Tuesday, October 19, 2010


"Comment allez-vous ce soir? Je suis comme ci comme ça.
Yes, a penguin taught me French back in Antarctica."
- The Weakerthans,
Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)

AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, my first reading experience with HP Lovecraft, got off to an admittedly rocky start (no pun intended, though it would be a pretty good one since the main character is a geologist). This is Sci-Fi Horror, heavy on the Sci-Fi, even heavier on the Sci. The story is written from the perspective of a professor of geology chronicling an expedition to Antarctica gone horribly, horribly wrong, who is telling his story solely to dissuade other scientists from repeating his expedition. As he is meant to be a scholarly fellow writing to other scholarly fellows, who only divulges salacious details because he must, there's a lot of fairly technical information included in the first 2/3 of this novella. This means of course that I, having failed the same 100-level Physical Science class at least twice in college thanks to lack of interest and/or attendance, found the beginning part a bit...laborious. And you know I don't find many things difficult to read - I'm a fan of Kafka, for heaven's sake. Now, this is not to say that it's a bad novella. It gets really, really good and quite fascinating as it goes along. It just takes a bit of time to match the story's tempo, to become accustomed enough to the narrator's dry tone to start noticing the undercurrent of horror that he's keeping carefully suppressed. And once you've got that, you're in. So while in the end I found myself staring at the page in ever-eye-widening breathlessness, even going so far as to put a hand to my mouth when the really scary part came along, I probably would've gotten to that absorbing state of mind more quickly had I had a few basic references under my belt. Therefore, in order to help future readers, I provide a handy list of


A basic understanding of different pre-historic ages.
The terrifying things that this professor and his friends discover in Antarctica are very, very old. How old I'm not entirely sure, because I don't know when the Pleistocene, Comanchian, and Pre-Cambrian ages were, or if they're all the same thing. I know some of them were pre-dinosaur, but were they also pre-troglodyte? Who can say?

The work of Nicholas Roerich.
The narrator references Roerich frequently in describing the titular Mountains of Madness. Now, Lovecraft references a lot of "sources" who are not real people (more on that later), so it took me a while to bother googling Roerich's work. I regret that fact, as it would've been very nice to have had these images to call to mind when Lovecraft evokes them. Bad Julie. Never ignore an artist. You always end up paying for it when you do.

Cyclopean Masonry

The ancient buildings found beyond the mountains of madness (is that a spoiler? I mean, it happens like halfway through) are continuously described as "Cyclopean." I had to look up the Wikipedia entry on
Cyclopean Masonry about five times before I could keep a picture in my head that corresponded with the word appropriately. Basically it's an ancient method of building walls from rough, stacked stones which need not be of any regular or uniform shape.

A variety of architectural terms.
Most importantly, you need to know what an arabesque and a cartouche are, but it's good to also find out about basic architectural and sculptural concepts and geometry. It will help you, trust me.

Seriously, buy a dictionary or keep a good online dictionary handy. He will throw out technical terms such as you've never imagined.

Don't worry if you don't know some of the references, because they aren't all real.
That's right, many of Lovecraft's references are fictional. He makes frequent mention of the Necronomicon, an ancient book containing extensive arcane and occult knowledge, which was written by the "Mad Arab," Abdul Alhazred. He also references things found in the Necronomicon, such as a region called Leng. None of these things are real (OR ARE THEY??????), so while you can look up lots of interesting information about how they're used in stories, you won't find the real book anywhere (OR WILL YOU??????). There is said to have been one copy of the Necronomicon at the fictional Miskatonic University from whence our hapless explorers come, but even it was kept under lock and key, and only one of the characters ever dared read through all of it, and this knowledge did not cause him to fare well. So it's probably good for us all that it doesn't actually exist (OR DOES IT??????).

Similarly, Lovecraft's narrator frequently alludes to information or materials he assumes that the reader has available, such as radio transmittals sent out during the original expedition and attached photographs. This nicely allows him to sidestep the inexplicable and create an even deeper sense of mystery. It has the added effect, as well, of leaving the reader feeling out of the loop on very important information, forcing our overactive imaginations to fill in the blanks based mostly on vague, creeping suspicion and feeling. It's simultaneously frustrating and frightening.


If you like claustrophobic narratives with a heavy dose of ever-deepening dread (and I do), then AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS is definitely worth the effort. This story includes some truly disturbing and horrifying elements, and a lot of sick fascination throughout. Lovecraft really creates (OR DOES HE DISCOVER??????) a fully-realized world and culture with an expansive back story, and it's worth immersing yourself in it even if it kind of repulses you and creeps you out. Especially if it kind of repulses you and creeps you out.

There are even penguins. Huge, horrible penguins. That's got to count for something.

There's been some talk of Guillermo Del Toro - of Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies, among others - tackling a Mountains of Madness movie. That I would definitely love to see. In the meantime, I've got the book, a darkened room, and my overactive imagination. Yikes.

"Say, do you have a ship and a dozen able men that maybe you could lend me? Oh, Antarctica..."
- The Weakerthans,
Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)

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