Monday, April 25, 2016

Book Review - At the Mountains of Madness

I knew almost nothing about At the Mountains of Madness before starting it. Basically I knew that it was by Lovecraft and it was the story of a scientific expedition to Antarctica and the horrors they found there....see, almost nothing. After reading the novella, I read up on it a little more because I wanted to know where it fit in with some of Lovecraft's other stories. This book is one of his later works, written 5 years after his more famous Call of Cthulhu. I was curious about the publication chronology of his stories because, similar to some of his other stories, there is a great effort given to the scholarly veracity of his tale. Specifically, this story involves researchers from the Miskatonic University (as referenced in many of his other stories) and references some of his other writings as well known books present in the university library. The Cthulhu Mythos and the "Elder Things" is well known by the characters in this story and it is presumed to be well known to other researchers and readers of this report.

The story is told hesitantly by a member of an expedition to Antarctica that happened in ~1930 and made some amazing discoveries. The narrator, William Dyer, explains that the reader is likely aware of some of the official reports that came by means of wireless transmissions during the early portions of the expedition but very few people know the entire story. Dyer says that he would much rather let the true story remain hidden forever but he feels like it must be told now in an effort to prevent subsequent expeditions from trying to pick up where his left off. He is afraid that additional expeditions will encounter the same sort of disasters as happened to him or, worse yet, they could set in motion larger scale horrors to the world.

Lovecraft, through Dyer, gives a very detailed account of the expedition in a manner that is both very scholarly and very accessible. Specific and minute descriptions are given of the purpose of the expedition, the tools and processes to be used and the findings made by the team through their various samplings and experiments. The group consists of geologists, biologists and other scholars with high-tech equipment used to bore deep into the frozen wasteland and excavate samples in the hopes of studying rock, soil, plant and animal fossils, etc. They have numerous small airplanes at their disposal as well as dogsled teams.


[CAUTION: minor plot spoilers -- Skip the next ~2 paragraphs to avoid the spoilers]


One day, a team of researchers led by Professor Lake makes a scouting expedition inland via airplane to identify good locations. Over the radio, they describe a massive mountain range with strange formations high up that seem somewhat unnatural. After landing, they discover the remains of some ancient life form with both animal and plant characteristics. They set up camp and begin studying the specimens, sending reports via radio to Dyer's team back near the coast. The reports are met with growing curiosity and excitement. Lake also indicates that his sled dogs seem hatefully distrustful of the specimens and have been barking and snarling ever since discovery. Sometime through the night radio contact is lost and Dyer's team back on the coast nervously waits to decide what to do next, hopeful that perhaps a storm or other natural occurrence is to blame for lost communication.


[CAUTION: slightly larger plot spoilers]


The next day Dyer flies to find Lake's team and determine what happened. When they arrive, they find Lake's camp in ruins; most of the men and dogs are violently dead while others are missing. Some of the ancient life forms have been ritualistically buried under star-shaped mounds. The remaining ancient life forms are missing. In the center of the camp they find a man and a dog laid out as though undergoing what appears to have been an autopsy or biological dissection experiment. Ever the scientists they don't want to jump hastily to any conclusion and so, in spite of the horrific scene and any fear they may have, they set out to find the missing man. Dyer and a fellow researcher named Danforth fly a plane up into the mountains and discover that the formations seen by Lake and his team proved to be buildings from some ancient civilization. They find a place to land and begin exploring the city. The huge buildings are filled with statues and ancient carvings through which they gain some knowledge of the history and makeup of this ancient civilization. They recognize similarities to the stories they've read in the Necromonicon and other books talking about Elder Things and the Cthulhu.




In terms of a horror novel, this book is not a "slasher" story filled with a ton of action or gore. The scenes of destruction and violence happen "off screen" such that the reader is presented with an almost clinical or crime-scene description of the area rather than an action packed sequence outlining the struggles. Dyer frequently asserts to the reader that the horrors he encountered are too terrible and should not be shared with humanity but that he will share what he can in an effort to prevent others from experiencing the horror he discovered. There is a feeling of foreboding and suspense but it's was kept at a distance by Dyer's desire to shelter the reader and by the overly scientific tone of the writing.

Having read some, but not all of Lovecraft's stories, I found this novella especially interesting. It went into significant detail on the Cthulhu mythos and the history of the Elder Ones. It detailed their arrival on Earth, the inner workings of their cultures and civilizations. I don't know how much of this is outlined in his other stories. Based on previous stories I've read, this felt like the most complete almost "end-to-end" history I'd seen...perhaps it pieces together elements created in his other books. And yet, it still leaves a lot unknown and left to further exploration. Dyer and Danforth made many discoveries and unraveled many threads but the final horrors they faced were still left somewhat nebulous and there was much they were unable to explore.

Overall I enjoyed this story. I've expressed before that I'm not a big fan of the overly graphic or gory horror genre with its sometimes overly violent tendencies. As such, I found this particular "horror" story right in my wheelhouse. I will admit that it was a little dry at times but it's short enough that it was easy enough to keep pushing through. I'm really enjoying exploring Lovecraft's imaginative worlds and seeing the influence he made on future storytelling.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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