At the Mountains of Madness is, perhaps more then or at least alongside The Call of Cthulhu (and maybe The Shadow Over Innsmouth), H. P. Lovecraft’s magnum opus. At the Mountains of Madness is narrated by William Dyer, a geologist who is penning the story as warning for an expedition to the Antarctic; an expedition whose goal it is to further examine and verify the finds that Dyer and his compatriots discovered on their journey. The discovery of evidence indicating not only the existence of life, but an entire civilization that predates all things known to man at first appears wondrous but quickly shifts into the horrific as events unfold.
I admit I have a fondness for John Carpenter’s The Thing, itself based on the 1951 The Thing From Another World, both films are in fact adaptations of John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” The films concern themselves with the terror of threats both within (paranoia) and without (the alien). Lovecraft’s story, for all the horror of the alien civilization and creatures he describes, is much more about the fear of the unknown and the danger of exploration outside the bounds of human society. At the Mountains of Madness is itself an exploration of the philosophy set forth by Lovecraft in the opening paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity; and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” To be fair the same theme runs through a large percentage of Lovecraft’s fiction but I think that the three tales At the Mountains of Madness, the Call of Cthulhu, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth best exemplify that theme and are the most evocative in their exploration of the fear and dread of the unknown and dangerous potential hidden in the quest for knowledge.
Like a lot of the horror fiction I enjoy At the Mountains of Madness is a story that, through the narrative, attempts to pass itself off as truth. As I’ve said in the past it is a device that has been with the horror genre (and gothic fiction as a whole) since its beginnings and one that has followed the genre into other mediums; as evidenced by films like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield (which included a whole ARG campaign prior to its release), and most recently Paranormal Activity. If the Wikiepedia article here is correct At the Mountains of Madness is important amongst the body of Lovecraft’s work as it confirms that the creatures therein are extraterrestrial in origin. I, for one, am of the opinion that this does little to negate the fear and horror of his fiction and, given the thematic precedence set by his earlier fiction, that Lovecraft would equate the scientific with supernatural horror is no small surprise. Indeed, there is a certain perverse beauty in Lovecraft’s transformation of existential dread into physical entities of profound horror and unfathomable intentions.
At the Mountains of Madness, like much of Lovecraft’s fiction, has the same dry tone and frequently verbose prose that can be off-putting for modern readers. The style, reminiscent of 19th century gothic fiction, I think adds a certain air of plausibility to the fiction. At the Mountains of Madness is one of the few times where Lovecraft brings Poe directly into his fiction as the poem Ulalume is quoted fairly early in the story. In fact the section quoted:
the lavas that restlessly roll / Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek / In the ultimate climes of the pole, / That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek / In the realms of the boreal pole
Would later be aped by Lovecraft in his own poem “Nemesis.” Particularly the second stanza:
I have whirled with the earth at the dawning, / When the sky was a vaporous flame; / I have seen the dark universe yawning / Where the black planets roll without aim, / Where they roll in their horror unheeded, without knowledge or lustre or name.
Which, while certainly more cosmic in nature, I think bears a startling similarity to the Poe. In fact both poems reflect the different nature of their author’s times. Poe’s “Ulalume” is more intimately tied to classical literature and expresses fear born of a more wild nature, something more typical of romanticism, and the horror of human nature. Despite the poems name I’m fairly certain that Nemesis does not refer the classical Nemesis as their seems no metaphors for retribution in any of the lines; instead I would posit that the Nemesis of the title is instead fear.
Lovecraft’s horror is most assuredly more cosmic in nature of man, not weighted by the knowledge of his own thoughts, but rather be unknown that surrounds him penned in by forces incomprehensible . “Ulalume” is as much about the pain and fear of things lost: “And I said—’What is written, sweet sister, / On the door of this legended tomb?’ / She replied—’Ulalume—Ulalume— ‘T is the vault of thy lost Ulalume!'” as it as about anything else. “Nemesis,” is about fear, not of anything specific, but fear itself:
Through the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber, / Past the wan-mooned abysses of night, / I have lived o’er my lives without number, / I have sounded all things with my sight; / And I struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright.
For Lovecraft I think, science and history, superseded the supernatural. He found fear in the inexplainable yes but he also found horror in the very thought of the explanation of itself. I don’t know why but that speaks to me in a very specific way that other horror does not.
I think I’ve veered off topic a bit here. Long story short: do yourself a favor and take a look At the Mountains of Madness if you haven’t already. If you have the time start with The Shadow Over Innsmouth, work your way over to the The Call Cthulhu and the then hop on over to At the Mountains of Madness. (EDIT: looks like accidently cribbed from House of Leaves, all apologies. Edited to fix that as soon as a friend pointed it out). But like Mark Danielewski wrote in House of Leaves,”:
You might try then, as I did, to find a sky so full of stars it will blind you again. Only no sky can blind you now. Even with all that iridescent magic up there, your eye will no longer trace constellations. You’ll care only about the darkness and you’ll watch it for hours, for days, maybe even for years, trying in vain to believe you’re some kind of indispensable universe-appointed sentinel, as if just by looking you could actually keep it all at bay. It will get so bad you’ll be afraid to look away, you’ll be afraid to sleep.