At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft
At the Mountains of Madness
HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was written in 1931 as a novella, written from the point of view of a geologist, William Dyer, writing about a terrible event that happened on a scientific mission to the Antarctic some years previously. His aim is to prevent a separate mission from going back to the area where he and a team of about 20 researchers initially went to drill for rock samples. Exploring unknown territory using light aircraft, some members of the team come across a mountain range higher than the Himalayas, the ‘mountains of madness’ as the narrator comes to call them. Their presence is an incredible scientific discovery, and further radio reports describe odd rock formations, which are baffling the team.
The tension is set from the beginning of the novella, with the narrator finally revealing what actually happened to these men, who eventually meet with disaster, despite himself and others having kept their silence on what they found when they went to find the missing team. Time is short for the original Antarctic mission if they are to complete their investigations during the summer months, and when strange fossil markings are found in the rock samples the team splits and a biologist, Lake, sends back radio transmissions of his discoveries at this new mountain range. These transmissions become more and more excited as this otherworldly landscape is explored and a cave is found, which unearths things that no human has ever seen before. Investigations begin, but then the radio falls silent.
Unable to get hold of the team, Dyer sets off to find the campsite and comes across a scene of complete devastation. Official records of the trip paint a picture of a terrible storm destroying the campsite, but in reality Dyer and another team member set off to discover what actually happened after the strange specimens were found, and find a world of horrors.
The fictional grimoire the Necronomicon, which appears in several of Lovecraft’s stories, describes a race called the ‘Elder Things’ or ‘Old Ones’, which lived ages before mankind. Here, Dyer, who a one point feels sorry that he had ever ‘read the abhorred Necronomicon’, brings it to mind when trying to find out more about the ‘monstrosities’ dug up, as the fossils found show a greater advancement of evolution than thought possible from the age of the rock they are found in.
This novella starts off brilliantly, ramping up the tension through keeping us separate from the action as it unfolds, but also through the initial descriptions of the frozen, alien landscape of Antarctica. However, at Dyer descends into the world of the Elder Ones, I think that by trying to describe what these things are and where they came from the mystery is lost and it starts getting a bit ridiculous. However, as a novella and an example of fantastic horror writing it’s definitely worth reading.
The Shunned House
The Shunned House, written over four days in 1924, is written from the perspective of a young man investigating the mysteries of ‘a dingy, antiquated structure’, which ‘stands starkly leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous’. Over the years, the house has seen a surprising number of its residents die, getting to the point where nobody would rent it. Those who died seemed to have been sapped of life, so whatever ailments that they had caused death sooner, whilst other residents showed ‘in varying degree[s] a type of anaemia or consumption’.
The horror seems to be focused on the cellar, which shows strange growths of luminous fungus and has a strong unwholesome odour. The narrator grows up knowing of the empty house, and as a child participates in dares with other local children to enter it, but it is when he reaches adulthood that he starts to ask questions about it.
His uncle has been studying the house for years and shares his research with his nephew. This starts with the house’s construction in 1763 and then catalogues the range of deaths and illnesses which plague the families who lived there up to 1861, from which date no tenant will go near it.
To find out what is causing this unnatural level of deaths, the narrator and his uncle decide to undertake a scientific experiment in the cellar of the house, with terrible consequences.
This is a spectacularly creepy short story, painting a gruesome portrait of a dark, dank house, which has a sickly, oozing atmosphere that over years sucks the life from those unfortunate enough to live there. It’s easy to guess what the horror is, but this vampire story is definitely no Twilight.
The Dreams in the Witch House
This is a 1932 short story, which includes elements from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos universe – a framework of entities, names and places that were used and changed by Lovecraft across many of his works, and also used to varying extents by a range of other writers he corresponded with.
A young man, Walter Gilman, rents a room in the ‘Witch House’, where a witch Keziah Mason lived, who disappeared from jail in Salem years before. People in this house, like in ‘The Shunned House’, die prematurely. Gilman is studying mathematics and folklore at university, and theorises that the unusual geometry of his attic room can allow travel from one dimension to another.
He starts being transported in his dreams to another world, and the witch and her familiar are getting closer and closer to him as he realises that these trips are actually occurring each night. The witch wants to capture his soul and make Gilman an accomplice in events, which are driving him insane, and over which he has less and less control. At one point his professors forbid him from reading more of the Necronomicon, elements from which seem to influence what he sees as he moves from this world to others.
It’s an interesting concept that a witch, making unholy alliances with alien creatures, is continuing to prey upon the inhabitants of the house Gilman stays in, but I think this story is one of Lovecraft’s weaker. Again the main protagonist is a young man who is trying to solve the mystery of weird goings-on – apart from this witch there hasn’t been another woman in the compilation of stories that I’ve read, and she is more of a one-dimensional supernatural freak rather than a woman. Gilman is also pretty unlikeable as a character, obsessive and reclusive, which means that as a reader I did not much care what happened to him because he could have just left the house to stop his supernatural wanderings. Also, the reasoning behind why the witch is so interested in him is vague and the story muddles around with Gilman mainly spending his time falling asleep, seeing horrible things, and then waking up again.
The Statement of Randolph Carter
This is a very short story, only a handful of pages long, inspired by a dream Lovecraft had. Written in 1919, it is written in the style of a testimonial to the police of why he was found wandering around a swap, and what happened to his friend who disappeared.
The narrator’s friend, Harley Warren, studied ‘strange, rare books on forbidden subjects’, and took the narrator to a cemetery where he wants to enter what he thinks is a portal to another realm. Warren tells his friend to stay outside, and hands him a phone attached to a long coil of wire to keep in contact with him as he descends alone into the tomb. After Warren has been gone for a couple of minutes, screams come over the phone and he begs his friend to run and save himself.
A short, sharp shock best describes this story, and entertaining enough as part of a short story series.
This At the Mountains of Madness book review was written by Cat Fitzpatrick
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