At the Mountains of Madness (1931)
- Published on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 23:09
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“It is only with vast hesitancy and repugnance that I let my mind go back to Lake’s camp and what we really found there-and to that other thing beyond the frightful mountain wall.” – H.P. Lovecraft “At the Mountains of Madness”.
Written between February 22nd and March 24th 1931, and eventually serialised in “Astounding Stories” February – April 1936, “At the Mountains of Madness” is one of Lovecraft’s more famous pieces of literature and is a culmination of Lovecraft’s lifelong fascination with the Antarctic. As a young man Lovecraft avidly followed the expeditions of Borchgrevink, Scott and Andmundsen during the early part of the 20th century, as well as the expedition of Admiral Byrd 1928-1930, whose influence can clearly be found during the early sections of the novel.
Other influences for this story include Nicholas Roerich’s paintings of the Himalaya’s, which Lovecraft had viewed the previous year when the Nicholas Roerich museum opened in New York. Lovecraft, however, felt that setting the story in the Himalaya’s wouldn’t serve him best. It was fast becoming a region that was already well known and Lovecraft wanted to create a sense of isolation and awe that only the uncharted wastes of the Antarctic could give.
The science in the story was sound for its time, so much so that Lovecraft even discarded a section that suggested that the Antarctic may in fact be two land masses separated by a now frozen channel between the Ross and Weddell Sea’s. This was a common theory until a flight over the area in 1935 by Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon proved that this was not the case.
Hard to believe is the fact that the novel was rejected when he sent it to “Weird Tales” in July of 1931, reacting bitterly, Lovecraft sat on the novel for a few years until he let a young science fiction fan Julius Schwartz act as an agent for the tale. He took it to the editor of “Astounding Stories” F. Orlin. Tremaine, who accepted it at once, and apparently, without actually reading it.
However the story was butchered upon its original publication, by more than one thousand words, punctuation was altered and several paragraphs were omitted altogether leading Lovecraft to call Tremaine a “god-damned dung of a hyena” whilst in a fit of anger.
The story is an account of the tragic expedition undertaken by a team of scientists and geologists, headed by Professor William Dyer, on behalf of Miskatonic University. Professor Dyer relates to the reader how, whilst on this expedition, they discovered evidence of life and civilisations that predate. Humanity.
He writes how an advance party, led by Lake, discovered and crossed mountains higher than those in the Himalaya’s, and also relates how Lake and his team discovered life forms, of an incredibly advanced nature, previously unknown to science. After relating these details Dyer and his party lose contact with Lake’s team, initially they assume that this is due to a storm that affected the area surrounding Lake’s camp, but as the day draws on, and no contact is made, a rescue party is sent out.
When they arrive they find the camp in ruins, the dogs that Lake took with him have all been slaughtered, as have all the members of Lake’s team. Upon further investigation they discover that some kind of dissection had been performed on one of the dogs and also upon on of the team members.
Scientific curiosity gets the better of Dyer and along with graduate student Danforth, he takes one of the planes to explore the mountainous region further.
What they discover is a vast, half buried city of alien geometry that predates known history. After landing the plane they explore the city further and enter one of the buildings, there they discover, all along the walls, hieroglyphs that explain the history of the race that built the city. It soon becomes clear that the race that created this ancient metropolis are the Elder Ones of legend and folklore, named in the dreaded Necronomicon.
Realizing this they decide to explore the structure further, discovering an entrance that leads to a subterranean region described in the hieroglyphs. As the two progresses they discover further horrors, evidence of dead Elder things, killed in a violent struggle, six-foot-tall blind penguins, wandering around, evidently as livestock for the creatures that lurked in the deep and nightmarish abyss that the two have entered. They are then confronted with a vast, ululating horror in the form of a black, bubbling mass that the two identify as a Shoggoth. Eventually they escape, through luck and diversion, however, whilst on the plane, Danforth looks back and witnesses something that causes him to lose his sanity, something that he refuses to even tell Dyer, though he believes that it has something to do with the higher mountain range that even the Elder Ones feared
Dyer concludes that the Elder Ones only killed the dogs and Lake’s party out of scientific curiosity concerning their new surroundings, and that their civilisation was wiped out by the Shoggoths, that they created. He also pleads with the planners of the next Antarctic expedition to abandon their plans, for fear of releasing upon the Earth that which should not be.
At the Mountains of Madness is, undoubtedly, one of Lovecraft’s finest works. Part of the “Cthulhu Mythos, a series of interlinked stories that deal with the horror of alien gods, that lie, waiting patiently, to reclaim the Earth for themselves once more, and that is where the real horror in the story succeeds.
Here we are not dealing with traditional supernatural horror, the type of stories where ghosts, werewolves or vampires lie in wait to attack the unsuspecting virgin and where the hero appears, in the nick of time, to save the day and put everything right. No, this is cosmic horror, where the realisation that we, the human race, are completely insignificant, and that when Cthulhu, Dagon and their kind, arrive to take back what was once theirs, there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it. No hero will arrive to put everything right. Is it any wonder then that the protagonists, in such stories, are usually driven insane by the discovery of such knowledge?
Yes, this is one of the greatest horror tales ever printed. A masterpiece, from the master of horror himself.