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Literature / At the Mountains of Madness

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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, it seems Del Toro has restarted his efforts to make the film. Author Madara Usi also wrote TTRPG scenario derived from this story titled Summit of Deities that is to be made into an animated movie titled Naked Peak - Climb the Mountains of Madness with a pilot currently released.

Has been adapted twice as a radio drama, first by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company and later as part of the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre series. A Comic-Book Adaptation was also done by I.N.J. Culbard, as well as a manga adaptation by Tanabe Gou.

It can be read here.

This novella provides examples of:

  • Acquitted Too Late: Gedney, who is initially suspected of murdering his party, is himself found dead, and clearly a victim of something worse.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The Shoggoth are genetically engineered drones meant for life in the sea, who accidentally developed intelligence and adapted to land, where they quickly became a major threat to the Elder Ones, eventually overthrowing their former masters.
  • Alien Autopsy: Performed by Professor Lake's group on the thawed Elder Things, which turn out to be actually alive and performs autopsies on Lake and his men after killing them in self-defense.
  • Alien Blood: The Elder Things have a dark green blood-like fluid.
  • Alien Geometries: As expected for Lovecraft, the expedition nearly gets lost thanks to the nature of what they have discovered. In this case it's at least as much the alien architecture as any twisting of space.
  • Alliterative Title: At The Mountains Of Madness
  • Ancient Astronauts: The Elder Things and their slave servants, the Shoggoths. Notable in that unlike most ancient astronaut stories, the aliens are decidedly not humanoid, and have no interest whatsoever in humanity.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The story, and there is one implied written by the alien Elder Things which no-one in the expedition can read, but is accompanied by various wall carvings depicting images which convey the history of the race and its decline.
  • Arc Words
    • "Mountains of Madness", describing the mountain range where the city of the Elder Ones lies, but arguably fits the mountains beyond much better.
    • "...decadent sculptures...", indicating the degeneration of the Elder Ones as seen in their art.
    • "...a sort of musical piping, over a wide range", the sounds used by the Elder Ones to communicate, and as it turns out, the sounds imitated by the Shoggoths.
    • "Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!", The single phrase we hear of the Elder Ones' language.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Giant penguins? Theoretically possible. Blind giant penguins? Not at all likely, considering penguins are almost entirely sight-hunters. It's implied to be some sort of corruption effect, though, rather than straight evolution.
  • Back from the Dead: Subverted, as the "dead" Elder Things that seemingly came back to life had actually been in a centuries-long coma-like state of hibernation.
  • Badass Normal: The Elder Things, although not human by any means, were carbon based lifeforms, that, without any supernatural powers or anything similar, led a war against Star Spawn and their god/priest Cthulhu and fought them to a standstill. They punched out Cthulhu. And all this while also holding off attacks from the Mi-Go.
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: The Elder Things traveled to Earth naked using their wings as living solar sails.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Elder Things 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). They also resort to wearing clothing, using heaters and other human-like behavior.
  • Bizarre Alien Locomotion: Flying through space with wings is apparently fine and dandy if you're an Elder Thing. They were supposedly flapping the luminiferous Ether, but science has marched on.
  • Blob Monster: The Shoggoths, with the variant that they are described as constantly forming and un-forming eyes and mouths.
  • Continuity 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.
  • Cool Plane: The reason for which the expedition penetrates so far in the Antarctic. Usually identified by modern fans with the Dornier Wal / Super Wal planes of the mid-1920s, due to the fact they were used by Roald Amundsen over the Arctic in 1925. None of them however could raise to 24,000ft to cross the mountains, so they might have been Dornier Merkur type instead.
  • 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 Elder Things seem very science-based themselves. It could just be a case of the protagonist, the Elder Things, 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.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Invoked, as the sled-dogs are held from tearing into the retrieved bodies of the Elder Things presumably because they could sense that the Elder Things were actually alive.
  • Evil Smells Bad: The Elder Things smell unpleasant, but their odor is miles better than the toxic vapors the Shoggoths exude.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: The Elder Things thawed up by the expedition team, as they originated from a time of a much hotter and forest-clad, flourishing Antartica, leaving them utterly flabbergasted by the snow-coated, blizzard-ridden, hellish landscape they woke up to aeons later after their slumber.
  • The Fog of Ages: From what Dyer could interpret from the murals, the Elder Things ended up residing on the "relatively safe" Earth for so long, that they ended up forgetting a lot of vital knowledge their ancestors possessed upon their first arrival, such as the ability to enter "stasis" and flight through the vast empty aether of space. The loss eventually added to their inevitable downfall as a supreme species over the planet.
  • Foreshadowing: The sudden "degenerate" Elder Things artwork is indicative of shoggoth imitation.
  • 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.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Danforth sees... something past the far mountains. Although never outright stated, from various gibberings, it's likely that he got a good look at the history of many, many Eldritch Abominations, including the Shoggoths, the Great Old Ones, and even Outer Gods like Yog-Sothoth. It's debated how much he could truly have seen in the brief look he got, but also that he might have recognized something from the Necronomicon.
  • 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.
  • Hell Is That Noise: Dyer mentions hearing a musical piping sound in the air, which he attributes to the strong winds blowing through the Mountains, however he and Danforth hear it while exploring the depths of the alien city. It turns out to be a sound the Shoggoths make, howling the Elder Things' language.
  • Human Popsicle: The Elder Things. Very, very not human, but still the same idea.
  • Indy Escape: The two explorers escape the Shoggoth by confusing it into taking a wrong turn.
  • Info Dump: Once Dyer enters the ancient city of the Elder Things, he uncovers a series of murals and sculptures that tell the history of the city's inhabitants. Cue an onslaught of exposition on the history and purpose of the Elder Things, Shoggoths, etc that lasts for a good chunk of the story.
  • Late to the Tragedy: All of the dying happens before the viewpoint characters arrive.
  • Madness Mantra:
    • "Tekeli-li!" The narrator speculates that it's a phrase in the Elder Thing language, parroted without context or meaning by the shoggoths.
    • Danforth's listing off subway stations while running from the Shoggoth, just to try to stay focused - although as Dyer notes, it was inspired by the reminiscence of the shoggoth thundering down on them to a subway train speeding through a tunnel.
  • Mirroring Factions: 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, before burying their six fallen ones under star-shaped snow mounds. Dyer even says near the end, when they're more worried about escaping from the shoggoth, that he has some vain hope that if they run into the thawed out Elder Things first he might even be able to reason with them if he demonstrates he isn't a threat.
    "Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn - whatever they had been, they were men!"
  • Mysterious Antarctica: The Mountains of Madness are somewhere deep within the continent, around the pole itself. One of the most iconic examples of this setting.
  • Neglectful Precursors: The Elder Things created humans and all organic life on Earth by accident, but have no interest towards us.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • The terrible vision that only Danforth saw over the mountains, just before he and Dyer flee back to their plane, which pushed him over the edge into madness.
      • There's considerable setup earlier in the story, as Dyer observes that even the Elder Things were terrified of whatever was beyond those mountains, to the point that they noticeably avoided depicting it in artwork. They were only referenced at all in a handful of the more daring murals, but even those only depicted Elder Things turning away in terror from those mountains, not giving any hint about exactly what was beyond them.
    • The very brief glimpse that Dyer and Danforth have of the shoggoth that pursues them. All Dyer can say is that it put them both in mind of a subway train roaring through a tunnel.
    • The narrator himself 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.
  • Off with His Head!: The Shoggoths' main method of disposing of their hated masters is by crudely tearing off their heads through sheer force of suction. When the humans find one of the thawed out Elder Things left killed in this manner, they are paralyzed with fear due to the instant realization this means an active shoggoth is nearby.
  • Organic Technology: Used by the Elder Things to generate energy and breed shoggoths for construction purposes.
  • Panspermia: Of a sort: according to this story all life on Earth started with experiments the Elder Things let live out of apathy. So in other words, we're all the spawn of failed alien bioengineering.
  • Polar Madness: An expedition to Antarctica going horribly wrong when one camp of explorers is found slaughtered with only one man unaccounted for; it's initially suspected that he might have gone insane and committed the murders, but this theory is ultimately disproven when the "survivor's" body is found collected for dissection by the Elder Things. Later, following a harrowing escape, Danforth suffers a full-blown mental breakdown when he happens to turn around at the wrong time and see what lies beyond the mountains - but whatever he's witnessed is never precisely explained.
  • 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.Translation 
  • Ragnarök Proofing: The ruins of the unbelievably old Elder Thing city are found remarkably intact, with wall carvings still un-eroded and legible.
  • Red Herring: Gedney is initially held responsible for the massacre at Lake's camp, since he's the only one missing. When exploring the alien city behind the Mountains, Dyer and Danforth discover his body and that of a dog, dragged all the way there on a sled, thus guessing that the awakened Elder Things really did it and that they took the well-preserved bodies of Gedney and the dog out of scientific curiosity.
  • Scenery Porn: The frozen wastes of the Antarctic are described in excruciating detail.
  • Servant 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.
  • Shout-Out:
  • 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.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Elder Things are radially symmetric and built around pentagon and five-pointed star shapes. Shoggoths are just Blob Monsters.
  • Starfish Language: The Trope Namer. The Elder Things communicate by making piping sounds through their breathing tubes.
  • Take Our Word for It: Aboard the plane after escaping from the city, Danforth looks back and sees... something so horrible it cannot be put into words, far, far worse than anything they've seen so far. Whatever it was, Danforth refuses to tell Dyer what it was, and it pushes him into complete insanity.
  • Time Abyss: The Shoggoths and Elder Things are millions of years old. One of the most awe-inspiring, mind-blowing things about the alien city to the human characters exploring it isn't anything actively threatening, but its sheer age and longevity. This place was settled when life on Earth was just primordial ooze...and continued all the way through the dinosaurs to the Ice Age. The murals they observe cover millions of years of history, vast sweeps of the alien civilization across entire epochs. In its way, this is another aspect of Cosmic Horror: human civilization has barely been around for 5,000 years or so, an insignificant speck compared to the true depths of time even on this planet.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: Originally mindless workers, the Shoggoths somehow evolved intelligence once the Elder Things relocated to Earth. It's hinted that it was a side effect of the Elder Things modifying them for their new world. A war was apparently fought to resubjugate the Shoggoths and keep them from wiping out their masters, and it seemingly worked... temporarily. After the Elder Things relocated to a giant, underground sea, it's implied that the Shoggoths once again rose up, and this time, they won. Dyer hypothesizes that this was inevitable: the Shoggoths are flexibility incarnate, able to take the form needed for any task. Being so variable in nature makes keeping them in a state of static subjugation impossible.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Dyer considers the possibility that the Elder Things' 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.
  • Unseen Evil: There's something even worse that the Elder Things or the Shoggoths at the mountains, never seen or even speculated of. It's implied to be what Danforth sees at the end of the story, driving him completely mad.