So, what if, instead of a Krell Apocalypse that night marked an ascension into a higher form of consciousness? What if, like Star Trek’s Organians (28), the Krell evolved from their cone-shaped corporeal natures into advanced incorporeal beings? Did freedom from instrumentalities also free the Krell from their organic existence? Unlike the Great Race – who for migratory purposes went without bodies, but needed a corporeal shell for their continued existence – did the Krell evolve out of the need for such contrivances?
If there is an invisible multi-verse as postulated by the String-Theory, not simply an observable universe, based on our limited perceptions and our crude instrumentality, then there was no destruction of the Krell home world. The self-destruct switch and resulting world-ending explosion – simply an illusion for the benefit of the departing primitives, as the Organians practiced simple yet profound sleight-of-hand to mask their persons and purposes. Or they deposit the remaining C57D crew into a “Matrix” that simulates their departure – until they have some need for their bio-diversity. Some version of Altair-4 exists in a hundredfold variations in each of those separate realities.
Enduring themes drive the timeliness of art and its cultural relevance.
At the Mountains of Madness was cited as the inspiration for movies from The Thing (1982) to Prometheus (2012). I began my own journey with Lovecraft, reading HPL’s classic tale in the Ballantine Books mass-market paperback (1971).
The celebrated Lovecraft author, Pete Rawlik, continued the literary saga of the mysterious Krell in The Weird Company (2014). And science fiction greats such as Gene Roddenberry mentioned Forbidden Planet as a creative spur behind Star Trek. Few space-themed B-Movies from the 1950s possess a strong name recognition 60 years later.
We have reviewed some of the great themes in Forbidden Planet and At the Mountains of Madness. We have also explored some alternative scenarios, as suggested by both works, against the background of Cosmicism and traditional anthropomorphic space sagas, such as Star Trek.
During our survey, some extrapolations took on a life of their own. Morbius is a tragic, Faustian figure, retold afresh for a materialistic, scientific world. There is also a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde edge to Morbius, magnified beyond measure by the Krell Colossus.
And At the Mountains of Madness? Lovecraft at his worst some say, and others, at his best. Revelation after shocking revelation stirred the imaginations of his contemporary readers. And his modern fans eternally hope that Guillermo Del Toro will get a chance to film this classic, perhaps capturing Lovecraft’s cosmicistic visions in the process.
(1) “Forbidden Planet,” script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/f/forbidden-planet-script-transcript-leslie.html.
(2) At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1931.
(3) (Varma, 16) resources.mhs.vic.edu.au/creating/pages/origins.htm.
(4) “In Which I Notice a Subgenre,” superdoomedplanet.com, September 9, 2015.
(5) Shadow on the Moon, by Zoe Marriot, April 24, 2012.
(6) “The Origins of the Species,” by Brian Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, 1973.
(7) At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1931.
(8) Ibid, 1931.
(9) Supernatural Horror in Literature, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1927.
(10) “The Sounds of Silence,” Artist: Simon & Garfunkel, Album: Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence, Label: Colombia, Release Date, January 17, 1966.
(11) “What is the importance of graffiti/street art?” by Rieve Bule, quora.com/What-is-the-importance-of-graffiti-street-art, May 12, 2014.
(12) At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1931.
(13) “Forbidden Planet,” script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/f/forbidden-planet-script-transcript-leslie.html.
(15) The Call of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
(16) “The General,” by Lewis Greifer, The Prisoner, Episode 6, (1967).
(17) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Farnsworth Wright, 5 July 1927.
(18) The Shadow Out of Time, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1935.
(19) “All Our Yesterdays,” by Jean Lisette Aroeste, Star Trek, The Original Series, Season 3, Episode 78 (1969).
(20) The Shadow Out of Space, by August Derleth, 1957.
(21) “Forbidden Planet,” script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/f/forbidden-planet-script-transcript-leslie.html.
(22) “Black Hole Sun,” by Chris Cornell, Artist: Soundgarden, Album: Superunknown, Label: A&M, Release Date, May 1994.
(23) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Reinhardt Kleiner, April 23, 1921.
(24) Through the Gates of the Silver Key, by H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price, 1932.
(25) The Call of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
(26) “Who Mourns for Adonais?” by Gilbert Ralston and Gene L. Coon, Star Trek, The Original Series, Season 2, Episode 31, (1967).
(27) “Shore Leave,” by Theodore Sturgeon, Star Trek, The Original Series, Season 1, Episode 15, (1966).
(28) “Errands of Mercy,” by Gene L. Coon, Star Trek, The Original Series, Season 1, Episode 26, (1967).
John DeLaughter M.Div., M.S., is a Data Security Analyst and Lovecraft Essayist who lives in rural Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi, one dog, two cats, and a chicken coop. His work has appeared in The Lovecraft eZine, Samsara: The Magazine of Suffering, Tigershark Magazine, and Turn To Ash. John is presently editing an original epic fantasy work, Dark Union Rising. Follow John’s latest publications and all things Lovecraft on Twitter: @HPL_JDeLaughter.