CNN recently reported that Mount Rainier is the US volcano that troubles scientists the most. In fact, it keeps one volcanologist, Jess Phoenix, "up at night" because it poses a great threat to Tacoma and South Seattle. These parts of a metropolis that spans from Graham to Marysville are "built on 100-foot-thick (30.5-meter) ancient mudflows from eruptions of Mount Rainier.” The past points to the future. And to what keeps scientists twisting and turning late at night. It's not visions of fiery explosions or gigantic ash clouds (the volcano has been quiet for some 1000 years); instead, it's a lahar, a muddy flood of melted ice. Rainier's fire will be too far away to do much harm, and its ash will be blown to Eastern Washington (a fact the people of Yakima experienced when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980). But an unstoppable and super-fast flood of "rocks, lava and icy water" that's sure to come will do most, if not all, of the killing.

To make matters worse, a lahar can be caused by an earthquake (the Big One) or landslide. So, even without an eruption, our volcano could bring death to thousands at any moment and in the time it takes to write this post. And our potentially deadly mountain is not alone; it is one of many volcanos that extend "from northern California to southern British Columbia." Putting all of this together, one must ask: Why hasn't our region produced the kind of volcano noir or existentialism that colors Iceland's popular culture?


[A] 260 million-cubic-meter, 4-meter deep (9.2 billion-cubic-foot, 13-foot deep) lahar would originate on the west side of Mount Rainier. The debris flow would be equivalent to 104,000 Olympic-size pools...  could reach the densely populated lowlands of Orting, Washington, about one hour after an eruption, where it would travel at the speed of 13 feet (4 meters) per second.  

One can look at Mount Rainier and feel calmed by its beauty. Indeed, this is how it's presented in many pictures, posters, paintings, and postcards. It is a noble giant that rises serenely above downtown towers that tranquilly reflect the light of our setting star. And yet Mount Rainier can be more honestly portrayed as a tombstone for those it will and has already killed.

"Mount Rainier, Not A Place To Take Lightly," warns Rita Beamish. Between 1897 to 2017, it has killed nearly 500 climbers and hikers. One of them was my friend Joe Wood. He visited the volcano in 1999. He never returned. It is presumed Wood slipped and fell into an icy crevice. His body might be exposed when the glacier he is buried in melts. Indeed, this is exactly how strange things start to happen in the Icelandic TV series Katla. After a glacier is melted by an eruption, ash-covered people appear and haunt a small and isolated town, Vík, that counts among its members one cop, one farmer, and one witch. 

Katla, which means "kettle," is the name of a real active volcano that last erupted in 1918. In the show, the dead come to life inside of the volcano and zombie-walk to Vík. When ash is removed from their bodies, persons who died long ago or recently are revealed. What's going on? A volcanologist, Darri Hansson (Björn Thors), arrives to investigate the eruption, which refuses to stop and whose ash clouds have disrupted flights and the tourism industry (on average, over 25% of Iceland's economy is generated by visitors from around the world). His dead son Mikael (Hlynur Harðarson) shows up and spooks him. There is no way the boy can be alive. He was hit by a car in Reykjavík. The volcanologist saw the corpse with his own eyes. Saw the boy's brains splattered on the street. And now Mikael is here, talking to Darri, asking to eat, to pee, to play.  

The dead are not the only ones who visit the town next to the volcano. The living from the past return and haunt their living selves. For example, the farmer's wife, Gríma Þórsdóttir (Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð), does not only have to deal with the living and breathing sight of her dead sister Ása Þórsdóttir (Íris Tanja Flygenring) but also her younger self by a few years. In fact, the latter ghost causes her more trouble than the former one because her other is still in love with the man she married, the man she no longer loves. The farmer is not only overjoyed by the sudden return of the loving, younger Gríma, he fucks her. What is the unloving Gríma supposed to do? Is he really cheating on her? She doesn't desire him like she used to. Why and how has the blasted volcano unscrewed the bolts of time?  This is the zone of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker and Solaris

Gríma's father, Thor (Ingvar Sigurðsson), who has his own ghost to deal with (a Swedish woman he had an affair with 20 years ago), sees the whole bizarre business in a straightforward way. It's just another feature of a universe that's mostly unknowable. Life after death is as puzzling as life itself. How can one mystery be exceptional if everything (the universe, the sun, the sea, the snow, the birds, you name it) is already a mystery? The witch, who also runs Vík's only hotel, believes the volcano has revived the "changelings" of folklore. The scientist doesn't want his changed son. He wants to kill the evil little boy and restore order in the universe. Time only has one direction: from the past, through the ever-moving present, toward the final future. The dead are supposed to be nowhere but in the past.

The ash clouds that continuously fill the Icelandic sky are composed of bits of rock, crystals, and glass. This ash falls on the coastal cliffs, the Víkurkirkja church, and on the lonely graveyard where Asa and her mother lay buried. The black basalt beach, with its dreadfully cold waves, is where the scientist and his equally distressed wife take the ghost of their boy. What will they do there? A crow falls out of the starless sky, dies, and lives again. This is the kind of volcano noir Seattle is missing and needs. We live next to an active volcano. Its ghosts are everywhere. Who will rise from the mud left by Rainier's deadly lahar?