At the Mountains of Madness is a novella by American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, written in February and March 1931 and originally serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories. It has been reproduced in numerous collections since Lovecraft's death. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi describes the novella as representing the decisive "demythology" of the Cthulhu Mythos by reinterpreting Lovecraft's earlier supernatural stories in a science fiction paradigm.
The story is written in the first-person perspective by the geologist William Dyer, a professor from Miskatonic University. He writes to disclose hitherto unknown and closely kept secrets in the hope that he can deter a planned and much publicized scientific expedition to Antarctica. On a previous expedition there, a party of scholars from Miskatonic University, led by Dyer, discovered fantastic and horrific ruins and a dangerous secret beyond a range of mountains taller than the Himalaya.
The group that discovered and crossed the mountains found the remains of fourteen ancient life forms, completely unknown to science and unidentifiable as either plants or animals, after discovering an underground cave while boring for ice cores. Six of the specimens seem to be badly damaged, the others uncannily pristine. Their highly-evolved features are problematic: their stratum location puts them at a point on the geologic time scale much too early for such features to have naturally evolved yet. Because of their resemblance to creatures of myth mentioned in the Necronomicon, they are dubbed the "Elder Ones".
When the main expedition loses contact with this party, Dyer and the rest of his colleagues travel to their camp to investigate. The camp is devastated and both the men and the dogs slaughtered, with only one of each missing. Near the camp, they find six star-shaped snow mounds, and a damaged Elder One buried under each. They discover that the better-preserved life forms have vanished and that some form of experiment has been done, though they are only able to speculate on the subject and the possibility that it is the missing man and dog. Dyer decides to close off the area from which they took their samples.
Dyer and a student named Danforth fly an airplane over the mountains, which they soon realize are the outer wall of a huge, abandoned stone city of cubes and cones, utterly alien to any human architecture. By exploring these fantastic structures, the men are able to learn the history of the Elder Things or Old Ones, by interpreting their magnificent hieroglyphic murals: The Old Ones first came to Earth shortly after the Moon was pulled loose from the planet and were the creators of life. They built their cities with the help of "Shoggoths", organisms created to perform any task, assume any form, and reflect any thought. As more buildings are explored, a fantastic vista opens of the history of races beyond the scope of man's understanding, including the Old Ones' conflicts with the Cthulhi and the Mi-Go who arrived on Earth sometime after the Old Ones themselves. Uncannily, the images also reflect a degradation in the order of this civilization, as the Shoggoths gain independence. As more resources are applied to maintaining order, the etchings become haphazard and primitive. The murals also allude to some unnamed evil in an even larger mountain range just past their city which even they fear greatly. Eventually, as Antarctica became uninhabitable even for the Old Ones, they migrated into a large, subterranean ocean.
As the two progress further into the city, they are ultimately drawn to a massive, ominous entrance which is the opening of a tunnel which they believe leads into the subterranean region described in the murals. Compulsively they are drawn in, finding further horrors: evidence of dead Old Ones caught in a brutal struggle and blind six-foot-tall penguins wandering around placidly. They are confronted with an immense, ululating horror which they identify as a Shoggoth. They escape with their lives using luck and diversion. On the plane high above the plateau, Danforth looks back and sees something that causes him to lose his sanity. He refuses to tell anyone (even Dyer) what he saw, though it is implied that it has something to do with what lies beyond the larger mountain range that even the Old Ones feared.
Professor Dyer concludes that the Old Ones and their civilization were destroyed by the Shoggoths they created and that this entity has sustained itself on the enormous penguins since eons past. He begs the planners of the next proposed Antarctic expedition to stay away from things that should not be loosed on this Earth.
- William Dyer: The narrator of At the Mountains of Madness, he is a professor of geology at Miskatonic University and a leader of the disastrous Pabodie Expedition to Antarctica in 1930–31. Only his last name is mentioned in the text of Mountains, though he is fully identified in Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time, where he accompanies an expedition to Australia's Great Sandy Desert.
- Danforth: A graduate student at Miskatonic University. As part of the Pabodie Expedition, he accompanies Dyer on a survey flight over the "Plateau of Leng" and goes mad after seeing something. He is described as "a great reader of bizarre material", and makes allusions to Edgar Allan Poe and the Necronomicon. According to Fritz Leiber's To Arkham and the Stars, he later recovered after being treated with experimental drugs developed by Professor Morgan, though he never recalled the horror he saw on the plateau. Afterward, he became a professor of psychology at the university.
- Frank Pabodie: A member of Miskatonic's engineering department, Professor Pabodie invented a drill for the expedition that was "unique and radical in its lightness, portability, and capacity... to cope quickly with strata of varying hardness." He also added "fuel-warming and quick-starting devices" to the expedition's four aircraft. The name "Pabodie", is "a name typical of good old New England stock, yet not sufficiently common to sound conventional or hackneyed." (HPL: Selected Letters 5.830) It's an alternative spelling of "Peabody", a name Lovecraft was familiar with through the Peabody Museum in Salem.
- Lake: A professor of biology at Miskatonic University. It is he who first discovers the Mountains of Madness as a result of his "strange and dogged insistence on a westward - or rather, northwestward - prospecting trip" based on his discovery of strange fossils. He also discovers the ancient extraterrestrial specimens that he dubs "Elder Ones" based on their resemblance to "certain monsters of primal myth" found in the Necronomicon. He reports that his findings in Antarctica confirm his belief "that earth has seen whole cycles of organic life before known one that begins with Archaeozoic cells," and predicts that this "[w]ill mean to biology what Einstein has meant to mathematics and physics." When eight of the Elder Ones turn out to be living creatures rather than fossils, they butcher Lake and the rest of his sub-expedition. For the rest of the story, he is referred to as "poor Lake".
- Atwood: A member of the Miskatonic University physics department, and also a meteorologist. He is part of the Lake sub-expedition and is also butchered by the Old Ones.
Lovecraft had a lifelong interest in Antarctic exploration; biographer S.T. Joshi wrote that "Lovecraft had been fascinated with the Antarctic continent since he was at least 12 years old, when he had written several small treatises on early Antarctic explorers." At about the age of nine, inspired by W. Clark Russell's 1887 book The Frozen Pirate, Lovecraft had written "several yarns" set in Antarctica.
By the 1920s, Joshi notes, Antarctica was "one of the last unexplored regions of the earth, where large stretches of territory had never seen the tread of human feet. Contemporary maps of the continent show a number of provocative blanks, and Lovecraft could exercise his imagination in filling them in... with little fear of immediate contradiction."
The first expedition of Richard Evelyn Byrd took place in 1928-1930, the period just before the novella was written, and Lovecraft mentioned the explorer repeatedly in his letters, remarking at one point on "geologists of the Byrd expedition having found many fossils indicating a tropical past". (HPL: Selected Letters 3.410)
Lin Carter has suggested that one inspiration for At the Mountains of Madness was Lovecraft's own hypersensitivity to cold, as shown by an incident where the writer "collapsed in the street and was carried unconscious into a drug store" because the temperature dropped from 60 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees to -1 degree Celsius). "The loathing and horror that extreme cold-evoked in him was carried over into his writing," Carter wrote, "and the pages of Madness convey the blighting, blasting, stifling sensation caused by sub-zero temperatures in a way that even Poe could not suggest."
Lovecraft's most obvious literary source for At the Mountains of Madness is Edgar Allan Poe's lone novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, whose concluding section is set in Antarctica. Lovecraft twice cites Poe's "disturbing and enigmatic" story in his text, and explicitly borrows the mysterious phrase "Tekeli-li!" from Poe's work. In a letter to August Derleth, Lovecraft wrote that he was trying to achieve with his ending an effect similar to what Poe accomplished in Pym. (HPL: Selected Letters 3.476)
Another proposed inspiration for At the Mountains of Madness is Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1919 novel At the Earth's Core, which posits a highly intelligent reptilian race, the Mahar, living in a hollow earth. "Consider the similarity of Burroughs' Mahar to Lovecraft's Old Ones, both of whom are presented sympathetically despite their ill-treatment of man," writes critic William Fulwiler, going on to note that "both are winged, web-footed, dominant races; both are scientific scholarly races with a talent for genetics, engineering, and architecture; and both races use men as cattle." Both stories, Fulwiler points out, involve radical new drilling techniques; in both stories, humans are vivisected by nonhuman scientists. Burroughs' Mahar even employs a species of servants known as Sagoths, possibly the source of Lovecraft's Shoggoths.
Other possible sources include Abraham Merritt's "The People of the Pit", whose description of an underground city in the Yukon bears some resemblance to that of Lovecraft's Old Ones, and Katharine Metcalf Roof's "A Million Years After", a story about dinosaurs hatching from eggs millions of years old that appeared in the November 1930 edition Weird Tales. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft declared the story to be a "rotten", "cheap", and "puerile" version of an idea he had come up with years earlier, and Joshi suggests it may have provoked him to write his own tale of "the awakening of entities from the dim reaches of earth's history." (HPL: Selected Letters 3.430)
The long scope of history recounted in the story may have been inspired by Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. Some details of the story may have been taken from M. P. Shiel's 1901 novel of Arctic exploration, The Purple Cloud, which was republished in 1930.
Lovecraft's own "The Nameless City" (1921), which also deals with the exploration of an ancient underground city apparently abandoned by its nonhuman builders, is a clear precedent for At the Mountains of Madness. In both stories, the explorers use the nonhumans' artwork to deduce the history of their species.
This story was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright on the grounds of its length. The story eventually appeared four years later in Astounding Stories.
According to S. T. Joshi, who included this novella as the central story in the first volume of his Annotated Lovecraft series, Mountains reveals Lovecraft's true feelings on the so-called Cthulhu Mythos that subsequent writers attributed to him, and "demythologizes" much of his earlier work.
Many of Lovecraft's stories involve features that appear to be supernatural, such as monsters and the occult. However, Mountains appears to explain the origins of such elements–from occult symbols to "gods" such as Cthulhu–in rational terms. Mountains explains many elements of the "Cthulhu Mythos" in terms of early alien civilizations that took root on Earth long before humans appeared.
The story has also inadvertently popularized the concept of ancient astronauts, as well as Antarctica's place in the "ancient astronaut mythology".
- Director Guillermo del Toro wrote a screenplay based on Lovecraft's story, but in 2006 had trouble getting Warner Bros. to finance the project. Wrote del Toro, "The studio is very nervous about the cost and it not having a love story or a happy ending, but it's impossible to do either in the Lovecraft universe." Old Ones can however be seen in his film Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
- A radio adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness is available from the Atlanta Radio Theater Company.
- The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society have also produced a 1930s-style radio drama of the story, featuring professional actors, original music and sound effects. It is packaged with photos from the expedition, newspaper clippings and other fun props.
- In 2015, the BBC 4 produced a 5 part radio adaptation. Currently unavailable from the BBC, but can be found on YouTube
Mountains of Madness is a musical adaptation of Lovecraft's stories by Alexander Hacke, Danielle de Picciotto and The Tiger Lillies.
At the Mountains of Madness has numerous connections to other Lovecraft stories. A few include:
- The formless Shoggoths later appear in The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931), The Thing on the Doorstep (1933), and The Haunter of the Dark (1935)
- The star-headed Old Ones also appear in The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933), when the main character, Walter Gilman, visits a city of theirs in one of his dreams, and The Shadow Out of Time, in which they are the vaguely-alluded-to antagonists of the Great Race of Yith.
- The expedition is sponsored by the Nathaniel Derby Pickman Foundation, combining the names Derby and Pickman. among those with these names are Richard Upton Pickman (HPL: Pickman's Model), Edward Pickman Derby (HPL: "The Thing on the Doorstep") and also one of his literary alter-egos. (HPL: Ibid)
- The Old Ones record the coming of Cthulhu to Earth and the sinking of R'lyeh. (HPL: The Call of Cthulhu)
- The Elder Things' city is identified with the Plateau of Leng (HPL: "Celephaïs", et al)
- Some members of the expedition have read Miskatonic University's copy of the Necronomicon.
- Dyer mentions "Kadath in the Cold Waste" while referring to a massive mountain range which even the Old Ones "shunned as vaguely and namelessly evil."
- At the very end of the story, Danforth links the horror beyond the forbidden mountain range to "Yog-Sothoth" and the "Colour Out of Space". (HPL: The Colour Out of Space)
- S. T. Joshi, The Annotated Lovecraft, p. 175.
- Joshi and Schultz, p. 132.
- Joshi, p. 18.
- Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, p. 84. Joshi regards this suggestion as "facile" - Annotated Lovecraft, pp. 17-18.
- William Fulwiler, "E.R.B. and H.P.L.", Black Forbidden Things, p. 64.
- Joshi and Schultz, pp. 10-11.
- H. P. Lovecraft, "The Nameless City", Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, pp. 104-105; cited in Joshi, pp. 264-265.
- Jason Colavito, The Cthulhu Comparison
- Guillermo Del Toro Films, At the Mountains of Madness
- Anthony Pearsall, The Lovecraft Lexicon, p. 326.