While delving into the realm of science horror, I had the goal to read all of HP Lovecraft’s work. Having already read or listened to a significant portion of his fiction, I thought it would be a piece of Cthulhu-shaped cake to finish the rest. Turns out my goal was bit more ambitious than I realized. So instead of leaving you guys hanging this week, I decided to write a short review on one of his most famous novellas: “At the Mountains of Madness“.
The novella is written as the memoirs of William Dyer, leader of an expedition to Antarctica sponsored by Miskatonic University. Dyer states in his memoirs that he and the other survivors of the expedition lied about what happened to them but he now feels compelled to tell the truth to prevent a future expedition from finding what they discovered. Dyer writes about how a small advanced group, working deep in the interior, discover evidence of highly evolved lifeforms living during a period when life on Earth should have been primitive. Further exploration near a previously undiscovered mountain range larger than the Himalayas uncovers a cave containing the preserved bodies of bizarre creatures described as being:
Six feet end to end, three and five-tenths feet central diameter, tapering to one foot at each end. Like a barrel with five bulging ridges in place of staves. Lateral breakages, as of thinnish stalks, are at equator in middle of these ridges. In furrows between ridges are curious growths – combs or wings that fold up and spread out like fans. . . which gives almost seven-foot wing spread. Arrangement reminds one of certain monsters of primal myth, especially fabled Elder Things in the Necronomicon.
Excitement about this monumental find evaporates after radio contact with the camp is lost after a horrible storm. Dyer and the rest of the team travel to their location only to find everyone dead or missing (one body of a man and sled dog are found gruesomely dissected), six star-shaped mounds containing the least preserved specimens and several other missing specimens. As the team prepares to head home, Dyer and a graduate student named Danforth take a plane over the mountains and are astonished to find a gigantic stone city deep within the mountains (or city wall). Unable to help their scientific curiosity, the two explorers land and enter the ancient city discovering an advanced space-faring had colonized Earth around the time the Moon was created. They expanded across the planet, warred with other species that visited the Earth and created the “shoggoths”, a slave species used to perform any task. As the scientists decipher more of the rise and fall of this alien race, they get evidence that they may have been responsible for all life on Earth…and what eventually destroyed them may still lurk somewhere in the tunnels.
Classic Lovecraft, perfect Lovecraft. The horror does not come from graphic depictions of violence or torture, but the mystery surrounding them. What exactly happened during the storm at the advanced camp? What happened to the lost Elder Things? What did Danforth see that drove him mad? There are also tons of shout outs to Lovecraft staples like the Necronomicon and references to previous works such as the “The Colour Out of Space” (which is still my favorite Lovecraft short). Lovecraft’s prose is wonderful, but people who like witty dialogue should stay away from this story…or every Lovecraft story really. Furthermore, no one should give Lovecraft credit for scientific realism. Spoiler alert: the wings of the aliens are meant to be used to fly through space.
I think we can give “At the Mountains of Madness” credit for adding “ancient astronauts” to popular culture…although considering what it has done for the History Channel, perhaps that is a bad thing. Secret history and conspiracies are great in fiction, but when they start to infect real history it is brings all of us down. I guess that is why the Great Old Ones are punishing Lovecraft fans by keeping the film in development Hell and only giving us Prometheus as a poor replacement. Still considering how much of the traditional horror moments happen off screen, perhaps the novella just will not translate well on the bring screen. How exactly do you communicate how even an advanced race like the Elder Things can be ground down to nothing by the passage of time? Now their great cities being studied by hairless apes…who don’t know the same thing might happen to them (except then it will be beetles). Some messages are meant only for the printed word.
In the end, Dyer’s warning will likely fall on deaf ears. We humans are a curious race and need to stick are heads into everything. We have never learned yet to stay away from “obvious spooky place” and we probably never will. Read “At the Mountains of Madness” and then go visit that abandon mental institute in the woods.