Saturday, March 17, 2012

At the Mountains of Madness (e-novella) by H.P. Lovecraft

I downloaded this for free via the Internet Archive. It's part of a collection of H.P. Lovecraft's works. I didn't relish the idea of writing a post for the full collection, so instead I'll write posts for some of the works it contains.

Synopsis:

This story is an account of the (fictional) 1930 Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica. It's written from the perspective of Dyer, a geologist who was part of the expedition. Dyer intends for his account to warn others off of further exploring the area.

At one point early on in the trip, the group splits in two. Dyer's half, which keeps to the planned route, listens in excitement as the half that Lake, a biologist, leads to a mysterious mountain-range reports their findings. Most amazing of these findings are the enormous, surprisingly well-preserved corpses of creatures with star-shaped heads. The creatures seem to be neither wholly plant nor animal. Lake is able to report a little of what his dissection efforts uncover before both groups lose contact with each other for a period of time due to high winds and a need for sleep.

After the winds calm down, Dyer's group tries to contact Lake's group, to no avail. Worried, they make the trek to where Lake's group reported settling, only to find something even more horrific than they expected. Dyer and another in their party, Danforth, still scientists, decide to travel further into this unexplored region. The shocking and terrifying things they see there convince them that the world would be better off ceasing to explore the area.

Review:

I recently started watching Nyarko-san: Another Crawling Chaos on Crunchyroll. The series casts Lovecraft's Nyarlathotep as a cute silver-haired girl named Nyarko-san. After struggling to understand some of the jokes, I decided it was time to start reading the works that inspired the series.

It was late in the evening, and, even if it hadn't been, the library I work at only carries maybe two of Lovecraft's works. I didn't want to have to wait for something via ILL, so I was thrilled to discover that the Internet Archive had a downloadable EPUB file of H.P. Lovecraft's works. It's a 1,400+ page monster, with the works arranged in semi-alphabetical order. The file has some formatting issues and, even worse, instances of what I'm assuming are OCR errors. The OCR errors are bad enough to interfere with understandability (try figuring out that "Hke" = "like" if the context doesn't make it immediately obvious), but at least the errors only seem to happen once every 10 or so pages. In this case, I had a print copy I checked out from my library to compare the electronic version to. I wonder how much more annoying I'll find the errors to be once I can't look to a print copy for translation. Well, I guess that's the price I pay for instant gratification, and at least I didn't shell out any money for this. I'm going to treat this like an ARC copy and avoid quoting from it.

Now, on to what I thought about "At the Mountains of Madness."

I absolutely loved how Lovecraft built suspense in this story and how he tied his methods in with Dyer's reaction to what he saw. Dyer was a character who strongly felt he needed to write about what he had seen, in order to properly warn others, but who was also so horrified by his experiences that he was at the same time reluctant to be as explicit as he knew was necessary about what he saw. Although having Dyer repeatedly have to overcome the temptation to write around what he saw could have been annoying in another story (Dan Brown uses a similar technique in The Da Vinci Code, which I'm currently listening to, and it's been driving me batty), in this story it made sense.

Even weird formatting and OCR errors didn't slow me down – I flew through a good chunk of this novella, on the edge of my seat while waiting to see what would happen once everything went as badly as various hints indicated they would. In addition to Dyer's own frequent vague mentions of horrible things happening during the expedition, things which had not been mentioned in the official accounts of it, Lake's reports had me anticipating something awful. Just about every report included offhand mentions of sled dogs' reactions to the objects and corpses the group found. I admit, I actually expected things to go badly as soon as the dissections began, so, when nothing happened, I got even more keyed up.

I had also expected the fate of Lake's group to be part of the story's climax, so I was a little surprised when that wasn't the case. I found Dyer and Danforth's matter-of-fact continued exploration of the area to be a bit odd after what they found at Lake's camp, especially considering their suspicions about what had happened. Shouldn't they have been more worried about what could happen to them while traveling alone, or to their group while they were gone? Lovecraft's explanation, via Dyer's account, was that their scientific interests still outweighed their concerns. I don't know how much I can buy that, but I guess there are lots of examples of people who have done dangerous things in the interest of making scientific discoveries.

In keeping with Dyer's scientist mindset, his account is filled with measurements and attempts to be as precise in his descriptions of what he saw as possible. I thought this really contributed to the feeling that this story was an actual expedition account (aside from my feeling that the environmental conditions should have been harsher than they were described as being). The one thing that could have made this account feel more realistic, in my opinion, was the inclusion of “reproductions” of the photographs that Dyer and Danforth took, or even just the drawings they made. I know that, when this was originally published, it would have been impossible to include supposed photographs taken during the expedition, but I'm guessing drawings would have been possible. I didn't see anything like that in the print version that I checked out from the library, so I guess Lovecraft chose to just rely on words.

I felt the realism of the story was diminished a bit by Dyer's detailed account of the history of the Old Ones and their slaves and creations, the shoggoths. It took me longer than it should have, but I eventually realized that everything Dyer wrote was based entirely on what he and Danforth saw in sculptures and carvings the Old Ones left behind. While he did note that those carvings and sculptures were usually incredibly detailed, it was hard to imagine that they could have been detailed enough to give Dyer all the information he needed for the lengthy and clear history he laid out.

I may need to reread this story (and others of Lovecraft's, if all his works are like this) after I've finished reading more of his works – I have a feeling that this novella referenced many of his other works (the Wikipedia entry for this novella indicates that I am correct). I felt a little overwhelmed and confused by all the creatures that were mentioned, and I wasn't always sure which creatures were distinct from others. Also, I was a little confused about which creatures were supposed to be horrific. At first it seemed as if all the creatures were horrors to be feared, but by the end of the story it seemed as though Lovecraft wanted readers to empathize with one of the groups of creatures, because they were less monstrous and more original in their artwork and speech than the creatures that overpowered them.

While reading this, I was reminded of an episode of The X-Files (“Ice”) in which Mulder and Scully accompany a team of scientists drilling deep into the ice in Antarctica. Something strange causes the scientists to start killing each other, similar to the horrors that Dyer and his group found upon arriving at Lake's camp. I don't know if that episode and other “horror in the Antarctic” stories were inspired by Lovecraft, but it wouldn't surprise me if that were the case. I'm looking forward to seeing how many of Lovecraft's other works potentially inspired modern stories I've enjoyed. While I'm not entirely sure I liked the ending of this novella, I did, for the most part, love the build-up to the story's various horrific moments.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • At the Earth's Core (e-book) by Edgar Rice Burroughs - I've seen this listed as a potential inspiration for "At the Mountains of Madness," because of the similarity between Burroughs' Mahar, intelligent reptilian beings that live in a hollow earth, and Lovecraft's Old Ones. I've linked to Project Gutenberg's free e-book version.
  • Project Gutenberg has several accounts of Arctic exploration - try a search for "Antarctica."
  • The Terror (book) by Dan Simmons - Another horror story in which a monster terrorizes a polar expedition group. Simmons based the historical aspects of his book on the doomed 19th century Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin.
  • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (e-book) by Edgar Allan Poe - I'm pretty sure that this was mentioned at some point in the text of Lovecraft's novella. I haven't read it, but apparently it is set in part in the Antarctic. I've linked to the free ManyBooks.net e-book version.
  • The Thing (live action movie) - I've linked to the 1982 version, which, as far as I've been able to tell, is supposed to be the classic version. A shape-shifting alien terrorizes a polar research station, assuming the appearance of those it kills.
  • Who Goes There? (novella) by John W. Campbell - This is the work on which The Thing was based.

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