At the Mountains of Madness (1936) by H.P. Lovecraft
When a geologist leads an expedition to the Antarctic plateau, his aim is to find rock and plant specimens from deep within the continent. The barren landscape offers no evidence of any life form – until they stumble upon the ruins of a lost civilization. Strange fossils of creatures unknown to man lead the team deeper, where they find carved stones dating back millions of years. But it is their discovery of the terrifying city of the Old Ones that leads them to an encounter with an untold menace.
Was it what I expected?
No, not really! I know about Cthulhu and stuff, we’ve all heard the adjective “Lovecraftian.” I also knew his reputation for thin dialogue and overwrought description. All that was true, but I was more surprised by the odd narrative choices. “My, this looks very similar to the terrors I read about in the Necronomicon, but I hate to admit it,” is not the reaction I expected to the narrator’s discoveries. It’s weirdly matter-of-fact, when the whole point is supposed to be revealing these eldritch horrors, to have the narrator already know about them and be sort of nonplussed. And yet it’s still kind of scary at times. The bit where he mentions he hasn’t said everything about the deaths at the camp but doesn’t tell us what really happened right away is genuinely creepy, and there’s just something about imagining the descent of madness…
Did I like it?
Yes, I think so. Lovecraft strains my suspension of disbelief… I mean, how much can you learn from a couple of hours looking at sculptures? Maybe a lot, but definitely not that genetically-engineered slaves are called “shoggoths.” And that kind of thing is MOST OF THE BOOK. Also, if we’re descended from the Elder Things’ science, why is their separately-evolved nature so horrifying? I thought it was a super interesting idea at first, an application of the idea that alien life would be fundamentally repulsive because it came from a completely different evolution, but that doesn’t make sense if we’re the aliens’ creations. That should make us fundamentally similar. And there’s only so many times you can use the adjective “indescribable” before I wonder if you’re really meant to be a writer.
But still. The overall atmosphere seemed to me like the guy had some creepy dreams and wrote about them, and I respect that. That’s why I don’t mind too much that the motivations and reasoning are thin. In a dream, you walk through a mysterious giant city with nothing but wall sculptures, and you just know stuff and how it came to be, and it seems weighty and significant to you. That sense can be communicated sometimes, and Lovecraft is specific enough to do it. The set dressing — the polar expedition, the human characters, etc. — are just there to link his visions together. Plus I enjoyed the audiobook, the narrator had a distinguished, precise, older-middle-aged British professorial voice that was perfect for the role, and audiobooks are a great way to get through something with a lot of description because someone else carries it along for you.
Is it worth reading?
You don’t have to read this book specifically, maybe check out one of the major short stories like “The Call of Cthulhu,” but I’m glad I’ve finally read some Lovecraft. Regarding this book in particular, I do really love “discovery of ancient civilizations” stories, and the history of this stuff fascinates me. The way it fits into pulp, into horror, into the persistent cult of the hollow earth with its polar fascination, even namechecking Arthur Gordon Pym. If you want more on that genre without tracking down a bunch of books yourself, I highly recommend Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface. Long title, easy read!