Kenneth Hite (princeofcairo) wrote,
Kenneth Hite

[Tour de Lovecraft] At the Mountains of Madness

"What has haunted my dreams for nearly forty years is a strange sense of adventurous expectancy connected with landscape and architecture and sky-effects.... I wish I could get the idea on paper -- the sense of marvel and liberation hiding in obscure dimensions and problematically reachable at rare instances through vistas of ancient streets, across leagues of strange hill country, or up endless flights of marble steps culminating in tiers of balustraded terraces. Odd stuff -- and needing a greater poet then I for effective aesthetic utilization..."
-- H.P. Lovecraft, letter to August Derleth (Jan. 1930)

This quote is true, not only of Lovecraft, but of myself, although my architectural sensibilities are more urban and more modern than his, so I would substitute "vistas of neglected alleys" and "up endless flights of granite and steel setbacks culminating in dizzying chrome and glass coronets" or some such. One can (or at least I can) get "adventurous expectancy" also from hidden literary allusions (The Crying of Lot 49), hinted conspiracies, or even sufficiently ill-tended archives. In adventure movies it gives me the sense that the movie is still happening off the frame, and I occasionally absorb it from such things as the pseudomythology in the background of Ghostbusters ("During the rectification of the Vuldronaii, the traveler came as a large and moving Torb! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the Mekhetrex supplicants, they chose a new form for him, that of a giant Sloar!") and, of course, from Lovecraft's own para-history. I've attempted it myself throughout GURPS Cabal, among other works.

But more importantly, this quote, and this concept, is a vital key for unlocking what Lovecraft was attempting aesthetically, not merely in his Innsmouth and in the haloed Providence of "Charles Dexter Ward," but in the hills outside Dunwich and the ice deserts of Antarctica. As Joshi points out in a note to the story (n. 33 in the Penguin edition I have), Lovecraft uses the term "adventurous expectancy" in Dyer's recounting of the Miskatonic Expedition.


Having spent the last stop on the tour hammering away at S.T. Joshi, it's time to give him his due -- he's absolutely, completely, 107% correct about "At the Mountains of Madness." This novella is a deliberate attempt at what Robert M. Price calls "demythologization," but which I think is better expressed as "remythologization" of the Cthulhu Mythos. It is a hard-core SF story of alien contact, a cutting-edge technothriller at the real-world fringe of scientific exploration, and a punishing, hard-bitten story of psychological disintegration. And again, as with most of HPL's real masterpieces, there's not a lot of useful commentary to add. It's a kind of re-imagining (not a sequel) of Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym, with plenty of contributions from Verne and a purely Lovecraftian bleak humor as the humans and Old Ones serially vivisect each other (shades of "Herbert West"!), while only slowly becoming aware of the surviving shoggoths that still hunt both.

What do I mean by "remythologization"? I mean a couple of somewhat related things. First, Lovecraft was attempting to provide a plausible entryway for "adventurous expectancy" not through a world-view that saw everything as magic but through a new world-view, one that saw everything as rational. Part of the reason we have "steampunk" in all its variations is that it is easier to get "adventurous expectancy" from the romantic than the familiar. (Cf. Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us." Steampunk is also, it suddenly occurs to me, a kind of domestication of technological unease, analogous to the Victorian domestication of the fairy tale.) Lovecraft (and Poe, in Pym) didn't take the easy way out and present a romantic past, but a hard-bitten present day of Antarctic exploration. It's obviously much harder to pull that off, although Verne and Wells and co. were pointing the way toward such things for a few decades before HPL, presenting the very vastness and immensity of our technological potential, and of the natural world (and cosmos), as subjects of wonder and terror. Lovecraft's mythology attempts to answer the same questions about the universe, and provide the same cosmic thrills, as all mythologies, but Lovecraft insists -- in "At the Mountains of Madness," at least -- that the answers are grounded in geology, and biology, and paleontology, while still scaring the bejezus out of us.

The other sense I use the term is to posit that Lovecraft provides a whole new vocabulary for mythologizing things, a whole new regime of gods and monsters in the world of aliens, genetic constructs, Theosophically vast panoplies of evolution (both physical and social). This is akin to what Leiber calls Lovecraft's "Copernican Revolution" in horror (moving it from the supernatural to the alien, and from the Earthbound to the cosmic), but I'm aiming for something more specific. Lovecraft super-charges various modern and post-modern mythemes such as the ancient astronauts (although Jason Colavito goes too far when he ascribes the whole complex to HPL), the Antarctic secret (from Hollow Earths to Nazi Refuges), scientific discoveries and secret histories that They are hushing up (although the atheist HPL didn't riff on Biblical themes as much as modern mythomania naturally does), cryptids, alien experimentation on humans, and so forth. Further, he re-tunes a bunch of previous mythemes from the Frankenstein/Prometheus (genetically constructed shoggoths, which still live in "gray goo" apocalypse), to the taboo Mountain (see modern attitudes to Tibet, Sedona, etc.), to the haunted castle (now an archaeological site, viz. Exorcist or Indiana Jones), to the cavernous Underworld (from Kadath to Dulce is a short hop). All he needs in "Mountains" is a UFO or two, and the whole skeleton of modern mythology would be on display in one novella. Lovecraft didn't invent our modern mythology, but he is its Hesiod, and "At the Mountains of Madness" is a twentieth-century Theogony.

NEXT: "The Thing on the Doorstep"
Tags: tour de lovecraft
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