At the Mountains of Madness is essentially an old-fashioned adventure story, what used to be called a rattling good yarn. Because it’s written by Lovecraft, the background is one of brooding myth and horror, based on his Cthulhu Mythos. But the foreground is an archaeological exploration of the ground of those myths, bringing this 1931 novella firmly into the science fiction genre.
The protagonists are the sober-minded, methodical scientists of the Miskatonic University Antarctic Expedition, there with state-of-the-art drilling equipment to retrieve geological and biological specimens from the continent’s deep past. They are led by Professor Dyer, a geologist, the polar opposite in character of Indiana Jones. Good thing too, since Jones leaves a trail of destruction at every site he visits – not exactly a poster child for his profession.
You know that something really bad is going to happen because Dyer is writing this account of the Miskatonic expedition to deter the proposed Starkweather-Moore expedition from attempting something similar, using more advanced equipment. And he’s not being dog in the manger about it, either. His official report was heavily self-censored to spare the general public the cataclysmic effect of their real discoveries. Fat chance. Dyer’s account would leave any scientist drooling at the prospect.
The joy of this novella lies in the slow, overlapping accumulation of insights into the existence of unbelievably ancient pre-human alien life forms, combined with what his readers already know about the Cthulhu Mythos. As in all his other works, we are way ahead of the bumbling efforts of the characters to piece together an apparently insoluble mystery. We know they’re toast and, while Dyer and most of the expedition escape, who knows what the Starkweather-Moore expedition will unwittingly unleash on the world.
The story escalates from an ordered scientific exploration of Antarctica through a sudden, inexplicable massacre to the discovery of a 500 million year old stone city on a high plateau. The last and original land refuge of the Old Ones, before being driven back into the sea by Cthulhu and the other eldritch star spawn, more recent colonizers of the young Earth.
You have to feel sorry for the Old Ones. Undoubtedly monstrous in human terms, they are champions of order and science, superb artists, and “not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being.” Not actually the US Marshals at the Shoot-Out at the Cosmic Corral (that would be the Elder Gods ), but the guys in the white-ish hats, decent townsfolk trying drive away Cthulhu and his outlaw gang. Sadly, they lose in the end.
The Old Ones were superb biological engineers, and it’s one of their simple tools for moving heavy weights that proves to be their ultimate downfall. The Shoggoths, amorphous masses of protoplasm capable of assuming any form and controlled by hypnotic suggestion, grow stronger as their masters grow weaker, evolving a malevolent, imitative intelligence.
As you can see, this novella draws me powerfully. I’ll not say any more, except that it’s a compelling read if you’re fascinated by old, forgotten things, and enjoy a well-told story. I would love to have been there, despite the danger. It reminds me of one of the first films I ever saw, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959). My dad took me, and we sat through it 3 times in a row before he could drag me out of the cinema.
And there is a Mountains of Madness film in the works, scheduled for release in 2013. Here’s the trailer.
Not sure I want Hollywood’s slimy, over-acting, cgi enhanced, 3D tentacles all over one of my favourite H. P. Lovecraft novels. But I’ll give it a fair viewing when it hits the screens.
And finally, for your delectation, a Shoggoth. Good dog!