There are few modern myths so exciting as the journey of discovery. The thrill of blazing trails into some unknown land, a land from which no rumors have come, of which no stories are told—such a thrill is only matched by that wild moment when one discovers the ruins of some ancient and vast civilization, so glorious past that has lain undiscovered for eons.
H. P. Lovecraft lived on the tail end of this era. Few truly unknown civilizations were being uncovered in the 1930’s, but the British empire had reached its zenith at that point, carrying back rumors of the distant east, of Tibetan lamas, and the highest mountains in the world. Rumors drifted back of yetis, and of Shambhala. The first successful expeditions to the north and south poles had already taken place as well, and with the advent of both submarines and airplanes, man began to push himself to greater heights, and more profound depths.
But Lovecraft, being Lovecraft, took this theme of discovery and made it terrifying. Though many of his stories deal with curious scientists and scholars, At the Mountains of Madness is perhaps the closest he comes to Indiana Jones. It begins with a man named Professor William Dyer of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts informing us that he is publishing this account of his expedition to Antarctica only to dissuade another expedition, the Starkweather-Moore expedition, from daring to enter that frightful region. With great reluctance, he begins to recount what proves to be a uniquely disastrous and horrible journey of discovery.
The Miskatonic University expedition consists of twenty-five men and fifty-five dogs, four airplanes, and some modified former whaling ships. Their voyage is already a long one before they reach Antarctica, and they are not long there before their drilling into the bedrock of the icy continent yields intriguing results. One of their number, Professor Lake, decides to lead an advance group of the expedition farther into the mountains, with Dyer and the others to follow after. We have already seen these mountains in exploratory flights, and there is something strange and foreboding about them. They jutted higher into the atmosphere than the fabled Himalayas—at the time of Lovecraft’s writing, Mt. Everest had not yet been summited—and their slopes bore oddly regular geometric shapes, artificial in appearance.
Lake sends back reports of the things they find there, including strange creatures deep in the rock, at a depth that defies contemporary understanding of the geologic timescale. They are simply too old. And what is more, they are a strange blend of animal and plant, perhaps even fungus. Their barrel shape and starfish heads are unlike anything ever seen, and their bat-like wings prevent the scientists from categorizing them as some form of sea life. At any rate, while six of these strange creatures are wrecked, the bodies of the other eight are in pristine condition, having endured countless eons without decay.
Already Lovecraft is playing with the limits of human knowledge, taking the best of our science at a time when we are most proud of it, and punching holes in it. All it takes is a few strange specimens and our whole account of the history of life on earth is wrecked. For now, though, Lake is excited. To him, this is not a setback, but the beginning of a scientific revolution for which he will get credit.
Things soon take a turn for the worse. Dyer loses contact with Lake’s party, and goes forward to investigate. He finds the camp destroyed, the bodies of men and dogs horribly mangled. One man in particular, and his canine companion, bare unmistakable signs of having been dissected. Books, largely picture books, are found lying open around the camps, and various articles have been fiddled with. Outside, there are six mounds, under each of which are buried one of the six damaged specimens. The other eight are nowhere to be found. The explorers try to pass this off on a man named Gedney, who is missing, and they assume has gone mad.
Disturbed, but not quite deterred, Dyer and his companions fly deep into the titular mountains, into a vast city of odd, yet strangely familiar architecture. They set out into the city, exploring its fabulous ruins. The whole thing appears to have been hastily abandoned, emptied of everything mobile, and most of the shutters closed. On the walls they find remarkably clear pictures which tell a startling story about the inhabitants of the city, creatures which resemble the Elder Things of the dreadful Necronomicon.
It seems the Elder Things were a highly evolved species, capable of flying on their bat-like wings through space and sustaining themselves on distant starlight. Through the vast reaches of the black abyss they came to an empty planet, the Earth as it existed not long after the Moon separated from it. It was empty, barren of all life. The Elder Things settled there, but they were in need of servants, of slaves to do their hard work for them. And so they experimented, creating a variety of lifeforms, animal and vegetable. Some proved to be good for food, others for other purposes. Last of all, they created their slave race, the Shoggoths. These fulfilled their needs, and other beings were allowed to escape their notice, where unchecked evolution worked on them, and they began to grow more recognizable. Among these was a vaguely simian creature, unmistakably human in certain ways, which served as an entertaining joke to its careless creators.
This radical relativization of humanity is truly startling. Man is not the descendent of gods, or even of some noble lineage of creatures struggling its way up through eons of Darwinian combat to achieve dominance. Man is a buffoon, a byproduct of the leftovers of experiments of a race that is foreign to this planet, and whose concerns are alien. Indeed, it is terrifyingly clear that these Elder Things are far more highly evolved than mankind, both biologically and technologically far more advanced than the scientists could ever fathom.
If this does not seem so startling in a culture that, for the most part, eagerly accepts unguided evolution and countless millions of years of bloody struggle for survival, think how it must have felt to a society still largely in the grip of an explicitly Christian worldview. Merely being told scientific facts means little. One can still imagine man having some sort of special place in the universe. One can still believe our apparent dominance over the other known lifeforms is somehow natural, the way things have always been, and should always be. Lovecraft denies us this. Man is not special. Indeed, as we will see elsewhere, not even the Elder Things have some sacred or unique place in the cosmos. Even our accidental creators are not the most powerful entities on the scale of being.
The next step deeper into this world where man is no longer at the center comes with a subtle but profound reimagining of Lovecraft’s mythos. Out of the stars descends Cthulhu and his octopus-like spawn, to challenge the dominance of the Elder Things on the planet. These new creatures drove the Elder Things down into the sea, and took the land for themselves. After eons, peace was made. Then, suddenly, the lands in the Pacific, included the fabled city of R’lyeh, sank into the sea. The Elder Things alone ruled the Earth once more, except for a nameless fear of which they did not speak.
At first glance, this may not seem so radical. In earlier stories, however, Cthulhu appeared to be a dark god, perhaps from another dimension, some plane of reality humans could not fathom. His influence was psychic, and the whole story had occult overtones. The terror it inspired came from the fact that despite being so alien, he was so near, and had so profound and subtle an influence on the humanity he threatened. Now, however, he is truly alien. Any mystical or semi-divine properties he had are placed back in a decidedly naturalist, evolutionary context. Cthulhu and his spawn are merely another species struggling for survival, and not invulnerable, though certainly strong beyond the reckoning of men. We may perceive him as a god, but he is on the same scale of being we are, though unutterably high above us.
But when Cthulhu goes to sleep beneath the waves, this does not mean the dominance of the Elder Things is assured. Over generations they forget their old methods of creating and manipulating life, and become dependent on the Shoggoths that already exist. And, as all things wish to survive, to control their own destiny, the Shoggoths grow restless under the iron tentacle of their masters and revolt. This rebellion is swiftly put put down with atomic weaponry, and from that time forward they are tightly controlled.
Still, the struggle of the Elder Things is not over. Out of space descends another race, the half-fungus, half-crustacean Mi-Go, first mentioned in The Whisperer in the Darkness. As part of their campaign, the Elder Things attempted to launch themselves into space as they had done countless times in the past. Something, however, had changed, and in the millions of intervening years, they had forgotten the secret, The Mi-Go were victorious, driving the Elder Things back into the sea, from which they retreated to the last remaining free continent—Antarctica.
In this account of repeated assaults on the alien civilization, always from their point of view, Lovecraft seems to be evoking a certain measure of sympathy for the terrible creatures. Despite their wildly inhuman aspect, and despite the terrible implications of their existence for the human race, they have a will, they have a personality. They fight, they struggle for survival, they explore, they experiment, they build great civilizations. And they are, after all, our ancestors in some sense of the word. Lovecraft even compares the matter which composes them to the exotic, almost phantasmal stuff of which the Cthulhu spawn and Mi-Go are made. The Elder Things are, in a grander cosmic sense, very like us.
This impression is confirmed in dramatic fashion not long after. The explorers realize that the Elder Thing civilization, undergoing a slow decline into decadence, found itself unable to withstand the increasing cold of the Antarctic region. They descended into a deep abyss, where they built a new city. The carvings on the wall showed the explorers how to get there.
They set off at once, deep into the bowels of the city. They uncover the unmistakable signs of travelers having recently gone before them. Eventually they find a camp in which are items taking from Lake’s advance party. Here, covered by a tarp, they at last find Gedney and the missing dog, both remarkably well preserved, in the manner of specimens kept for scientific study. Suddenly, they are interrupted by a loud noise. They realize quickly it is the squawking of penguins, but of a variety which are pale, eyeless, six-foot monstrosities, adapted over eons to life underground. What, they wonder, could have disturbed them? What could have driven these chthonic creatures up to these shallow regions?
They descend once more, through vaster, stranger subterranean regions, until at last they come to a part of the tunnels where the art has a new, alien quality, like some barbaric imitation of what went before. Forms appear in the darkness, on the floor of the tunnel, and they explorers recognize them. They are Elder Things, crushed and warped, and each missing its starfish head. The ichor oozing in pools around them indicates that the kill was recent. After a moment’s recollection of the carvings seen higher up, Dyer realizes that the creatures have been killed by Shoggoths. He is caught up in a sudden rush of sympathy.
Poor devils! Alter all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them – as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter dig up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste – and this was their tragic homecoming. They had not been even savages-for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch – perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia … poor Lake, poor Gedney… and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last – what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!
This horrified response reveals in a startling way Lovecraft’s own values. What matters is not how the creatures look, how monstrous they seem. No, these were scientists, creatures of intelligence and persistence, bravely facing the incredible. They were explorers, creatures of curiosity and rational thought. And in Lovecraft’s mind, that’s what counts. That’s what makes them men.
But the horror that consumed them is not far behind. An insidious piping issues from the depths, and up rushes a wounded Elder Thing, the shambling, protoplasmic bulk of a Shoggoth hot on its trail. Dyer and company turn and run, fleeing from the same peril that now threatens what not long before had seemed to them a monster. Now they have a common enemy, a mass of viscous, bubbling, sentient slime, barreling down the narrow tunnel like a freight train, eager to run them over. They move as fast as their legs can carry them, and the Elder Thing is unable to keep up. It is consumed. Soon they find themselves running alongside panicking penguins, and then bursting forth into the outside air. Some dumb luck, some fortuitous chance, has left their pursuer far behind them, perhaps having taken a wrong turn. They rush back to the plane and ascend into the thin air of those high mountains, free from the horrors of the deep.
Yet the nightmare is not quite over. Thought those Antarctic mountains were higher than the Himalayas, they were not Earth’s highest. The carvings of the Elder Things told of a range far higher, one just beyond that great polar range, shrouded in perpetual mists. Until now that translucent covering had shielded them from view, but now one of Dyer’s companions looked back, and saw beyond the thinning mists to those highest peaks, and what lay beyond them. What he saw drove him mad.
Lovecraft does not tell us what was seen. He gives us hints, speaks of Kaddath, the colour out of space, the original, the eternal, the undying. Whatever it is, the man who saw it will not say, though we know he is the only member of the expedition that has read entirely through the Necronomicon. There are good guesses to be made, but all we know for certain is that it was mystery deeper and more terrible than anything they had yet seen in those mountains of madness.
This is significant. Dyer’s expedition has plumbed the depths and uncovered things which shattered our preconceived notions of reality, yet not even this is the end. There remain darker, vaster, more maddening mysteries still, so far beyond the comprehension of mankind as to be unutterable. Our scientific inquiries, our journeys of explanations, all our great victories of rational thought come to nothing in the end. The universe was not made for man; it is not interpretable by him. We are a grim joke, an accident of experimentation irrelevant to our makers, themselves now doomed. Why should we expect to be able to understand what is out there?
From first to last, At the Mountains of Madness is dedicated to dispelling the illusions humanity has about its own place in the universe. In a naturalist world, there is no god or pantheon or primal force to give our existence meaning. We are no more unique or special than the monstrous spawn of distant stars—and they themselves are not privileged. Calamity may descend on them as on any other creature.
Note Dyer’s reaction, however. It is one common to other protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories. He warns us away. He does not ask us to seek to alter our precarious position in the cosmos—that is impossible. He does not point us to outside help, either. In an ultimate sense, there can be none. All lifeforms are independent of each other, are bound together by no purposeful cosmic order. They are all engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival, and all—so it seems—subject to eventual destruction. Nor does he ask us to come to terms with this knowledge. It cannot help us. He simply asks us to accept our position. Humanity must embrace its ignorance, for it is the only thing capable of keeping us from going mad.
There are, of course, other takes on evolutionary naturalism. Some are far more optimistic. This, however, is inspired by the same facts, the same set of beliefs. Here is a world without any supernatural reality. Here is a world where life develops primarily via natural selection. For Lovecraft, the implications of such a world are unspeakably horrific.
At the Mountains of Madness is a stunning Lovecraftian tale, and it has had an immeasurable—if not widely acknowledged—effect on the popular consciousness. In the near future I want to explore those effects, tracing the influences of this and similar stories, such as The Shadow Out of Time, on fringe science and Hollywood. Lovecraft’s legacy there is an enormous one, and he is to be credited for determining the shape of much of popular evolutionary naturalism. Stay tuned for the next step on our journey.