Book Review: At the Mountains of Madness (1936)

H.P. Lovecraft is a hidden giant in the shadows, his name whispered reverently in the dark recesses of readers' minds. I was first introduced to Lovecraft during the nineties, when I discovered fanfiction. In those days, after the required prayer for the modem to connect, I would hurry to the desired website and immediately save the fanfic as a text file, in case someone picked up the phone. One fanfic writer in particular, Alan Harnum, creator of the magnificent Waters Under Earth, wrote Turning the Wheel, which he described as "1/3rd Stephen King, 1/3rd H.P. Lovecraft, and 1/3rd Rumiko Takahashi." Who?, said I. Anyway, 'twas a tale of eldritch terror from the watery depths, betrayal most foul, and the monsters in our midst. Happily, it was also well written.

At the Mountains of Madness is a good introduction to the Lovecraft legacy. Although written in almost bombastic horror-prose and heavily reliant on the adjective "decadent," it's an engaging novella that touches on the themes of human curiosity, folly, and the vast unknown. The story questions our origins, and the origins of life on earth itself. Unlike the movie Prometheus, Lovecraft's work builds toward the revelation of the source of all things. It ends on a bleak, sober note.

The story is told from the first person point of view. A geologist, Prof. Dyer, purports to describe in full his experiences with an Antarctic expedition in 1930 to prevent another team from launching an expedition there. Dyer relates the team's many amazing discoveries during their own explorations, chief of which were specimens of mysterious lifeforms that they could not classify as purely plant or animal, found by a group separated from Dyer. When the group goes radio silent, Dyer takes a graduate student, Danforth, to investigate. What they find in the camp prompts them to go deeper into the mountains, and they find ancient structures that detail the history of the Elder Things, and their own terrible struggles.

Lovecraft's rich imagination brings readers new mythologies and unexplored civilizations. However, I do agree with the publisher who called out its excessive length. Because I’m a giver, I will rewrite and condense the entire story for you (spoilers ahead, obviously):

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Fragrant Elephant Presents: A Very Fragrant Rewrite of At the Mountains of Madness

I am William Dyer, a geologist from Miskatonic University. I was previously part of an expedition that went horribly wrong. I am writing this now to prevent anyone else from going into the Antarctic and meeting the same fate.

We discovered a ruins and got some weird rocks. Then a small advance team broke off and found a bunch of ancient life forms completely unknown to science. After a while they stopped talking to us so young Danforth and I went to check it out. The camp was a mess, the sled dogs were dead, some of the life forms were buried upright in the snow, and the rest were missing.

Danforth and I followed their trail via airplane and landed in an abandoned stone city. We found out that the aliens were very mathematically advanced and made big carvings that told of their history. Sometimes they lived on land, sometimes under the sea. They created polymorphs to do their bidding, but the Shoggoths rebelled and had to be put down. Also they fought Chtulhu. Also they stole stuff from the advance team camp.

Danforth and I went deeper and discovered six-foot-tall albino penguins. Then we found a dead Elder Thing plus one of our colleagues and a dog, both preserved and wrapped. We heard cries of “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” and ran like hell. It was a Shoggoth and it probably wanted to eat us.

We escaped the city, but not before Danforth turned around one last time and went insane. I still don’t know what he saw.

Please do not go to Antarctica.

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Obviously, my feeble attempts don't capture the wildness and exhilaration of the journey into the macabre. For all his denseness of prose in this novella, Lovecraft still spins a fine yarn. And that, dear friends, is always worth one's time.

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