5. At the Mountains of Madness

by Red Emma

Two ships sail from Boston Harbor on September the 2nd, 1930, one the stately Miskatonic and the other, the rugged Arkham. At the helm of each is a weathered whaling-boat captain, and distributed between the two ships are a drilling apparatus, four men of science, their assistants and skilled mechanics, and their means for surviving the frigid Antarctic. Thus begins the journey of the fateful Miskatonic Expedition.

Shackleton and Scott have gone before them. Scott, his extant diary the only explanation of what happened, has already frozen to death in the vast tundra, but hope springs eternal in the human breast, and the possibility of discovery is stronger than any warnings of self-preservation. The Miskatonic Expedition sets out to find what is beyond the point where Scott was defeated. Dyer and Pabodie of the geology department, Lake from biology, and Atwood of the physics department want not only to explore but to return with samples that will be the jewel in the crown of their university.

In Lovecraft’s time, the Antarctic was still uncharted territory. People read accounts of famous explorers who set out all over the globe and listened by radio to the wireless reports they sent back. When one perished, the news was broadcast; average citizens mourned in their homes, and newspapers published grim headlines. Though most of the world at the time was charted and colonized, the remaining unknown places were tantalizing beyond imagination. What mysteries remained in the heart of the Amazon, in the interior of Africa, or beyond the icy shelf of the Antarctic? The race was on to find out.

Lovecraft’s fictional exploration, At the Mountains of Madness, begins as a careful chronicle of supplies and initial forays. We would expect this of scientists, a pragmatic and detail-oriented examination of every aspect of the alien world they’ve encountered. For this reason, the first thirty pages can seem plodding; one may feel there are too many details, too many examinations, but as Lake and Atwood venture off with a party of their own and their communiques cease, the reader’s interest is piqued: what happened to them? Dyer and Pabodie must find out.

I’d like to take a sidebar here. As an enlightened woman of the 21st century, it near enrages me to read yet another account that is male-only when there were woman explorers who were just as capable and made just as much progress for humankind. If ‘enrages’ seems like strong language given I’m reading a work of fiction, I’d like to offer this: why weren’t women included in the telling of history? For example, when discussing the greatest artists of the Renaissance – do you often hear Artemisia Gentelleschi mentioned alongside Michelangelo or Da Vinci? When learning about the European art music we colloquially refer to as Classical, do you hear mention of Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn, or do you only hear of Clara’s husband Robert and Fanny’s younger brother Felix? Type ‘Mendelssohn’ in any search bar and see who pops up, though by all accounts, Fanny was the more prolific, and many of her works were attributed to her brother.

I knew going into this re-reading that Lovecraft’s work is nearly 100% woman-free (the only female character being a twisted male wizard who uses mind control to take over the body of his only child, which he calls an “inferior” female body), but that doesn’t mitigate my growing rage – yes, rage, over the exclusion of women from nearly every facet of the arts & learning. To remedy this, I’m going to direct you to an article on Mental Floss: 15 Female Explorers You Should Know. Holy sh*t, Ida Pfeiffer was awesome!

Through the first half of the story, Dyer’s ‘young assistant,’ Danforth, isn’t referenced by gender. Perhaps this is what persuaded me to imagine her as a gloriously tall, Black woman. Later, when Danforth was referenced with male pronouns, I chose to assume there had been an unfortunate printing error. Why can’t Danforth be a beautiful Black woman? And while we’re at it, why must they  all be ‘men of science?’ Pabodie, henceforth, is a prodigiously well-read and erudite woman professor in my mind. The Miskatonic Expedition is comprised of gifted scientists whose genders do not limit their expectations.

Sidebar over, imagining Pabodie, Danforth, and Gedney (assistants on the expedition) as women helped me to reconnect with the story. Now, I can journey into the mountains of madness and explore what happens when Lake drills the ice.

Fossils are found. Not fossils of the current life-forms in the Antarctic, but fossils of a more floral, tropical time. Lovecraft in his avid reading knew that fossils truly had been found in the region that pointed to a different climate during far-gone eras of the Earth. In Lovecraftian style, he lends verisimilitude to the scientists of his expedition by naming what they find; he references the Cambrian Period and correctly identifies its fossilized life-forms. His geologist, Dyer, talks of the schist and metamorphic rocks he finds. This is a rich and well-laid out world we sink into, thanks to Lovecraft’s own interest in the sciences. When the party finds odd artifacts that don’t fit into easy scientific classification, curiously five-pointed, star-shaped stones that set the sledge-dogs to frantic barking, the reader is primed to feel a creeping chill.

Despite any misgivings Dyer may have, the party’s resources are diverted to Lake’s venture when he finds bodies – semi-human, possibly vegetable, he can’t tell, and decides to dissect them. This dissection is a bad move; when Dyer and Pabodie go in search of them, they find the camp destroyed and the bodies that were dissected buried under star-shaped snow mounds.

At just over one hundred pages, this is one of Lovecraft’s lengthiest works. I may have intimated already that I found it perhaps too lengthy; there were moments I wanted the protagonist to bed down his inner scientist and let me experience the strange and wonderful city they discover in the mountains after the death-strewn camp of Lake and Atwood’s doomed venture. The voice of the scientist does set the mood fantastically in some ways, but when the action happens, the distance of it is like a fence erected at the edge of a volcano, obscuring my view.

Does the expedition return to Arkham to celebrate with snifters of brandy and cigars in the drawing room? Of course not. Only a handful survive, the aforementioned Dyer and Pabodie as well as their assistant, Danforth, who sees something so horrible she refuses to tell anyone, even in her raving moments of madness upon her committal to the Arkham Sanitarium. What does Danforth see that drives her to insanity? I would like to know. Maybe it’s better that I don’t. Maybe you should read At the Mountains of Madness and see what you see.

Despite its slow build up, there is a big pay-off in At the Mountains of Madness. It is chilling, and absorbing, and menacing all at once – but in the end, I find it difficult to write favorably of my reading of it. I intended to discuss the references to Poe, the painter Roerich, and even Freud embedded in this story, but my feeling is, why add more to the already large body of work celebrating the accomplishments of men? I’m sorry to disappoint you, reader, with my dour disposition. Dealing with my reaction to HPL’s bigotry and now sexism in this blog series has taken its toll on my enthusiasm.

Next week, I plan to read the story Lovecraft considered his best, “The Colour Out of Space," which you can find in The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Perhaps the intervening week will give me time to recharge my ardor for the weird fiction of Lovecraft. In the meantime, I’d like to leave you with this photograph of Jackie Ronne, the first woman to set foot on Antarctica, who lived contemporary to Lovecraft and for whom the Ronne Ice Shelf is named.

Jackie Ronne, on the right, was an American explorer of Antarctica.