At the Mountains of Madness
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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
At the Mountains of Madness is a novel by American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, written in February and March 1931 and originally serialized in the February, March and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories. It has been reproduced in numerous collections since Lovecraft's death. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi describes the novella as representing the decisive "demythology" of the Cthulhu Mythos by reinterpreting Lovecraft's earlier supernatural stories in a science fiction paradigm.
The story is written in first-person perspective by the geologist William Dyer, a professor from Miskatonic University. He writes to disclose hitherto unknown and closely kept secrets in the hope that he can deter a planned and much publicized scientific expedition to Antarctica. On a previous expedition there, a party of scholars from Miskatonic University, led by Dyer, discovered fantastic and horrific ruins and a dangerous secret beyond a range of mountains taller than the Himalaya.
The group that discovered and crossed the mountains found the remains of fourteen ancient life forms, completely unknown to science and unidentifiable as either plants or animals, after discovering an underground cave while boring for ice cores. Six of the specimens seem to be badly damaged, the others uncannily pristine. Their highly-evolved features are problematic: their stratum location puts them at a point on the geologic time scale much too early for such features to have naturally evolved yet. Because of their resemblance to creatures of myth mentioned in the Necronomicon, they are dubbed the "Elder Ones".
When the main expedition loses contact with this party, Dyer and the rest of his colleagues travel to their camp to investigate. The camp is devastated and both the men and the dogs slaughtered, with only one of each missing. Near the camp they find six star-shaped snow mounds, and a damaged Elder One buried under each. They discover that the better preserved life forms have vanished, and that some form of experiment has been done, though they are only able to speculate on the subject, and the possibility that it is the missing man and dog. Dyer elects, then, to close off the area from which they took their samples.
Dyer and a student named Danforth fly an airplane over the mountains, which they soon realize are the outer wall of a huge, abandoned stone city of cubes and cones, utterly alien to any human architecture. By exploring these fantastic structures, the men are able to learn the history of the Elder Things, or Old Ones, by interpreting their magnificent hieroglyphic murals: The Old Ones first came to Earth shortly after the Moon was pulled loose from the planet and were the creators of life. They built their cities with the help of "Shoggoths", organisms created to perform any task, assume any form, and reflect any thought. As more buildings are explored, a fantastic vista opens of the history of races beyond the scope of man's understanding, including the Old Ones' conflicts with the Cthulhi and the Mi-Go who arrived on Earth some time after the Old Ones themselves. Uncannily, the images also reflect a degradation in the order of this civilization, as the Shoggoths gain independence. As more resources are applied to maintaining order, the etchings become haphazard and primitive. The murals also allude to some unnamed evil in an even larger mountain range just past their city which even they fear greatly. Eventually, as Antarctica became uninhabitable even for the Old Ones, they migrated into a large, subterranean ocean.
As the two progress further into the city, they are ultimately drawn to a massive, ominous entrance which is the opening of a tunnel which they believe leads into the subterranean region described in the murals. Compulsively they are drawn in, finding further horrors: evidence of dead Old Ones caught in a brutal struggle and blind six-foot-tall penguins wandering around placidly. They are confronted with an immense, ululating horror which they identify as a Shoggoth. They escape with their lives using luck and diversion. On the plane high above the plateau, Danforth looks back and sees something that causes him to lose his sanity. He refuses to tell anyone (even Dyer) what he saw, though it is implied that it has something to do with what lies beyond the larger mountain range that even the Old Ones feared.
Professor Dyer concludes that the Old Ones and their civilization were destroyed by the Shoggoths they created and that this entity has sustained itself on the enormous penguins since eons past. He begs the planners of the next proposed Antarctic expedition to stay away from things that should not be loosed on this Earth.
Lovecraft had a lifelong interest in Antarctic exploration; biographer S.T. Joshi wrote that "Lovecraft had been fascinated with the Antarctic continent since he was at least 12 years old, when he had written several small treatises on early Antarctic explorers." At about the age of nine, inspired by W. Clark Russell's 1887 book The Frozen Pirate, Lovecraft had written "several yarns" set in Antarctica.
By the 1920s, Joshi notes, Antarctica was "one of the last unexplored regions of the earth, where large stretches of territory had never seen the tread of human feet. Contemporary maps of the continent show a number of provocative blanks, and Lovecraft could exercise his imagination in filling them in... with little fear of immediate contradiction."
The first expedition of Richard Evelyn Byrd took place in 1928-1930, the period just before the novella was written, and Lovecraft mentioned the explorer repeatedly in his letters, remarking at one point on "geologists of the Byrd expedition having found many fossils indicating a tropical past".
Lin Carter has suggested that one inspiration for At the Mountains of Madness was Lovecraft's own hypersensitivity to cold, as shown by an incident where the writer "collapsed in the street and was carried unconscious into a drug store" because the temperature dropped from 60 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees to -1 degree Celsius). "The loathing and horror that extreme cold evoked in him was carried over into his writing," Carter wrote, "and the pages of Madness convey the blighting, blasting, stifling sensation caused by sub-zero temperatures in a way that even Poe could not suggest."
Lovecraft's most obvious literary source for At the Mountains of Madness is Edgar Allan Poe's lone novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, whose concluding section is set in Antarctica. Lovecraft twice cites Poe's "disturbing and enigmatic" story in his text, and explicitly borrows the mysterious phrase "Tekeli-li!" from Poe's work. In a letter to August Derleth, Lovecraft wrote that he was trying to achieve with his ending an effect similar to what Poe accomplished in Pym.
Another proposed inspiration for At the Mountains of Madness is Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1919 novel At the Earth's Core, which posits a highly intelligent reptilian race, the Mahar, living in a hollow earth. "Consider the similarity of Burroughs' Mahar to Lovecraft's Old Ones, both of whom are presented sympathetically despite their ill-treatment of man," writes critic William Fulwiler, going on to note that "both are winged, web-footed, dominant races; both are scientific scholarly races with a talent for genetics, engineering, and architecture; and both races use men as cattle." Both stories, Fulwiler points out, involve radical new drilling techniques; in both stories, humans are vivisected by nonhuman scientists. Burroughs' Mahar even employ a species of servants known as Sagoths, possibly the source of Lovecraft's Shoggoths.
Other possible sources include Abraham Merritt's "The People of the Pit", whose description of an underground city in the Yukon bears some resemblance to that of Lovecraft's Old Ones, and Katharine Metcalf Roof's "A Million Years After", a story about dinosaurs hatching from eggs millions of years old that appeared in the November 1930 edition Weird Tales. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft declared the story to be a "rotten", "cheap", and "puerile" version of an idea he had come up with years earlier, and Joshi suggests it may have provoked him to write his own tale of "the awakening of entities from the dim reaches of earth's history."
The long scope of history recounted in the story may have been inspired by Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. Some details of the story may have been taken from M. P. Shiel's 1901 novel of Arctic exploration, The Purple Cloud, which was republished in 1930.
Lovecraft's own "The Nameless City" (1921), which also deals with the exploration of an ancient underground city apparently abandoned by its nonhuman builders, is a clear precedent for At the Mountains of Madness. In both stories, the explorers use the nonhumans' artwork to deduce the history of their species.
At the Mountains of Madness has numerous connections to other Lovecraft stories. A few include: