At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft, H.P., 1936

At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft, H.P. - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Qualifying for inclusion in the SF genre by only the narrowest of margins, H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness is more often referred to as a masterpiece of horror. It tells the story of a journey to Antarctica by a very well provisioned and funded fleet of exploration ships whose crew is searching for new resources to exploit. Along the way the researchers and scientist encounter horrors from the beginning of time. Four out of five stars.

I have never really been a big fan of Lovecraft's short stories, but the few novella length pieces that he wrote I find at least interesting. This one is a told in retrospect by Professor Dyer, who had led an expedition to Antarctica in 1930. While there he and his party encountered a horrible and powerful race of creatures that are frozen in a city in the mountains and if unleashed could wreck our society and kill us all. Professor Dyer is telling his story even after swearing an oath of silence, because a new expedition to the region has been proposed. Dyer recalls that he and his party set anchor in the Waddell Sea, then used a number of airplanes to hopscotch across the Antarctic wastes. Several days after departure one of the parties radioed back to report that they had discovered a Himalayan sized range of peaks in the Antarctic interior. On the mountains was the remains of an enormous city of alien design. At the feet of those mountains others in his party discovered a cavern that contains non-fossilized remains of dinosaurs and horrible creatures that appeared to be half-plant and half-animal. Dyer immediately set off for the camp, but by the time he arrived the camp had been torn apart. Many bodies were left, though one was missing. Dyer at first attributed the destruction to a severe ice storm, but as he and his cohorts examined the destruction, they came to realize that some manner of creature probably destroyed the camp. Dyer and one of his students took a airplane and ascended to the city in the mountains, where they discovered a large system of statuary and friezes, from which they are able to learn the origins of the city.

Over 100 million years ago a race of beings known only now in myth as the Elder Ones, or the Old Ones, came to Earth from the stars. This race encountered a virtually dead planet, but they brought with them the technology to construct living tissue from non-living materials. They created a race of creatures called Shoggoths, which had the ability to shape shift and create useful limbs on their bodies as needed. Shoggoths were used as slaves. The Old Ones were curious and experimented a great deal. They made many other creatures which ultimately evolved into different forms of life that filled the Earth. We evolved from those experiments.

The Old Ones grew in population and eventually filled the world, until they were attacked by another race of extraterrestrials from Pluto, called the Mi-Go and were driven back to Antarctica over fifty million years ago, where they built their final, enormous city. The war ended eventually, but before the climate in Antarctica changed and the glaciers came, the Shoggoths revolted and killed their masters. Thereafter teh temperatures continued to decrease and the Shoggoths went into a form of torpor, only to be reawakened when the party breached the wall of the cavern they were in.

Lovecraft was a master at creating atmosphere, especially horrific atmosphere. This book, despite being told in a cold and distant scientific tone, has some pretty hair raising passages. It is very sensually told; Lovecraft frequently referred to what his characters saw, felt on their skin, smelled and tasted in the air. But despite the good parts there were other parts that read like a dungeon master's commentary as he leads his party through their adventure.

Finally, though, we did encounter exactly the opening we wished; an archway about six feet wide and ten feet high, marking the former end of an aerial bridge which had spanned an alley about five feet above the present level of glaciation.

Lovecraft was never known for the quality of his prose, but he is regarded today as the father of modern Gothic-inspired horror. Most of this book is told from the perspective of a geologist, Dyer, as he describes the city around him. The middle section of the book is a bit boring in my opinion, as noted above, but it does have its moments. Here is a better example:

There now lay revealed on the ultimate white horizon behind the grotesque city a dim, elfin line of pinnacled violet whose needle-pointed heights loomed dreamlike against the beckoning rose color of the western sky. Up toward this shimmering rim sloped the ancient table-land, the depressed course of the bygone river traversing it as an irregular ribbon of shadow. For a second we gasped in admiration of the scene’s unearthly cosmic beauty, and then vague horror began to creep into our souls. For this far violet line could be nothing else than the terrible mountains of the forbidden land - highest of earth’s peaks and focus of earth’s evil; harborers of nameless horrors and Archaean secrets; shunned and prayed to by those who feared to carve their meaning; untrodden by any living thing on earth, but visited by the sinister lightnings and sending strange beams across the plains in the polar night - beyond doubt the unknown archetype of that dreaded Kadath in the Cold Waste beyond abhorrent Leng, whereof primal legends hint evasively. We were the first human beings ever to see them - and I hope to God we may be the last.

Many writers including Meiville, King, Koontz, Barker and others regard this author's work as a milestone piece in the genre of the weird, which has today morphed into a more science/fantasy oriented genre and gives dozens of novels each year. Most critics say that Lovecraft was writing to the reader's inner demons, and was trying to plumb the depths of his own soul to find denizens for his stories. That may be true for some of his other works. I wouldn't know for sure though, as I have not read many of them. But I do not see how anyone can name the monsters that populate Lovecraft's stories anything other than alien. These things are as foreign and distant from us as any horror monster ever was. True, Dyer spends a lot of time in his head, over analyzing the threat he foresees as he makes his way through the ancient city. But what he encountered in the end is not even remotely human, and really could not possibly share anything with us at all, save a remote and extinct common creator.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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