The City of the Elder Things (it didn’t have a proper name) is the most well described of Lovecraft’s alien cities, which also includes Pnakotus, the city of the Great Race of Yith that lay in the Australan outback, and R’lyeh, Cthulhu’s tomb. Immense, alien, frozen in time both literally and figuratively, half of the novella At the Mountains of Madness is taken up with it.
But, it could never exist in real life. For one thing, glaciers would crush it in their slow advance, not flow around it. And though it might have been buried in snow which later compacted into ice, the mass of frozen water would still move, and periodically crack into crevasses, grinding down and breaking the stone of which it was made. There’s also a description of wooden shutters which have fossilized into place at the windows while their metal parts dissolved, which isn’t very plausible either. I still love the story, but it’s now in realm of alt.history and fantasy.
Lovecraft himself seems to have been aware of this. The history of the city, given by the story’s narrator, gives a dizzying array of geographic dates for the various eras of construction: this part was built on an older part, with this part being older still, but, hey, most of it really dated from blahblahblahozoic, which implies he knew it wasn’t plausible for it to survive so long and was making excuses, trying to have his cake and eat it too. Which is actually endearing, as was the narrator’s deriving the history of the city solely from its bas-reliefs.
In my research on Lovecraft, he said he had been inspired by the description of a mirage known as a Fata Morgana, in which the bending of light due to certain atmospheric conditions causes distant objects to appear over the horizon in a distorted, often upside down way, like fantastic cities looming through the mist. In fact, the whole city seems inspired by a mirage.
This is evident in this passage by William Dyer, the story’s narrator:
I had seen dozens of polar mirages during the preceding weeks, some of them quite as uncanny and fantastically vivid as the present example; but this one had a wholly novel and obscure quality of menacing symbolism, and I shuddered as the seething labyrinth of fabulous walls and towers and minarets loomed out of the troubled ice vapors above our heads.
The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath. There were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five. All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer gigantism. The general type of mirage was not unlike some of the wilder forms observed and drawn by the arctic whaler Scoresby in 1820, but at this time and place, with those dark, unknown mountain peaks soaring stupendously ahead, that anomalous elder-world discovery in our minds, and the pall of probable disaster enveloping the greater part of our expedition, we all seemed to find in it a taint of latent malignity and infinitely evil portent.
Little do they know this mirage turns out to be real.
Unlike R’lyeh, the city’s geometry is not non-Euclidean and is thus understandable to humans, being built in a conventional way (with the aid of shoggoths, of course) of normal Terrestrial stone.
There’s something adorable about this artist’s depiction of the city’s construction. It’s not horrible at all. The Elder Things could be fluffy Beanie Babies complete with heart-shaped tag. I’ll be doing a look at the Elder Things later, and modern depictions are definitely NOT as simple and benign. The shoggoth is pretty cute too with its orb-shaped eyeballs floating in transparent jelly.
The city’s not a bad depiction either, bringing to mind Timbuktu and North Africa.
It’s also implied, but never directly stated until the end, that the city has extensions that honeycombed into the Mountains of Madness themselves and up their slopes into what the explorers first think is strange square rock formations, but are actually portals and terraces. Several times, at least six or seven, the name of visionary artists Nicholas Roerich is mentioned by the story’s narrator. I’d like to do a post on him later as well, because he has some beautiful artwork. Roerich specialized in Tibetan and Himalayan scenescapes that rise from foothills to mountains to even higher mountains that create in the viewer a sense of ascending awe, majesty, and mystery.
Where in the text Lovecraft refers to Roerich regarding the square rock formations, he may have had the below painting in mind, which may be a Tibetan monastery or just formations in the rock.
In Antarctica, though, the cubic structures and mountain peaks are black and without snow, having been scoured by the region’s fierce stratospheric winds.
As far as I know Lovecraft never actually visited any location that had such phenomena. One has to go far away from New England for that. In the American West, the geography of certain National Parks could inspire such fantasies. There’s a valley on Mt. Rainier called Glacier Basin, fairly easy to hike to, with volcanic formations that look like intricate baroque spires designed by Spanish artist Antoni Gaudi. In the fog, they might be mistake for citadels or towers. It was also my privilege to hike up to Summerland several times and over the pass, once in the snow, once when the snowpack was gone, through volcanic formations in bright colors of purplish red, adobe, yellowish grays, and even mossy green against an August blue sky which was perceptibly darker at its zenith. It was awe-inspiring, like a playground of the Gods. So I can see where Lovecraft was coming from with his rock formations-or-city teasing, having experienced it myself.
Lovecraft was also influenced by the drawings of Sidney Sime and Gustave Dore. with their dizzying perspectives and titanic scale.
Both these artists seem to illustrating the same story!
Lovecraft’s resurgence in recent years inspired yet more depictions by artists confidant enough to take him on in their medium of choice. Here’s some of them.
Through a pass ion the The Mountains of Madness, a broad valley appears with the towers of the city embedded in the snowpack. As correct for the story, in the distance runs the remains of a riverbed.
A watercolor illustration very true to both the text and the way a Fata Morgana mirage would look as if it was real.
The Dornier airplane Dyer and Danforth used in at the top of the pic, right of center, showing the city’s scale, and how it haphazardly emerges from ice and rubble down the slopes. As per the novella, bridges span the chasms between the buildings.
This artist depicts the city as a series of truncated pyramids built of black stone, with rubble in between the towers.
Another Baranger illustration shows the five-sided, star-shaped building referred to in the text as being an access point to the caverns under the city.
A bit of levity with this Hergé Tintin parody.
A mummified Elder Thing overlooks one of the entrances.
This depiction goes with gearlike circles as a building motif. It’s not true to the text, yet looks alien and mysterious.
Dyer and Danforth enter a passageway. The Elder Things’ favorite subject matter was themselves. going by the carvings. The cartouches Lovecraft refers to are here as well. Clearly, he was inspired by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 and was not immune to its touch of Orientalism.
More cartouches in a different style and carvings with an Art Deco feel.
Who do they meet down there? Why this friendly fellow, a giant, blind albino penguin.