At the Mountains of Madness (fiction)

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At the Mountains of Madness is a novella by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, written in February/March 1931 and originally serialized in the February, March and April 1936 issues Astounding Stories. It has been reproduced in numerous collections since Lovecraft's death.

Classics Illustrated's cover to "At the Mountains of Madness"

The story is considered by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi to represent the decisive "demythology" of the Cthulhu Mythos.


Lovecraft had a lifelong interest in Antarctic exploration. "Lovecraft had been fascinated with the Antarctic continent since he was at least 12 years old, when he had written several small treatises on early Antarctic explorers," biographer S. T. Joshi wrote.<ref>S. T. Joshi, The Annotated Lovecraft, p. 175.</ref> At about the age of 9, inspired by W. Clark Russell's 1887 book The Frozen Pirate, Lovecraft had written "several yarns" set in Antarctica.<ref>Joshi and Schultz, p. 132.</ref>

By the 1920s, Joshi notes, Antarctica was "one of the last unexplored regions of the earth, where large stretches of territory had never seen the tread of human feet. Contemporary maps of the continent show a number of provocative blanks, and Lovecraft could exercise his imagination in filling them in...with little fear of immediate contradiction."<ref>Joshi, p. 18.</ref>

The first expedition of Richard Evelyn Byrd took place in 1928-1930, the period just before the novella was written, and Lovecraft mentioned the explorer repeatedly in his letters, remarking at one point on "geologists of the Byrd expedition having found many fossils indicating a tropical past".<ref>H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. 3, p. 144; cited in Joshi, p. 183; see also Joshi, p. 186.</ref>

Lin Carter has suggested that one inspiration for At the Mountains of Madness was Lovecraft's own hypersensitivity to cold, as evidenced by an incident where the writer "collapsed in the street and was carried unconscious into a drug store" because the temperature dropped from 60 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees to -1 degree Celsius). "The loathing and horror that extreme cold evoked in him was carried over into his writing," Carter wrote, "and the pages of Madness convey the blighting, blasting, stifling sensation caused by sub-zero temperatures in a way that even Poe could not suggest."<ref>Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, p. 84. Joshi regards this suggestion as "facile"--Annotated Lovecraft, pp. 17-18.</ref>

Lovecraft's most obvious literary source for At the Mountains of Madness is Edgar Allan Poe's lone novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (fiction), whose concluding section is set in Antarctica. Lovecraft twice cites Poe's "disturbing and enigmatical" story in his text, and explicitly borrows the mysterious phrase "Tekeli-li" from Poe's work. In a letter to August Derleth, Lovecraft wrote that he was trying to achieve with his ending an effect similar to what Poe accomplished in Pym.<ref>H. P. Lovecraft, letter to August Derleth, May 16, 1931; cited in Joshi, pp. 329-330.</ref>


Another proposed inspiration for At the Mountains of Madness is Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earth's Core (1914), a novel that posits a highly intelligent reptilian race, the Mahar, living in a hollow earth. "Consider the similarity of Burroughs' Mahar to Lovecraft's Old Ones, both of whom are presented sympathetically despite their ill-treatment of man," writes critic William Fulwiler. "[B]oth are winged, web-footed, dominant races; both are scientific scholarly races with a talent for genetics, engineering, and architecture; and both races use men as cattle." Both stories, Fulwiler points out, involve radical new drilling techniques; in both stories, humans are vivisected by nonhuman scientists. Burroughs' Mahar even employ a species of servants known as Sagoths, possibly the source of Lovecraft's shoggoths.<ref>William Fulwiler, "E.R.B. and H.P.L.", Black Forbidden Things, p. 64.</ref>

Other possible sources include A. Merritt's "The People of the Pit (fiction)", whose description of an underground city in the Yukon bears some resemblance to that of Lovecraft's Elder Things, and Katharine Metcalf Roof's "A Million Years After (fiction)", a story about dinosaurs hatching from eggs millions of years old that appeared in the November 1930 edition Weird Tales. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft declared the story to be a "rotten", "cheap", and "puerile" version of an idea he had come up with years earlier, and Joshi suggests it may have provoked him to write his own tale of "the awakening of entities from the dim reaches of earth's history."<ref>H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. III, p. 186; Joshi, p. 175.</ref>

The long scope of history recounted in the story may have been inspired by Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. Some details of the story may have been taken from M. P. Shiel's 1901 novel of Arctic exploration, The Purple Cloud (fiction), which was republished in 1930.<ref>Joshi and Schultz, pp. 10-11.</ref>

Lovecraft's own "The Nameless City (fiction)" (1921), which also deals with the exploration of an ancient underground city apparently abandoned by its nonhuman builders, is a clear precedent for At the Mountains of Madness. In both stories, the explorers use the nonhumans' artwork to deduce the history of their species.<ref>H. P. Lovecraft, "The Nameless City", Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, pp. 104-105; cited in Joshi, pp. 264-265.</ref>


This story was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright on the grounds of its length. The story eventually appeared four years later in Astounding Stories.

Plot summary

The story is written in first-person perspective by Professor William Dyer, a geologist from Miskatonic University. He writes to disclose hitherto unknown and closely kept secrets in the hope that he can deter a planned and much publicized scientific expedition to Antarctica. On a previous expedition there, a party of scholars from Miskatonic University, led by Dyer, discovered fantastic and horrific ruins and a dangerous secret beyond a range of mountains taller than the Himalayas.

The group that discovered and crossed the mountains found the remains of fourteen ancient life forms, completely unknown to science and unidentifiable as neither plants or animals, after discovering an underground cave while boring for ice cores. Six of the specimens seem to be badly damaged, the others uncannily pristine. The extremely early date in the geological strata of these "fossils" is problematic because of their highly evolved features. Because of their resemblance to creatures of myth mentioned in the Necronomicon, they are dubbed the "Elder Things".

When the main expedition loses contact with this party, Dyer and the rest of his colleagues travel to their camp to investigate. The camp is devastated and both the men and the dogs slaughtered, with only one of each missing. Near the camp they find six star-shaped snow mounds, and a damaged Elder Thing buried under each. They discover that the better preserved life forms have vanished, and that some form of experiment has been done, though they are only able to speculate on the subject, and the possibility that it is the missing man and dog. Dyer elects, then, to close off the area from which they took their samples.

Dyer and a student named Danforth fly an airplane over the mountains, which they soon realize are the outer wall of a huge, abandoned stone city of cubes and cones, utterly alien to any human architecture. Exploring one of the cones, the men are able to learn the history of the Elder Things by interpreting their magnificent hieroglyphic murals: The Elder Things first came to Earth shortly after the Moon was pulled loose from the planet and were the creators of life. They built their cities with the help of "shoggoths", things created to perform any task, assume any form, and reflect any thought. Danforth and Dyer realize that the eight Elder Things were still alive when they find a sledge from the camp up in the city, which to their horror contains the bodies of the missing dog and man, evidently kept as scientific specimens.

They find evidence of dead Elder Things and are chased back to their plane by an ululating horror which they identify as a shoggoth. As they fly away, only Danforth looks back and sees something that causes him to lose most of his sanity, and which he refuses to describe. Professor Dyer concludes that the Elder Things and their civilization were destroyed by the shoggoths they created, and begs the planners of the proposed Antarctic expedition to stay away from things that should not be loosed on this Earth.


William Dyer

(ca. 1875–?)

The narrator of At the Mountains of Madness, he is a professor of geology at Miskatonic University and a leader of the disastrous Pabodie Expedition to Antarctica in 193031. He reappears in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time", where he accompanies an expedition to Australia's Great Sandy Desert where he is said to be "appalled at the measureless age of the fragments" of a primordial civilization found there.

In At the Mountains of Madness, he has no first name, only being called "William Dyer" in "The Shadow Out of Time".


Graduate student at Miskatonic University. As part of the Pabodie Expedition, he accompanies Dyer on a survey flight over the "Plateau of Leng" and goes mad after seeing something. He is described as "a great reader of bizarre material", and makes allusions to Edgar Allan Poe and the Necronomicon.

According to Fritz Leiber's "To Arkham and the Stars", he later recovered after being treated with experimental drugs developed by Professor Morgan, though he never recalled the horror he saw on the plateau. Afterwards, he became a professor of psychology at the university.

Frank H. Pabodie

A member of Miskatonic's engineering department, Professor Pabodie invented a drill for the expedition that was "unique and radical in its lightness, portability, and cope quickly with strata of varying hardness." He also added "fuel-warming and quick-starting devices" to the expedition's four aircraft.<ref>Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, p. 4.</ref>

Lovecraft wrote of the name "Pabodie", "I chose it as a name typical of good old New England stock, yet not sufficiently common to sound conventional or hackneyed." It's an alternative spelling of "Peabody", a name Lovecraft was familiar with through the Peabody Museum in Salem.<ref>H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. V, p. 228; Joshi, p. 181.</ref>

Professor Lake

Lake is a professor of biology at Miskatonic University. It is he who first discovers the Mountains of Madness as a result of his "strange and dogged insistence on a westward--or rather, northwestward--prospecting trip" based on his discovery of strange fossils. He also discovers the ancient extraterrestrial specimens that he dubs Elder Things based on their resemblance to "certain monsters of primal myth" found in the Necronomicon. He reports that his findings in Antarctica confirm his belief "that earth has seen whole cycles of organic life before known one that begins with Archaeozoic cells," and predicts that this "[w]ill mean to biology what Einstein has meant to mathematics and physics." When the Elder Things turn out to be living creatures rather than fossils, they butcher Lake and the rest of his sub-expedition. For the rest of the story, he is referred to as "poor Lake".

Professor Atwood

A member of the Miskatonic University physics department, and also a meteorologist. He is part of the Lake sub-expedition and is also butchered by the Elder Things.


According to S. T. Joshi, who included this novella as the central story in the first volume of his Annotated Lovecraft series, Mountains reveals Lovecraft's true feelings on the so-called Cthulhu Mythos that subsequent writers attributed to him, and "demythologizes" much of his earlier work.

Many of Lovecraft's stories involve features that appear to be supernatural, such as monsters and the occult. However, Mountains appears to explain the origins of such elements—from occult symbols to "gods" such as Cthulhu—in rational terms. Mountains explains many elements of the "Cthulhu Mythos" in terms of early alien civilizations that took root on Earth long before humans appeared.

The story has also inadvertently popularized the concept of ancient astronauts, as well as Antarctica's place in the "ancient astronaut mythology".<ref>Jason Colavito, The Cthulhu Comparison</ref>

Connections to other Lovecraft stories

At the Mountains of Madness has numerous connections to other Lovecraft stories. A few include:

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Director John Carpenter's Lovecraftian tribute movie In the Mouth of Madness (1994 film) (1995) bases its title on this story, although the plot is unrelated.

Director Guillermo Del Toro has written a screenplay based on Lovecraft's story, but in 2006 has had trouble getting Warner Brothers to finance the project. Wrote Del Toro, "The studio is very nervous about the cost and it not having a love story or a happy ending, but it's impossible to do either in the Lovecraft universe."<ref>Guillermo Del Toro Films, At the Mountains of Madness</ref>

A radio adaption of At the Mountains of Madness is available from the Atlanta Radio Theater Company.

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society<ref> "HPLHS"</ref> produced a 1930s-style radio drama of the story, featuring professional actors, original music and sound effects. It is packaged with photos from the expedition, newspaper clippings and other fun props.

Mountains of Madness is a musical adaptation of Lovecraft's stories by Alexander Hacke, Danielle de Picciotto and The Tiger Lillies


After Lovecraft's death, more than one "sequel" to At the Mountains of Madness has been released:

  • Chaosium developed a game book for their Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, called Beyond the Mountains of Madness, essentially a follow-up to the original story.
  • Tim Curran's 2005 novel Hive (fiction) describes a new Antarctic expedition in the 2000s decade that rediscovers the Elder Thing city.


  • The book Mountains of Madness: A Scientist's Odyssey in Antarctica (2001), by John Long, is an account of a real-life expedition to Antarctica that searched for fossils near the location in the story, but fortunately without the disasters that befell Lovecraft's scientists.
  • Late in the story, one of the characters recites a series of subway stops to calm himself; all of the stops still exist today on the Red Line subway in Boston (though some have changed names).
  • Some believe that Lovecraft references the "cursed" Gedney family with the character of the same name.
  • The giant penguins that feature in the ruins of the Elder Thing's city were inspired by the prehistoric species Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi.
  • A sequel to the story, Hive (fiction) by Tim Curran, details a modern expedition to the Antarctica in which the team discover a subterranean flooded city still populated by Old Ones, who reach out with their minds and gradually drive most of the crew insane. The book references the original story directly, with quotes and characters, and also bears a strong resemblance to the Lovecraft-themed John Carpenter film The Thing.
  • Another sequel is the Charles Stross novella A Colder War, which takes place in a world where the proposed follow-up expedition to Antarctica takes place and rediscovers the Elder Thing city as well as locating several more across Earth.

See also

External links