Whew! Today is the final day of 2009 and the final day of my 12 days of Lovecraft. I have some conclusions to share below, but first, dear reader, join my on a soujourn “At The Mountains of Madness”!
In order to forestall future Antarctic exploration, our narrator has at last decided to reveal the horrific details of the ill-fated Antarctic expedition out of Miskatonic U. a few years earlier. Led by our narrator, a team of scientists went to Antarctica to take some core samples with their fancy new drill. One guy goes off half-cocked with a small crew, and while taking some samples in the foothills of a colossal mountain range (careful readers will have divined that this is, in fact, the titular mountain range, and nothing good can be coming), he discovers a cave with some freaky dead monstery things in it.
He attempts to autopsy the creatures but finds their skin too tough. And then—radio silence. The rest of the expedition goes to find him, only to find the camp deserted and everybody dead except for one guy who is missing. Oh yeah, and the only frozen monsters left are the ones that were pre-mangled.
Our narrator and his buddy Danforth take a plane into the mountain range, where they discover a city whose geology reveals it to be pre-human and even pre-saurian in origin. They spend a long time wandering the city and deciphering the history of the weird monstery things who used to live here. Eventually they find some giant albino cave penguins(!) and the dead body of the guy who was missing from the camp. And then they’re chased from the city by something far too monstrous to comprehend. Kinda like in The Shadow out of Time.
Polar Horror. As The Thing, The Terror, and especially March of the Penguins have shown us, there’s just something intrinsically horrifying about the polar wastes. Creepy setting—check.
H.P. also does a great job of building and sustaining suspense through this long, long story. We know at the outset that something horrible happened, but we don’t know what it was. I was compelled to keep reading, especially knowing that Danforth saw something that he won’t talk about.
Much of the story is given over to description of the pre-human civilization that inhabited the city, and for me, this was just much more interesting and credible than similar passages in “The Shadow Out of Time.” Perhaps because these pre-humans didn’t have their extendable members described in such detail. (Strange, then, that this story predates that one. “At The Mountains of Madness” seems to me like a better, more complete version of “The Shadow Out of Time.”)
Yes, things are still both eldritch and cyclopean as they seem to be in just about every story, but perhaps because he’s writing from the point of view of a scientist, H.P. keeps his overwriting in check through most of the story. It’s not the narrator who ends up a gibbering madman, so maybe that helps.
I take back everything I said yesterday about masters of the short form writing “dreck” in the long form—I was younger then, and had yet to sup from the cup of madness that is this eldritch, cyclopean story. This for me is the most successful of H.P.’s stories in terms of bringing a bunch of his ideas and preoccupations (lost cities, weird civilizations, nameless, uncomprehendible horrors, and that wikipedia of the occult, the Necronomicon). I felt like he tied together a bunch of elements that don’t always cohere in other stories in a very neat and clever way.
Also, the tiresome and creepy-in-what-it-says-about-the-author preoccupation with purity and contamination seems pretty well absent here.
What’s Less Than Awesome:
Giant. Albino. Cave Penguins.
I have had a wonderful time doing this project. It was really fun to revisit stories I only dimly remembered from reading them decades ago, and what I’ve come away with is a deeper appreciation of Lovecraft’s work.
If the racism, which seems part of a larger, OCD-esque preoccupation with contamination, is now repugnant and off-putting, H.P.’s other preoccupations—the horror of the unknown and the ultimate insignificance of human life—still resonate strongly. For me, the loss of loved ones in the years between 14 and 41 and its concomitant questioning of the significance of life (yeah, I said concomitant! Like I said, I’ve been reading Lovecraft!) really deepened my appreciation of H.P.’s preoccupations.
I went into this nervous about what the neighbors would think as H.P. transitions from nearly-forgotten pulp writer to minor figure in the American Literary Canon. (I mean, he’s major to me, but to folks who think fantastic fiction worthy of reading in English class begins and ends with Poe, H.P. is still pretty obscure.) I still think it’s important to acknowledge the racism that is prevalent in so many stories, but it’s also important to acknowledge the many things that H.P. did right. I’ve gently mocked him throughout this venture, because I’m a smartass by nature, but to spend time inside H.P.’s world is to be in the presence of a titanic imagination that doesn’t come along too often. All of us who read and write speculative fiction are in some way in his debt.
Finally, I’ve been really impressed with the quality of discussion here. Even when I’ve overstated things for comic effect, people have responded with disagreement that was probably more respectful than I deserved, and, as I’ve said, I’ve learned a great deal from the biographical and historical data that people have provided in the comments.
Thanks, everybody, and a happy Cthulhu F’tagn to all!
Seamus Cooper is the author of The Mall of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books, 2009). He welcomes your hate mail and fan mail and invites you to purchase many copies of his novel and stop by to see him in his regular haunt, The Food Court of Fear.