Classic Horror

Classic Horror: At The Mountains of Madness

Today I want to talk to you about one of my favourite Lovecraft stories, At The Mountains of Madness. This story has inspired horror creators for years, resulting in books, films and games. The world would be a much poorer place without this story.

I recently picked up an audiobook collection of Lovecraft and have been listening to this particular story on the way to and from work. Listening to it has reminded me of just how much I enjoyed this and now I want to talk about how awesome it is.

Summary – beware spoilers

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The stories narrator is William Dyer, a professor at the ever-popular Miskatonic University. The tale opens on a frightening note, with William warning future prospective explorers away from Antartica but knowing his attempt is likely futile. William recently returned from Antarctica and is now trying to prevent another excursion to the same location.

To try and warn others away William tells the story of his own journey out in the cold barren landscape. Already we know that things will go wrong due to the setup, but even without that, the location is enough to chill (pun intended) the soul. It’s a barren landscape where transportation is difficult and automatically our narrator is vulnerable due to the harsh landscape and the implicit isolation.

The journey started out typically enough until one of the team’s pilots (out on his own) crashes his plane close to a range of mountains that exceed even the Himalayas in size. The rest of the group join the pilot and a small group venture into the mountains where they find some awesome ruins. For now, the location dials down the tension and instead becomes wonderous and fantastic. Through the implicit threat of isolation is continually felt.

As the small group explore the ruins, they find evidence of prehistoric life. The creatures they find are previously unknown to science, and cannot be defined as plants or animals. Some are badly damaged while others are in perfect condition. After some study it comes to light that these creatures are effectively impossible, they are shown to have used tools etc. in a time when nothing was evolved enough to do so. Lovecraft is well known for his cosmic horror and fear of the unknown, these explorers have found something previously unknown and difficult to explain and while they are excited about it, the language, tone and pacing forces the reader to feel tense. The location becomes more oppressive, the implicit threat stronger.

Contact is lost with the small group sent into the ruins and so William Dyer and the remaining explorers investigate. They find the camp of the small group and discover quickly that the majority of the group has been slaughtered, with only a single man and a dog unaccounted for. The better-preserved creatures are also missing. After further study, they note that one of the dead men and a dead dog haven’t just been slaughtered but dissected. They suspect that the missing man is responsible. While at this point, again thanks to the setup, the reader knows something bigger is coming and the team making wrong assumptions only serves to increase the tension.

William and a student, Danforth take a plane across the mountains and discover that the mountains aren’t really mountains but in fact a wall surrounding a vast city. In typical Lovecraft style, the architecture and geometry are alien aka non-human. They dub the creatures that built the city Elder Things due to their resemblance to creatures in the Necronomicon. It’s worth pointing out here that Lovecraft’s use of items such as the Necronomicon and locations such as the university in multiple stories is a very effective way of creating a feeling very quickly. You know this book is bad news because you’ll have read other stories where this damned book causes nothing but problems.

Through the study of writings in the city, it is learned that the creatures are alien and turned up shortly after the moon took form. They also created creatures to serve any purpose and dubbed them shoggoths, it is suggested that life on earth came from the remnants of a shoggoth. Further exploration teaches them that there was a war between the elder things, apparently, Cthulhu and his kin fought another group that turned up shortly after Cthulhu and co. The shoggoths had some kind of revolution and gained their freedom and the alien civilisation fell. Antarctica got pretty cold after this so the remaining elder things headed into the ocean.

Eventually, the remaining people put two and two together and realise that the massacre at the camp was done by the shoggoth returned to life. They find more murals depicting more conflict with horrendous creatures and some massive penguins. They come into contact with some black ooze which actually is a shoggoth and they finally flee. One of the dudes looks back as they run and goes mental because he saw true horror. Again, typical Lovecraft skills, less is more.

Why this is awesome

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I loved this story. It’s well-paced, with a realistic narrator who is genuinely unsettled by what has happened and his reactions come across well. He’s curious by nature, hence his job and his purpose on the expedition, but that doesn’t make him stupid. William and the other men genuinely do not have reason to know or think that a monster is stalking them, to them they have found some amazing ruins and evidence of another civilisation which is clearly gone. They remain until it becomes apparent that this is not the case. William as a narrator is reliable and relatable, his feeling towards the expedition has soured but that doesn’t stop the reader feeling his excitement. He’s a marvellously crafted character and serves his purpose wonderfully.

Lovecraft’s awesome skill at building tension is unpatrolled in this story. You start already tense due to the setup. You already know things go wrong, why else would William be trying to convince you not to go? The tension then builds slowly and gradually, at times without you even truly noticing.

The creatures in this story like nearly all of Lovecraft’s creations are truly alien, to the point where we would have no hope of understanding or relate to them, or them us. It’s always been something I have admired about Lovecraft, is his ability to create something completely alien and preserve that feeling throughout the entire story.

As I said earlier this story paved the way for so much, I could list them here but we’d be here far too long. So let me just say this, if you aren’t usually a Lovecraft fan, I understand that he can be pretty verbose at times, then I recommend watching The Thing.

Go on, off you go, watch The Thing.

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