Wednesday, 7 September 2011

At the Mountains of Madness

 "At the Mountains of Madness", first published in Astounding Stories, February-April 1936.

This is the the twenty-seventh entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

This story is shorn of all pretence of belief in the supernatural. It swaps the impressionistic, poetic description of the cosmic gulfs from The Whisperer in Darkness and eerie immaterial paranoia of The Call of Cthulhu for the straight-edged scientific vocabulary of the geological record. Lovecraft lays his obvious real life scientific knowledge on as thick as he does the fictional histories that support so many of his other tales. The field of deep geological time was relatively new at the time HPL was writing, when plenty of people still believed the world was just a few thousand years old – the Scopes monkey trial was just 10 years before the story came out.

The details of the expedition and their progress are also meticulously depicted. HPL was an enthusiast of polar exploration – Scott and Shackleton pursued their own doomed expeditions during his childhood, and in A Life, Joshi notes that he followed them with great interest. We've seen this age-of-adventure stuff before in Under the Pyramids in particular, and a great theme is strange horrors turned up in rediscovered lost or ancient places. The details of the expedition and geology bring great conviction to this story when he comes to fit the history of the Old Ones within this entirely convincing world. The meticulous level of factual detail in the story the plot and part of the horror in the story – the devastating gulfs of time and the fact that n entire race with a millennia ling history had risen and fallen millennia before humanity had even crawled down from the trees.

As usual, HPL drags in his other creations: Cthulhu, Tasaggothua, the Mi-Go and the usual quotations from the Necronomicon, as well as his Arkham setting, including the Miskatonic University and even the folklorist from The Whisperer of Darkness, Albert Wilmarth. This last suggests a closer connection between the stories than the seemingly random sprinkling of unpronounceable proper nouns and gnomic snatches of text from ancient tomes we get elsewhere. It all adds up to a kind of continuity with the long history of Earth, as articulated through the ups and downs of the Old Ones' dominion, connecting all these elements into a more concrete mythos (as it were) than we've seen before.

Joshi says, in An H P Lovecraft Encylopedia, “In terms of HPL's work, the story makes explicit what has been evident all along – most of the “gods” of this mythology are merely extraterrestrials and that their followers (including the authors of the books of occult lore to which reference is so frequently made by HPL and others) are mistaken as to their true nature. Robert M Price, who first noted this “demythologizing” feature in HPL, has pointed out that At the Mountains of Madness does not make any radical break in this pattern, but it does emphasize the point more clearly than  elsewhere.”

I think, however, it is an important break. Previously there has clearly been an extraterrestrial element to his entities, but always more ambiguous than here. In previous stories, the distinction between what is a god and what is an alien is never clear; an extraterrestrial could very well be a god. HPL tells us that they are made from different states of matter from earthly things, that they come from remote points of space and time where the laws of reality are somewhat different. Contact with them is toxic to sanity; even with relatively mundane entities such as ghouls and the degraded remains of the Martense clan. However, things are different this time, because the Old Ones are ultimately sympathetic figures: “Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men.”

The Old Ones are HPL's grotesque imagination tamed; his vividly elaborate aliens serve him as well as ever, but without the atmosphere of paranoia, psychic threat and vertiginous insanity, they become rather dull. He has a go, with the shoggoths always threatening, and Danforth's oft-promised revelation, but the shoggoths are just more (once again, crazy and vividly described) monsters and Danforth's revelation is an underwhelming glimpse of Dreamlands-ish gothic surrealism.

Consequently, although the story is written as a warning to another expedition planning to explore the region, it's hard to see the real import of the warning. The shoggoths are horrible but they don't seem like much of a threat really, as Dyer and Danforth escape with relative ease, and in fact it's the humane Old Ones that actually kill – and dissect! – members of the human party.

This devotion to scientific rectitude changes the nature of the story immensely. Joshi's assertion that it's been “evident all along” that these entities were extraterrestrials rather than gods – which is to say natural rather than supernatural creatures – implies that HPL had this fixed idea of his entities all along which doesn't look like the case to me. My feeling is that each story exists within its own distinct set of parameters, and the scientific explanation given here is no more the ultimate truth of his creations than any other story. The suggestion that the eerie monstrous presence of The Call of Cthulhu is the leader of a race of intergalactic space frogs diminishes that story, and I can't accept that HPL had that in mind.

The real strength of this story is the act of creation in the Old Ones and the wonderful evocation of the frozen Antarctic environment. It's an effective story of theme, expressing HPL's nihilistic obsession with degradation – even the noble erudite Old Ones, who live in a kind of arid intellectual utopia, finally succumbed. The elements of the setting and theme come together far more effectively than the more conventional horror stuff that threatens mankind.

In common with a lot of HPL's tales, however, this is not the story of the fate of the Dyer expedition, and that's why Danforth's ravings and the uncanny nature of the Old Ones are such damp squibs. The horror in this story is not the threat to the Dyer expedition; it is in what the Old Ones who are revived by the Lake party discover when they awaken. Their world is dead; their people have vanished, to be replaced by creatures that were lower than vermin when they ruled the world. All that remains of their existence are their hideous servants, the shoggoths, blobs of barely conscious protoplasm that live on, mindlessly aping the manners and culture of their long-dead masters.

Up next: The Shadow over Innsmouth

Top image: Inside an ice cave from the Hintertux glacier No.3 by flickr user AVI Foto (Arjan Visser) and used under the conditions of the creative commons license.

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