Its fair to say that of all Lovecraft’s stories Call of Cthulhu has had the greatest cultural impact in the zeitgeist, but in terms of over all impact and inspiration At The Mountains of Madness probably tips the scales. Of all of Lovecraft’s writings it impact is spread further and deeper than any. The long trek across Antarctica and back through the pre-human history of the planet has been inspiring other writers and film makers for nearly a century now. Echoes of the images and ideas within this long novella can be found in films and books like John Carpenters The Thing, Alien vs Predator, Heart of Ice, and many many more. Its a story that has gripped the imagination with its core idea of alien civilizations on earth millions of years before humanity’s rise is a beguiling one and the idea that dangerous remnants of those civilizations could still exists in far flung parts of the world, not quite dead, and far from benign…
As ever, because old tentacle hugger knows no other way, the story is slowly narrated and builds in layer upon layer, but unlike the last story, despite it’s length the story builds in stages that draw the reader in and onward. There are several stages to the novella, which is recounted by William Dyer a geologist and one of only two survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica composed of scholars from Miskatonic University. The expeditions aim was among other things to drill for rock samples, determine the age of ice sheets and other such scientific endeavours and is the largest of its kind ever sent to earths most remote continent.
Things start to get strange when an advance party led by professor Lake discover the frozen remains of various prehistoric life forms deep under the ice. Reports of these discoveries reach Dyer at base camp via radio, with Lake’s reports becoming steadily wilder as his team examine there finds, then suddenly contact is lost with the advance team, as a blizzard sets in and never re-established. Eventually Dyer and Danforth, one of his graduate students, fly to the advance camp in the hope of re-establishing contact, assuming simple equipment failure to be the cause. What they find however is a blood bath. Both men and sled dogs have been brutally murdered. Some showing signs of dissection, only one man is unaccounted for, and Dyer suspects the man has gone insane and is responsible for the murders as it seems the only logical conclusion.
What they do find is Lakes notes and the strange six sided mounds of ice from which the strange specimens were extracted, the best preserved of which have vanished. Among lakes notes they discover the advance team had found evidence structures in the mountains, where no human structures could be. Dyer and Danforth decide between them to fly on to these structures and investigate further, partly in the hope of locating the missing man, partly out of scientific curiosity. What they find there however defies reason. The remains of a lost civilisation of Elder things that existed millions of years in the past. Murals tell of the history of that civilization, its rise and decline, and of other things across a million years of history.
Then things get really bad, they realise the city is waking up, that the remains found by lake were hibernating creatures not dead as Lake assumed, and it was these creatures which destroyed lakes camp and killed his team. These elder things returned to there ancient city only to fall victim to something even worse reawakened by there presence, the shoggoth’s which had once been slave workers of the elder thing civilization but had rebelled against there masters. And of course lastly, the giant blind albino penguins which once served as domesticated cattle…
Yes, I know, the penguins…
I’ve always had a problem with the penguins, they seem somewhat frivolous against everything thing else. A strangely off key addition to what is otherwise a very dark intense story. Perhaps it’s because growing up in the late twentieth century penguins are inherently funny so its hard to take the idea of giant blind albino penguins seriously.
Aside the penguins however this tale is beautifully ominous and brooding. It steadily layers on stranger and darker ideas while the strange history of the earth before mans rise to prominence as Dyer discovers it is perfectly toned and doesn’t bog the reader down. Its a long read but a great one, and one that has seldom been matched by anyone, it is At the Mountains of Madness that really hold the mythos of Lovecraft together and I would posit the story more than any other that made Lovecraft more than just another long forgotten pulp scifi/horror writer from the age of pulp magazine.
Also unlike other Lovecraft stories there are few if any troubling aspects to this one in terms of the unpalatable aspects of Lovecraft’s fiction (its not the star spawn horrors that horrify, and make uncomfortable, modern readers of Lovecraft as much as his politics, racism and sexism). Perhaps simply because this story doesn’t have the problematic aspects of some of his other fiction this is more enjoyable to read and remains popular, and on occasion inspiring to other writers. This is Lovecraft you can enjoy without been remined what a shit the writer was.
That’s probably also why more than one filmmaker has tried to get a movie of this novella off the ground, the most notable and recent attempt being by Guillermo Del Toro which sadly failed to get off the ground, though he has been trying to get the project funded for over a decade. Del Toro is one of my favourite filmmakers, particularly when he has been allowed to make his vison and not tied by a studio so I hope one day he will. Until that hopefully happens there are other short film version of the story, some noticeably closer to the original than other, among the best of these (to use the word loosely) is a low budget student project film by Matt Jarjosa made as his final student project in 2017. All things consider its a fine effort on a budget not so much shoe string as sandal toe loop… I stumbled across it last year, its only has a few hundred views and deserves some wider recognition despite its obvious limitations, its a shadow of what Del Toro would could have achieved with a Hollywood budget of course, but its wonderful all the same. So give it a watch and enjoy the shoggoth…
At The Mountains of Madness is Lovecraft’s tour de force. It has much to unpack not least an entire pre-history mythology for the earth on which much of mythos of the wider Lovecraft universe is built. It’s a story that writers, artists and game makers keep going back to, a deep well of strange weird brilliance.
As for tentacles, well it has them in abundance but gets six from me, and always will because this is Lovecraft at his best without any of the problems he normally brings along with reading him.
Further Lovecraftian witterings as ever can be found here
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