Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reading At the Mountains of Madness

I have previously blogged about my fetish for weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft (see here, here, and here).  I recently finished re-reading his longest novel published in his lifetime (a novella, really, coming in at a bit over 100 pages) At the Mountains of Madness.  It is one of his finest achievements and an excellent example of how Lovecraft was able to inject mood and effect upon the reader without much actually happening or even being fully described.

When I last posted on Lovecraft this story was under consideration by Guillermo Del Toro and James Cameron as a possible film.  Unfortunately, that project is now suspended.  Lovecraft remains trendy and fashionable, however.  He is an acceptable fringe author with a cult following. There is discussion as to whether his writings might actually belong to the elevated status of "literature" instead of "pulp fiction".  I obviously side with the former as I have read, been entertained, and found fascinating, the mind and prowess of prose possessed by Lovecraft since my college days.

At the Mountains of Madness is filled with terrible and vivid descriptions as well as classic horror that is mostly inferred. The exquisite, if antiquated, prose can be either exacting or evasive in its descriptive power depending upon where we are in the story.  By evasive I do not mean nebulous.  Lovecraft's evasiveness is powerful in a menacing metaphysical sense. The great monsters of the novel are long dead, only the ruins and remnants of this horror remain yet that, in and of itself, is profoundly and cosmically foreboding.  It grips the reader while simultaneously leaving the full implications of what is depicted in the narrative up to each reader's mind.

The story is told from the perspective of one member of a multi-man scientific team.  Although the narrator personally witnesses incredible things and events, he rarely sees anything truly horrific.  The horrific happens when the narrator is either not present at the location or is not looking the right direction in the brief moment that some mind-blowing evil is glimpsed by someone else.  He does, however, witness incredibly high mountains of ice and structure where a large city perhaps 150 million years old lies in gigantic ruins.  But, as you will see, even these horrible peaks, higher than Everest, are not the true mountains of madness.

In 1931 a team of scientists ventured to explore Antarctica. Using airplanes they went deeper into the continent they anyone ever attempted.  Soon they split into two teams with the forward team led by an archaeologist named Lake, making discoveries suggesting revolutionary ancient life and relaying information back to the second team, which contains our narrator.  This team is in communication with the main base and out into the world.  The wireless broadcasts of Lake's forward team go into great anatomical and biological detail.  In this way Lovecraft creates a realism to his fantastic world.

There is foreboding in that the dogs sent to pull sleighs in the forword team do not like the advanced, large body life form specimens that Lake dug-up and brought into camp for further analysis.  The dogs have to be pinned up away from where the specimens are kept.  Lovecraft's strong prose speculations about their size, shape, nervous systems, their winged nature, their partly-vegetable-mostly-animal molecular structure, totally sells the believability and alien nature of what is discovered in the story.

Lake's camp is at the foot of another discovery, the tallest mountains on planet Earth, far taller than Everest.  A gigantic blast of wind smashes into both the forward and secondary camps the night of Lake's great discovery.  The next day there is no word from Lake.  The narrator's smaller party decides to fly in to investigate.  Apparently, the winds were far more severe at the foot of these monstrous and historic mountains. Lake's camp was ripped apart.  There were no survivors.  But, of the specimens taken by Lake, Lovecraft explains:

"...it surely looked like madness to find six imperfect monstrosities carefully buried upright in nine-foot snow graves under five-pointed mounds punched over with groups of dots in patterns exactly like those on the queer greenish soapstones dug up from Mesozoic or Tertiary times.  The eight perfect specimens mentioned by Lake seemed to have been completely blown away." (all quotes from the definitive edition, page 32)

Vanished along with the eight perfect specimens were various instruments, fur coats, sledges (sleighs), scientific books, fuel, etc. and the body of one team member (Gedney, see below). After the pieces of the dogs are collected it was apparent one was missing.  It was a mystery how Lake's camp could have met with such destruction by the fierce wind, leaving behind strangely mangled parts both human and canine, and yet six partial specimens were intentionally buried in a specific formation that mimicked markings found earlier by Lake on soapstone engravings.  Of the horror of the bodies, Lovecraft writes:

"The crowning abnormality, of course, was the condition of the bodies - men and dogs alike.  They had all been in some terrible kind of conflict, and were torn and mangled in fiendish and altogether inexplicable ways. Death, so far as we could judge, had in each case come from strangulation and laceration.  The dogs evidently started the trouble, for the state of their ill-built corral bore witness to its forcible breakage from within." (35)

Where was the missing team member?  Was the sheer force of the Antarctic wind alone responsible for horribly dismembered state of the other bodies? Why (and by whom) were the imperfect specimens so carefully buried amidst the chaos?  The reader is left to ponder these questions as the narrator's team burns the body parts and as much of the wreckage as possible.  Meanwhile, pure scientific ambition motivates the narrator and, Danforth, his pilot and closest companion, to take a single plane over the peaks of these massive mountains to catch a glimpse of what lay on the continent beyond.

Climbing over 23,500 feet the two scientists manage to sneak between the higher peaks and behold something that challenged their rational mind beyond the artifacts and specimens unearthed by Lake's deceased team.  It was the dark, bleak, but unmistakeable ruins of a great complex of caves and possible constructions, sculptures and dot-groupings similar to the arrangement of damaged specimens buried back at the camp.  All of this was millions of years old. Danforth skillfully managed to land the plane for a closer look.

"As a whole, it had been a complex tangle of twisted lanes and alleys; all of them deep canyons, and some little better than tunnels because of overhanging masonry or overarching bridges.  Now, outspread below us, it loomed like a dream-phantasy against a westward mist through whose northern end the low, reddish Antarctic sun encountered denser obstruction and plunged the scene into temporary shadow, the effect was subtly menacing in a way I can never hope to depict.  Even the faint howling and piping of the unfelt wind in the great mountain passes behind us took on a note of purposeful malignity." (49)

As our two scientists set out on foot to photograph the landscape and take a few samples they discover that the ruins are in fact more intact than originally thought.  The enormity of everything seems oppressive, the perspective, contours, and dimensions suggest an inhuman origin.  Everything is based on a bizarre five-point symmetry, same as the dot groupings discovered back at Lake's camp and, of course, the orientation of the (now implied) intentionally buried specimen bodies.

Here Lovecraft works in his Cthulhu Mythos and the Necronomicon, which are central to about a third of his overall catalog of written stories.  Sculptures and engravings discovered near the plane (a little too easily deciphered in such detail but it is pulp fiction after all) tell of how the Old Ones built this massive city millions years ago after interstellar flight here.  They fought many wars against various other invading races as they altered the landmass of the Earth.   They used fantastic powers to manipulate energy. To be their slaves and do most of the physical labor the Old Ones bred a race called shoggoths.  Shoggoths became servants to the ruling race.

All this is told with a constant sense of foreboding.  As incredible as all this seems to the two scientists, something more profound is suggested by the artifacts.  "I have said that these peaks are higher than the Himalayas, but the sculptures forbid me to say they are the earth's highest.  That grim honor is beyond doubt reserved for something which half the sculptures hesitated to record at all, whilst others approached it with obvious repugnance and trepidation.

"If the scale of the carvings was correct, these abhorred things must have been much over 40,000 feet high - radically vaster than even the shocking mountains we had just crossed.  They extended...less than 300 miles away from the dead city, so that we would have spied their dreaded summits in the dim western distance had it not been for that vague opalescent haze." (68)

Lovecraft uses the word "decadent" a great deal during this portion of the story.  The Old Ones long-spanning, powerful and oppressive rule over the earth became excessive and ruinous.  In these passages Lovecraft shifts gears.  While the immediate sense of horror is maintained, the overall effect becomes more disturbing on a grand scale.  The reader, like the narrator, is almost suffocated with the implications of all this.

The carvings suggest that much of the city is actually underground and our two heroes discover one of the cave-like openings.  Armed with a couple of strong flashlights their scientific curiosity overcomes all sense of dread and they willingly descend into a dark labyrinth to discover what might await there.  They encounter many interesting, archaeologically plausible, artifacts in the ruins below.  Then we get that especial Lovecraft descriptive prose:

"Let me try to state the thing without flinching.  There was an odor - and that odor was vaguely, subtly, and unmistakably akin to what had nauseated us open opening the insane grave of the horror poor Lake had dissected."  (76)  This refers to earlier when team two was dealing with the mess the winds (only?) had made, stitching the story together, connecting the underground realm with the disaster at Lake's camp.

The two venture deeper.  Remember Lovecraft wrote this many years before Moria was published in J.R.R. Tolkien's writing.  This labyrinth is not unique in the adventure literature genre but it is a pioneering metaphor for what Lovecraft is trying to achieve.  Danforth's sharp eye spots many interesting details.  They enter vast halls, sometimes stumbling from fallen rubble.

This distancing from the plane and Lake's camp, this isolation, is accentuated by the decision to use only one flashlight at a time to preserve power and light.  "Then as we picked out way cautiously over the debris of the great floor, there came a sight which for a time excluded all other matters.

"It was the neatly huddled array of three sledges in that farther angle of the ramp's lower and outward-projecting course which had hitherto been screened from our view.  There they were - the three sledges missing from Lake's camp - shaken by hard usage which must have included forcible dragging along great reaches of snowless masonry and debris, as well as much hand portage over utterly unnavigable places." (82)

"The really great shock came when we stepped over and undid one tarpaulin whose outlines had peculiarly disquieted us.  It seems that others as well as Lake had been interested in collecting typical specimens; for there were two here, both stiffly frozen, perfectly preserved, patched with adhesive plaster where some wounds around the neck had occurred, and wrapped with patent care to prevent further damage.  They were the bodies of young Gedney and the missing dog." (83)

Suddenly, there is no isolation.  There is no place to hide. The horror is everywhere.  Our two scientists have flown and hiked with difficulty right into the middle of it.  Lovecraft immediately capitalizes on this by going "boo" with strange movement in the labyrinth.  This turns out, somewhat comically, to be large six-foot albino penguins who live and actually thrive in this underground world.  For a time, our heroes are amongst the penguins as they follow them deeper into the realm, once more trapped in the lure of the unknown in form of an odor.

I won't spoil everything that the two discover down in the depths.  Depths seemingly as vast as the heights outside.  But, I will tell you how it all ends.  It is a wonderful genre story so if you do not want to know how it ends stop reading here.  My opinion, however, is that knowing the ending does not detract from reading it.  I have read At the Mountains of Madness many times through the years because it is a fairly quick read and I enjoy a bit of Lovecraft every winter.

"'Tekeli-li!  Tekeli-li!' That, I may admit, is exactly what we thought we heard conveyed by that sudden sound behind the advancing white mist - that insidious musical piping over a singularly wide range." (93). Finally, animal fear overcomes scientific curiosity.

"Once more came the sinister, wide-ranging piping - 'Tekeli-li!  Tekeli-li!'  We had been wrong.  The thing was not wounded, but had merely paused on encountering the bodies of its fallen kindred and the hellish slime inscription above them.  We could never know what that demon message was - but those burials at Lake's camp had shown how much importance the beings attached to their dead.  Our recklessly used torch now revealed ahead of us the large open cavern where various ways converged, and we were glad to be leaving those morbid palimpsest sculptures - almost felt even when scarcely seen - behind." (94)

This unseen but clearly heard monster approaches our heroes.  It temporarily gets confused by all the penguins and turns down another hallway, moving away from the scientists.  But, soon it is back on the path of Danforth and the narrator.  It is closing in.

"We were on the track ahead as the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed rightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus, gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapor.  It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train - a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.  Still came the eldritch, mocking cry - 'Tekeli-li!  Tekeli-li!' And at last we remembered that the demonic shoggoths - give life, thought, and plastic organ patterns solely by the Old Ones, and having no language save that which the dot-groupings expressed - had likewise no voice save the imitated accents of their bygone masters." (97, emphasis is Lovecraft's)

But our heroes manage to escape, though by now both of them are severely shaken.  They stumble back to the plane and take off, sneaking dreaded glances westward as the plane rises, toward where the other, larger mountain range supposedly lies 300 miles away.  "For a second we gasped in admiration of the scene's unearthly cosmic beauty, and then vague horror began to creep into our souls.  For this far violet line could be nothing else than the terrible mountains of the forbidden land - highest of earth's peaks and focus of earth's evils; harborers of nameless horrors and Archaean secrets; shunned and prayed to by those who feared to carve their meaning..." (98)

In the end Danforth breaks down suddenly into a screaming fit.  He has to turn control of the plane over to the narrator, who makes the final landing safely.  By now Danforth is close to insanity.  His nervous condition is precarious.  He glanced back one last time and beheld something in those distant mountains, mountains that even the Old Ones themselves "shunned and feared."  The reader is left to determine the exact cause of Danforth's madness.  He is left crazily babbling the very utterances of the shoggoth the two had briefly encountered in the mountain depths.

The narrator returns us to the present tense, the story has been told to us in retrospect.  New expeditions to Antarctica are being planned and the narrator hopes that his photographic evidence along with some artifacts brought back will be enough to dissuade anyone from returning there. Who knows what may be awakened if more scientific teams probe the mountain ranges to understand.  In Lovecraft's world the cosmic nature of things is indifferent to our humanity and chillingly menacing.  The reader is left disquieted and somewhat disturbed by the powerful, twisted and bizarre prose.  Are we safe?  Lovecraft's answer is clearly no, you are not safe and it is far better that you don't know why.

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