In the early 1930s the Antarctic was still a mostly unexplored remote wilderness, inhospitable and frequently lethal. Amundsen may have reached the pole but Robert Falcon Scott died trying, and Shackleton’s attempt to cross the continent ended before it even began with shipwreck and being stranded on the ice for years awaiting rescue. So what better place for H P Lovecraft to set a story about isolated humans discovering terrible ancient secrets half-buried in the ice?
The story takes the form of a report by William Dyer, a scientist on a survey mission into the deepest part of Antarctica, though this is not his forensic account of what he saw – this is his warning that nobody should follow in his footsteps. On arriving in Antarctic waters the expedition splits into three parties to take samples at separate locations. The party that goes the farthest starts to find fossils and repeated marks that could almost be animal prints. This suggests that complex lifeforms once existed out here, perhaps before they did anywhere else.
But the scientists are not prepared for what they find in a cavern at the base of a vast black mountain range – mountains so high that they would dwarf the Himalayas. Millions of years old, but perfectly preserved, ancient specimens are grouped together quite unnaturally. The advance party could have mistaken them for vegetables, except they appear to have wings.
Dyer and the members of his party are listening to this report over the radio from a safe distance. And then the radio goes silent amidst a storm. When Dyer and the others fly out to investigate they find all of their comrades either missing or dead, their corpses mutilated amongst scenes of utter carnage, as if everyone went mad and turned on each other. Worse, it appears that some had begun crudely dissecting their friends, and some may even have tried to eat the body parts. To find out what really happened, Dyer and his party must venture up onto the plateau above the mountains.
Right from the start, of course, we know that Dyer survives to give his warning, so there’s no suspense in worrying about his fate. The other characters are nothing more than names on the page, so it doesn’t really matter whether they have script immunity or not either. This is not a character piece, nor an exercise in manipulated chills that requires you to empathise with the characters who are about to die. Initially I found the story cold, detached and uninvolving. But then Lovecraft’s ideas started to flow. Everyone in the story, including its narrator, is rendered infinitesimal by its big ideas about mankind’s place in the universe.
At the Mountains of Madness was written in 1931 and finally published in serial form in 1936, becoming a clear inspiration on the more pulpish Who Goes There?, written a few years later by John W Campbell, and which itself went on to inspire The Thing in its various movie incarnations. These days satellites have photographed every inch of the planet’s surface so there’s nowhere left for lost worlds like these to hide. Not on this planet, anyway – there’s a reasonably straight line that could also be drawn between this story and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, though.
I haven’t read any H P Lovecraft before. The legend that grew up around him posthumously kind of put me off – he is the science fiction and horror writer that the nerdiest (and therefore most precious) of fans worship. But I’m going to read more. His ideas seep into your subconscious and make you feel very small, insignificant and helpless late, late at night.