June 2020 – At the Mountains of Madness – H.P Lovecraft (1936)

Publisher: Penguin (English Library series) Cover design: Coralie Bickford-Smith; Illustration: Despotica

‘I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why’.

‘The nervous system was so complex and highly developed as to leave Lake aghast.’

‘Little by little however, they rose grimly into the western sky; allowing us to distinguish various bare, bleak, blackish summits, and to catch the curious sense of fantasy which they inspired as seen in the reddish Antarctic light against the provocative background of iridescent ice-dust clouds. In the whole spectacle there was a persistent, pervasive hint of stupendous secrecy and potential revelation; as if these stark, nightmare spires marked the pylons of a frightful gateway into forbidden spheres of dream, and complex gulfs of remote time, space and ultra-dimensionality. I could not help feeling that they were evil things – mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss.’

‘The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain from the outset.’

‘It was very clearly, the blasphemous city of the mirage in stark, objective and ineluctable reality.’

H.P Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. His best work – including some sixty or so short stories – was published from 1923 onwards, mostly in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. At the Mountains of Madness was published in 1936 in the magazine Astounding Stories. Lovecraft died in 1937, in poverty and virtually unknown. He is now recognised as the one of the most significant horror-fiction writers in history, and the interlinked universe of his work, known as the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, established the genre of ‘Lovecraftian horror’ (also known as ‘cosmic horror’) and has gone on to influence countless authors after him. The Cthulhu Mythos is significant as an early example of an interlinked storytelling universe which predates the MCU by over seven decades. His stories are often reinterpreted, with particular emphasis placed on righting the racism present in some of his work.

At the Mountains of Madness is a first person description of an Antarctic expedition, from the perspective of one of the expedition leaders: Geologist William Dyer. A sense of foreboding is established at the outset as Dyer makes clear he has been moved to recount his Antarctic experiences as an attempt to prevent others from following in his footsteps. In particular to prevent the departure of the supposedly imminent ‘Stark-Maryweather’ excursion. What follows is a detailed description of Dyer’s expedition, and the discovery of the ‘Mountains of Madness’ and the civilisation it shelters; a civilisation which appears to have been home for cosmic beings the explorers label ‘Old Ones’.

The novella is gripping from page one. Lovecraft grounds the narrative in reality by referencing real expeditions (Amundson, Shackleton) and pieces of equipment (like Dornier aircraft), as well as by recounting the detail of the expedition’s preparations, equipment, financial backers and reporting newspapers so as to lend as much legitimacy as possible to the story. In addition, Lovecraft’s insertion of fictional scientific sources in the academic knowledge of his explorers (such as the book, Necronomicon) helps to create what the author himself describes as ‘a background of evil verisimilitude’. Because it is made clear that the expedition was ill-fated right at the beginning of the book, a sense of foreboding only grows as it unfolds, and it is fed by Dyer’s descriptions of menacing Antarctic landscapes. A battle between the scientific urge to explore, and the need to leave alone what must not be disturbed – also lies at the centre of the narrative. As Dyer and his team follow their scientific instincts, the terrible nature of their impending discovery is skilfully signposted.

At the Mountains of Madness is a prime example of Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic horror’; a genre which seeks to frighten readers not with gore or monsters or violence (not that Mountains is short of those) but instead with the vastness of the universe, and the unfathomable alien forces which might govern it. Cosmic horror has been described as the ‘fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance’[1]. An equally effective description of the genre is that it is a ‘contemplation of mankind’s place in the vast, comfortless universe revealed by modern science’ in which the horror springs from ‘the discovery of appalling truth’[2]. Dyer’s description of the discovery of forbidden lands and creatures, and of lifting the lid on a truly ancient form of life totally alien to humanity is very effective in providing this cosmic horror. The scale and nature of the world Dyer and his compatriots glimpse is also aided through Lovecraft’s expert use of description to create vivid images. Furthermore, the use of the first person forces us to view each discovery with Dyer, not as a passive observer but as a fellow explorer, and this helps make the terrible significance of his revelations all the more immediate and inescapable.

The overall message of the book seems to be one discouraging scientific exploration, for fear that is may uncover terrible alien forces. In this way, Mountains can be placed in the genre of similar alien horror stories such as Who Goes There? (1938 novella by John W. Campbell Jr which formed the basis for The Thing series) and Alien. In these stories human endeavours in far flung worlds uncover terrifying and deadly enemy’s, not scientific progress. In fact, while Lovecraft’s influence on some authors via the Cthulhu mythos is well documented, it seems likely that Mountains may have also influenced The Thing. Mountains was published in 1936 in the magazine Astounding Stories, and Who Goes There? Was published in the same magazine two years later. Given that both stories concern Antarctic expeditions discovering vicious aliens which lay waste to their crew members, some influence by Lovecraft upon Campbell seems possible.

Overall, At the Mountains of Madness is a fantastic page turner, and highly readable given its fast paced narrative and short 123 page length. Totally gripping, and a classic of influential Lovecraftian horror.

An issue of Astounding Stories magazine (now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) containing part of At the Mountains of Madness. Astounding Stories serialised Lovecraft’s tale between February and April 1936.

[1] Ralickas, V. “‘Cosmic Horror’ and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 18, no. 3 (2008): 364.

[2] The Greenwood encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy : themes, works, and wonders. Greenwood Press. 2005. p. 393.

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