At the Mountains of Madness
- Short novel (41,500 words); written February 24–March 22, 1931. First published in Astounding Stories(February, March, and April 1936); first collected in O;corrected text in MM;annotated version in An1and TD.The Miskatonic Antarctic Expedition of 1930–31, led by William Dyer (his full name is given only in “The Shadow out of Time”), begins promisingly but ends in tragedy and horror. Employing a new boring device invented by engineer Frank H.Pabodie, the expedition makes great progress at sites on the shore of McMurdo Sound (across the Ross Ice Shelf from where Admiral Byrd’s expedition had only recently camped). But the biologist Lake, struck by some peculiar markings on soapstone fragments he has found, feels the need to conduct a subexpedition far to the northwest. There he makes a spectacular discovery: not only the world’s tallest mountains (“Everest out of the running,” he laconically radios the camp), but then the frozen remains—some damaged, some intact—of monstrous winged, barrel-shaped creatures that cannot be reconciled with the known fauna of this planet. They seem half-animal and half-vegetable, with tremendous brain capacity and, apparently, with more senses than we have. Lake, who has read the Necronomicon,jocosely thinks they may be the Elder Things or Old Ones spoken of in that book and elsewhere, who are “supposed to have created all earth-life as jest or mistake.”Later Lake’s subexpedition loses radio contact with the main party, apparently because of the high winds in that region. Dyer feels he must come to Lake’s aid and takes a small group of men in some airplanes to see what has gone amiss. To their horror, they find the camp devastated—by the winds or the sled dogs or some other nameless forces—but discover no trace of the intact specimens of the Old Ones. When they come upon damaged specimens “insanely” buried in the snow, they are forced to conclude that it is the work of the one missing human, Gedney. Dyer and the graduate student Danforth decide to take a trip by themselves beyond the titanic mountain plateau to see if they can find any explanation for the tragedy.As they scale the plateau, they find to their amazement an enormous stone city, fifty to one hundred miles in extent, clearly built millions of years ago, long before any humans could have evolved from apes. Exploring some of the interiors, they are forced to conclude that the city was built by the Old Ones. Because the buildings contain, as wall decorations, many bas-reliefs supplying the history of the Old Ones’ civilization, they learn that the Old Ones came from space some fifty million years ago, settling in Antarctica and eventually branching out to other areas of the earth. They built their huge cities with the aid of shoggoths—amorphous, fifteen-foot masses of protoplasm that they controlled by hypnotic suggestion. Over time the shoggoths gained a semi-stable brain and began to develop a will of their own, forcing the Old Ones to conduct several campaigns of resubjugation. Later, other extraterrestrial races—including the fungi from Yuggoth and the Cthulhu spawn—came to the earth and engaged in battles over territory with the Old Ones, and eventually the latter were forced back to their original Antarctic settlement. They had also lost the ability to fly through space. The reasons for their abandonment of the city, and for their extinction, are unfathomable.Dyer and Danforth then stumble upon signs that someone dragging a sled had passed by, and they follow it, finding first some huge albino penguins, then the sled with the remains of Gedney and a dog, then a group of decapitated Old Ones, restored from suspended animation by being thawed in Lake’s camp. Then they hear an anomalous sound—a musical piping over a wide range. Could it be some other Old Ones? They flee madly, but they simultaneously turn their flashlights upon the thing for an instant and find that it is a shoggoth: “It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.” As they fly back to camp, Danforth shrieks in horror: he has seen something that unhinges his mind, but he refuses to tell Dyer what it is. All he can do is make the eldritch cry, “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!”The novel is the culmination of HPL’s lifelong fascination with the Antarctic, beginning when as a boy he had written treatises on Wilkes’s Explorations and The Voyages of Capt. Ross, R.N.,and had followed with avidity reports of the explorations of Borchgrevink, Scott, Amundsen, and others early in the century. As Jason C.Eckhardt has demonstrated, the early parts of the novel show the influence of Admiral Byrd’s expedition of 1928–30, as well as other contemporary expeditions. HPL may also have found a few hints on points of style and imagery in the early pages of M.P.Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud (1901; reissued 1930), which relates an expedition to the Arctic.It is possible to conjecture what led HPL to write the novel when he did. The lead story in the November 1930 WTwas a poorly written and unimaginative tale by Katharine Metcalf Roof, “A Million Years After,” that dealt with the hatching of ancient dinosaur eggs. HPL fumed when he read it, not only because it won the cover design but also because he had been badgering Frank Belknap Long for years to write a story on this idea; Long had balked because he felt that H.G. Wells’s “?pyornis Island” had anticipated the idea. In mid-October, after seeing the Roof tale in print, HPL wrote: “Why, damn it, boy, I’ve half a mind to write an egg story myself right now—though I fancy my primal ovoid would hatch out something infinitely more palaeogean and unrecognisable than the relatively commonplace dinosaur” ( SL3.186–87). HPL may have felt that the use of a viable dinosaur egg was impossible, so that the only solution would be the freezing of ancient living entities in the Arctic or Antarctic regions. Note that entry \#169 in his commonplace book (dating to around 1930) reads “What hatches from primordial egg.” However, the novel is more in the spirit of entry \#31 (c. 1919): “Prehistoric man preserved in Siberian ice.”HPL was also inspired by the paintings of the Himalayas by Nicholai Roerich (1874–1947), seen the previous year at the Roerich Museum when it opened in New York. Roerich is mentioned six times in the novel. HPL probably did not set the tale in the Himalayas both because they were fairly well known and because he wanted to create the sense of awe implicit in mountains taller than any yet discovered. Only the relatively uncharted Antarctic continent could fulfill both functions. The Old Ones are the real focus of the novel. HPL gradually transforms them from objects of terror to symbols for the best in humanity; as Dyer declares: “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…and this was their tragic homecoming…. Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!”The most significant way the Old Ones are identified with human beings is in Dyer’s historical digression, specifically in regard to the Old Ones’ social and economic organization. In many ways they represent a utopia toward which HPL hoped humanity could aspire. The sentence “Government was evidently complex and probably socialistic” establishes that HPL had himself by this time converted to moderate socialism. The Old Ones’ civilization is founded upon slavery of a sort, and there is some suggestion that the condition of the shoggoths might, in part, resemble that of African Americans. The exhaustive history of the Old Ones on this planet, portraying their rise and fall, suggests HPL’s absorption of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West ,with its similar emphasis on the inexorable rise and fall of successive civilizations.In terms of HPL’s work, the novel makes explicit what has been evident all along—most of the “gods” of his 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 Madnessdoes not make any radical break in this pattern, but it does emphasize the point more clearly than elsewhere.The novel has been called a “sequel” to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; but, at least in terms of plot, it cannot be considered such: it picks up on very little of Poe’s enigmatic work except for the cry “Tekeli-li!,” as unexplained in Poe as in HPL, and the allusion to Mt. Erebus as Yaanekfrom “Ulalume.” It is not clear that Pymeven influenced the work in any significant way. Jules Zanger has observed that the novel is “no completion [of Pym] at all: it might be better described as a parallel text, the two tales coexisting in a shared context of allusion” (“Poe’s Endless Voyage: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Papers on Language and Literature22, No. 3 [Summer 1986]: 282). HPL declared that the short novel was “capable of a major serial division in the exact middle” (HPL to August Derleth, March 24, ; ms., SHSW), suggesting that, at least subconsciously, he envisioned the work as a two-part serial in WT. But Farnsworth Wright rejected it in July 1931. HPL reacted bitterly (see SL3.395) and let the novel sit for years. Then, in the fall of 1935, the young Julius Schwartz, acting as agent, took it to F.Orlin Tremaine, editor of Astounding Stories,who accepted it at once, apparently without reading it (see Will Murray, “Julius Schwartz on Lovecraft,” Crypt No. 76 [Hallowmas 1990]: 14–18). It was published, however, with severe editorial tampering: HPL’s long paragraphs were split up, punctuation was altered, and (toward the end) several passages, amounting to about 1,000 words, were omitted. HPL fumed at the alterations, calling Tremaine “that god-damn’d dung of a hyaena” (HPL to R.H. Barlow, June 4, 1936; ms., JHL). He corrected by hand his three sets of Astounding,but in the end did not correct many alterations (e.g., the Americanization of his British spellings). These corrected copies were used as the basis of the first Arkham House edition, but even so the text contained nearly 1,500 errors, mostly in spelling and punctuation, but also in the omission of two small passages toward the beginning. The text was restored (based upon the surviving typescript except for passages where HPL made demonstrable revisions on scientific points) in MM (1985 edition).See Robert M.Price, “Demythologizing Cthulhu,” LSNo. 8 (Spring 1984): 3–9, 24; Bert Atsma, “An Autopsy of the Old Ones,” Crypt No. 32 (St. John’s Eve 1985): 3–7; Ben P.Indick, “Lovecraft’s POElar Adventure,” Crypt No. 32 (St. John’s Eve 1985): 25–31; Peter Cannon, “At the Mountains of Madness as a Sequel to Arthur Gordon Pym,” Crypt No. 32 (St. John’s Eve 1985): 33–34; Will Murray, “The Trouble with Shoggoths,” CryptNo. 32 (St. John’s Eve 1985): 35–38, 41; Jason C.Eckhardt, “Behind the Mountains of Madness,” LSNo. 14 (Spring 1987): 31–38; Marc A.Cerasini, “Thematic Links in Arthur Gordon Pym, At the Mountains of Madness,and Moby Dick,” CryptNo. 49 (Lammas 1987): 3– 20; S.T.Joshi, “Lovecraft’s Alien Civilisations: A Political Interpretation,” in Selected Papers on Lovecraft(Necronomicon Press, 1989); S.T.Joshi, “Textual Problems in At the Mountains of Madness” CryptNo. 75 (Michaelmas 1990): 16–21; Robert M.Price, “Patterns in the Snow: A New Reading of At the Mountains of Madness,” CryptNo. 81 (St. John’s Eve 1992): 48–51; Peter Cannon, Jason C.Eckhardt, Steven J.Mariconda, and Hubert Van Calenbergh, “On At the Mountains of Madness:A Panel Discussion,” LSNo. 34 (Spring 1996): 2–10; David A.Oakes, “A Warning to the World: The Deliberative Argument of At the Mountains of Madness” LS No. 39 (Summer 1998): 21–25.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.
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