It is nearly here. Halloween has come upon us like some wet, cold creature rubbing its fur against our legs while we scratch its gills and wonder which is real. They’re both real, and your pants are wet now. Let’s declare this a somewhat sacred tradition, this upcoming post. I wrote about Lovecraft last year, and I’ll probably write about him next year. So here you are, the 2013 WW post on Lovecraft. I’m sure you’re excited. It’s on At the Mountains of Madness.
Or Mountains, so save my typing fingers (though some people are fond of AtMoM — pretty good, but the shift key is all the way over there).
The plot of this story — one of Lovecraft’s longest — is actually fairly simple. A team of scientists of different sorts went to the Antarctic to take samples. They dig up alien creatures. One team dissects the creatures while another goes to explore the nearby area. The explorers are the only ones to survive. The aliens were not dead, just dormant. They wake up, find these weird, small pale creatures have killed some of them, kill the small pale creatures, and run off. The narrator, Dyer, and his assistant find the camp in ruins, their friends’ bodies torn apart, and the bodies of the aliens buried in the nearby snow. Dyer follows the trail left behind and discovers an alien city in the distant mountains.
That’s pretty much the whole plot. The climax is that, after all the discoveries and explorations, Dyer and his assistant find evidence they are getting close to the aliens. They stumble upon a shoggoth instead, and flee for their lives. In the plane, later, the assistant loses his mind because he looked back and saw something. In typical fashion, this is left a mystery, but it’s implied that he saw something from the mountain range distant from the alien city. Certain murals they saw hinted at those mountains being fearful even to the horrible alien beings.
The narration is taking place because Dyer has discovered a team means to go down with fancy new drills and open up the continent’s mysteries. That would probably damn us all, he claims.
So what’s interesting about this story? First, it had a strange impact on literature. It’s actually an extension of the strange Antarctic stories like Rime of the Ancient Mariner or The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (in fact, Mountains quotes Pym directly twice). But the addition of aliens slipped this trope into science fiction. Mountains made the aliens in Antarctica trope popular for a while. Indeed, the editor of Weird Tales rejected this story, and it was published instead in Astounding Stories, a science fiction magazine. Years later, John W. Campbell wrote a novel titled Who Goes There which is his adaptation of Lovecraft’s story. In true Campbell fashion, the story is more hopeful and the scientists figure out how to deal with the aliens, who are more villainous than Lovecraft’s. However, in a great twist, when John Carpenter adapted it for his film The Thing, he ended up shifting the story back quite a bit towards the mood, at least, of Lovecraft’s piece.
That’s the influence of the piece. I kept the good stuff out of the summary, in case anyone wants to read it. Not plot — basically all of the plot is there. The conclusions Dyer reaches are what make this story pure dynamite. So, you know, don’t read any farther if you want to read this story unspoiled (I kinda like working with texts where the plot isn’t what you want spoiled. That’s nice.).
So you’re still here. Good, good. It’s probably not a problem. Except that you’re a degenerate piece of genetic trash!
As in, that’s Dyer’s conclusion. Weird, huh?
OK, OK. From the beginning. Dyer is horrified at the idea of the aliens killing his friends, like we might expect him to be. But as he learns about the aliens through his exploration of their dead city, he comes to respect, and eventually to love them. They were brilliant — thinkers, artists, scientists, anything, you name it. In fact, biographically speaking Lovecraft was turning toward socialism at this point in his life, so he inserts little notes that suggest the aliens lived some kind of perfect socialist life, in a well-organized society where everyone contributed and there was no wage labor (again, biographically, Lovecraft never could make enough money to really support himself well, so that was probably on his mind a lot). Dyer gains an immense respect for them and a nostalgic sadness that they are all dead.
That was, you know, before he found out they weren’t all dead. Details.
And they made these synthetic creatures to do all the heavy lifting for them. A little squishy, so they can change form a bit. Tentacles here, extruded from the jelly-like mass, in order to better lift and manipulate. A little more brainpower, so they can figure out what to do and don’t have to be given painstakingly-written orders. You can possibly see the trend. What started as bio-machines ended as intelligent creatures. Specifically, shoggoths. It’s unclear if Lovecraft’s shoggoths were always the same line of creatures. They show up in several other stories, once summoned (or, at least, possibly summoned) using magic. So I have no idea if they were supposed to be the same creature each time, summoned different ways, or if the word was applied to multiple creatures with similar forms, or if Lovecraft just changed his mind over time as to what a shoggoth ought to be.
Anyway. The shoggoths rebel eventually, because when they get enough intelligence to do so, they look around and see they were slave labor. This probably mirrors some of Lovecraft’s virulent racism, supposedly waning somewhat as he aged (supposedly). Because the shoggoths are the real villains of the piece. They are disgusting and evil and they killed the Elder Things (a name borrowed from a biologist’s reading of the Necronomicon, the implication being that they actually are the creatures described in the book, but the biologist wouldn’t believe it). And the Elder Things were wonderful and amazing and so on, so on. The story really manages to sell this, too. They seem pretty good. Even the slavery thing is easier to swallow than it would normally be, since the shoggoths started out as totally mindless automatons. But, you know, they don’t stay that way.
The final upshot is where the payload of horror really comes in. We are descended from shoggoths. Nearly all life on earth comes from the experiments of the Elder Things, and either directly or indirectly we are related to the shoggoths for that reason. We were the results of one of their experiments let fly through the lab window, so to speak. So Dyer’s deep welling-up of disgust for the shoggoths is a self-loathing. The aliens were perfect, unattainable by human standards. So Dyer loves them. But he cannot love the shoggoths, even though they are closer to us. There is no indication that, over the long time the Elder Things spent on earth, they evolved at all. But the shoggoths did, just as we did.
The latent racism of the slave rebellion being evil is totally in this story, but it is in fact an element to build a deeper horror: Dyer’s hatred of the shoggoths becomes hatred of all humankind. By the end of his journey, Dyer wanted to meet the Elder Things, even though there was a risk to him in doing so. He didn’t really care. Kristeva called this sort of feeling abjectness, when a person is disgusted and emotionally rejects the situation. But it is a physical feeling, and there is nothing physical being rejected. You reject yourself in that moment. It is all inside your head, and you reject that part of yourself that is disgusting yourself. Lovecraft anticipated such an idea. Dyer is the pinnacle of abjection. He rejects everything of himself, finally rejecting humanity itself, for something that is physically grotesque to him but, in his head, perfect.
And that’s At the Mountains of Madness for you. Happy Halloween! Try not to be too horrified by the abjectness of those around you.