At the Mountains of Madness
by H. P. Lovecraft
Originally published 1936 in Astounding Stories
[ Challenge # 1: Reread a book you have already read. ]
Finished my first challenge this year, H. P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. I first read it back in college some decades ago, and enjoyed it, but while I remembered the basic plot, I’d forgotten a lot of the specifics, and this time around, too, I found new things to discover.
One was how “authentic” the expedition to Antarctica reads, even today. In the research I did after I finished I discovered it’s because of Lovecraft’s life-long fascination with Antarctica and in following the exploits of its explorers. I even consulted a map to find out exactly where he placed the Mountains of Madness (and the further, even higher, Mountains of More Madness). Following the coordinates provided, there was no surprise in that the mountains and the ancient city are smack dab in the middle of the continent’s most remote sector.
Red star indicates the approximate location. Interestingly, not far from Lake Vostok, though in Lovecraft’s day that area was unexplored. I’ll add that his anecdotes about geology and continental drift also read true and shows that he did his homework.
On the other hand, one thing that did not read true was the human characters’ ease with the altitude Lovecraft describes — the mountains passes are 24,000 feet to fly over in an airplane, and the plateau beyond 20,000 feet, so as New Englanders who are not accustomed to climbing high peaks they wouldn’t be so at ease in their explorations. Neither would they hear the “strange piping” in the mountains’ passes, because of the noise of the airplane whose engines in past times were much noisier than today. I am guessing Lovecraft never actually rode in an airplane or ascended more than a few thousand feet.
And for some reason I invented parts of the story out of thin air. Like I was so sure there was a bit where the main character and his companion encounter the Elder Things as shadows on a wall as they fumble about with human-sized matches, trying to get them to light, and indeed the smell of the struck matches is what draws the humans to that spot. But I had fabricated all of that from my faulty memory. In the book, the humans smelled gasoline, and they never actually saw the (living) Elder Things or even shadows of them. Maybe the matches bit came from some other book.
I was also surprised at how Lovecraft repeated himself over and over in the text, which I don’t think would happen in this day of word processing. But it did set the mood. That’s what the story really was, a mood piece, with the main character giving his narration in the present day while treating his past self on the doomed expedition as a puppet of sorts. It was kind of amusing, especially how often he stops the narrative and coyly hints at, but doesn’t spell out, the terrors he sees out of kindness for the reader’s sensitivity, and gets very long-winded about it. This Victorian trope does not work, of course, as the reader only wants more, showing a puckish sense of humor at play.
There’s more humor, too, dark humor, in the idea that the unearthed Elder Things inflict on the humans the same thing the humans were going to inflict on them — vivisection.
The narrator’s ultimate purpose in conveying all this, he makes clear to the reader, is to discourage further explorations of Antarctica, which is doomed to have the opposite effect. Who of a scientific bent could resist following up on such a momentous discovery?
Another thing that struck me about the novella is how it blended SF, horror, and fantasy. In fact, it gave the fantastic beings mentioned previously in Lovecraft’s stories a scientific underpinning. Not demystification, for Mythos beings still lurk about unseen, but an actual rooting in prehuman history, discovered with archaeological legwork.
To sum it up: Untold eons ago the Elder Things — mobile, sea-cucumber-like aliens — came to a lifeless earth, brought life to it, and ushered it along. In the course of their occupancy they built cities, fought with other interloping aliens, and used dinosaurs as beasts of burden and primitive humans as court jesters. But their civilization devolved over time, and Earth’s last ice age brought the final blow. Only the ruins of one ancient city was left, the one in Antarctica over the Mountains of Madness and frozen in its glaciers, which the narrator and his companion discover and explore after an earlier party came to ruin. Conveniently they are well versed in certain fictional occult writings mentioned elsewhere in Lovecraft’s work, and draw allusions from the city and mountains they discover to Mythos elements like the Plateau of Leng, the shoggoths, the Necronomicon, and other creatures, places, and things. Gradually, the narrator realizes the ancient roots of all this mumbo-jumbo, distorted by time and human history… by following the Elder Thing cryo-mummies who turned out to be not so dead after all.
By no means was Lovecraft’s a planned mythology, like Tolkien’s. Lovecraft did not work alone. For his Mythos he mixed up real-world occult elements, like the Mesopotamiam god Dagon, with the creations of other writers he admired, like cribbing Edgar Allan Poe’s penguin cry of “Tekeli-li!” (copyright law not existing in its present state back when Lovecraft was writing.) He also encouraged his writing friends to use his creations in their works, and borrowing from them, with permission, elements of their writing that he liked. Indeed, their circle was like a round-robin writers’ group that existed in the early, heady days of the internet, when everything was text-based and the goal was to have fun. Lovecraft even gave his friends monikers and incorporated them into his stories, in-jokes that belie his reputation as a long-winded, racist, humorless prude.
Also unlike Tolkien, he did not take his creations at all seriously. For his fiction he treated them like Warner Brothers treated Bugs Bunny and his friends back in the day — in each cartoon they played different roles, but were always the same character with the same shtick. Yosemite Sam might be a Wild West sheriff in one cartoon and a Medieval knight with a pet dragon in another, but he was always himself, with the same low tolerance for frustration and explosive temper. Lovecraft treated elements like the shoggoths, Cthulhu and Leng the same way. For each story, they had different roles to play, but were always the same. Leng might be a real place in At the Mountains of Madness, but in another story, it was said to be in Tibet, or Lovecraft’s imaginary Dreamworld. But the Platonic ideal of Leng was always the same: a cold, elevated, barren, cursed place.
As a story rather than a mood piece, the plot was too convenient in places, and Lovecraft telegraphed the twists ahead, though this may have been because I had read the story before. But then, for a modern reader it doesn’t take much to connect the dots between “wrecked camp, dead humans, and missing alien corpses and supplies” to “the aliens did it!” in contrast to the thick narrator who refuses to come to that conclusion but heads off in pursuit for reasons he fumbles around.
Another convenience was how the narrator deduces all of the Elder Things’ earthly history from the carvings they made on the walls of their city. Come on, now. Humans have trouble plotting history even from human art. It was purely a plot device for Lovecraft to indulge himself and the reader in a dizzying, yet oddly familiar, tale of a civilization’s journey through time. Personally, I’d rather he left things more mysterious, as I thought I remembered from the excited blur of my first reading.
Also misremembered, by me, was the description of a shoggoth’s passage through the tunnel. In my mind I saw it pouring through like a horizontal blender in reverse — the grayish (in my mind) protoplasm of it being propelled by being sucked through its “anus” and ejected through its “mouth” to pour over its sides and move it along like a capsule in a pneumatic tube. But on this re-read, it was described as rushing like a subway train, not a reversed tornado.
(For the record, though, I’ve always found the Mi-Go the most horrifying of Lovecraft’s monsters.)
In spite of being nitpicky, I’m happy I re-read it, as I will do again at some point in the future.