Friday, August 13, 2021

"At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft--Fiction Review

Ok, Obscurists, I’ve talked about this author numerous times, but I’ve never reviewed any of his books before here on WIO. So today, we’re talking about my absolute favorite story from H.P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness.”

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review*** 

What I love about this book:

The setting of this story is Antarctica, and while I don’t like the cold—ok, I hate the cold—but Antarctica has somehow always been fascinating to me. It’s so vast—so different from the rest of Earth and the last place on the planet to be really explored. Especially when Lovecraft wrote, “At the Mountains of Madness,” so if you put yourself into that mindset, then really anything could be there—a literal here be dragons sort of place in modern times.

Without giving away too much of the story yet, this story is complex in that it isn’t just a horror story but a detailed adventure story focusing on exploration. That’s an element in Lovecraft’s canon, which is common but isn’t as focused on in such detail as this story. Typically someone is exploring something against their will or by total accident. Usually, Lovecraft doesn’t bother himself with the practical details of exploration like in “At the Mountains of Madness.” I find this focus on real-world details about the expedition’s tools and methods makes the world he’s building for us feel all the more authentic.

Since Lovecraft makes this world feel particularly close to reality, the horror when Lovecraft-style monsters show up is all the more compelling. When flesh and bone people suddenly come in contact with protoplasmic nightmare creatures at the bottom of the world, the atmosphere of isolation and terror has crescendoed into an all-out panic.

In addition to his typical masterful use of terror, dread, and oppressive atmosphere—the best tools in his writing—Lovecraft employs something different in this story as well that I’d never seen him use before I read “At the Mountains of Madness.” He uses, albeit sparingly, empathy for the other—he has one of his characters express pity for and even imagines the perspective of their antagonist. Lovecraft was a product of his time, which means that if he were alive today, he’d be judged an odious racist and white supremacist. “At the Mountains of Madness” was written toward the end of Lovecraft’s career, so any expression of empathy toward an “other,” in this case winged space monsters from beyond time immemorial, is a huge breakthrough in his writing.

What I don’t love about this book:

Sadly, Lovecraft died a few years after writing “At the Mountains of Madness,” and it wasn’t that successful while he was alive. He’d thought the story his masterpiece—a sentiment I agree with—and his confidence was shaken when it didn’t take off with his usual outlets. That’s why I believe we see a regression in style and scope with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” written later that same year. It’s a fine story in pacing, atmosphere, and horror, but another one that relies heavily on his crackpot preoccupations with race and degeneration—so on and so forth. 

“At the Mountains of Madness” might be one of Lovecraft’s best attempts at character development—there are actual people with names and defined relationships to one another. But, still, a published author of his caliber and experience should be able to muster a bit more dialog and inject more robust character interaction than the C+ effort he puts into this story.

Lovecraft was quintessentially a short story writer, and that shows in all of his longer works in differing degrees. This one is no exception. Often, I feel like I’m being summarized—at, which would mean he does a lot of telling and not a lot of showing in the modern parlance. There are some terrific sequences of immediate peril toward the end that aren’t like that, and they’re awesome. In the middle of the story, however, lots of telling. It’s nowhere near as bad in this regard as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” which legit, in my opinion, Lovecraft wrote a sort of horror/fantasy “Lord of the Rings” style epic in just over 42,000 words. Sounds like it should be kickass! But—it isn’t—because it’s like reading an outline of a book series which should have been three or four full-sized novels, which he was painfully incapable of writing.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story begins with a framing story of a professor of Miskatonic University, William Dyer, warning and pleading that no one should return to the site of his expedition in Antarctica. Dyer is reluctant to tell his story because he’s certain that he’ll be labeled either a liar or madman.

Professor Dyer and another Miskatonic Professor named Lake led a small expedition of academics and graduate students to the southernmost continent for research and exploration purposes. They make several significant if conventional discoveries while there. Eventually, the group splits up to pursue different ventures, and multiple camps are set up. The expedition members stay in contact with one another via radio, though. 

Lake’s group—having split off from Dyer’s—sets up their own camp near an immense mountain range, taller than any other in the world, and find a subterranean cache of strange artifacts. In the previously sealed cave, they find what they assume are the remains of life that they can’t identify. They’re not even confident if the odd barreled shaped and winged things were animal or plant. In any case, the whole expedition is in a celebratory mood and congratulates professor Lake on the find of the century. The next morning though, Dyer’s camp and the rest of the expedition at McMurdo Sound lose contact with Lake’s camp after a fierce nighttime storm.

When Dyer finally manages to get his group and planes together to fly to Lake’s camp, the scene they’re greeted with is one of abject horror. At first, they think the camp was destroyed by the storm, but the missing samples of creatures they thought were long dead, the mutilated corpses of everyone in Lake’s group, and the disassembled machinery of Lake’s planes—seem to suggest something different. After combing through the wreckage, Dyer’s group discovers that there are some missing items, including one man and one dog.

Dyer and a graduate student named Danforth decide to take one of their planes up and explore the mountain range near Lake’s devastated camp. On the mountain tops, they discover impossible-seeming structures, and hidden by the mountain range, they find a city that no human being ever constructed. They land their plane near the city and quickly discover it’s a necropolis and, unable to help themselves, decide to explore the ruins.

In the dead city, they discover it was built by the things that Lake found in the cave. Dyer and Danforth also find a long detailed history of the “elder things” via a long series of pictographs. Their history talks of settling on Earth, building a civilization, war with other space-faring entities, and finally, the collapse of their society when their slave race of shapeshifters called shoggoths rebelled.

Finally, Dyer and Danforth find the corpses of the missing man and dog, along with the inescapable revelation that the elder things Lake had dug up weren’t dead after all but merely hibernating. Dyer realized that they must have awakened from their eons-long slumber in the middle of the storm. Worse, they found some of their companions destroyed and humans attempting to vivisect them. With that in mind, Dyer understands why they reacted so violently. The elder things must have fled back to their city to find it destroyed and the ultimate twist of the knife is they themselves were then soon slaughtered by a shoggoth, which also has survived all the long years.

Dyer and Danforth barely manage to escape a pursuing shoggoth and take off in their plane. They swear to keep the elder thing’s dead city a secret from the world and the rest of the expedition. As they fly away from the mountain range, Danforth looks back one last time and sees something that drives him insane. He absolutely refuses to tell Dyer what he saw and is committed when they return to the human world. Dyer only tells the story of their expedition to dissuade a follow-up expedition now on their way toward The Mountains of Madness.


“At the Mountains of Madness” is one of Lovecraft’s stories that ranges further afield than his beloved New England, and while I’m sure he never personally visited Antarctica, it’s informed by his love of travel. A lot of people don’t know this about the man, but he wrote several travelogues in his day. I think his traveling more in his later life also gave him the capacity to broaden his perspectives.

In certain portions, especially in the beginning, this story feels more like the kind of sci-fi story of exploration that Jules Verne would have written. For the first and only time—I can remember—Lovecraft took the time to study and even describe the operation of mechanical equipment in this novella, which is why it reminds me of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” in that regard. All of this serves the plot to make it feel more plausibly like an expedition to the south pole.   

An abandoned building is inherently creepy, so a dead alien metropolis where there shouldn’t be any city magnifies that feeling exponentially. There is this mixture of fascination and suspenseful dread that propels this story along, which I love. In typical Lovecraft fashion, all of the violence happens off stage and out of view of the reader. But the threat of that terrible violence is always present after Dyer and his people find Lake’s destroyed camp.

I had said earlier in this review that it was a pretty big conceptual leap for Lovecraft to imagine the perspective of and even sympathize with an “other,” in this case the elder things, but there is a huge but here. The elder things were slave owners. They were “men” of their age, sure, but just like the founding fathers of the United States, they had the problem of owning other sentient creatures. So at the end of the day, I’m on the shoggoths’ side of this argument—no matter how bizarre they are, because nobody likes the idea of being a slave.

Parting thoughts:

I have got a complicated relationship with Lovecraft as a fan of his work. Clearly, the conversation is one-sided since he’s dead. Still, I’ve learned a lot about his life and thoughts, and I wonder what he would have been like had he lived longer or been born in a different era. 

I’ve learned a tremendous amount about his life from Finn J.D. John’s “The Complete Weird-Fiction Works of H.P. Lovecraft: In One Volume,” which is great and more people should read it. John puts all of Lovecraft’s stories in order and gives a bit of biography in between each story. So you get the context of what was going on in Lovecraft’s life when he wrote each piece. 

What I learned about Lovecraft is he’s a study of contradictions. He adored his home in Providence and was always a bit of a recluse, but at one point, he was convinced to leave and move to New York. Lovecraft, of course, hated it there and moved home after his marriage imploded, but he did make an effort. His wife, Sonia Greene—who he did love at one time—was a strong independent woman, something you seldom see in his fiction. Another odd contradiction, she was also Jewish—curious for an anti-Semite such as Lovecraft to get involved with, but he did. Their separation wasn’t because of his more racist flight of fancy but mainly because of circumstance and his moving back home to Providence, where—surprise, surprise—his family in the form of his aunts didn’t approve of Greene.

Ultimately what fascinates me the most about Lovecraft is that this weird, moody guy from New England sowed many seeds that grew long after he was gone. He had a penchant for collaborating with and corresponding with countless other writers, his personal letters vastly outnumbering his fiction. He supported and developed other people, probably more so than himself. Lovecraft also inspired generations of weird fiction and horror writers after him. He encouraged other people to write in the universe he created. Sometimes, when he wasn’t so uptight, he was even known to be a little funny amongst his friends.

So after scratching a little bit at the surface of the man’s history, there is clearly a spirit of generosity there alongside an excellent capacity for curiosity. Reconciling that with his moral failings, which were tremendous when it comes to race, is difficult and more than a bit disappointing. It makes me wonder; what would he have done with another thirty or forty years? It’s impossible to know.

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