THE DEEP ONES: "At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft
Join LibraryThing to post.
"At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft
Discussion begins on October 24, 2018.
First published in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories.
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
At the Mountains of Madness
At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels
H.P. Lovecraft: the Complete Fiction
The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft
At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror
This is one of three stories by Lovecraft included in my ebook/Kobo purchase in Aug/Sep called 50 Halloween Stories you have to read before you die. Unorthodox source, but within reach, so I'll take it. Like I said in the 'welcome' thread, it cost only a buck!
My copy of At the Mountains of Madness and other Stories still languishes in storage. Tried the local but inexplicably no HPL whatsoever on the shelves, so I may have to read this online.
Yikes, 12 chapters. Need to start tonight. Thanks Andreas for pointing out that it is over 40,000 words!
Next day update: The audiobook online, in tandem with text, helped with focus and scientific terminology, so was able to complete it in the 4hr11min15sec allotment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2iSmE129uQ
Gaagh! I'm way behind in re-reading this, but when I do get to it, I have Morricone's brilliant soundtrack to THE THING playing in the background. For those interested:
I think that's the complete vinyl version and not the CD re-release. Shorter, but more effective,
>8 KentonSem: >9 elenchus:
The music and artwork both help frame/support/enhance the words nicely. So many of the references contained in the text were beyond me, except for Poe. It was my first HPL. Talk about baptism by fire! I lag so far behind the rest of you that I had to look up even Carpenter. =( I think I was glad to have taken my dose in one sitting, which was bonkers but effective. There was no opportunity to abandon ship!
The Oxford-Field Museum Kish expedition mentioned in section IV:
Great resource. The mummified head in process of excavation (around 18:00 min mark) is almost alarming, though I don't know why except perhaps that I had the story in mind while watching.
Still reading, but I'm reminded once again of what a painstakingly thorough job HPL does at evoking not only the antarctic setting, but also in portraying the exploration team's planning and strategies. It's as if Grandpa had really experienced such things first-hand. Books by explorers Shackleton, Cherry-Garrard, and others had been already been published long before and were perhaps used for research, but details about the mission strike me as being incredibly realistic and are really engrossing. It's a mini tour-de-force on HPL's part even before we reach the weird bits.
I have decided to play proverbial chicken, waiting for someone else to go first. =) Setting sure cuts the mustard though! I have a lingering image in my head of the final few chapters, but don't want to be disrespectful to the author or his fans. Also, 'rank amateur' keeps ringing a low tone in the recesses of my brain.
HPL's scientific interests are on perhaps more display here than anywhere else in his fiction. In parts - most notably perhaps the geological dates given - science has marched on, near as I can tell he's quite accurate according to the scientific understanding on his day. He does go out on a limb in accepting Wegener's theory of continental drift, which most American geologists of the 20s and 30s rejected, but he got lucky there - Wegener turned out to be more right than wrong.
This is arguably the central Mythos tale, in that it integrates Cthulhu and the mi-go into its deep history of Earth. Otherwise in HPL's work we mostly see brief references to beings and concepts from other stories, and little attempt at consistency - just try and build a coherent image of Nyarlathotep from the various stories that mention him - but here he takes entities and events from earlier stories and carefully integrate them into this one. ("The Shadow Out of Time" is similar in this regard, but it postdates AtMoM and doesn't give as detailed a deep history.)
Agreed about the descriptions of the austral landscape. Actually, this story engendered an enduring affection for the word "austral" in me.
I was surprised at how many instances of clumsy prose I encountered. Despite the common criticism of Lovecraft's style, I usually find him to be a technically capable writer, and his allegedly excessive use of modifiers tends to be handled to deliberate effect. But take this instance from early in the story:
At about 62 degrees South Latitude we sighted our first icebergs--table-like objects with vertical sides--and just before reaching the Antarctic Circle, which we crossed on October 20 with appropriately quaint ceremonies, we were considerably troubled with field ice. The falling temperature bothered me considerably after our long voyage through the tropics, but I tried to brace up for the worse rigors to come. On meany occasions the curious atmospheric effects enchanted me vastly; these including a strikingly vivid mirage--the first I had ever seen--in which distant bergs became the battlements of unimaginable cosmic castles.
Appropriately ... considerably ... considerably ... vastly ... strikingly .... It's as if every sentence is required to have at least one intensifying adverb. Although written later than "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Whisperer in Darkness," I found the writing style here inferior to both of those. Was Grandpa just rushing to get down such a long tale?
(I did like austral.)
Discovered this title on the '1001 Books To Read Before You Die' list just now (which I have shortened and sorted for my own purposes), so I guess my inept comparisons to The Island of Misfit Toys (the bumble) and Tim Burton's Batman with Danny de Vito as The Penguin are way out of line. I was glad to have pictured the abominable snowman a page or two before the author mentioned it. One feather in my cap is all I need.
I think the level of historical detail that the explorers are supposed to have gotten from murals and "sculptures" (bas-reliefs?) was excessive, to the point that it strained credulity. But I did love the vast history that was told. It made me imagine one of those big, extravagantly-illustrated educational books for kids--but this one covering the succession of prehistoric extraterrestrial colonizations of Earth.
The level of detail strains the old suspension of disbelief, yes. Apparently the elder things were not only obsessed with their history but supremely competent interspecies pedagogues too!
I've read a pastiche that assumes that Dyer got a lot wrong and was projecting his own ideas onto the elder things. Don't recall title or author.
>15 AndreasJ: In parts - most notably perhaps the geological dates given - science has marched on, near as I can tell he's quite accurate according to the scientific understanding on his day.
I'm quite ignorant of Antarctica, but a cursory online review seems to indicate the peaks he describes are much, much higher than anything actually found. And nowhere does there seem to be soil within 12 feet of the icepack. Unclear whether that was speculation on his part, part of the contemporary understanding or expectation, or simply something he flagrantly invented for the story.
>18 paradoxosalpha: detail that the explorers are supposed to have gotten
And the manic pace of discovery prior to Section IV is a related example of a similar stretching of imagination. There wasn't time to catalogue all the facts that HPL claims the expedition uncovered, let alone draw conclusions from them. But for the story, it works. Everything is telescoped into a short time frame so HPL can get on with the plot.
There aren't any suprahimalayan ranges in Antarctica, of course, but I counted them as part of the fantastic content of the story rather than the scientific.
I'm not sure what you mean re soil? There are, obviously, places near the edges of the ice sheets where the ice is less than 12' thick.
I was thinking of this passage in Section I, which I read as occurring well inland and not near the edge of the ice sheet:
The successful establishment of the southern base above the glacier in Latitude 86° 7′, East Longitude 174° 23′, and the phenomenally rapid and effective borings and blastings made at various points reached by our sledge trips and short aëroplane flights, are matters of history; as is the arduous and triumphant ascent of Mt. Nansen by Pabodie and two of the graduate students—Gedney and Carroll—on December 13–15. We were some 8500 feet above sea-level, and when experimental drillings revealed solid ground only twelve feet down through the snow and ice at certain points, we made considerable use of the small melting apparatus and sunk bores and performed dynamiting at many places where no previous explorer had ever thought of securing mineral specimens.
The coordinates HPL gives for the southern base are in or near the Transantarctic Mountains, so finding shallow ice in the vicinity is not unreasonable.
He does appear to have made a minor error regarding toponymy, however. What Pabodie & Co ascended should presumably not have been Mt Nansen, far away to the northwest, but Mt Fridtjof Nansen (helpfully named for the same explorer) fairly close to the northeast of the base.
Good on you, AndreasJ, for looking up the coordinates! I went only from the verbal description and didn't consider the possibility of foothills / slope accounting for the shallower depth.
Oh boy! I read this perhaps a year or two ago in a compendium I bought from Kobo for $4 (it was so poorly edited, I'm sure there was a number in there). I did notice that Lovecraft has a some excessive fondness for certain descriptions and eon-everything. I'll forgive that though, and some logical stretches because of how imaginative his stuff was in general, and how atmospheric he could be.
I've spent time searching google images for people's renditions of the Elder things, and a good amount of time trying to imagine one myself.
>15 AndreasJ: This is arguably the central Mythos tale, in that it integrates Cthulhu and the mi-go into its deep history of Earth ... here HPL takes entities and events from earlier stories and carefully integrate them into this one.
I'm just on Section VI now, but for me this is one of the major characteristics of the story, its comprehensiveness and wide-angle lens perspective.
Another major aspect of the story is the linking of that macro-story to Egyptian archaeology. If the austral setting serves to put HPL's story into deep Earth time, the ruined city serves to summon up the myriad connotations of Egyptian burial:
>18 paradoxosalpha: I think the level of historical detail that the explorers are supposed to have gotten from murals and "sculptures" (bas-reliefs?) was excessive, to the point that it strained credulity. But I did love the vast history that was told.
It seems so natural a combination, an archaic extraterrestrial storyline and Egyptian tombs, but was it done before 1936 or was HPL innovating here? I had to stop mid-read and remind myself, there's nothing on the face of Antarctic exploration and ancient Egypt superficially to suggest a natural connection. On the other hand, Egyptomania was already a hundred years old, even in its "second wave" manifestation, maybe this connection was a trope.
I don't follow the Egyptian thread here. All I see is one reference to Egypt, putting it on a par with other ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Is it the Elder Things' heiroglyphics? If so, I think the interesting thing here is that HPL seems to be drawing on a concept of selbstverständlich hieroglyphics that was obsolete by the end of the 18th century. It's the old mystical picture language of Horapollo and the Hypnerotomachia.
The "Egyptian thread" is admittedly my personal inference and perhaps both imprecise and inaccurate. Looking back, I think my inference stems from the entombed city generally, combined with specific references to cartouches and the alien visual "design" described as "a singular juxtaposition of the cross-section with the two-dimensional silhouette". All that is from Section VI and it stuck with me.
To be fair, HPL also repeatedly employs the term "arabesques", and later refers to Minoan and Roman civilisations alongside a reference to Egyptian civilisation (as you point out).
Your critique about HPL's reliance upon an exploded conception of hieroglyphics is more pointed.
I don't know about the hieroglyphs but I think I recall some uses of words that linked with Egypt. It might well be fashion, especially when you take into thought the "mad Arab" author of the Necronomicon. Ancient Egypt and regional company may have been the default ancient civilization model of the day, in the way that "ye Olde Europe" tends to be the default fantasy setting with swords and dragons. I think of Howard's Stygia, which my brother tells me is pretty much pretend Egypt, and where the dark and scary things come from in his writing. And of course, Howard and Lovecraft were chatting at the time.
Having finished the novella, I found the end sequence confusing. The Deep Time backstory is complicated enough that it wasn't clear to me precisely which alien was pursuing them through the tunnel, only that it was not the one they first feared (and that was bad enough!). I think I finally got it sorted: Danforth and the narrator (William Dyer) first suspect they are fleeing an Old One aka Elder Thing, but it turns out to be rather a shoggoth? All the references to Mi-Go and Cthulhi are fascinating, and I understand that for verisimilitude, Dyer can't be precise in his terminology since no-one has named anything yet, let alone seen what he and Danforth have seen. Still, some of the horror is diluted, I think, in having to parse just what is happening compared to the explorers' expectations.
All of this leads to a central point of tension operating in the story: Dyer must provide sufficient detail to persuade readers (the deliciously named Starkweather-Moore Expedition) not to pursue further investigation, that is -- that his story is true, and the threat is real. Yet the better Dyer meets this objective, the more he contradicts his purpose in that the mystery to be investigated (the city on the austral plateau) is that much more compelling and alluring a destination.
Dyer acknowledges this somewhat, in describing his own motivations when first encountering the horror he now warns us of:
At one point in Section IX he observes "curiosity having long ago got the better of horror"
All of this, to me, telegraphs another message of horror to the reader: of course humanity won't be able to resist, of course we will unleash this horror upon all of us, we're all doomed! I think that's quite clever of HPL, actually, another layer of horror behind the "splashy" horror of direct description.
The monster they encounter is clearly a shoggoth (huge, black, shapeless), and it or its ilk have evidently killed the revived elder things in the tunnel.
I finally finished reading this for the third time.
The first time I read it was in 1982, in a parka, with ice on the walls of the room I was in. Despite the atmospheric assist, I thought the story too long and boring, especially in its geological details.
Well, now I really like all the geological details. Given the scientific knowledge of the time and giving HPL poetic license, it was actually that ice melting equipment that strained my credulity the most. Just how much fuel were they using to do that? (I suppose living in a northern clime and having to deal with ice, I noticed that particularly.)
>17 frahealee: How did you like the story? I don't think it's a good introduction to Lovecraft because of the pacing at the beginning.
>18 paradoxosalpha: Yes, that also strains credulity a bit.
Joshi says this and "The Mound" reflect HPL's dissatisfaction with "mechanistic civilization".
It also seems to me that there is something of "slave revolt anxiety" about this story. The shoggoths go from pliant (in every way), stupid and obedient slaves to intelligent menaces. I suppose you could argue this somehow reflects HPL's anxieties about the place of blacks in his America. I'd argue it may owe more to the classical world since Constantine is mentioned.
Did anyone else get the sense that it was being hinted that normal laws of our space and time don't entirely apply at the mountains of madness?
I had forgotten the details of Danforth and Dyer seeing the shoggoth, and I liked Danforth chanting Boston subway stops. I had also forgot about the vision of Kadath at the end and Danforth blurting out evocative but vague phrases which, I suspect, have inspired other Mythos writers.
>16 paradoxosalpha: I agree that this isn't top-drawer HPL in terms of prose styles. Dyer gets a little purple with the prose. The story's strength is HPL's greatest melding of real world details with his mythos, the vision he puts out of that mythos, and the atmospheric details.
While one may suspect it's no coincidence that the slave-species is black-coloured, any specific analogy between the shoggoths and and American blacks seems far-fetched. (A more convincing one could be made with medieval Iraq, but I seriously doubt HPL had that in mind.)
If one forgets about Lovecraft's racism for a moment, at least as plausible a case could be made that the shoggoths represent the working class, and fear of a communist revolution. (I don't know if Lovecraft was in the habit of worrying about such, but it wouldn't be surprising from someone of his background.)
On a more literary level, it's yet another example of the trope of artificial life-forms turning on their masters, which has been frequent in speculative fiction at least since Frankenstein.
>34 AndreasJ: In thinking about this more, your idea seems simplest and best. I seem to recall HPL complaining about the Bolsheviks destroying Russian culture. If HPL was to use the shoggoth as a stand in for slaves, he would have had them not only take off the heads of the Old Ones. He would have had them destroying all those murals.
And yet decapitation has long been associated with the uprising of oppressed classes, not excepting the French Terror.
A bit of irony I found, in light of the recent posts on the potential analogy between shoggoths and slave rebellions or class rebellions, was HPL's mention in Section XI of how the Old Ones, despite their alien and malevolent character, despite being totally different in appearance and motivation than we humans, were nevertheless men:
Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them—as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter drag up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste—and this was their tragic homecoming.
I was surely not expecting any such proclamation from HPL.
Have you read "In the Walls of Eryx"? Its narrator, too, makes proclamations one might not have expected from HPL.
I have not read that one -- and see it was written in 1936, the year Mountains of Madness was finally published (though that novella was written years earlier).
I don't think that weakens the shoggoths-as-workers idea. The Third Estate was not exactly "the working class", but closer to that than to slaves.
>33 RandyStafford: It was an obscene amount of detail to try to cram into my brain with one pass, so it will require another go. Like I said, had it not been an audio book helping with pronunciation as I read along on my ebook, I might not have made it to the end. There was no lull for me, just rapids carrying me along the storyline at breakneck speed. All of my attention was required all of the time just to make sense of the words. My research came later, looking up various geographic references, etc.
I have two other works to get through, The Dunwich Horror and The Call of Cthulhu, and then I can push my way through the HPL collection I purchased, alongside Blackwood and Machen. I wanted to get the old school flavour before chewing on the new.
It will likely be a similar experience to MRJames, which took me ten short stories to find two I really liked. It was not the plot or even the style, so much as my lack of exposure to that 'world' others took for granted. It doesn't mean I won't like the characters or the environment in which the stories are placed, it only means it takes longer for me to warm to them. I love a good ghost story and sci-fi pulp is completely new to me, and having never known the term 'weird' to refer to a genre or sub-genre (perhaps had heard it before, but assumed it was a more general term to describe a story), it will take awhile to wade through the swamp to find the 'thing' that interests me. Blackwood and James have elegant writing styles, Machen is creepy/cool, Lovecraft might contain more horror elements than I would initially prefer, but it is important for the overlap to be minimal, in order for me to keep them straight. At this stage of the game anyway.
So yes, I liked the story, if only for his descriptions of place dripping with density. Plot intricacies are beyond me.
>41 frahealee: it will take awhile to wade through the swamp to find the 'thing'
Kudos to you for your patience (the plot here was definitely intricate, at least in terms of how it was entangled with so much deep history), and meantime you're already capable of dropping clever bons mot for mavens of the Weird.
>40 AndreasJ: I don't think that weakens the shoggoths-as-workers idea.
I didn't mean to suggest that it did; rather the reverse. ?
>37 elenchus: I remember that bit of passage, but I never saw it as being more than a metaphorical association with humans (if that's what you mean). I assumed Lovecraft was saying that they were the people of their time and dimension, like we are in ours, so they are intelligent and build things and investigate the world in their fashion as we do in our fashion.
I may have to read over the shoggoth details again, as I never imagined them as black either. Might have to do with some art I saw, but I pictured them as being more basic cell like, and if they were dark it was because of the deep sea being seen through them.
I saw the shoggoths as labor more than anything, and uncomprehending of what they were around for until the old ones made them capable of it, in order to improve their functions. Basically a biological equivalent to inventing a computer, then giving it more processes and processing power, and then basic AI, until they develop it too much and they become superior, though the shoggoths weren't so much smarter as physically superior, iirc.
Dyer describes the shoggoth they encountered in the tunnel near the end as black. It's, admittedly, my assumption that it's a specific characteristic rather than an individual one.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.