“At the Mountains of Madness” – Part 3

In which Mr. Lovecraft and I come to the end of our journey and amicably part ways.

Biplane

Artist's rendering of Dyer's flight over the City of the Old Ones

Since I’m feeling clever today (shut up, it happens) I am happy to report that I have “summited” At the Mountains of Madness. What a strange, needlessly expansive trip it has been.

When I first started the book I was intrigued by Lovecraft’s mythology and somewhat put off by his never-ending descriptions that don’t really describe anything. At the novella’s end I find that…well, I find that my attitude is more or less the same. But still, it was very interesting meandering down this road. While I find Lovecraft to be a frustrating storyteller, I can’t help but become all giddy over his abilities as a lover of all things strange, and it is with this in mind that I attended to the final quarter of At the Mountains of Madness.

I left off as Mssrs. Danforth and Dyer were heading down into the subterranean city that once housed the Old Ones. They had just finished consuming a surprisingly detailed history of the race from a series of paintings found in the Old Ones’ aboveground city, and now, spurned by curiosity, they are going to see what lies beneath.

Shortly after heading underground, D & D come across the remains of their lost colleague, tied gruesomely to a sled. Near this discovery, they happen upon a cavern where someone (or something) has been prodding around with the camp’s stolen scientific equipment, apparently trying to see how it works. Next to this discovery, Dyer also comes across a map of the underground caverns, rendered in “the artistic style of the Old Ones.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dyer’s disregard for caution in these situations has seemed odd at best, and it’s at this point that Lovecraft apparently starts to feel the sting of implausibility as well. Our fearless narrator is now in a situation where it is pretty clear that the Old Ones have come back alive (somehow) and that they are wandering about in this underground city. But Dyer does not turn back from his quest. Oh no, instead he plows right on ahead, trailing behind him a list of excuses that don’t really add up. Lovecraft chalks Dyer’s continued exploration up to “inquisitiveness”, “scientific curiosity” and “I don’t know why we didn’t turn back.”

At the Mountains of Madness

Hey, it could happen.

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but it seems at this point like Lovecraft realized the implausibility of his narrative and had to backpedal a little. Dyer’s continued journey into the Lost City of the Old Ones is, at this juncture, clinically insane. I’m pretty that Dyer himself is the only one who, by this point, has still not figured out that the Old Ones are alive and well in some form, and that it would be better to leave them the hell alone. But he doesn’t figure this out. Instead, we get lame excuses and giant penguins.

In one of the novella’s better sight gags (and a scene that better make it into the movie, if the movie does wind up getting made) Danforth and Dyer mistake a lumbering, subterranean penguin for a murderous, inhuman monster. They are working their way down a poorly lit corridor and see something mysterious at the far end. They panic, but the creature turns out to be an albino penguin—blind and six feet tall. According to Dyer’s speculation, this animal must have been living down here for thousands of years, thus relinquishing use of its eyes. Over the remainder of the novel, the mega-penguins make regular appearances, serving as kind of a Greek chorus. It’s an appreciably weird facet of the novella’s final act.

From here Danforth and Dyer continue downward until they finally, at long last, run into one of the Old Ones. This creature, however, is far from the world of the living. It has been recently murdered, its star-shaped head torn off and its body covered in an odd slime. Again, Lovecraft releases the scene at such an agonizingly slow crawl that it’s hard to feel its full effect, but here, at long last, we encounter the Old Ones in person, as well as the dreaded Shoggoths.

No sooner do D & D attempt to examine the corpse of the slain Old One than they are chased from the tunnel by a living member of that same species, a creature that they assume wants to kill them, but that actually winds up showing a display of distress at its lost comrade. While Danforth and Dyer are running from this Old One, hoping that it doesn’t notice them, a Shoggoth appears, thus explaining the demise of the first Old One, and the more general demise of the Old Ones’ Earthly civilization.

This blob-monster doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but in the time it is allowed, Dyer is able to give us a thorough description of how disgusting, loathsome and foul-smelling the beasty winds up being. Lovecraft kind of kills his chase scene by stopping in the middle to provide for several paragraphs of description, but by the time our heroes are escaping once more to the surface, we’ve at least gotten a decent “look” at these Shoggoths—the loathsome undoers of the mighty race of the Old Ones. If you’re not interested in reading that extended passage, then I provide this précis: they look like big circular blobs that can shape shift.

Once on the surface, Dyer and Danforth flee. They return to the cushy seat of academia where “young” Danforth goes incurably mad and Dyer goes on to warn the world of the perils of Antarctic exploration, though not before ruminating at length on his experience at “the mountains of madness.”

At its best, I thought At the Mountains of Madness read like really good fan fiction. It didn’t have the sophistication of story that you usually see in most “mainstream” science fiction, but there was a loving commitment to its mythology and an enthusiasm for the narrative world it constructs.

Having reached the novella’s end, I have to report that I will probably not be returning to Mr. H.P. Lovecraft for future sci-fi fixes. There is a lot to like about him, but, as we learned from the ill-fated Star Wars prequels, good mythology can only be allowed after the establishment of good characters, never in lieu of. Lovecraft, while eager to provide us with a detailed five-million year history of the Old Ones, is patently unable to establish any of Mountain of Madness’ human characters to any degree beyond a rudimentary description of what they’re wearing.

What I would actually be eager to see is some fiction based in Lovecraft’s universe that maybe takes his pre-established phantasms in different directions. The idea of Cthlulu is more fascinating to me than its reality and, as I mentioned earlier, the most engaging parts of Mountains of Madness were those wherein we were treated to the epic background of the Old Ones and the adventures that that race had undergone.

As to the actual human drama of the story, and the tension arising therefrom, it falls pretty flat. But were it to be treated by someone who had a better concept of both the human and the alien, it could make for a science fiction classic.

I am excited by the fact that Guillermo Del Toro has exactly those chops. He certainly has the monster movie experience, and Pan’s Labyrinth proved his ability for constructing character as well.

I’m excited for this movie. C’mon Universal, let’s see a green light.

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