Thenceforward the ten of us – but the student Danforth and myself above all others – were to face a hideously amplified world of lurking horrors which nothing can erase from our emotions, and which we would refrain from sharing with mankind in general if we could.
By H.P. Lovecraft
A feature story of Lovecraft’s celebrated Cthulhu Mythos, “At the Mountains of Madness” is the story of an expedition deep into the barren wastes of Antarctica, where a discovery so horrific and impossible is made that the survivors dare not report the truth until they must to save the lives of another expedition.
At the Mountains of Madness was my first foray into Lovecraft. I’ve long been aware of the various cultural adoptions of the writer’s work- the Cthulu Mythos, the Necronomicon, etc.- but I had never actually read any of his short stories of novellas. For the sake of deeper pop cultural understanding I took the plunge.
…And it was not really what I expected.
Praised as a master of Horror and a revolutionary in the field, I expected more from this work, which serves as an introduction to many of his invented beings and concepts. The modern concept of what is shocking and scary has perhaps spoiled my mind to this story that was published 80 years ago. I do not mean to say that the story lacked disturbing elements, just that it was with a pace and prose that dulled some of the actual horrors being articulately described.
While I was a little underwhelmed by those genre elements, and overwhelmed by the ultra-descriptive verbiage (which surprised me for something originally published in a pulp magazine), I was quite impressed by the amount of mythology building that such a short story could accomplish. At the Mountains of Madness is essentially a story in two parts- the retelling of the public’s perception of a doomed Antarctic expedition, and then an account of what really happened. It is told from the perspective of a survivor, baring his secrets for the first time in order to dissuade a new expedition from treading the horrible ground he had walked on.
During the first half that narrator, William Dyer, drops references to Lovecraft’s invented mythology as if it were common knowledge to the entire world. It would be like if people today had this casual cultural knowledge of not just the Greek myths and the Egyptian civilizations, but the Necronomicon and all that it inspired as well. These asides and observations felt very natural and ingrained within the understanding of every learned person.
The first half was tense and fascinating, an archaeological and geological mystery unfolding before these scientists. With a brief background in archaeology myself, my inner natural historian was intrigued and perplexed along with the fictional explorers. You know something is wrong, but the exact nature of the situation is mysterious and obscured.
The second half, where that fictional mythology moves out of legend and into something else entirely, was interesting on its own, though less urgent and mysterious. The reader is no longer left with a million questions about the tragic expedition, they are instead told a very exact, unambiguous history. The tension is lost as a result of the matter-of-fact exposition. That same tension returns at the end, but by that point the slow, descriptive, almost over-explanation has taken away much of the shock value.
I understand the purpose of that description- Lovecraft’s desire to cement more of his fictional universe. That narrative choice was valuable from that perspective, giving me a better understanding and baseline for the mythology that has inspired movies, games, and music for the better part of a century. It is for that point that I would recommend this novella. On its own it is not the world’s most amazing work of science fiction or horror, but when considered as part of the Lovecraftian whole, with everything that that has influenced, it is a read that I am glad I undertook.