When I was thirteen I was handed a book by a friend. The cover art was off-putting — a red ocean, a mountain in the background with a human heart at its center, the head of a statue in the foreground. I hesitated to accept it, but this friend, who wasn’t much of a reader, stared at me for a moment and said, “You’ve got to.” Now, thirty years later, I remember that book more vividly than anything else I have ever read.
The Other Side of the Mountain is narrated by a boy of eighteen who wakes, after a night of drunken revelry, on a ship at sea. Within the first few pages he is nearly drowned by the crew for no other reason than the sport of it. The ship’s cook, a crafty old sailor named Toine, takes the boy under his wing and makes him an apprentice.
The ship is soon becalmed and starvation and thirst make the crew insane. A mutiny follows in which the captain is killed and then eaten. When the winds begin to blow again, they bring a typhoon, which sinks the ship. Only the boy and Toine survive, floating on the broken mast in a sea as red as blood. They are washed up onto a strange land and begin to explore it. Here, the story unhinges into the surreal, leading to an ending that is devastating.
Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is an antecedent to Bernanos’s story, but it doesn’t approach the latter’s power. The writing is so deceptively simple, yet manages to convey great cruelty and horror and always a certain underlying beauty that draws the reader along through the nightmare.
Michel Bernanos, a French writer, spent his early years turning out thrillers under assumed names. Upon nearing his fortieth year, he decided to write something of depth that he would be proud to apply his real name to. He was barely forty when he died, having just completed this masterpiece of 20th century Fantasy. It was published posthumously.
Copyright © 2000 by Spilogale, Inc., successor to Mercury Press. First published in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, June 2000. Reprinted here by permission. You can also read this piece on the F&SF site.