Thursday, November 29, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft part 5: At the Mountains of Madness (part 1)

For the past few weeks I've been perusing some of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, as selected by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi in his collection The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. This week we continue our sampling of Cosmic Horror with one of Lovecraft's few novels and perhaps his most ambitious work: At the Mountains of Madness.

H.P. Lovecraft had a life-long interest in the Antarctic regions, going all the way back to when he was twelve and wrote treatises on the early explorers. Perhaps his strange sensitivity to cold which made him unable to bear temperatures lower than 20 degrees gave him a morbid fascination with the polar regions. More likely is the fact that by the early 20th Century, Antarctica was one of the few remaining unexplored regions on the globe; a blank spot on the map which the imaginative writer could populate with his own creations.

One of Lovecraft's role models, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym involving a voyage to the South Polar seas, which Lovecraft references in At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft closely followed news accounts of the real-life Antarctic voyages: Shackleton's failed attempt at the South Pole which ended in triumph, and Scott's successful one which ended in tragedy; and more recently, Byrd's airplane flight over the Pole. Mountains of Madness incorporates elements from all of these and more.

The narrator is unnamed, as is frequently the case in Lovecraft's stories. I have to wonder if this is an aspect of Lovecraft's theme that man is an inconsequential speck in the cosmos; that the character's exposure to Cosmic Horrors has not only threatened his sanity, but somehow diminished his sense of identity. In a later story, however, the character is identified as Professor William Dyer.

Dyer is a geology professor at Miskatonic University and leads an expedition sponsored by his school to the Antarctic. But he begins his narrative by telling us that he relates his tale only with the greatest reluctance. He and his colleagues, the ones who survived, all agreed to supress the complete facts of the expedition; and Dyer has only broken this silence to prevent a new expedition from inadvertently stumbling into the horrors they found and releasing... ah, but that comes later.

The chief mission of the expedition is to collect mineral and fossil samples from the Antarctic Continent, using a revolutionary drilling apparatus devised by Professor Pabodie, the team's engineer. Lovecraft describes the progress of the expedition in detail, and for a while all goes well. The drill works perfectly, and Pabodie has devised a melting system to get down to the base rock in places where it is covered in ice. (The idea that core samples of the ice might be valuable as well does not seem to have occurred to Lovecraft, although perhaps it just lies outside the interest of Dryer the geologist).

Lake, the chief biologist with the team, becomes excited by unusual triangular striated markings in in a layer of slate, which he believes to be the fossilized prints of an unknown creature. It was known in Lovecraft's time that Antarctica once had a tropical climate rich with plant and animal life. Shackelton had discovered seams of coal there during his expedition. But the unusual striations are found in a pre-Cambrian layer of rock dating back to a time when there were few known life-forms of any complexity.

Lake persuades Dyer to let him take the four planes and some of the men and equipment to a previously unexplored region of the continent, hoping to find more samples of Archean slate with these fossil imprints. Dyer and the rest of the team remain behind at their current base to prepare for their next move. And so Dyer does not actually witness Lake's discoveries. Like the men of Dunwich watching Sentinel Hill through a spyglass in "The Dunwich Horror", we get what happens next second-hand.

The initial radio reports from Lake are exciting. His team have discovered an unknown range of mountains even higher than the Himalayas; so high that their tops have been swept clean by the high Antarctic winds and are completely devoid of snow. The upper slopes of these peaks bear peculiar clusters of box-like formations which Lake initially attributes to weathering and erosion. Bad weather forces one of Lake's planes down on a plateau in the mountains' foothills, and so he establishes a camp there.

Although the rock formations of the plateau are a comparatively recent sandstone and not the ancient slate he was hoping for, Lake sets up the drilling equipment. That is, after all, what they're there for. The apparatus breaks into a wide cave in a layer of limestone, stretching out in all directions. The cavern contains a treasure trove of fossils, evidently plants and animals washed into the cavern at some point in the Pleistocene Era. Among the fossils, Lake's team finds more of the strange triangular tracks they had found in the Archean slate 600 million years older. They find something even more peculiar: several pieces of green soapstone, roughly star-shaped, each with a series of tiny dots in a regular pattern.

Then they find the Thing.

At first it seems to be a large fossilized plant, barrel-shaped and about six feet in length, with five ridges spaced out around its circumference. It has wing-like membrane apendeges. The specimen is not stone, as a true fossil would be, but it seems that the tough, leathery stuff of its form has somehow been preserved. They find more specimens that are more complete and find that they seem to have groups of flexible arms on each body ridge and a starfish-shaped head on the body's top. In one of his radio dispatches, Lake says:
"Complete specimens have such uncanny resemblance to certain creatures of primal myth that suggestion of ancient existence outside antarctic becomes inevitable. Dyer and Pabodie have read Necronomicon and seen Clark Ashton Smith's nightmare paintings based on text, and will understand when I speak of Elder Things supposed to have created all earth-life as a jest or mistake."
Clark Ashton Smith was one of Lovecraft's circle of correspondents, who was a poet and and artist as well as a writer. Lovecraft's suggestion that life on earth -- including human life -- was an accident rather than the result of Intelligent Design -- or worse yet, a practical joke by the gods, fits in again with his theme of Man's Insignificance.

Lake finds a total of fourteen of these "Elder Ones" as he calls them and hauls them back to his camp. This is difficult, because the dogs they brought along to haul the sleds on overland trips detest the smell of them and become highly agitated in their presence; much as the dogs of Dunwich hated Wilbur Whateley. He notes that the flesh of these creatures seems to be softening somewhat under the rays of the antarctic sun, and resolves to study them.

That is Lake's last radio message. A storm comes down off the mountain with tremendous winds which cut off all contact. When the storm ends, Dyer is unable to raise Lake's party. Since each of the airplanes Lake took had a wireless, it seems impossible that all the radios should be irreparably damaged. So what happened?

Dyer has the expedition's fifth plane brought to his camp from the expedition's initial base on Ross Island, and takes the rest of his team to find out what happened. The flight is a long and a trying one, but eventually they reach sight of the impossibly high mountains. As they approach, they see a bizarre mirage over the mountains of a weird Cyclopean city.

Lake's camp, when they arrive, is a shambles; apparently wiped out by the windstorm. The tents and the ice shelters Lake's men tried to build have been wrecked; the drilling equipment smashed. Eleven of the twelve men in Lake's party are dead, and one man, named Gedney, is missing. Dyer says little more about what they found at this point, other than to say that the next day he and Danforth, one of the graduate students with the expedition, took the plane into the mountains to explore further; and that after returning from that trip Danforth was close to a nervous breakdown and all the men of the expedition agreed to keep silent about it all.

NEXT WEEK: What did Danforth see, or thought he saw, that brought him to the brink of madness? What did he and Dyer find on the other side of those dark and gigantic peaks? And what ever happened to Gedney? Next time we cross over into an incredibly ancient world to discover the secrets of The Mountains of Madness! Tekeli-li!

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