Book Review: At the Mountains of Madness

“Only the incredible, unhuman massiveness of these vast stone towers and ramparts had saved the frightful thing from utter annihilation in the hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of years it had brooded there amidst the blasts of a bleak upland. ‘Corona Mundi . . . Roof of the World . . .'”

Long ago, in a simpler, more wholesome era—fall 2011, to be specific, which for me was the start of seventh grade—I discovered the terror and wonder of cosmic fiction. This was the age when I watched1 2001: A Space Odyssey and shuddered at the ancient mystery of the Monoliths; it was also the age when, in search of the strange and unsettling, I grabbed an H.P. Lovecraft anthology, sat down, and began reading the 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness.

The man himself!

How to describe the impact it had on me? I was, to put it mildly, spellbound by Lovecraft’s adventure through an ancient city in the ice, totally enamored with the excitement of exploration on the one hand and the aura of ancient, terrible mystery on the other. The above passage in particular really hit hard; for countless aeons, while humanity left the trees and discovered fire and played out its petty dramas of conquest, this city had waited quietly and completely undisturbed in a dark corner of the Earth. The idea alone was enough to terrify. On my morning walks to the bus stop, well before sunrise, I would think of those lines from Lovecraft, and the eerie music from 2001 would play in my head, and I would find it so dreadfully easy to imagine the unknowable vastness of the cosmos bearing down on me.

So, At the Mountains of Madness left a mark on a certain impressionable thirteen-year-old, who is now a jaded twenty-two-year-old with a blog and a deeply seated admiration for Lovecraft’s work. I’m not the only one; despite never getting the big-budget adaptation it deserves 2, the 1931 novella has influenced sci-fi and horror across generations, and is a cultural touchstone to this day, particularly influencing the whole “ancient astronauts” genre. But here’s the real question: behind the nostalgia, is it any good?

The issue of Astounding Stories in which At the Mountains of Madness first appeared. This is probably fair use rather than public domain, because for some BS reason the issue is still copyrighted. It was eighty fricking years ago!

In common H.P. Lovecraft style, we view the story through a framing device. The whole novella is presented as an account by a geologist, Professor William Dyer, of the doomed Miskatonic Expedition to Antarctica. He hints that he found something terrible, and gives a warning against further explorations of the region; nevertheless, specifics are saved for much later, as they would spoil the story. Instead, we get a matter-of-fact retelling of the events leading to the expedition’s demise.

It all begins with twenty men, led by four scientists from Miskatonic University, undertaking a journey to the last continent with the noble but prosaic intention of collecting mineral samples. To aid in this quest they bring drilling equipment, sled dogs, and a small number of planes. Altogether, it’s a slow start for the story. Things go well at first, many scientific discoveries are made—and then an advance party led by Professor Lake uncovers the strangest fossils anybody has ever seen. I’m not even going to try to describe these freakish things, just see for yourself:

Told you they were strange. Attribution: Віщун at the Ukrainian language Wikipedia, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

The fossils, excavated at the foot of a mountain range taller than the Himalayas, are older than any known complex life on Earth—remarkably well preserved, too. Lake begins an investigation, only for his radio transmissions to abruptly stop. When Dyer leads a rescue team he finds a bizarre scene of catastrophe, with all the men and dogs of the advance party killed in inexplicably gruesome ways, and several of the anomalous fossils missing. What could have caused this?

Though horrified, Dyer is not so shaken as to be dissuaded from scientific discovery. Out of curiosity alone he and a graduate student, Danforth, set out over the nearby mountains in an aircraft, determined to see just what might lie in the terra incognita beyond them. Thus they plunge headfirst into the dreaded, terrible mountains of madness

These aren’t necessarily madness-inducing, but they are mountains. Close enough, right?

Turns out that there’s a city on the other side. A positively gargantuan city, in fact, the likes of which no human has yet beheld. Dyer theorizes it has been here for at least 500,000 years, probably much longer; there is a distinct five-pointed symmetry to many of the structures that harkens back to the strange creatures Lake uncovered. Being men of science, Dyer and Danforth land the plane in the nearest open space, and begin their investigation.

The first order of business is to catalogue the precise design and construction of these alien monoliths. Our author Lovecraft was, of course, a colossal architecture nerd with a penchant for verbosity, so when I say “precise,” I mean that it goes on for pages, and pages, and yet more pages. Feast your eyes:

“This rampart, shaped like a star and perhaps 300 feet from point to point, was built of Jurassic sandstone blocks of irregular size, averaging 6 × 8 feet in surface. There was a row of arched loopholes or windows about four feet wide and five feet high; spaced quite symmetrically along the points of the star and at its inner angles, and with the bottoms about four feet from the glaciated surface.”

Yup. Also the word “Cyclopean” gets thrown around to describe damn near everything, probably because Lovecraft thought it sounded cool3.

The term “Cyclopean masonry” derives from Classical Greece, when the Greeks would look upon the works of an earlier civilization—the Mycenaeans—and marvel at the sheer size of the stone blocks used, which they theorized were lifted by Cyclopes. It’s not wholly out of place in a novella about ancient ruins. Credit: Andreas Trepte,

Now we get to the part where Dyer learns the dreaded, maddening, eldritch (and so on) history of this lost civilization, largely thanks to the elaborate stone carvings which the aliens—now referred to as the “Elder Things”—helpfully left behind for posterity. You know how modern-day archaeologists spend their whole careers puzzling over things like pot shards, trying to squeeze cryptic hints of meaning from works for which the context is all but lost? Yes, our intrepid hero just sort of… figures it all out in a matter of hours. He’s a geologist, for goodness’ sake, he’s not even stated to have any specialist knowledge of archaeology or art! Even better, as he reads the Elder Things’ history he recognizes events from the Necronomicon and the Pnakotic Manuscripts and various “primordial and highly baffling myth-cycles.” This guy is apparently a regular at the Spooky Old Texts department of Miskatonic Library, so it’s a wonder how he ever found time to study rocks.

William Dyer, folks. A true renaissance man!

Anyway, we do get a good, long (loooong) description of how the civilization of the extraterrestrial Elder Things rose and fell across a span of billions of years. There’s no plot here. It is an infodump, pure and simple, salvaged only by the fact that it’s pretty fascinating stuff, a true dive into science fiction as opposed to Lovecraft’s more supernatural earlier work. At the Mountains of Madness is notable for tying together most of what would become the Cthulhu Mythos; the carvings depict Cthulhu, who first appeared in The Call of Cthulhu, and the Mi-Go, from The Whisperer in Darkness.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! If you know what that means, you are officially King of the Nerds. Prepare for your coronation. Source: BenduKiwi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dyer and Danforth spend hours studying the lost carvings, but then they realize a horrifying truth: this city is not wholly dead. Cue peril! The last act of the novella is left for you to discover for yourself, not least because there are some genuinely spooky moments and creepy mysteries. Suffice it to say that it’s at least somewhat exciting, a refreshing change of pace from the middle portion of the story, which is essentially a history textbook. Obviously Dyer makes it back alive to give his warning against future expeditions, but I won’t quite say what happens to Danforth…

At the Mountains of Madness really holds a beloved place in my heart. It set up a fascination with HP Lovecraft that lasted all through seventh grade and beyond, and it’s had a not insubstantial influence on my own writing. My current writing project is, in fact, a shameless ripoff of loving homage to At the Mountains of Madness, transplanted to 1870s Alaska. Unlike Lovecraft, though, I intend to describe my spooky alien ruins without fifty pages of exact architectural dimensions.

The largest problem with At the Mountains of Madness, and Lovecraft’s work as a whole, is that despite being classic, the actual craft elements are usually substandard. It’s not that the form of literature as art has moved on; some of my favorite books composed before or during Lovecraft’s time, such as The War of the Worlds (1898), The Great Gatsby (1925), and Of Mice and Men (1937), have aged pretty well, and remain better-written than much fiction on the shelves today.

No, the fact is that Lovecraft was a pulp writer, far better with ideas and a general sense of mood than he was with the execution of a story. His diction is absurdly over-complicated, showing off antique and obscure words that sometimes don’t even apply very well; sentences continue seemingly without end. More broadly, he gets hung up on minutiae at every turn, dragging out exposition until it lasts for seeming aeons, and broader still, his characters are cardboard cutouts with little interiority or dynamism to speak of. William Dyer is a case in point. He’s here to tell the reader about the Mountains of Madness, nothing more.

Despite all that—despite open rebellion against most of the conventions of good literature—At the Mountains of Madness somehow works. It legitimately terrified me as a kid, and it’s still a fun yarn nowadays. Enough people clearly liked it for the novella to leave its stamp across the horror/sci-fi genre. So, what’s my verdict? Worth it, 100%. You don’t even need to buy a copy—the hazy (dare I say, eldritch?) complexities of Lovecraftian copyright mean it’s pretty much in the public domain, archived online for any scholar of forbidden lore to access. Of course, if you’re looking for a primary source you can always fly out to Antarctica and interpret the Elder Things’ strange carvings for yourself…

Rating: 5/10 for actual quality, 10/10 for my personal enjoyment of it (and its historical significance).

Thanks for checking out today’s entry, folks. Until next week!

  1. I also read the book, in fact shortly prior to my first viewing of the film. While Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is a masterpiece of cinema, I maintain that Arthur C. Clarke’s written treatment has far more philosophical and intellectual meat to it, going into greater depth on just about everything.
  2. Prometheus and Alien vs. Predator come close, actually. AVP is even set in a lost city in Antarctica!
  3. Admittedly, it does.

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