Astounding Stories, 1936, 128 pages
A master of terror and nightmarish visions, H.P. Lovecraft solidified his place at the top of the horror genre with this macabre supernatural tale.
When a geologist leads an expedition to the Antarctic plateau, his aim is to find rock and plant specimens from deep within the continent. The barren landscape offers no evidence of any life form - until they stumble upon the ruins of a lost civilization. Strange fossils of creatures unknown to man lead the team deeper, where they find carved stones dating back millions of years. But it is their discovery of the terrifying city of the Old Ones that leads them to an encounter with an untold menace.
Deliberately told and increasingly chilling, At the Mountains of Madness is a must-have for every fan of classic terror.
"I could not help feeling that they were evil things-- mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething , half-luminous cloud-background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial; and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world."
Either you dig Lovecraft or you don't. Yeah, the guy had issues. Yeah, his writing bled purple, like most pulp writers of his time. But all American fantasy and horror written since the 1930s has been influenced by Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself was heavily influenced by others, of course, and At the Mountains of Madness, one of his most famous works, made explicit reference to Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
At the Mountains of Madness is a short novel about a scientific expedition to Antarctica. The Antarctic was even more mysterious and unknown in the 1930s, so it was a perfect place for Lovecraft to situate an ancient, alien city. His narrator, in recounting his perilous journey from which only he and one other explorer/scientist returned, is attempting to discourage others from following in their footsteps, lest they too unearth Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
All the classic Lovecraft tropes are here — alienness incomprehensible to human minds, non-Euclidian geometry, sanity loss, and awful truths about prehistory revealed. The city the scientists discover in the South Pole was once inhabited by a race of creatures from another star, known only as the Old Ones. The Old Ones were scientifically and culturally advanced, and created servants to help them build their great cities. These servants, awful, intelligent monstrosities known as Shoggoths, eventually rebelled against their creators, making this ancient story literally older than mankind.
Surprisingly to me, given Lovecraft's usual xenophobia and characterization of the alien as unknowable and inimical, his narrator displays an almost touching compassion and understanding for the Old Ones, observing that they were simply "men of another age, albeit alien."
In the climax, the awful truth is revealed, there is much slime and carnage, and the narrator narrowly escapes from the terrible underground tunnels of the ancient city of the Old Ones.
"Would to Heaven we had never approached them at all, but had run back at top speed out of that blasphemous tunnel with the greasily smooth floors and the degenerate murals aping and mocking the things they had superseded-run back, before we had seen what we did see, and before our minds were burned with something which will never let us breathe easily again!"
Fucking penguins. Tekeli-li!
Verdict: At the Mountains of Madness is a great classic tale of pulp horror and the origin of many tropes that have been repeated ever since. (Lovecraft did not actually invent most of these tropes, he just popularized them.) It will make you want to run a Call of Cthulhu adventure, and shudder when you watch Happy Feet.
My complete list of book reviews.