Image taken from DeviantArt.
At the Mountains of Madness, one of Lovecraft’s longest tales, is haunting yet familiar. Familiar in that, since it’s publication, we’ve seen many knockoffs and themes stolen from its premise. The story made popular the concept of ancient astronauts, or those who came to earth and interacted/interfered with pre-human history. And using Antarctica as a means to explore horror is nothing new today either. It’s films like Prometheus that make it very unlikely we’ll see an adaption of this story onscreen any time soon, which is a shame. But at the time of this novella’s writing, in 1931, all of these notions were essentially unheard of, making this a true classic.
The story is told in first person, following a chronicling of a previous expedition undertaken by the narrator himself, Geologist William Dyer. This previous expedition was one of drilling down into the ice of Antarctica to study the geologic and archaeologic record hidden underneath. Dyer and another, Danforth, stay behind as an advance party heads forth to their next drill site, led by Professor Lake, and they make some outrageous discoveries. Not only do they find a massive mountain range that tops even the peaks of the Himalayas, but beyond it they find the ruins of an ancient civilization predating even the earliest possible evolutionary understanding. They even find lifeforms (preserved in ice) that are unearthly in the extreme. Lake’s party stays with their findings overnight, and the next day Dyer and Danforth never hear from them. We later find that a mass-slaughtering of (nearly) the entire team occurred overnight. Dyer and Danforth investigate, to their increasing horror.
One of the novellas biggest mistakes is also one of its greatest triumphs. This is being written as a brief retelling (by Dyer) of the horrors unearthed on their Antarctica expedition, to deter all future travellers and expeditions. It does feel incredibly realistic in its sincerity, and never once are you broken from the idea that you’re supposed to be reading this as if it were an account trying to convince you not to go to the ice continent. But as it’s told in first person in this setting, you’re never surprised by what you read. The narrator is constantly prefacing each horror, bracing you so that you are only sufficiently frazzled, instead of truly horrified. In this way alone does the story fail for me.
The book sometimes gives too much exposition, and its hard to believe Dyer and Danforth were able to decipher and understand so much of these creatures from the pictographs and murals still preserved on the walls of this ancient civilization. But it is all remarkably creative. Lovecraft goes to great lengths to help explain his Elder Gods and Old Ones mythology in this novella, and that’s a bit refreshing. He touches upon his fictional in-universe novel, the Necronomicon, a little – which is probably one of the greatest unanswered mysteries in literary history – as well as the Cthulhu mythos.
Any fans of Lovecraft’s work must read this novella. It’s brilliant. It deserves a movie. Have you read any Lovecraft? What’s your favorite of his stories?
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