While there are some books that glory in subtle or ironic titles, others are proud to display their themes, locations and plot for all to see. Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ falls squarely within this second camp; I couldn’t spoil its contents even if I wanted to and I really don’t want to because no amount of foreshadowing can dim the pleasure of this science-fiction horror classic.
Published in the 1930s, the book is framed as a plea against further scientific exploration into the mystic and mysterious regions around the South Pole. The narrator himself was part of such an expedition and has returned home determined to deter any new hubristic investigation – rather like Frankenstein really, only much shorter and without the dense nineteenth-century prose. For a more explicit comparison, ‘The Mountains’ frequently evokes Poe, going so far as to quote ‘Ulalume’ and drawing heavily on ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.’ With conspiracy theory dependence on demented apocalyptic supporting texts throughout the novella, it can be hard to know how far Lovecraft was being derivative and how far he was an innovator. This is not to undermine the joy of reading ‘The Mountains’; part of the fun of genre literature is seeing how it shoe-horns in and plays with the expected tropes. Personally, when I read that the narrator is one of only two survivors of a traumatic attempt to explore the titular mountains, and that the other has gone mad, I felt an enjoyable shiver of recognition and familiarity.
It’s also worth pointing out that, for a 1930s science fiction/horror classic that was written by H P Lovecraft, draws on Poe’s fiercely racist ‘Arthur Gordon Pym’ and is set entirely in an exotic location where brave white men pit their inner strength against unknown terrors, ‘The Mountains of Madness’ manages to generally skirt the potential offensiveness of its premise. Lovecraft himself had hideous views on pretty much everything, which I find always adds a frisson of fear to any encounter with him. Horror is one thing but I do tend to approach his work with trepidation because you never quite know if or when his personal obsessions will emerge. Fortunately, ‘The Mountains’ are disturbing in the right way, with the tension building consistently and the insane climax a delightfully grotesque pay-off.
As the weather turns grey and uninspiring, there is nothing to lift the mood like a truly fantastical Antarctic-set romp. I recently watched John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and revelled in its combination of outrageous special effects and icy, isolated setting. Though written half a century earlier, ‘The Mountains of Madness’ has been the perfect literary counterpart, providing armchair escapism and emotional thrills, immersion in a genre classic and relief from anything resembling every-day concerns.