The Lovecraft Reread

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, or Horror From Beyond the Stars? “At the Mountains of Madness” Part 1

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.

Today we’re celebrating Halloween with “At the Mountains of Madness,” written in February-March 1931 and first published in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding. For this installment, we’ll cover Chapters 1-4 (roughly the equivalent of the March issue—we still have a squamous cookie for anyone who can confirm the original division). You can read it here.

Spoilers ahead.

“Existing biology would have to be wholly revised, for this thing was no product of any cell-growth science knows about. There had been scarcely any mineral replacement, and despite an age of perhaps forty million years the internal organs were wholly intact. The leathery, undeteriorative, and almost indestructible quality was an inherent attribute of the thing’s form of organisation; and pertained to some palaeogean cycle of invertebrate evolution utterly beyond our powers of speculation.”

Summary: William Dyer, professor of geology, led the 1930 Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica. Since then, he’s refused to tell all that happened in that cryptic land of ice and death; in fact, he’s discouraged others from Antarctic exploration. But now the Starkweather-Moore Expedition is poised to invade the frozen continent, and he must speak, for the sake of humanity itself.

The MU expedition means to field-test a revolutionary light-weight drill designed by engineering professor Frank Pabodie. With the drill’s ability to quickly pierce strata of varying hardness, the scientists hope to extract fossil specimens never before obtainable. The discovery of primordial organisms—seaweeds, crinoids, trilobites—soon justify their hopes. Biologist Lake also pieces together a foot-wide fossil he speculates to be the triangular footprint of an amazingly advanced organism. Dyer thinks the “footprint” is just a ripple-effect in metamorphic rock, but when Lake unearths more triangular prints to the west of their camp, Dyer allows him to lead a large prospecting party into unexplored territory. Dyer, Pabodie and several others remain behind, growing envious when Lake reports finding a range of mountains higher than Everest! What’s more, the peaks have curiously regular formations, like clinging cubes, ramparts, perfectly square or semi-circular cave mouths.

Lake’s party camps in the foothills of the prodigious mountains. Their borings with Pabodie’s drill break into a cave system where they find a treasure trove of plant and animal fossils. Thrilling enough, but they also find miraculously well-preserved specimens of the creature which made the triangular footprints! They appear to be huge radiates with barrel-shaped bodies six feet high. A starfish-shaped, ciliated “head” dominates one end, with protruding tubes that contain eyes and mouths. On the other end are five muscular limbs ending in triangular paddles or feet. The five divisions of the barrel-body sport tentacles that branch into smaller and nimbler appendages, while the folds between divisions hide seven-foot membranous wings. Lake remarks that the organisms bring to mind the “Elder Things” of the Necronomicon, which supposedly created all earth life by mistake or in jest.

Dyer’s party prepares to join Lake’s, all the time listening to wired reports of further developments beneath the tremendous mountains. Lake secures fourteen giant specimens, but must corral the sledge dogs on the far side of the camp, for the dogs hate the things. He dissects one radiate, which leads him to surmise that it was amphibious, animal but reproducing through spores, and probably had more than five senses. Also its five-lobed brain and nervous system are incredibly complex. That it could have evolved in time to leave prints in Archaean rock confounds the biologist, who again recalls legends of alien races that filtered down from the stars in Earth’s youth.

Overnight, a horrific windstorm stampedes out of the west. Buffeted even at their camp, Dyer and company fear for Lake’s party. Their fear intensifies when radio communications go silent, and they take the expedition’s last plane to find out what’s happened.

To their horror, they find nothing but destruction and death at Lake’s camp. Also mystery, for though the storm has flattened tents and snow shelters, battered planes and drilling gear, even mangled the corpses of men and dogs, wind could not have left one scientist and one dog roughly dissected. It could not have neatly excised meaty chunks from other corpses. It could not have handled equipment and books and supplies with intelligent curiosity, though no conception of what the things were used for. One sledge is missing. So is one man, Gedney, and one dog. So are all fourteen radiate specimens. Well, no, not quite all. Six damaged specimens have been buried in a snow mound eerily like the star-shaped green soapstones Lake also discovered in the fossil-cave. Right down to the markings of grouped dots which look eerily like some kind of writing.

Dyer and company can only conclude that Lake’s party went mad from the intensity of the storm. Or at least Gedney went mad. Now, having wreaked havoc in camp, he’s taken the missing sledge and dog up into the mountains. Despite their height, there are passes a skilled climber could negotiate.

Dyer and Danforth, a brilliant graduate student, take flight in a lightened plane, meaning to cross over the mountain range. They want to find Gedney, if possible. They also want a look at lands never before seen. As they rise, the formations at the peaks grow disturbing in their regularity, as does the bizarre whistling or piping the wind makes in the numerous caves. These mountains of madness make Dyer think of primal Leng, and he wishes he hadn’t experienced a mirage on the way to Lake’s ill-fated camp, one in which ice-vapors seething over the peaks seemed to mirror a Cyclopean city beyond.

The plane tops the range at last, and Dyer and Danforth get their first glimpse of an elder and alien world! However, we readers must wait until the next installment to glimpse what they glimpse, gaspingly.

What’s Cyclopean: The city in the expedition’s “mirage,” and the city outskirts in the mountains (Elder Thing ‘burbs?) that Dyer still insists are natural formations like the Giant’s Causeway. Don’t you know, man, that once you say “cyclopean,” it’s too late to deny you’re looking at architecture.

The Degenerate Dutch: Only white guys on this expedition, allowing everyone to focus all their xenophobia on the terrifying prospect of non-human intelligence.

Mythos Making: This story gives us some important new bits of Earth’s very long timeline, but also connects with previous and upcoming stories—the Antarctic plains are reminiscent of (or possibly just are) the plateau of Leng, there’s overlap between this Miskatonic-sponsored expedition and the ill-fated one to the Yithian Archives in Australia, and Dyer mentions in passing the legends of the Mi-Go from “Whisperer in Darkness” and Wilmarth’s study of Cthulhu cults.

Libronomicon: Is there anyone in Massachusetts who hasn’t read the Necronomicon? Is it part of Freshman Orientation, or just a Rush Week challenge set by the Omega Omega Omega frat?

Madness Takes Its Toll: Whatever Danforth saw, that he won’t talk about, is behind his nervous breakdown. Where are Peaslee’s psychologists in all this?

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

As I write this, astronomers are arguing seriously about whether a particular star, 1500 light years away, shows signs of a Dyson Sphere under construction, and thus of an alien civilization. If they’re there, if they’re real, they are people like us—people who share our inability to stay content in a single ecological niche, who break down and reform their environments to suit their own needs, people who adapt their world to the point of destruction. Such people would be fascinating to know, and very, very dangerous. But perhaps it’s only cometary debris behaving in unprecedented and inexplicable ways, out there in the dark. Some people would find that a relief.

In the first four chapters of “Mountains,” Dyer too hovers on this cusp, caught between the rational assumption that anything not made by man must have natural causes, and the wonder and terror of admitting you aren’t alone—and that the other guy may have outpaced you a long time ago.

This being Lovecraft, of course, everyone is existentially horrified by the prospect.

Modern science has overthrown the specifics of the Miskatonic Expedition’s findings—the Mountains surely ought to show up on satellite, unless they’re jutting from the Dreamlands like that cliff in Kingsport—but for the most part it’s just made the explorers’ excitement over their initial discoveries feel a bit understated. Still-organic tissue millions or billions of years old? We just got the disappointing news that DNA from the Jurassic must all be thoroughly decayed; a mummified mammoth is probably the best we can hope for. Modern paleontologists would want to fly one of these incredible samples back to civilization for sophisticated testing post-haste—and wouldn’t that have made an even more troubling story? (More like “Out of the Aeons,” perhaps.)

I do wonder if some of this stuff has spent intervening time in the Dreamlands. It would explain both the lack of decay and that intriguing “mirage”—you know, the one that everyone sees the same way.

This is one of Lovecraft’s longer stories, and I’m kind of ambivalent about that length. It drags a bit, especially at the beginning, in spite of the awe-inspiring descriptions of landscape and the tantalizing (or frustrating) hints of what’s to come. The characters’ denial of what they’re seeing wears thin, one starts to get the point about the raw and terrible beauty of Antarctica, and one wants to get to the good stuff.

At the same time, the style is appropriate and evocative—this is written with the kind of detail and narrative (admittedly with added existential flailing) found in really old journal articles, the kind that are as much travelogue as scientific report. It has the strengths and weaknesses of Tolkien-style quest descriptions, leaving the reader feeling like she’s been through the long journey beside the characters, for good and ill. (Maybe that smoking mountain at the beginning is in Mordor? Is Mordor anywhere near Leng?)

The hints of what’s to come, toward the end of Chapter IV, are intriguing. Not just the reality of the Elder Things, but the eventual empathy. There’s a whole epic happening in the background, of people awakening after aeons of hibernation, trying desperately to understand the strange creatures and objects around them. And burying their dead, with headstones, before seeking more familiar ground.

Still, as Dyer and poor Danforth crest the mountains, I’m just as happy to finally join them in the revelations on the other side.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Before I read “At the Mountains of Madness” for the first time, I’d already rooted a tattered paperback out of a library sale box. It was by some guy named Alfred Lansing, and it was called Endurance. The subtitle was “Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.” I didn’t know who Shackleton was, but I liked incredible things. Also voyages, as in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” where Kowalski was always being bowled over by marine monsters busting through airlocks. The book turned out to be about Antarctica, and how Ernest Shackleton and crew got caught in the ice—well, their ship did—and had to eat the dogs, if I remember rightly, and ran from leopard seals, and finally made it to this barren Elephant Island, and then Ernie STILL had to navigate a million stormy miles in a tiny boat to rescue EVERY SINGLE ONE OF HIS MEN. Including the stowaway. Wow. I’ve been in love with Antarctica ever since.

Plus penguins, right? [RE: “Grotesque” penguins, according to the text. Either he’d never seen one, or BIRDS + OCEAN = SCARY.]

That being the case, “Mountains” had me at line two, when it talked about the “contemplated invasion of the Antarctic.” By paragraph four, it had also packed in enough specifics to convince me the MU Expedition was the real thing, and had mentioned my old friend Shackleton. This story couldn’t go wrong, I thought, and it didn’t.

It has never gone wrong for me. Of all Lovecraft’s fictions, this is the one I want to live in, so long as I can be Dyer or Danforth. Probably Dyer, because he doesn’t go nuts due to sight of an ultimate horror. Just having a whole summer in Antarctica would be amazing. Having Pabodie’s drill to root out fossils, doubly amazing. Breaking into a cave system housing not only the fossils of known orders and phyla but the utterly unclassifiable? Triple and quadruple amazing. But to fly over the peaks of the highest mountains on Earth? First of all, I could read the line “Everest out of the running” a thousand times, and it would still thrill me. As for what lies beyond the mountains?

I’m sorry, Ruthanna. I know it’s blasphemy, but if I have to pick, I’m passing on the Yithian Archives in order to roam the aeons-deserted corridors of the Elder Ones’ city, the heart of an alien civilization preserved in eternal ice. Well, eternal in human terms. I guess it may eventually thaw out, say, in the time of the Coleopterans.

But the city must wait. Technically Dyer and Danforth haven’t seen it yet. Yeah, poor guys, all they’ve had to keep them going are the wonders of the boreal realms, with an added spice of mirages, science-shaking discoveries, and gory conundrums.

This reread, I’ve been struck not by the sheer density of detail—that’s got to hit the most casual of readers, even if they skim over the technical stuff instead of savoring it. No, it’s the aptness of that detail to the narrator, Dyer, and to his upfront-stated mission. He’s a geologist and professor, so unlikely to be vague in any earnest communication. He’s trying to establish himself as a careful observer and reliable historian. If people are going to harken to his warnings, they have to trust him, and his unshaken sanity. Put him into a Congressional hearing! Bring on your interrogators and skeptics! He can handle them, if anyone can.

At the same time, it’s nice strategy to make him acquainted with Mythos lore before his abrupt immersion into its reality. He’s looked into the Necronomicon and talked to that notorious MU folklorist Wilmarth. He’s seen Roerich’s paintings of hill ruins, and Clark Ashton Smith’s uncanny pictures, too. He knows about the Pnakotic Manuscript, and Tsathoggua, and Leng. His companion Danforth also knows about the Mythos, because he’s a great reader of weird literature, able to quote Poe at the sight of smoking Mt. Erebus.

Actually, Pabodie and Lake also know something about the Mythos. I guess if you’re a professor at MU, you kind of absorb it through your pores.

Another nice bit of character building—Gedney, the grad student who’s supposedly crossed the mountains of madness on foot? Of course he could do it—he’s one of the party that made the arduous ascent of Mt. Nansen earlier in the expedition.

My second new observation is how Lovecraft subtly relates this, arguably his most rigorous science fiction tale, to the fantasy of the Dreamlands. Could it be that mythic Leng was not in Central Asia but on the Antarctic superplateau beyond the mountains of madness? After all, the horizon-grazing midnight sun throws a dream-like red glow over the stark landscape, and the roiled atmosphere supplies mirage after mirage, at least one of which may turn out to be a premonitory vision.

I do know this. Randolph Carter can have the sunset city for the place of his heart’s desire, as long as I can have the frozen metropolis of the Elder Things.

Cold never bothered me anyway.

 

Join us next week, on the other side of the Mountains, for Chapters 5-8.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the sequel Fathomless out today. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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