'Go thou to H. P. Lovecraft and shudder.'
-- The Sun newspaper
At the Mountains of Madness was written in 1931 by H. P. Lovecraft, scary fiction author extraordinaire. At 35,000 words, this is the second-longest of his works1 and it is classified as one of Lovecraft's "short novels." Lovecraft's macabre and suspense-laden writing style is at its finest in this work, which is why it's one of his most successful tales.
'At the Mountains of Madness represents the most serious work I have attempted.'
-- H. P. Lovecraft
Early in 1931, Lovecraft wrote this tale in several uninterrupted sessions. From the outset, he was determined to make this a seriously frightening work. His writing method was slow and laborious; he agonised over every word in the hope of striking just the right note of fear with the reader. This exhausting process often left him emotionally drained, and he was rarely happy with the finished product. He edited the work relentlessly: ".... half of the pages are corrected, transposed and interlined beyond all human legibility," he wrote to a correspondent. When the work was finished, he was concerned that it wasn't as powerful as he intended. "It is altogether too slow for the cheap, artificial markets."
His concern deepened when the fiction periodical Weird Tales rejected the work, and he withdrew it from submission in other publications. "Its rejection was a very discouraging influence," he wrote. He took rejection very hard and would often withdraw his stories after a single knock-back from a publisher - this also explains why his love-life was practically non-existent. Often his friends and correspondents would sell his stories on his behalf after an initial rejection. At the Mountains of Madness, however, is the only work of Lovecraft's to be offered to the offices of a literary agent: Julius Schwartz, the famous editor of DC Comics.
Schwartz began his career as an editor back in 1930, when he started the very mother of all science fiction fanzines, 'The Time Traveler', with Mort Weisinger. By 1934 he created and co-owned Solar Sales, a literary agency filled with the cream of science fiction's crop. So when he met Lovecraft at a literary gathering in 1935, Schwartz was scouting for talent, and Lovecraft was desperate to sell. Lovecraft hesitantly gave At the Mountains of Madness to Julius, who forwarded it on to Astounding Stories for an astonishing $350. Together with 'Shadow Out of Time', Lovecraft stood to receive $650; the stories were due to be printed in a 1936 edition, and life was looking pretty shiny for our black-penned author.
But things took a turn for the worse when the stories were published2. Lovecraft was horrified by the heavily edited version that appeared. He was accustomed to Weird Tales producing his works untouched, so it came as a rude shock to see the "appalling hack job" that editor F. Orlin Tremaine had made of it, with hundreds of deviations from the original text. "I'll be hang'd if I can consider the story as published at all," he wrote. The works themselves received a fairly subdued reception by the readers; some fans were openly hostile, complaining that there was "no place for weird horror in a science fiction magazine."
The sale of the works was a great achievement for Solar Sales, who went on to boast that they represented "Bradbury, Bester, Binder, Bracket, and Bloch and that was just the B's. We also represent H. P. Lovecraft for the L of it." But Lovecraft was jaded by the whole process, and never sold his works through an agency again.
'Imagination could conceive almost anything in connection with this place.'
This is the tale of an Antarctic exploration that went horribly wrong.
The location represents a "radical departure in setting" for Lovecraft, who set most of his stories in New England. Lovecraft himself was horrified and (according to reports) actually allergic to temperatures lower than 20 degrees; towards the end of his life, 30 degrees. At the time the story was written, there were no KH Satellites. There was no GPS. Douglas Mawson was still visiting his continental nemesis. The Titanic sank less than 20 years prior. You can see why Lovecraft decided to give everyone the howling fantods about Antarctica.
The tale is presented as a retrospective recount from a member of the surviving party to a newspaper editor. The narrator, geologist Professor Dyer, tells the story of the preparation, execution and destruction of the trip. His story is limited by personal perspective, which allows Lovecraft to carefully control the release of information to the reader. This is also done through the narrator's reluctance to talk: he is only telling the tale to prevent others from exploring the region. Additionally, Lovecraft avoids filling the tale with mundane details of the trip by explaining that these were already released to the public in a self-censored press release.
'The tremendous significance lies in what we dared not tell; what I would not tell now but for the need of warning others off from nameless terrors.'
The horror behind this story belongs to the Cthulhu mythos more overtly than many of his other tales. References to the ancient legends become more explicit as the story develops. Early in the book, the narrator describes the scene as he approaches Antarctica by sea:
'Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I was rather sorry, later on, that I had ever looked into that monstrous book at the college library.'
Which only goes to show, you college kids should spend more time at the library.
If the tale seems familiar, don't be surprised. Lovecraft got much of his inspiration for the work from Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, who in turn drew heavily from Benjamin Morrell's A Narrative of Four Voyages. And it appears that the 1938 novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell was "inspired" by Lovecraft's work, which only goes to show that nobody's having any original ideas.
If you need to know exactly what happens in the book, read on.
Professor Dyer of Miskatonic University sets out on an Antarctic expedition with engineer Professor Frank Pabodie, biologist Lake, physicist and meterologist Atwood, sixteen assistants and a team of sleigh dogs. The expedition aimed to extract and study fossils, minerals and rocks around the region.
Shortly after landing and making camp, and inspired by some of their earlier findings, Lake begins a prospective trip westward to explore the region. He stops just short of a mountain ridge. What he finds is astonishing: several large, dead, perfectly perserved organisms, of unknown species, are discovered in an abandoned cave. Lake reports this to the base camp by wireless dispatch, and announces his intention to perform a rudimentary autopsy on the creatures. He describes the organisms briefly, and explains that the sleigh dogs cannot abide the corpses, before switching out for the night.
The next day, when the base camp attempts to contact Lake, nobody answers.
The day after that, a rescue mission is sent to find Lake. The mission consists of the narrator, Pabodie, assistants and supplies. While flying to Lake's campsite, the narrator sees a mirage of a miraculous city, but dismisses it and concentrates on the task ahead. Arriving at the camp, they discover eleven dead and one missing. Some of the creatures have been buried, while others are completely missing. The autopsy room is littered with human body parts.
Dyer and Danforth decide to explore the area beyond the mountain ridge. The two of them discover an ancient city made of stone, built hundreds of thousands of years ago. Murals carved onto the walls describe the creation of the city by the Ancient Ones, and its slow abandonment over time. The two take photos and draw sketches of everything they find. They piece together the history of the city, involving Shoggoths and Old Ones.
The missing man and his dog are discovered in an empty cave; it appears that someone - or something - tied their bodies to a sleigh and dragged them back to the dead city. As Danforth and Dyer prepare to leave the city, something gives chase. It is a Shoggoth - and it screams at them, 'Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!' in imitation of the Old Ones. The two of them escape, alive, and force the expedition party to leave Antarctica without explaining what they saw.
The longest is The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
, Vol. 16, No. 6 (February 1936), p. 8-32; Vol. 17, No. 1 (March 1936), p. 125-55; Vol. 17, No. 2 (April 1936), p. 132-50.