At the mountains of madness – H.P.Lovecraft and gothic horror

I first encountered H.P.Lovecraft in the early 1980s, when he was mentioned in “The last starfighter” as an author scaring the protagonist. The local library was a good one, and soon ordered three ominbus editions for me. The only horror I had read previously was by Steven King and James Herbert. This quickly proved to be something altogether different, both in pace and language. King is another of my favourite authors – I think the uncut Stand is one of the finest stories ever told, but this post is about H.P.Lovecraft.

I started at the beginning, with “At the mountains of madness”. Basically an exploration story, in what was then one of the world’s last true wildernesses. Back in the 1930s, we didn’t know what was down there, and Lovecraft uses this knowledge (or lack of it) to good effect. The expedition catalogues finds and surveys mountains larger than anywhere else on earth:

“10:05 PM On the wing. After snowstorm, have spied mountain range ahead higher than any hitherto seen. May equal Himalayas, allowing for height of plateau. Probable Latitude 76° 15′ S, Longitude 113° 10′ E. Reaches as far as can see to right and left. Suspicion of two smoking cones. All peaks black and bare of snow. Gale blowing off them impedes navigation.”

The expedition starts to drill into the Antartic rock, and notices anomalous features quite early on. Documenting their finds in a very scientific way, the story reads like a geological survey report, until they notice what seem to be tracks made by an organism. The rocks that they are looking at are from the Archaean, among the oldest on Earth, laid down far before anything complex enough to leave tracks or footprints had evolved. In more recent rocks, they make another astonishing discover. What appear to be organic life forms, unlike anything ever seen before. Again, the scientists document their finds in a way that reads like an episode of the X-Files or CSI (in 1930!). Clearly, they have stumbled upon something truly momentous, that will change the way that humans look at history.

Having made their find, the second party, with the narrator, fly out the following day to the advance camp. On the way, they spot something unusual about the mountains ahead of them:

“The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there and bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates of five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath. There were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five. All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer gigantism.”

What an image! Imagine what it would have been like to find something like that, unseen by human eyes. Staggering, but as the group descended towards the advance camp, they could see that something was wrong. Nobody greeted them on the radio, and they couldn’t see any signs of activity. On the ground, the entire party was either dead or missing. All of the dogs had been killed, and there was evidence of a severe storm, harsh enough to strip paint from wood. There is a scene reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, where the dog corral has been destroyed from the inside, suggesting that something caused the dogs themselves to go berserk and try to escape. In order to try and determine the fate of their missing crew, the surviving explorers fly to the nearby mountains, and discover a gigantic city, built to a scale that dwarfs humans. I could ramble on for pages about the descriptions, which are incredibly rich, but you should read the story yourself!

Landing in the city, they find their way into the complex of buildings, and follow various signs, ever downward, until they find themselves at the bottom of a massive shaft, open to the sky, and in partial collapse. There they see evidence of equipment and papers from their devastated camp, as well as finding their missing team member and dog, frozen solid. It looks as though they hadn’t been the only ones collecting specimens…

As with most stories by H.P.Lovecraft, they discover something which Should Not Be, and have to try and make a rapid escape through the tunnels to the upper city. Something follows them, forcing itself through the inclined shaft they used to reach the bottom of the city. The narrator notices that his companion has gone hysterical, if not mad, and is reciting stops on the Boston Underground. Again, Lovecraft does it justice:

“It was the utter objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be’; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform – the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterranean distance, constellated with strangely coloured lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder. But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare, plastic column of fetid blac irridescence ozzed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus, gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, rethickening cloud of the pallid abyss vapour. 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.”

From here on, it is a race for survival, amd trying to ensure that Mankind does nothing more to explore Antartica. Lovecraft’s characters often espouse the view that human knowledge is akin to a small island, in a vast dark sea of madness, and that to see too many of the pieces of the jigsaw would be too much for us. Clearly, seeing a Shoggoth had pretty profound consequences for the party, and they are only minor creatures in the Mythos. What I like about his writing is that on one level, we are utterly insignificant, as insects to the Great Old Ones, but the stories themselves focus on people, and how they feel about what they are seeing or experiencing.

Naturally, with many of these stories, things end badly for people, but that becomes part of the attraction. People are drawn to the candle flame of forbidden knowledge, and burned. Even in some of my favourite stories, “The dream-quest of unknown Kadath” things are not safe. Even in dream, Things can reach out and harm you.

Lovecraft’s vocabulary is well in excess of double that of an educated person, so reading him will likely improve your scrabble! It can be a little dense at first, as his style doesn’t lend itself to spead reading or skimming. But then, with an author like this, why would you want to skim it? Once you can get over the slightly flowery prose, he is an excellent storyteller. Much of his horror is less about gore, and more about people wondering what that strange smell is, coming from the boarded-up cupboard beneath the stairs.

I would recommend anyone interested in trying Lovecraft to pick up or order from the library the three Omnibus editions of his writing, currently published by Voyager in the UK. These contain his most interesting work, including “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The shadow over Innsmouth”, “At the mountains of madness”, “Pickman’s model”, and “The thing on the doorstep”.

Go on, give him a try, but don’t complain to me if the world looks subtly different afterwards…


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