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Sunday
Sep132015

At the Mountains of Madness

Imagination could conceive almost anything in connexion with this place.

                                                                                                            Professor William Dyer

It spoils almost nothing to mention that this classic tale of horror has been declaimed by some abler-minded cineastes as the glorious forerunner to this recent film. I have not seen Prometheus, nor do I anticipate doing so; but if its online summaries are remotely accurate, the comparison may not be specious. There would appear to be, however, at least one very important difference: regardless of the science fiction component of both works, for which I care little, the motif of At the Mountains of Madness does not involve knowledge or the discovery of the origins of mankind. Its anthem is a sheer, relentless dread at the demonic roots of our realm, at hundreds of millions of years of ignorance that dwarf those worthless atheist claims of two thousand years of deception. No, only those who admit that the ineluctable modality of the visible cannot be our only reality are not deceived by it. Which brings us to the baleful travelogue of Professor William Dyer.

Dyer introduces himself as a survivor and geologist, "forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow [his] advice." His advice, as we soon shall see, will consist of henceforth avoiding anything to do with the ice continent of Antarctica. His reason? Something which will be fleshed out in agonizing slowness over the course of our narrative, and which can only be suggested here:

The sheer appalling antiquity and lethal desolation of the place were enough to overwhelm almost any sensitive person, but added to these elements were the recent unexplained horror at the camp, and the revelations all too soon effected by the terrible mural sculptures around us. The moment we came upon a perfect section of carving, where no ambiguity of interpretation could exist, it took only a brief study to give us the hideous truth – a truth which it would be naive to claim Danforth and I had not independently suspected before, though we had carefully refrained from even hinting it to each other. There could now be no merciful doubt about the nature of the beings which had built and inhabited this monstrous dead city millions of years ago, when man's ancestors were primitive archaic mammals, and vast dinosaurs roamed the tropical steppes of Europe and Asia.

This passage leaps forward a few steps, but it typifies Dyer's attempts to caption the unearthliness he has witnessed (one quickly loses count of how often "nameless," "decadent," "horrible," "terrible," and "monstrous" recur throughout the whole story). Given that our journey is an antarctic expedition, the "recent unexplained horror at the camp" can only mean a blizzard, cannibalism, or an inhuman phenomenon. What does occur there is never really described perhaps because it is never really understood by Dyer and his much younger colleague Danforth. When, very late in our tale, two missing members of the party turn up unexpectedly, we gain more information as to the details of the rest of the party's demise, at which point, of course, it is far too late for salvation.

Why have I omitted such a wealth of detail? What city could be millions of years old if we homines sapientes were merely "primitive archaic mammals" at the time? Danforth and Dyer do "a good deal of indecisive whispering" as they wander about the South Pole in search of – and here is where our doubts accumulate.  That a group of scholars and crewmen intended on "securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the antarctic continent" might seem plausible if oddly ambitious; that such an expedition was sponsored by Miskatonic University, the hub of abnormal behavior in the world of this author, will explain what actually transpires, especially the enthusiasm on the part of a biology professor by the name of Lake. Lake's curiosity ("the lure of the unplumbed is stronger in certain persons than most suspect") is transmitted over radio, in what we know will be a doomed broadcast, to many of his colleagues as his party stumbles upon what can only be termed the greatest scientific discovery in the history of mankind. Lake vanishes from the airwaves soon thereafter and, just as predictably, it is his camp and allies who fall victim to the "recent unexplained horror." Dyer and Danforth seek out their fellow explorers with solemn hope; this is, after all, the deadest patch of the globe, and Lake was indeed elbow-deep in – well, we don't really know, but "existing biology would have to be wholly revised." The creature or creatures in question possess attributes that promote a human fear that should not, and thankfully is not, ever fully verbalized, and about biology and its revisions we should now be silent.

Lovecraft has engendered a mass following owing to the slime-and-scare aspects of his fictional creations, but his foremost contribution remains his inimitable and gorgeous style. For perhaps precisely these reasons, At the Mountains of Madness, while clearly a work of genius, is ultimately less satisfying than his pieces on individual characters and their dark pacts. Too many turns of phrase echo prior sentiments; too many of those sentiments entail pseudoscientific reports on subjects well beyond science's scope; and too many times are we told that our author doesn't want to tell us anything at all, but is simply compelled to do so to avert further adventure in the region ("It would be tragic if any were to be allured to that realm of death and horror by the very warning meant to discourage them"). Yet our tale has been consistently included among his masterpieces adapted into various media including a much-ballyhooed screen version that, allegedly because of the release of Prometheus, has been scrapped indefinitely. The text is itself an overlapping labyrinth of ineffable shocks and wonders that results in one rather repulsive conclusion regarding those very mountains in the title. The same mountains, mind you, whose height we have been chary of discussing because much like the "specimens" that Lake uncovers, the mountains and their configurations make no sense at all. At least not to homines sapientes.

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