3 out of 5
H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is an ambitious, and generally interesting horror yarn, but it’s also rather structurally flawed, and indicative of some of Lovecraft’s least affecting writerly tendencies.
An exploration of the (at the time) unmapped Antarctic regions leads to the discovery of the remains of some kind of vegetable / animal hybrid, and perhaps some heretofore unknown culture that predated those that’ve been documented. But now we are reading a document explaining those discovers, and pleading for no further research to go forth, due to the dangers of unearthing what should be left alone.
That’s a fair setup for a creepy tale, and certainly very Lovecrafty, plying at the Unknowns that’ve powered fascination with his mythos and stories in the decades hence his writing. Unfortunately, the tone Lovecraft employs in Mountains for his apparent “don’t open that door!” warning never actually sells that: our narrator is writing about his experience in internet clickbait parlance, essentially saying “you’ll never believe what happened” at the end of each of the story’s 12 chapters, while equally stating that the intention here is to lay clear what occurred so it’ll be undeniable that further Antarctic treks are unwise and then also being excitedly giddy in telling us about those same occurrences. It’s a conceit that never lands, in addition to it being a similar narrational device as The Colour Out of Space, in which we feel too far removed from what happened to ever feel “present” in the scares – our narrator is safe (and seemingly sane), and thus, so are we.
There’s also the show and tell imbalance that creeps up in some of H.P.’s works. Mountains of Madness has a strange cadence, in which we’re given a lot of ‘mind-blowing’ info up front – full-on descriptions of the utterly alien creatures’ remains that the Antarctic crew is discovering, tentacles and eyeballs a’plenty – and then a lengthy explanation of a series of murals painted in the creatures’ also-discovered city, which lays flat near everything about their society, and, quite too often, explains the supposedly unexplainable. The murals are rather puzzling, as they seem to depict an awful lot that even the most skilled illustrator would have trouble effectively presenting – we’re talking a deep dive on a culture’s history, apparently gleaned from sketches and notes the explorers are making off the cuff – meaning it’s quite hard to get immersed in what they display, since it’s hard to logically imagine them doing so, and combined with excessive in-house referencing (H.P.’s own stories, others off of which he’s riffing or who’ve riffed off of him), there’s zero sense of mystery regarding the whole business, and the Necronomicon’s beasties: everything’s just, like, a known quantity. So what are you trying to warn us off of, exactly?
To temper this, it’s all very interesting, it’s just never scary, and even accepting that Lovecraft style creations are now cliche, and trying to read with a contemporary eye, the writer seemed almost too intent on avoiding more typical horror language and devices to the extent of undermining his own impact: when something is revealed, it’s explained in comparison to everyday things like bubbles and subway trains, and it’s thus rather mundane sounding. Then, unfortunately, from a modern day standpoint, some of these things just come across as a bundle of tentacles, and not very practical for what H.P. is trying to sell us as a physical and functioning specimen. Not weird enough? Add more tentacles!
This is regarding reading the story as an attempted creation of horror. It fails. It’s silly. However, read as a piece of science fiction, it’s admittedly a lot more fun. While the science of the time may have been limiting, Lovecraft’s fascination with it, combined with his general fictional interests, combines for an entertaining bit of pulp, and an excitingly inventive one: though I’ve torn apart the way in which he relates the history of this mountain-bound city and its denizens, I love the concept of stumbling across this ancient culture, with its own – completely foreign – way of existing, and the flip-flopping of priorities that’s executed towards the story’s end, which leads to the reason explorations are cut short, is equally fun… again, if you just go with the baiting nature of things, and don’t hope for immersion.
‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ then, is rather ironic: it feels like Lovecraft’s attempt to serious-up his mythos as much as possible, and weigh it down with facts and figures and the then-known realities of the Arctic; in doing so, he winds up with something that doesn’t work very well as horror, but is incredibly goofy popcorn entertainment – an afternoon distraction.