At the Mountains of Madness (originally published in Astounding Stories in 1936)
by H.P. Lovecraft
This novella, like many other of Lovecraft’s tales, is a first person account. This time it is Dr. William Dyer, professor of geology at Miskatonic University who previously led a scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1930 (presumably six years ago being published in 1936). Dr. Dyer is writing this amendment to his account of the expedition to dissuade further scientific study of the frozen continent. Like many other of Lovecraft’s narrators Dyer speaks of the dangers of humanity learning too much about the universe as the human mind is simply incapable of some horrible truths. He explains that he and surviving expedition members purposely redacted the more fantastical discoveries they uncovered in the extreme south of the planet. Things he hoped he would never be forced to reveal. However, he has decided to shed additional light on what happened those many years ago to stop others from making the same mistake.
Dr. Dyers begins by recapping some of the resources, routes, and scientific data collected during expedition. Lovecraft, like in Shadow Over Innsmouth, uses the convention of telling the reader that the finer details can be found in past newspaper articles, telegraph/wire transcripts, and other sources. Simultaneously cutting down on the supposedly information for the story and giving the tale a fell of authenticity as only be a part of a larger body of information.
At the last portion of the voyage to the Antarctic, describes a bizarre wind that howled through the summits of the Admiralty Mountain Range. He describes the sound as similar to that of, “half-sentient piping music” that both reminded of a painting Nicholas Roerich of the Plateau of Leng and of the Necronomicon written by the mad Arab Abdul Alharzed. Almost a month later, while temporarily lost above the icy world of the Antarctic, Danford, a graduate assistant of Dyer, witnesses the volcano of Mt. Erebus which reminds him of a passage in Edgar Allen Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym.
Months later in the expedition, Professor Lake of the Biology department at Miskatonic University radios to the base camp while flying as part of a sub-expedition discovers a mountain range that may rival the Himalayas with peaks taller than even Mount Everest. Lakes aircraft is later forced to land before they can reach camp. Not wanting to waste time or opportunity Lake radios back about strange cubical formations upon the highest peaks on this colossal mountain range than appear to give off strange reflection of light and wants to set up a camp there. The following day Lake’s sub-expedition discovers a cave in the ice while drilling core samples. Inside were a whole host of fossils many different ages in geology. More fantastic than the treasure trove of fossils was the discovery of large plant-like specimens eight feet tall, with a three and half foot diameter with five ridges with tubular, wing-like growths folding within the ridges of the main barrel shaped body. Dark grey in color the things have five light gray tentacle appendages around its pentatonic body. The things are topped an apparent head like a starfish tipped with reddish globe like eyes. Even as a biologist, Lake as difficulty determining if the things are vegetable or animal. What is known it the sled dogs hate the things and likely would destroy them if given a chance.
I like this the adventurous nature of the At the Mountains of Madness. The idea of being on a scientific expedition appeals to me a great deal and I even enjoy the little details that Lovecraft throws in to make it feel like you are in fact reading the account of a geology professor. Unlike earlier works of Lovecraft, he goes into great detail to describe the Elder Things that are discovered in cave Lake drilled and blasted into. By virtue of having scientists as the protagonists, Lovecraft could go into great clinical detail about them.
As as I like the setup of this story, I feel that Lovecraft plays the ending too close to the vest. I want to know what Danforth saw or at least have his experiences more than a few fragmented words and references to other stories and the Cthulhu Mythos at large. I will admit though, like any good horror writer, Lovecraft likely stop the story where he did so the reader who have to wonder what exactly happened as have their imagination put together what they think it was.
My biggest compliant with In the Mountains of Madness, is a theme that sometimes appears in many of Lovecraft’s other weird horror stories: man should not explore the universe as its truth can only cause madness. The only reason that Dyers wrote this is to stop any future expedition to Antarctica. I understand his reasoning, the Elder Things and shoggoths are extremely dangerous creatures that can wipe out mankind. If they were to learn of humanity existence, it may very well mean our extinction or at very least subjection by this ancient beings. I am not sure of H.P. Lovecraft’s stance on science because of this. He dabbles into science-fiction and clearly likes using academics as his protagonists, but he keeps coming back to this line mankind should never explore. I’m just not a fan of the trope, “things man was not meant to know.”
Bottomline, while I have a slight issue with the theme of In the Mountains of Madness, it is a chilling tale of exploration and discovering ancient monsters. Six out of six Elder Signs.