Monday, June 11, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: At the Mountains of Madness

With the recent release of Ridley Scott's Alien prequel-but-not, Prometheus (more about that later), there's been a lot of talk about H.P. Lovecraft's novella, At the Mountains of Madness -- and with good reason. Serialized over the course of the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories, At the Mountains of Madness is not only a science fiction story, but, like Prometheus, one that suggests that extraterrestrial beings played a role in the origins of mankind. Whereas Prometheus is set on an unexplored planet far from Earth, HPL's tale is set on what was, in his day, the last unexplored portion of Earth, namely the icy continent of Antarctica.

From a young age, Lovecraft was fascinated by the Antarctic. Likewise, he was very fond of Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, some of whose action takes place in the southernmost continent and which Lovecraft had called "disturbing and enigmatical." Consequently, it's not at all surprising that he would eventually write his own Antarctic tale, though its scope and content likely had other inspirations, including Lovecraft's own earlier story, The Nameless City, which appeared in 1921 and sometimes considered to be the first work of the Cthulhu Mythos. At 40,000 words, it is Lovecraft's second longest work of fiction (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward being the longest) and is generally regarded as among his most successful works as well, deftly combining the cosmic themes of his previous works with an explicitly non-supernatural approach to presenting them.

Like so many HPL stories, At the Mountains of Madness is told in the first person from the perspective of a survivor of a doomed expedition, in this case William Dyer, a geology professor from Miskatonic University. The expedition was to the Antarctic with the purpose "of securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the antarctic continent." Thanks to "the remarkable drill devised by Professor Frank H. Pabodie of our engineering department," the expedition uncovers some peculiar fossils that stirs the biologist of the expedition, Lake, to lead a party to the northwest of the main group in search of additional samples. While doing so, he discovers huge mountains over 35,000 feet in height ("Everest out of the running," he reports via radio), more fossils, and, later, the frozen remains of bizarre creatures:
"Objects are eight feet long all over. Six-foot, five-ridged barrel torso three and five-tenths feet central diameter, one foot end diameters. Dark gray, flexible, and infinitely tough. Seven-foot membranous wings of same color, found folded, spread out of furrows between ridges. Wing framework tubular or glandular, of lighter gray, with orifices at wing tips. Spread wings have serrated edge. Around equator, one at central apex of each of the five vertical, stave-like ridges are five systems of light gray flexible arms or tentacles found tightly folded to torso but expansible to maximum length of over three feet. Like arms of primitive crinoid. Single stalks three inches diameter branch after six inches into five substalks, each of which branches after eight inches into small, tapering tentacles or tendrils, giving each stalk a total of twenty-five tentacles.
"At top of torso blunt, bulbous neck of lighter gray, with gill-like suggestions, holds yellowish five-pointed starfish-shaped apparent head covered with three-inch wiry cilia of various prismatic colors. "Head thick and puffy, about two feet point to point, with three-inch flexible yellowish tubes projecting from each point. Slit in exact center of top probably breathing aperture. At end of each tube is spherical expansion where yellowish membrane rolls back on handling to reveal glassy, red-irised globe, evidently an eye.
"Five slightly longer reddish tubes start from inner angles of starfish-shaped head and end in saclike swellings of same color which, upon pressure, open to bell-shaped orifices two inches maximum diameter and lined with sharp, white tooth like projections - probably mouths. All these tubes, cilia, and points of starfish head, found folded tightly down; tubes and points clinging to bulbous neck and torso. Flexibility surprising despite vast toughness.
"At bottom of torso, rough but dissimilarly functioning counterparts of head arrangements exist. Bulbous light-gray pseudo-neck, without gill suggestions, holds greenish five-pointed starfish arrangement.
"Tough, muscular arms four feet long and tapering from seven inches diameter at base to about two and five-tenths at point. To each point is attached small end of a greenish five-veined membranous triangle eight inches long and six wide at farther end. This is the paddle, fin, or pseudofoot which has made prints in rocks from a thousand million to fifty or sixty million years old.
"From inner angles of starfish arrangement project two-foot reddish tubes tapering from three inches diameter at base to one at tip. Orifices at tips. All these parts infinitely tough and leathery, but extremely flexible. Four-foot arms with paddles undoubtedly used for locomotion of some sort, marine or otherwise. When moved, display suggestions of exaggerated muscularity. As found, all these projections tightly folded over pseudoneck and end of torso, corresponding to projections at other end.
"Cannot yet assign positively to animal or vegetable kingdom, but odds now favor animal. Probably represents incredibly advanced evolution of radiata without loss of certain primitive features. Echinoderm resemblances unmistakable despite local contradictory evidences.
"Wing structure puzzles in view of probable marine habitat, but may have use in water navigation. Symmetry is curiously vegetablelike, suggesting vegetable 's essential up-and-down structure rather than animal’s fore-and-aft structure. Fabulously early date of evolution, preceding even simplest Archaean protozoa hitherto known, baffles all conjecture as to origin.
Not long thereafter, inclement weather ends radio contact between Lake's party and the main expedition led by Dyer. After a day without further word, Dyer becomes worried and decides to go, along with several others, to find out what has become of his colleagues. What this second party discovers is that Lake and all those with him, save one, were not merely dead but killed.
The crowning abnormality, of course, was the condition of the bodies - men and dogs alike. They had all been in some terrible kind of conflict, and were torn and mangled in fiendish and altogether inexplicable ways. Death, so far as we could judge, had in each case come from strangulation or laceration. The dogs had evidently started the trouble, for the state of their ill-built corral bore witness to its forcible breakage from within. It had been set some distance from the camp because of the hatred of the animals for those hellish Archaean organisms, but the precaution seemed to have been taken in vain. When left alone in that monstrous wind, behind flimsy walls of insufficient height, they must have stampeded - whether from the wind itself, or from some subtle, increasing odor emitted by the nightmare specimens, one could not say.

But whatever had happened, it was hideous and revolting enough. Perhaps I had better put squeamishness aside and tell the worst at last - though with a categorical statement of opinion, based on the first-hand observations and most rigid deductions of both Danforth and myself, that the then missing Gedney was in no way responsible for the loathsome horrors we found. I have said that the bodies were frightfully mangled. Now I must add that some were incised and subtracted from in the most curious, cold-blooded, and inhuman fashion. It was the same with dogs and men. All the healthier, fatter bodies, quadrupedal or bipedal, had had their most solid masses of tissue cut out and removed, as by a careful butcher; and around them was a strange sprinkling of salt - taken from the ravaged provision chests on the planes - which conjured up the most horrible associations. The thing had occurred in one of the crude aeroplane shelters from which the plane had been dragged out, and subsequent winds had effaced all tracks which could have supplied any plausible theory. Scattered bits of clothing, roughly slashed from the human incision subjects, hinted no clues. It is useless to bring up the half impression of certain faint snow prints in one shielded corner of the ruined inclosure - because that impression did not concern human prints at all, but was clearly mixed up with all the talk of fossil prints which poor Lake had been giving throughout the preceding weeks. One had to be careful of one’s imagination in the lee of those overshadowing mountains of madness.
Though unsettled by what he has seen, Dyer is nevertheless keen to unearth what happened to Lake and his companions, which spurs him to further exploration. This, in turn, leads to a series of discoveries that shake Dyer to his core and that form the bulk of the novella itself.

At the Mountains of Madness is, in my opinion, a triumph, though not a flawless one. While Lovecraft clearly did a great deal of research to provide verisimilitude, there are occasions where the mask slips and I found my credulity stretched to its limits. Ironically, I think it's precisely because HPL did such a fine job in most respects that his infelicities seem all the greater. Even so, the novella succeeds in presenting a vast canvas onto which he paints a masterpiece of cosmicism. It's hard to gauge Lovecraft's success nowadays because the story he tells has influenced and been imitated by so many other stories in the decades since that its impact is artificially lessened. But make no mistake: without At the Mountains of Madness, we'd likely not have the "ancient astronauts" mythology that's become a regular feature of so much of pop culture. Thus, it's not only a worthy read in its own right but a seminal one as well.

24 comments:

  1. There was a recent graphic novel adaptation that was quite good, all the more surprising given that the original story is rather slow and talky for the most part, and one wouldn't think such a pace would lend itself well to comics storytelling.

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  2. Thanks for the review; I've always loved this story. What mistakes did HPL make that bothered you so much?

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  3. I seem to be perpetually pointing this one out but the 'Alien Horrors ' perceived by the initial expedition - culminating in a terrible slaughter are much a perception of a false reality as the 'Discovery' made by the second expedition who having dealt with the ruination of the first expedition -go in search of the survivors - and find 'proof of the ancients'.

    It once you realize that both 'alien' discoveries are a manipulation of a common perception of reality that you understand the story - and its scary because what it is talking about is manipulation of that perception of reality from a Super-positional state. You can call that the level at which the Elder Beings function - but it is the true reality - where life functions and that is what makes it terrifying - because its about something impossibly real.

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  4. Funny you should mention Lovecraft and ancient astronauts: http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/04-04-26/

    Also, Ridley Scott claims Prometheus was itself based (at least in part) on the ancient astronaut theory, too:

    http://www.skeptic.com/doubtful-news/ridley-scott%E2%80%99s-new-alien-movie-influenced-by-von-daniken-2/

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  5. The_Shadow_KnowsJune 11, 2012 at 8:42 AM

    I know some of the people involved with Prometheus were claiming it isn't a prequel to Alien.  Having seen it, all I can say is they must be smoking crack to make that statement.

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  6. The similarities between Prometheus and At the Mountains of Madness are the reason why we will not see Del Toro make the Lovecraft story into a film; the studio canceled the project.  And that project, ironically, was the reason why Del Toro pulled out of The Hobbit so that Jackson is the one doing Tolkien again.

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  7. I came to Lovecraft only after playing Call of Cthulhu. When reading Mountains of Madness, I was surprised at a paragraph where Lovecraft describes the alien Old Ones in human terms:

    "Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn - whatever they had been, 
    they were men!"

    This was completely contrary to what I had been taught Lovecraft was all about and it's an aspect of Lovecraft's writing that has been diminished so much in recent years to the point of not really existing anymore in current "Cthulhu" stories.

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  8. It is 100% clear that Lindelof used ATMoM as his source text. The movie even includes the Everest line, a story told by aritifacts the creators left and a creator race taken down by thier own creation.  None of this is criticism, I think they did a good job porting the story to a new locale.

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  9. The protagonist of "The Shadow Out of Time" also comes to recognize the Great Race as being essentially human-like, at least in comparison to the more outlandish Lovecraftian monstrosities.

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  10. In his later years, Lovecraft became more "enlightened".  He embraced socialism and became less explicitly racist (as opposed to early stories like Shadow over Innsmouth).  AMoM is indicative of the later years.

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  11. I always thought that the first half of Aliens vs Predator felt a lot like In the Mountains of Madness.

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  12. The cover image is perfect; that scene happens at least once in every CoC session.

    Legion

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  13. I've read "At the Mountains of Madness" along with maybe a half-dozen of Lovecraft's short stories. I thought they were just awful, with AMoM being the most tedious and anti-climactic of all. I wondered if perhaps I was missing something, maybe a better selection of his stories.  It seemed unlikely that anything he did could be that much better than what I had read, but since Gygax cited Lovecraft as a major influence on D&D I thought maybe I should give "The Colour Out of Space" (or whatever) a chance.

    This review has convinced me Lovecraft is a waste of my time. If AMoM is a Lovecraftian triumph I will go a long way to avoid the rest of his work.  But I am curious: where is the influence over D&D? I can't figure out what impact Lovecraft had on the game's development. Anyone have any ideas?

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  14. The best Lovecraft's long tale and a great SF story. BBC Radio broadcasted it some time ago, and it was great!

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  15. At the Mountains of Madness is an illusion pulled up in front of your eyes - they see terrible horrors where there are men - and it is a collective horror - which is why I find it silly that even though you realize the alien discovery of the Site B team is a hallucination - and they butchered each other - you find that the follow-up team looking to find out what happened - experience their own alien horror - and you don't realize they are experiencing some mass hallucination as well.

    As to what influence it had on D&D? Probably not as much as it should have had. I mean sure a Xorn might fit the description of what they encountered in the Site B dig but if your PCs go in and encounter an alien facility filled with Xorn and kill them all and it turns out to be a mass hallucination and they wake up and find they have butchered a village of normal people - what happens then?

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  16. The Recursion KingJune 12, 2012 at 5:36 AM

    My favourite story as well, this got me hooked on Lovecraft.

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  17. I made the terrible mistake of making At the Mountains of Madness the first Lovecraft story I had ever read.  Aside from being nothing like what I expected, I found it tedious and dull.  Despite that, I went on to read more stories and really loved his work.

    Years later I read Mountains again and it was an entirely different experience. In many ways, Mountains is a culmination of his cosmic stories, drawing together themes he introduced over some of his earlier work.  He even references many things that happened in his other stories, which provides a whole new depth to the story.

    My recommendation is definitely to read the story, but do so after you are invested in Lovecraft's cosmic visions.  You will appreciate it a lot more that way.

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  18. am i the only one who doesn't know what reddeerrun is talking about?

    As far as atmom goes, I love it.  HPL is one of "those" writers.  He's got a very particular style and some people just don't "get it' so to speak.  His stories are not action horror by any stretch.  They are brooding, contemplative tales of dawning realization and building tension.  Wordy and slow-paced, but if you allow yourself to be drawn in they are truly creepy and fantastic...

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  19. Dude's confused by a line wherein the protagonist says that "They were men!"


    He doesn't mean the aliens were actually humans.  He says that when he has the realization that the alien things are in fact sapient tool-users, that they had a civilization of their own, a language, history and mythology, etc.  They weren't just some weird animal-vegetable precursor species.  I think it's also implied that the violence wasn't really a necessity (although it was possibly inevitable), but that it resulted from confusion and misunderstanding.  The humans looked at the aliens and saw monsters, and they saw the same thing when they looked at us.

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  20. The_Shadow_KnowsJune 12, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    reddeerrun apparently has a theory that all the supernatural events in the story were hallucinations and the men actually killed each other in a fit of cabin fever.  I think that's a plausible alternative reading of the text, but not necessarily the intended one.

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  21. Lovecraft is not to everyone's taste.  Indeed, his clearest influence on D&D might just be Gygax's sesquipedalian prose style in the DMG.  I like HPL a lot, but even so I can see how the late novellas like "Mountains" and "The Shadow out of Time" can be wearisome, as the twist is telegraphed early on and the action is non-existent.  I prefer his middle period (ca. 1923-27), where the Dunsanian supernaturalism hasn't yet completely been explained away as alien science, and he wrote shorter stories: "The Call of Cthulhu", "Pickman's Model", "The Silver Key", "The Rats in the Walls".  From the late period, "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "The Shadow over Innsmouth" are longer but show some liveliness in plotting.

    The D&D ghoul and ghast owe something to Lovecraft, as do the sanity-shaking temples of eldritch evil in the Caves of Chaos, King Snurre's Hall, and the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.  The general concept of summoning a dark god or opening a gate to an elder god's plane of existence is probably the most obvious legacy.  Maybe the spells simulacrum and magic jar, too, though the notion of possession antedates HPL.  

    Lovecraft's influence on D&D is less specific and more diffuse than others in Appendix N.  Perhaps it's just a certain genre-polymorphism: allowing fantasy and science fiction to freely coexist, inform, and deform each other.

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  22. The Recursion KingJune 13, 2012 at 4:53 AM

    I think that the Mind Flayers are probably inspired by Lovecraft, as well... if played correctly by the DM, they are terrifying.

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  23. If Hollywood studios can see no problems in releasing two snow white movie in  the same year, I don't think Prometheus being too similar to Mountains of Madness would be that much of a problem.

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  24. I'm with Merciful in that Lovecraft wrote some awful stories.

    And AMoM is one of the most boring stories
    by Lovecraft that I've ever read
    (second only to "The Haunted House").

    Not bad, not awful, just boring. Veeery boooring.

    But the very first ones I read were pure genius.
    Merciful, don't give up and give them a try:

    - The Nameless City
    - The Rats in the Walls
    - The Outsider

    The Nameless City = At the Mountains of Madness done right

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