the Little Red Reviewer

At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft

Posted on: October 30, 2013

When the hell did it get to the end of October? Halloween totally snuck up on me. You know, this is what I get for cancelling my cable TV.  when I had to watch commercials on TV I always knew what time of year it was.  No seasonally appropriate commercials = no clue what time of year it is.  And yes, I do own a calendar. Two of them in fact.

so anyways, I was looking for something appropriately creepy to read for Halloween, and I like my creepy shit on the bizarrely weird side. I know, I’ll read some Lovecraft!  Good thing I found this skinny little volume at a library booksale a while back!  At The Mountains of Madness (1936)  is sure to scare the shit out of me, right? And if I’m still breathing after I finish that one, I’ve got The Shunned House (1924), The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933), and The Statement of Randolph Carter (1919) to keep me up all night, wincing at shadows.
Today I’ll just review At The Mountains of Madness, and I’ll review the others in a different post.

At the Mountains of Madness, originally published in 1936

where I got it: purchased used.

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At the Mountains of Madness is told as a flashback by Professor Dyer.  He had been part of a scientific expedition to Antarctica, and he wants to make sure that no one else goes down there because of the horrible things he witnessed. After all these years of silence, he is ready to tell his tale. He goes into a lot of details about the size of the expedition, supplies taken, how they got there, how many airplanes they take, how many members of the expedition are pilots and such. Lovecraft is sort of setting this up as an adventure story, but you immediately know something awful is going to happen. Once settled, the expedition splits up, with Professor Lake taking more than half their planes and supplies to another location, where an amazing mountain range with cube shaped ramparts and huge mummified creatures are found.  Lake reports what he finds and how his autopsy of the creatures is progressing over the wireless, to the growing excitement of Dyer and the other members of the expedition.

The next day, when they have trouble getting radio communications from Lake, Dyer and a few other men mount a rescue mission.  During the telling of his tale, Dyer is reluctant to go into details of exactly what happened, but he eventually does.  I imagine at the time this was pretty mind blowing, but I was like “ok, get to the scary stuff already”.  Since the characters knew more of what was going on than I did, they seemed to succeed more in scaring the shit out of each other than scaring the shit out of me. I was certainly creeped out, but for the most part not very scared.

Better than the attempt at fright, was Lovecrafts attempts at scale. Antarctica is HUGE. To get from one camp to another is easily an 8 hour plane ride with nothing for company but the droning of the engines. The landscape barely changes, making it feel like you are standing still. The scale and the feeling of being utterly cut off from the rest of the world was much scarier for me.

Dyer and his group do find Lake’s camp, and they find lots and lots of dead bodies, and lots of equipment missing. Some of the mummified creatures that Lake had dug up are either buried in an honorable fashion, or missing all together. Lake had mentioned over the wireless that the sled dogs were barking like crazy around the mummified creatures, so lesson learned: listen to the dogs!

Dyer and one of his students go on what they think is going to be a quick exploration trip through a mountain pass to see if they can the strange mountainous formations that Lake had mentioned. And *this* is where the story finally gets strange and creepy.  On the way, they see a mirage, which isn’t unusual, the ice on the ground reflecting off clouds and making a mirage, it’s a spired city full of towers and ramparts. But obviously, a mirage. They get through the mountain pass and find a massive abandoned city.  It’s the city in the mirage, except in the mirage all the spires and towers were complete, but in the abandoned city they find themselves in, glaciers and time have nearly destroyed everything.

Although it pains me to say anything good about the movie Prometheus, when Dyer and Danforth land the plane and start walking around the city, I was reminded (in a good way!) of that scene in Prometheus when they land near the alien city and no one can understand what the buildings mean,they just know everything is important. Us humans, sometimes we need to be put in our place, and made to feel very small, you know? The two explorers start walking around and photographing everything they can in the iced over city, and they come across a lot of art – sculptures and bas reliefs and such. Through this artwork, Dyer is able to grasp what happened to these people. These are the Old Ones, who came to Earth from space, and lived both under water and above. they created the Shoggoths as a slave race, but the Shoggoths rebelled and fought for independence. There was further war with other things not of this earth. Wwhat’s cool is that the sculptures show history and progression, decadence and cultural falls. There was something even the Old Ones were afraid of, something even they were reluctant to reference in their histories and artworks. (and wow, it sure is amazing that after only a few hours of wandering around and certainly only seeing a tiny fraction of the city, that Dyer is able to extrapolate their entire cultural history!)

These ruins have been here for millions of years. How is that possible?  But Dyer and Danforth have a more pressing issue:  they’ve come across tracks of one of the sleds that was missing from Lake’s camp. They are not alone in this ancient city.  Along with mutant penguins, they find the sled, and something else, something ancient, something horrific. But the something wasn’t described very well, which was annoying.

Dyer and Danforth escape the city and fly back to their camp, but Danforth leaves his sanity behind. Dyer is only speaking of these horrible things because he wants to keep others from going there and having to see them.

And that, pretty much, is the story. There is a LOT of build up, which I imagine has more impact if you’ve read the stories that Lovecraft published previous to this one. Dyer, being the professorial type is often referencing older books and mythologies that I didn’t know anything about.  The prose has moments of shining metaphors, but for the most part it was lots and lots of telling (first we did this, then we did this, then we ran away, then we did this other thing) and very little showing.

But I’ve got to thank Lovecraft for writing this and other strange tales of terror. He started something that authors over the years have been climbing all over, making stranger, making more terrible. What I read in At the Mountains of Madness, I’ve seen done better by other authors. But without Lovecraft, they wouldn’t have had a starting point.

At the Mountains of Madness really didn’t do it for me. The good pars were not enough to make up for clunky pacing, uninteresting characters, and a big reveal was a let down. BUT, now I can say that I’ve read it, AND the other three stories in this little collection were much more enjoyable. You may even enjoy reading my blog post on those!

8 Responses to "At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft"

Such a shame ATMOM didn’t work for you, it’s always been my favourite Lovecraft story. I still hope Guillermo del Toro gets to make the film version. Look forward to your other Lovecraftian reviews.

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It’s the one I kept hearing about the most, it’s a lot of people’s favorite, and maybe the one he’s most famous for? If I’d never read “Who Goes There” or seen “the Thing”, or read any Jeff Vandermeer, this story would have been much more effective. I do want to read more Lovecraft, because I’ve so enjoyed seeing the Cthulhu mythos referred to and messed about with by other authors.

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When I read the collection of Lovecraft stories I got from the library, this one was my favorite of those involved simply for the sense of wonder it evoked. It was long and a bit clunky, but somehow it struck a chord for me. I certainly want to read more of these now…..

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I liked it but didn’t love it, which made me disappointed. I listened to it on Tales to Terrify and enjoyed it, which is odd because I don’t listen to many audio books at all. Somehow it worked better in a different format for me. I still don’t understand why.

I liked The Shunned House a lot which is probably why I was so sad that I didn’t love At the Mountains of Madness. I still want to read more of his stuff though.

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I liked it when I first read it but I felt like you did. The story has great atmosphere – the sense of scale also struck me and I learned the word cyclopean – but it’s frittered away. Lovecraft does have an irritating habit of populating his stories with protagonists who faint at the first sight of monsters so we miss out on the gory details.

Now that you write down the character’s motivation for telling the story, it does seem silly: “he wants to make sure that no one else goes down there because of the horrible things he witnessed. After all these years of silence” Way to make sure nobody else goes down there😉

The Dreams in the Witch-House is much better. The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Colour Out of Space and The Haunter in the Dark are also good, if not better.

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I once read a review that contained the observation, “Lovecraft always seems to be telling the same story.” I’ve read maybe five Lovecraft stories and I kind of see what they mean, but I can’t really agree or disagree until I read more. If anyone knows where that quote came from, I would appreciate the information. Been looking for it.

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I’ve now read four of five, and I completely agree with that statement. But for the most part it’s a story I like hearing – Person discovers some connection between math and mythos, or gets info from a crazy old uncle and realizes there was some truth in all these old old tales, and then gets in way over their head and tries to escape but can’t escape what they’ve experienced even if they can escape the thing that is chasing them. Yeah, I didn’t dig Mountains, but the other Lovecraft I’ve read I’ve enjoyed.

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You’re hilarious. Lol at ” they seemed to succeed more in scaring the shit out of each other than scaring the shit out of me.” Lovecraft has never scared me, either, especially because his “monsters” are more like aliens that other authors have trained me to be more sympathetic toward. I also cringe at his overuse of the words “horror,” and “horrible,” and “horrific,” to describe, like, everything. Just as you said, “he does lots of telling,” and he mainly tells you it’s horrifying. That said, ATMOM is the one I like best from him, just because of how impressive and advanced his “monsters” are… despite the dubious nature of his extrapolations about their culture.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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