This novella, originally published in serial form in February through to April 1936, has been featured in many different books over the decades since its debut. I first read it in a Lovecraft omnibus I picked up many years ago, before subsequently collecting a more definitive version, and it has been happily burned into my memory ever since.
Lovecraft was a master of horror, dread and lurking sense of doom, and At the Mountains of Madness is a chilling reminder of why that is. This tale is of an Antarctic expedition which soon discovers eerie ruins beyond a huge mountain range, and within finds numerous, highly-evolved life forms not clearly categorised as animal or vegetable matter.
The location of the bodies’ place of rest creates a problem regarding classification, as their features cannot have evolved naturally in accord with humans as such evolution had not occurred on the geological time scale. Their biology reminds the narrator William Dyer of monsters of primal myth ‘especially fabled Elder Things in (the) Necronomicon’. Such is the scene set for collecting of information, but better still a cataloguing of terrors, as the party continues their journey.
It doesn’t take long before severe problems arise. Soon a split party are shaken by traumas and a descent into chaos under the malign influence of a corrupt scene. The text is Lovecraft at his purest, and importantly, goes some way into describing some of the Cthulhu mythos laid down in his other works. Another great story to someone not readily familiar with this would be The Call of Cthulhu, written five years previously, whilst The Shadow over Innsmouth, which was published the same year that At the Mountains of Madness was written, offers further insight into the dark, rich, furtive world of Lovecraft’s literary prowess.
I was thinking about what it is that makes this such a great tale. For me personally any ‘Lost World’ story has always been of appeal, a la H. Rider Hagard. The added mystery of this place being filled with beings not of this world, or certainly not of the safe, homo-sapiens-filled, contiguous humankind existence definitely brings a bonus.
The idea of the unexplored, genuinely something that was still possible in the days of the story’s conception, is something that strengthens the yarn. I wonder whether the fact that any one of us can now simply use Google maps to verify locations and places of anywhere on the planet in a number of seconds, that required similar military technology to do similar just a decade ago – and verify safely that there is no such hidden and vast horror city beyond any mountain range – might inhibit the levels of horror such a tale will bring to future generations?
I doubt so, but to think for the reader at the time, when there were still certain corners of our planet above ground still undiscovered from human exploration, it is interesting to think of added chills to be gotten from such an idea. And a good reason why, possibly, in one related Cthulhu tale from Lovecraft’s pen it is the sea itself – that vast undiscovered body of water comprising a huge percentage of the Earth’s surface – that he writes about as holding some terrible mysteries.
This is a must read for anyone who hasn’t yet done so. Actually, if you have read it already do yourself a favour and re-read it; I seem to appreciate Lovecraft’s stuff more and more upon further reading. He laid a new foundation for the horror genre, and this tale in particular is one that I think rewards fans with the devil in the details of the lofty Cthulhu mythos.
The word is that James Cameron is set to direct a 3D-movie adaptation of the tale, after Guillermo Del Toro originally penned a script and then had issues selling it to the studio. Fingers crossed Cameron doesn’t fumble such a great property in translating such vision to the big screen. For this is a novel of great vision indeed.