“At the Mountains of Madness”

While I work on new stuff, I’m going to resume the Lovecraft series.

Some people consider this a novel. I don’t. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not quite long enough.

I haven’t read this one since 2005.

The first time I read it I was dressed in a parka in a college dorm room in January 1982. No, I wasn’t trying to get into the spirit of the thing. The heat wasn’t working and there was ice on the wall.

Raw Feed (2005): “At the Mountains of Madness“, H. P. Lovecraft, 1931.277a820dd7a0f4d98d1dd010.L

This is at least the second time I’ve read this Lovecraft effort from 1931.

On the first reading, I found it too long and, probably because of the impatience of youth, filled with too much description. I liked it far better this time.

In fact, while “The Colour Out of Space” may be Lovecraft’s best story (it was his favorite) in terms of building and sustaining, even upon successive readings, a feeling of horror, this may be, in terms of blending details from the real world with the details of his own imagination and sheer inventiveness, his greatest story, even better than the similar, science fiction-flavored discovery of ancient aliens on Earth — “The Shadow Out of Time”.

It is the closest thing to a bible for the Cthulhu Mythos that Lovecraft wrote.

I think part of my appreciation is that I know a lot more about geology and paleontology, am a lot more interested in those topics, than when I last read this story in 1982. I was impressed by Lovecraft’s erudition and interest in those subjects.

I was surprised to see a reference to the maps of the Old Ones supporting “the theories of continental drift lately advanced by Taylor, Wegener, and Joly.” I had to do some online research into these names since I recognized only Wegener — often considered the father of continental drift theory. It turns out that all were real geologists. Taylor proposed continental drift before Wegener, but the latter’s writings were more widely known, and he came up with more evidence from geology and biology than Taylor. I was surprised to learn that Wegener, in fact died in Greenland (he was a specialist on Greenland) in 1930 while trying to gather more evidence for his theory. Joly was one of two geologists who first proposed that the Earth’s interior heat was due to radioactive decay, and he also tried to calculate the age of Earth by the salt concentrations of the sea — both work I had heard of before though not connected to his name.

Other names Lovecraft mention turn out to be real.

The frequently mentioned eerie artwork of Nicholas Roerich really does exist, and Lovecraft was obviously a fan of that Russian.

Likewise there really was a Antarctic explorer named Borchgrevingk. According to Joshi’s biography of him, Lovecraft was, earlier on in his life, an enthusiastic follower of Antarctic exploration.

One of the challenges of this story — and a good example of what Tim Powers has cited as Lovecraft’s technique of carefully researching a factual background and fitting his fantastic elements into the interstices of facts — was Lovecraft building a fake Antarctic geography that incorporated the real geography.

As far as his imaginative details, Lovecraft not only describes a vast, lost city in the polar wastes and the society and science and culture and art of his Old Ones but a description of the elder history of the Earth. Interestingly enough, this story seems to involve an earlier example of a once mechanistic society turning to engineered biological creations for its needs — and the resulting shoggoths getting out of control.

The Old Ones go from the Archean Era to 500,000 years ago.  Being rather more, materialistically, like humans than some of the other aliens of the Mythos, the Old Ones came from interstellar space — through the ether on wings like the Mi-go. The Old Ones settle in the Antarctic region first. The “Cthulhu spawn” comes down to Earth.  A war ensues with the Old Ones pushed back into the sea then a peace is made, and the Cthulhu spawn get the new lands and the Old Ones the old lands and sea (R’lyeh sinks though).

In the middle of the Permian Era, the Old Ones must undertake a campaign to quell the increasingly intelligent shoggoths.  The Old Ones also fight a war with the Mi-go which feature in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness”. They push the Old Ones back to their original lands in the Antarctic. Eventually, becoming increasingly decadent, they are extinguished by the shoggoths.

There is a great deal of similarity between this story and “The Shadow Out of Time”.

Both have more of a sf feel than horror.

Both end with the exploration of ancient alien cities by their scholar narrators (the Deep Ones from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and the Great Race from “The Shadow Out of Time” are not mentioned here but the narrator notes that the Old Ones don’t mention every sentient race).

Both narrators reserve their horror not for the featured aliens but the other, subterranean races that haunt their races.

Both stories, in fact, are rather admiring of their featured aliens, especially here where the narrator says, despite their alieness, the Old Ones “were the men of another age and another order of being”. He also, when discovering the body of another scientist the Old Ones have dissected, says his expedition wasn’t the only one collecting specimens. (I think it’s quite probable that John W. Campbell’s 1938 “Who Goes There?”, a tale of an alien discovered in the Antarctic and who revives with horrible consequences, was influenced by this tale which also appeared appeared in Astounding two years earlier.)

The narrator of this story does not try to rationalize away his experience nor is he in doubt as to its reality. Rather, he is revealing all to the world so that they will not mount further expeditions to the Antarctic.

Of course, the story is quite explicitly inspired (as was Jules Verne’s “The Sphinx of the Ice Fields”) by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.


More Lovecraft related material.

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