Reviewed in the United States on March 18, 2014
The disturbing implication of H. P. Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness (1931/36) is, of course, that our world is abnormal. From its great opening line ("I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why") to its closing shrieks of "Tekeli-li!" Lovecraft's story powerfully explores existential horror marked by the following:
-monstrous forbidden books
-secrets beyond human penetration
-grotesque squawking penguins
-curious configurations of dots
-tentacles, wings, and obscene odors
-careful butchery and inexpert dissection
-an appalling account of the creation of life on earth
-a pre-human megalopolis
-cosmic beauty and cosmic horror
The novella is the attempt by Dyer, a professor of geology at Mistaktonic University, to dissuade future scientific expeditions to Antarctica by telling what really happened to the disastrous one he led there in 1930. Dyer begins with practical details about supplies, personnel, and goals, scientific facts about longitude, latitude, temperature, and geology, and generally benign poetic impressions: "Distant mountains floated in the sky as enchanted cities, and often the whole white world would dissolve into a gold, silver, and scarlet land of Dunsanian dreams and adventurous expectancy under the magic of the low midnight sun." However, after his party reaches "the great unknown continent, and its cryptic world of frozen death," things start getting creepy: "On the barren shore, and on the lofty ice barrier in the background, myriads of grotesque penguins squawked and flapped their fins." And when Lake, a Professor of biology, finds a fossil footprint of some advanced life form from a period of earth's history when no advanced life forms existed and becomes obsessed with finding more, things become horribly strange.
Lovecraft's writing may at times strike one as overwrought, with absurd names like Yog-Sothoth, over-used words like mad/ness (34 times in this novella), horror/s (31), strange/ness/ly (29), primal (24), and nameless (21), and plenty of excess verbiage. And those bas-reliefs are too conveniently comprehensible. Nevertheless, if you get into his rhythm, Lovecraft builds a disturbing intensity as Dyer provides more details, leading us through a series of gateways into the ineffable alien past of earth. I found myself writing down whole passages, amused by their outré quality and awed by their rhythm and imagery. At the Mountains of Madness is an excellent story because it builds terror through gradual revelation, so that, though we guess much of what's going on much earlier than Dyer tells us, the point is that he has to nerve himself up to be able to say what he has to say. It's difficult for him. He doesn't want to inflict spiritual torment on humanity and doesn't want to relive his own Rubicon crossing into the madness lurking in the inner reality of life and the world, which "marked my loss, at the age of fifty-four, of all that peace and balance which the normal mind possesses through its accustomed conception of external nature and nature's laws." If you stay patient and journey with him through his past expedition, you may experience, if not the same hair-graying terror that Lovecraft is trying to evoke, a compellingly beautiful, disturbing, and strange experience: science fiction horror sublime. (Only Lovecraft could make into figures of horror that comment on the human condition six-foot tall, albino, eyeless penguins living in tunnels leading to the abyss.)
If you become irritated when characters in horror movies enter places they should know better than to enter, Dyer and Danforth may drive you crazy, but they do what they do because of curiosity, and this novella is largely about that human trait: "Half paralyzed with terror though we were, there was nevertheless fanned within us a blazing flame of awe and curiosity which triumphed in the end." Ah, Dyer should know that the more he tries to convince scientists not to explore Antarctica by telling them of his experiences, the more they will flock there.
Fans of sf horror in the vein of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There" and John Carpenter's movie version of it, The Thing, should enjoy At the Mountains of Madness. However, most of the action in which Hollywood movies over-indulge is described after the fact in the story, and Lovecraft is more into psychological than physical action.
I'd only read a few H. P. Lovecraft stories, ignorantly scorning his work for its pulpy purple prose, nameless, eldritch obsessions, and phobias about size, age, and tentacles. I figured that the worst evil in this world is done by human beings, not by lurking protoplasmic blasphemous alien entities. But the novella knocked off my soul-socks, and made me keen to read all of Lovecraft's stories.
A note on this kindle edition of the novella. I bought it cheaply in order to cheaply get the Blackstone audiobook version of it splendidly read by Edward Hermmann. The kindle version seems fine, coming with an interesting overview of Lovecraft's life and career and a typical navigable table of contents, but without artwork, and with perhaps one or two typos.