Saturday, August 3, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "At the Mountains of Madness"

Spooky Synopsis: No one understands why Dr. William Dyer, a professor of geology at Miskatonic University, wants to deter others from exploring the Antarctic. After all, the expedition that he and his colleagues mounted into the frozen wastes proved remarkably successful from a scientific viewpoint, even given the lamentable loss of life. But the largely unexplained deaths of several of the scientists aren't what deter Dyer. No, he's concerned about something bigger, something that involves a mystery secreted away in titanic mountain peaks located at the continent's core -- something that he believes could destroy civilization itself.

Lovecraftian Language: "'South Station Under -- Washington Under -- Park Street Under -- Kendall -- Central -- Harvard. ...' The poor fellow was chanting the familiar stations of the Boston-Cambridge tunnel that burrowed through our peaceful native soil thousands of miles away in New England, yet to me the ritual had neither irrelevance nor home-feeling. It had only horror, because I knew unerringly the monstrous, nefandous analogy that had suggested it. We had expected, upon looking back, to see a terrible and incredibly moving entity if the mists were thin enough; but of that entity we had formed a clear idea. What we did see -- for the mists were indeed all too malignly thinned -- was something altogether different, and immeasurably more hideous and detestable. It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist's 'thing that should not be'; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform -- the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterraneous distance, constellated with strangely coloured lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder."

Eerie Evaluation: If I prepared for you a bare plot outline of "At the Mountains of Madness," you would probably consider it the best of all of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos stories. It provides definite details about the history of the interstellar Old Ones rather than obscure allusions. It contains poignant moments in addition to straight-up scares. And it offers a vivid description of a shoggoth, one so startling it's almost guaranteed to stick with you. But an outline would condense the story, and Lovecraft rarely turned to proper pacing and punchy prose to make his works shorter. Let me put it plainly: "At the Mountains of Madness" is mostly boring. Lovecraft pads it out with more incidental detail than an undergraduate penning a dubious thesis. If you've studied science at all, you will soon grow very, very tired of his endless repetition of rock strata and turn-of-the-century theories about continental drift. Okay, Howard, we get it, you know a little bit about geology, but could you please get on with the story? By the time he eventually does, an excellent piece has turned into a merely average one. When "At the Mountains of Madness" was first published in Astounding Tales in 1935, editor F. Orlin Tremaine excised 1,000 words from it, for which Lovecraft derided him as a "[expletive] dung of a hyaena." My thought? Tremaine's only sin lay in not removing more.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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