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Cover of Astounding Stories, February 1936
|Author||H. P. Lovecraft|
|Cover artist||Howard V. Brown|
|Genre||Science fiction, Horror|
|Published||February-April 1936 (Astounding Stories)|
|Media type||Print (periodical)|
|Text||At the Mountains of Madness at Wikisource|
At the Mountains of Madness is a science fiction-horror novella by American author H. P. Lovecraft, written in February/March 1931 and rejected that year by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright on the grounds of its length. It was originally serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories. It has been reproduced in numerous collections.
The story details the events of a disastrous expedition to the Antarctic continent in September 1930, and what was found there by a group of explorers led by the narrator, Dr. William Dyer of Miskatonic University. Throughout the story, Dyer details a series of previously untold events in the hope of deterring another group of explorers who wish to return to the continent.
The story is recalled in a first-person perspective by the geologist William Dyer, a professor at Arkham's Miskatonic University, in the hope to prevent an important and much publicized scientific expedition to Antarctica. Throughout the course of his explanation, Dyer relates how he led a group of scholars from Miskatonic University on a previous expedition to Antarctica, during which they discovered ancient ruins and a dangerous secret, beyond a range of mountains higher than the Himalayas.
A small advance group, led by Professor Lake, discovers the remains of fourteen prehistoric life-forms, previously unknown to science, and also unidentifiable as either plants or animals. Six of the specimens have been badly damaged, while another eight have been preserved in pristine condition. The specimens' stratum places them far too early on the geologic time scale for the features of the specimens to have evolved. Some fossils of Cambrian age show signs of the use of tools to carve a specimen for food.
When the main expedition loses contact with Lake's party, Dyer and his colleagues investigate. Lake's camp is devastated, with the majority of men and dogs slaughtered, while a man named Gedney and one of the dogs are absent. Near the expedition's campsite, they find six star-shaped snow mounds with one specimen under each. They also discover that the better preserved life-forms have vanished, and that some form of dissection experiment has been done on both an unnamed man and a dog. The missing man is suspected of having gone utterly insane and having killed and mutilated all the others.
Dyer and a graduate student, named Danforth, fly an aeroplane across the mountains, which they identify as the outer walls of a vast abandoned stone-city, alien to any human architecture. For their resemblance to creatures of myth mentioned in the Necronomicon, the builders of this lost civilization are dubbed the "Elder Things". By exploring these fantastic structures, the men learn through hieroglyphic murals that the Elder Things first came to Earth shortly after the Moon took form and built their cities with the help of "shoggoths" -- biological entities created to perform any task, assume any form, and reflect any thought. There is a hint that all earthly life evolved from cellular material left over from the creation of the shoggoths.
As more buildings are explored, the explorers learn about the Elder Things' conflict with both the Star-spawn of Cthulhu and the Mi-go, who arrived on Earth shortly afterwards. The images also reflect a degradation of their civilization, once the shoggoths gain independence. As more resources are applied in maintaining order, the etchings become haphazard and primitive. The murals also allude to an unnamed evil lurking within an even larger mountain range located beyond the city. This mountain range rose in one night and certain phenomena and incidents deterred the Elder Things from exploring it. When Antarctica became uninhabitable, even for the Elder Things, they soon migrated into a large, subterranean ocean.
Dyer and Danforth eventually realize that the Elder Things missing from the advance party's camp had somehow returned to life and, after slaughtering the explorers, have returned to their city. Dyer and Danforth also discover traces of the Elder Things' earlier exploration, as well as sleds containing the corpses of both Gedney and his missing dog. They are ultimately drawn towards the entrance of a tunnel, into the subterranean region depicted in the murals. Here, they find evidence of various Elder Things killed in a brutal struggle and blind six-foot-tall penguins wandering placidly, apparently used as livestock. They are then confronted by a black, bubbling mass, which they identify as a shoggoth, and escape. Aboard the plane, high above the plateau, Danforth looks back and sees something which causes him to lose his own sanity, implied to be the unnamed evil itself. Dyer concludes the Elder Things slaughtered the survivors and dogs only out of self-defense or scientific curiosity, that their civilization was eventually destroyed by the shoggoths and that this further entity has preyed on the enormous penguins. He warns the planners of the next proposed Antarctic expedition to stay distant from the site.
At the Mountains of Madness has numerous connections to other Lovecraft stories. A few include:
Lovecraft had a lifelong interest in Antarctic exploration. "Lovecraft had been fascinated with the Antarctic continent since he was at least 12 years old, when he had written several small treatises on early Antarctic explorers," biographer S. T. Joshi wrote. At about the age of 9, inspired by W. Clark Russell's 1887 book The Frozen Pirate, Lovecraft had written "several yarns" set in Antarctica.
By the 1920s, Antarctica was "one of the last unexplored regions of the Earth, where large stretches of territory had never seen the tread of human feet. Contemporary maps of the continent show a number of provocative blanks, and Lovecraft could exercise his imagination in filling them in...with little fear of immediate contradiction." However Lovecraft was basically accurate in presenting the geographic knowledge of Antarctica as it was known at the time, and referred to continental drift, a theory which at the time was not widely accepted.
The first expedition of Richard E. Byrd took place in 1928-1930, the period just before the novella was written, and Lovecraft mentioned the explorer repeatedly in his letters, remarking at one point on "geologists of the Byrd expedition having found many fossils indicating a tropical past". In fact, Miskatonic University's expedition was modelled after that of Byrd.
In Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos Lin Carter suggests that one inspiration for At the Mountains of Madness was Lovecraft's own hypersensitivity to cold, as evidenced by an incident where the writer "collapsed in the street and was carried unconscious into a drug store" because the temperature dropped from 60 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees to -1 degree Celsius). "The loathing and horror that extreme cold evoked in him was carried over into his writing," Carter wrote, "and the pages of Madness convey the blighting, blasting, stifling sensation caused by sub-zero temperatures in a way that even Poe could not suggest." S. T. Joshi has called this theory "facile."
Joshi further cites as Lovecraft's most obvious literary source for At the Mountains of Madness Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, whose concluding section is set in Antarctica. Lovecraft twice cites Poe's "disturbing and enigmatic" story in his text, and explicitly borrows the mysterious cry Tekeli-li or Takkeli from Poe's work. In a letter to August Derleth, Lovecraft wrote that he was trying to achieve with his ending an effect similar to what Poe accomplished in Pym.
Another proposed inspiration for At the Mountains of Madness is Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earth's Core (1914), a novel that posits a highly intelligent reptilian race, the Mahar, living in a hollow Earth. "Consider the similarity of Burroughs' Mahar to Lovecraft's Old Ones, both of whom are presented sympathetically despite their ill-treatment of man," writes critic William Fulwiler. "[B]oth are winged, web-footed, dominant races; both are scientific scholarly races with a talent for genetics, engineering, and architecture; and both races use men as cattle." Both stories, Fulwiler points out, involve radical new drilling techniques; in both stories, humans are vivisected by nonhuman scientists. Burroughs' Mahar even employ a species of servants known as Sagoths, possibly the source of Lovecraft's Shoggoth.
Other possible sources include A. Merritt's "The People of the Pit", whose description of an underground city in the Yukon bears some resemblance to that of Lovecraft's Elder Things, and Katharine Metcalf Roof's "A Million Years After", a story about dinosaurs hatching from eggs millions of years old that appeared in the November 1930 edition Weird Tales. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft declared Metcalf Roof's story to be a "rotten", "cheap", and "puerile" version of an idea he had come up with years earlier, and his dissatisfaction may have provoked him to write his own tale of "the awakening of entities from the dim reaches of Earth's history."
An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia suggest that the long scope of history recounted in the story may have been inspired by Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. Some details of the story may also have been taken from M. P. Shiel's 1901 Arctic exploration novel, The Purple Cloud, which was republished in 1930.
Lovecraft's own "The Nameless City" (1921), which also deals with the exploration of an ancient underground city apparently abandoned by its nonhuman builders, sets a precedent for At the Mountains of Madness. In both stories, the explorers use the nonhumans' artwork to deduce the history of their species. Lovecraft had also used this device in "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (1927)
As for details of the Antarctic setting, the author's description of some of the scenery is in part inspired by the Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and the illustrations of Gustave Doré, both of whom are referenced by the story's narrator multiple times.
Lovecraft submitted the story to Weird Tales, but it was rejected by the editor Farnsworth Wright in July 1931. Lovecraft took the rejection badly and put the story to one side. It was eventually submitted by Lovecraft's literary agent Julius Schwartz in 1935 to F. Orlin Tremaine, the editor of Astounding Stories.
The novella was serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues, and Lovecraft received $315--the most he had ever received for a story. The story, however, was harshly edited, with alterations to spellings, punctuation, and paragraphing, and the end of the story had several lengthy passages omitted. Lovecraft was outraged and called Tremaine "that god-damn'd dung of a hyaena [sic]". Lovecraft's own hand-corrected copies of Astounding Stories formed the basis for the first Arkham House edition, but this still contained over a thousand errors, and a fully restored text was not published until 1985.
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