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Literature: At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of Madness is a 1936 novella by H.P. Lovecraft, serialized in Astounding Stories magazine. It revolves around the geologist William Dyer, leader of an expedition to Antarctica. While digging for ice cores, his team uncovers the frozen bodies of creatures of indeterminate origin; later, most of the expedition is mysteriously slaughtered. Dyer's party discovers the ruined camp, and he and a graduate student fly over the mountains into mystery to investigate further. They soon find themselves beyond massive mountain peaks, in the ancient ruins of a colossal city, completely alien in design...

A film adaptation, directed by Guillermo del Toro and produced by James Cameron, was in the works, but was cancelled after the failure of the Wolfman reboot. However there has recently been talk about revisiting the project.

Has been adapted twice as a radio drama, first by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company and later by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society for their Dark Adventure Radio Theater series.

It can be read here.


This novella provides examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The example provided by the Shoggoth almost fits this trope to a T, though the Elder Things didn't intend for them to be intelligent.
  • Alien Blood
  • Alien Geometries
  • Ancient Astronauts
  • Apocalyptic Log
  • Author Phobia: Lovecraft's life-long fear of cold temperatures is part of what makes this story so effective.
  • Badass Normal: And odd example, but the Elder Ones certainly fit. All of them. Although not human by any means, they were carbon based lifeforms, that, without any supernatural powers or anything similar, led a war against Star Spawn and their god/priest Cthulhu, and won. Sure, it was more of a stalemate than anything else, but still...
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: The Elder Things traveled to Earth naked using their wings as living solar sails.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: And how! The Old Ones apparently had gills, lungs, tentacles, wings, and numerous mouths, among other things. They seem to reproduce asexually and have massive, if not indefinite, lifespans, in addition to massively resistant bodies and nigh-impossible endurance (since they survived having been frozen for aeons).
    • Note that, as far as Lovecraftian beasts go, they're stated to be a species of Badass Normals, since despite their biological superiority to humans, they made little or no use of magic (unlike the Deep Ones), were constrained by time (unlike the Race of Yith) and had bodies made of "regular" matter (while the Mi-Go and Star Spawn of Cthulhu were explicitly stated to be more exotic).
  • Bizarre Alien Locomotion: Flying through space with wings is apparently fine and dandy if you're an Elder Thing.
  • Blob Monster: The Shoggoths.
  • Cool Plane: The reason for which the expedition penetrates so far in the Antarctic.
  • Doing in the Wizard : Many elements of previous stories in the Cthulhu Mythos are recast as being of extraterrestrial, as opposed to supernatural, origin. Another interpretation is that the protagonist of the story was a scientist, and the Old Ones seem very science-based themselves. It could just be a case of the protagonist, the old ones, or both trying to explain where the creatures of the Cthulhu Mythos came from. With science.
  • Downer Ending: Lake's entire party is killed by Elder Things. On top of that, Danforth has probably gone insane, and Dyer is trying to stop a second arctic expedition from taking place, and chances are no one will believe the reason why. But hey, it's Lovecraft, what did you expect?
  • Everything's Better with Penguins: Subverted. How do six-feet-fall, blind, absolutely white penguins sound? (Hint: Tekili-li! Tekili-li! Tekili-li! …)
    • Regular penguins are also described as ugly abominations.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Though "evil" isn't really the right term.
  • Framing Device: Both audio drama versions are framed as radio news interviews with Professor Dyer.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The news station that interviews Dyer in the ARTC radio version is known as WCTH News.
  • Harmless Freezing: The Elder Things were frozen for a long period of time. When they're thawed out they go on a murderous rampage (understandably since several of them had been autopsied by the humans, possibly while still alive but not thawed enough to move.) The freezing and surviving is justified in that they are described as being extremely tough in comparison with humans.
    Dyer: "Alter all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them—as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter dig up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste—and this was their tragic homecoming. They had not been even savages-for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch—perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia ... poor Lake, poor Gedney... and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn — whatever they had been, they were men!"
  • Human Popsicle: Very, very not human, but still the same idea.
  • Indy Escape
  • Late to the Tragedy: All of the dying happens before the viewpoint characters arrive.
  • Madness Mantra: Tekeli-li!
    • Also Danforth's listing off subway stations while running from the Shoggoth.
  • Mysterious Antarctica
  • Mythos Nod: This story makes explicit references to many of Lovecraft's other narratives, and is one of the reasons why the Cthulhu Mythos are thought of as a single, coherent universe.
  • Name's the Same: The Elder Things are alternately referred to as "Old Ones" which could create some confusion as the same term was used to refer to beings associated with Yog-Sothoth and C'thulhu.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The terrible vision that only Danforth saw, just before he and Dyer flee back to their plane, which pushed him over the edge into madness.
    • Likewise, the very brief glimpse that Dyer and Danforth have of the shoggoth that pursues them. All Dyer can say is that it put him in mind of a train.
    • Also notably, the narrator never sees the Elder Things alive and active, and there are no first-hand accounts of their actions in the story; only the consequences are visible, afterwards.
  • Not So Different: More or less explicitly stated of the Old Ones:
    "Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn - whatever they had been, they were men!"
    • This is especially exceptional for Lovecraft's stories, where most things that are "different" are usually "wrong". The Elder Things are the most "human" and benign of the Mythos species. Aside from their strange biology and amazing toughness, they are made of mundane elements (compare with the Mi-go, or the partly-spectral flying polyps), they formed family units, and had an art-producing culture and an economy. Perhaps most importantly, they only lashed out at the human party in horror and vengeance for the humans mutilating them first, rather than out of sheer carelessness or malice.
  • Panspermia: Of a sort: according to this story all life on Earth started with experiments the Old Ones let live out of apathy. So in other words, we're all the spawn of failed alien bioengineering.
  • Purple Prose: Like everything by Lovecraft.
    The leathery, undeteriorative, and almost indestructible quality was an inherent attribute of the thing’s form of organization, and pertained to some paleogean cycle of invertebrate evolution utterly beyond our powers of speculation.
  • Science Marches On: The past seventy-five years have shown many advancements in Antarctic exploration, revealing a continent wholly unlike what is described in this book.
    • Some of the terminology, such as "Comanchian", was already obsolete. So was the initial idea (edited out of the final product) that Antarctica was actually two continents.
    • There was also the very concept of interplanetary travel; they were said to "fly through the aether on leathery wings", with the "luminiferous aether" being the old concept of what existed beyond the upper atmosphere. The concept of space as a near-complete vacuum was becoming prominent in Lovecraft's time, and theories about the luminiferous aether dying out, after an experiment disproved the idea that light couldn't pass through a vacuum, but he was swayed by the lecturing of a theorist he held in high regard.
      • However, it must be noted that this is a third person interpretation of an ancient (silurian era) pictographic carving by a race of aliens with minds that work differently than humans', and therefore may be a complete misinterpretation of the actual events depicted, if you want to strap on your Watsonian hat.
      • In all subsequent stories featuring the Elder Things their wings have been described as a kind of living Solar Sail. The ARTC radio version poetically describes them as riding "the cold winds of light", i.e. solar wind.
    • And of course, we now know that no mountain in Antarctica reaches thirty-five thousand feet.
  • Shout-Out: To Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
    • In the ARTC version the reporter who interviews Dyer is named Alice Ashton.
  • Sickly Green Glow: Shoggoths are described by Dyer as enormous black masses of protoplasmic bubbles covered in luminescent green eyes that are constantly forming, shifting around and dissolving.
  • Slave Race: The Shoggoths, to the Elder Things. Shoggoths were not originally created to be sentient: they were more like bioengineered construction equipment, and only became sentient through unintended mutations.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Elder Things are radially symmetric and built around pentagon and five-pointed star shapes. Shoggoths are just Blob Monsters.
  • Starfish Language: (Trope Namer) The Elder Things communicate by making piping sounds through their breathing tubes.
  • Time Abyss
  • Turned Against Their Masters: After Shoggoths evolved sentience, they trashed the Elder Thing's earth cities.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Dyer considers the possibility that the Elder Thing's histories may be colored somewhat. He wonders if the “exotic matter” of the Star-spawn and Mi-go is a mythological construct, and notes that there is no mention of the Great Race of Yith.

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alternative title(s): At The Mountains Of Madness
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