I am providence the life.., p.117

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 117


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  If any unexpected advance of physics, chemistry, or biology were to indicate the possibility of any phenomena related by the weird tale, that particular set of phenomena would cease to be weird in the ultimate sense because it would become surrounded by a different set of emotions. It would no longer represent imaginative liberation, because it would no longer indicate a suspension or violation of the natural laws against whose universal dominance our fancies rebel.

  Lovecraft is carving out a very special position for his type of weird tale: it can neither be a mere conte cruel or a tale of physical gruesomeness (what is now termed “psychological suspense”), nor can it plainly violate currently known natural laws, as in standard supernatural fiction. Only the intermediate ground—“non-supernatural cosmic art,” art that presents accounts of phenomena not currently explainable by science—can offer possibilities for creative expression in this field, at least for Lovecraft.

  At the Mountains of Madness, written in early 1931 (the autograph manuscript declares it to have been begun on February 24 and completed on March 22), is Lovecraft’s most ambitious attempt at “non-supernatural cosmic art”; it is a triumph in every way. At 40,000 words it is his longest work of fiction save The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; and just as his other two novels represent apotheoses of earlier phases of his career—The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath the culmination of Dunsanianism, Ward the pinnacle of pure supernaturalism—so is At the Mountains of Madness the greatest of his attempts to fuse weird fiction and science fiction.

  The Miskatonic Antarctic Expedition of 1930–31, led by William Dyer (his full name is never supplied here but is given in “The Shadow out of Time”), begins very promisingly but ends in tragedy and horror. Spurred by a new boring device invented by engineer Frank H. Pabodie, the expedition makes great progress at sites on the shore of McMurdo Sound (on the opposite side of the Ross Ice Shelf from where Byrd’s expedition had only recently camped). But the biologist Lake, struck by some peculiar markings on soapstone fragments he has found, feels the need to conduct a sub-expedition far to the northwest. There he makes a spectacular discovery: not only the world’s tallest mountains (“Everest out of the running,” he laconically radios back to the camp), but then the frozen remains—some damaged, some intact—of monstrous barrel-shaped creatures that cannot be reconciled with the known evolution of this planet. They seem half-animal and half-vegetable, with tremendous brain-capacity and, apparently, with more senses than we have. Lake, who has read the Necronomicon, jocosely thinks they may be the Elder Things or Old Ones spoken of in that book and elsewhere, who are “supposed to have created all earth-life as jest or mistake.”

  Later Lake’s sub-expedition loses radio contact with the main party, apparently because of the high winds in that region. After a day or so passes, Dyer feels he must come to Lake’s aid and takes a small group of men in some airplanes to see what has gone amiss. To their horror, they find the camp devastated—either by winds or by the sled dogs or by some other nameless forces—but discover no trace of the intact specimens of the Old Ones; they do come upon the damaged specimens “insanely” buried in the snow, and are forced to conclude that it is the work of the one missing human, Gedney. Dyer and the graduate student Danforth decide to take a trip by themselves beyond the titanic mountain plateau to see if they can find any explanation for the tragedy.

  As they scale the immense plateau, they find to their amazement an enormous stone city, fifty to one hundred miles in extent, clearly built millions of years ago, long before there could have been any humans on the planet. Exploring some of the interiors, they are eventually forced to conclude that the city was built by the Old Ones. Because the buildings contain, as wall decorations, many bas-reliefs supplying the history of the Old Ones’ civilisation, they are able to learn that the Old Ones came from space some fifty million years ago, settling in the Antarctic and eventually branching out to other areas of the earth. They built their huge cities with the aid of shoggoths—amorphous, fifteen-foot masses of protoplasm which they controlled by hypnotic suggestion. Unfortunately, over time these shoggoths gained a semi-stable brain and began to develop a will of their own, forcing the Old Ones to conduct several campaigns of resubjugation. Later other extraterrestrial races—including the fungi from Yuggoth and the Cthulhu spawn—came to the earth and engaged in battles over territory with the Old Ones, and eventually the latter were forced back to their original Antarctic settlement. They had also lost the ability to fly through space. The reasons for their abandonment of this city, and for their extinction, are unfathomable.

  Dyer and Danforth then stumble upon traces that someone dragging a sled had passed by, and they follow it, finding first some huge albino penguins, then the sled with the remains of Gedney and a dog, then a group of decapitated Old Ones, who had obviously come to life by being thawed in Lake’s camp. Then they hear an anomalous sound—a musical piping over a wide range. Could it be some other Old Ones? Not stopping to investigate, they flee madly; but they simultaneously turn their flashlights upon the thing for an instant, and find that it is nothing but a loathsome shoggoth:

  It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.

  As they fly back to camp, Danforth shrieks out in horror: he has seen some further sight that unhinges his mind, but he refuses to tell Dyer what it is. All he can do is make the eldritch cry, “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!”

  Once again the utter inadequacy of a synopsis of this short novel will be evident to every reader. In the first place, it cannot begin to convey the rich, detailed, and utterly convincing scientific erudition that creates the sense of verisimilitude so necessary in a tale so otherwise outré. We have already seen how Lovecraft was, since at least the age of twelve, an ardent student of the Antarctic: he had written small treatises on “Wilkes’s Explorations” and “The Voyages of Capt. Ross, R.N.” as a boy, and had followed with avidity reports of the explorations of Borchgrevink, Scott, Amundsen, and others in the early decades of the century. Indeed, as Jason C. Eckhardt has demonstrated,[35] the early parts of Lovecraft’s tale clearly show the influence of Admiral Byrd’s expedition of 1928–30, as well as other contemporary expeditions. I believe he also found a few hints on points of style and imagery in the early pages of M. P. Shiel’s great novel The Purple Cloud (1901; reissued 1930), which relates an expedition to the Arctic. But it is also Lovecraft’s thorough knowledge of geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and natural history that lead to a passage like this:

  This was my first word of the discovery, and it told of the identification of early shells, bones of ganoids and placoderms, remnants of labyrinthodonts and thecodonts, great mososaur skull fragments, dinosaur vertebrae and armour-plates, pterodactyl teeth and wing-bones, archaeopteryx debris, Miocene sharks’ teeth, primitive bird-skulls, and skulls, vertebrae, and other bones of archaic mammals such as palaeotheres, xiphodons, dinocerases, eohippi, oreodons, and titanotheres.

  Lovecraft’s science in this novel is absolutely sound for its period, although subsequent discoveries have made a few points obsolete. In fact, he was so concerned about the scientific authenticity of the work that, prior to its first publication in Astounding Stories (February, March, and April 1936), he inserted some revisions eliminating an hypothesis he had made that the Antarctic continent had originally been two land masses separated by a frozen channel between the Ross and Weddell Seas—an hypothesis that had been proven false by the first airplane flight across the continent, by Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon in late 1935.

  One must wonder, however, what compelled Lovecraft to write the novel at this very time. He never provides any explicit statement on this mat
ter, but one conjecture made by David E. Schultz is suggestive. The lead story in the November 1930 issue of Weird Tales was a poorly written and unimaginative tale by Katharine Metcalf Roof, “A Million Years After,” that dealt with the hatching of ancient dinosaur eggs. Lovecraft fumed when he saw this tale, not only because it won the cover design but because he had been badgering Frank Long to write a story on this idea for years; Long had held off because he felt that H. G. Wells’s “Æpyornis Island” had anticipated the idea. In mid-October Lovecraft wrote of the Roof tale:

  Rotten—cheap—puerile—yet winning prime distinction because of the subject matter. Now didn’t Grandpa tell a bright young man just eight years ago this month to write a story like that? . . . Fie, Sir! Somebody else wasn’t so afraid of the subject—and now a wretched mess of hash, just on the strength of its theme, gets the place of honour that Young Genoa might have had! . . . Why, damn it, boy, I’ve half a mind to write an egg story myself right now—though I fancy my primal ovoid would hatch out something infinitely more palaeogean and unrecognisable than the relatively commonplace dinosaur.[36]

  Sure enough, Lovecraft seems to have done just that. But he may have felt that the actual use of a dinosaur egg was itself ruled out, so that the only other solution would be the freezing of alien bodies in the Arctic or Antarctic regions. All this is, of course, conjecture, but it seems to me a highly plausible one.

  And, of course, it can scarcely be denied that Lovecraft’s sight of the spectacular paintings of the Himalayas by Nicholas Roerich—seen only the previous year in New York—played a factor in the genesis of the work. Roerich is mentioned a total of six times throughout the course of the novel, as if Lovecraft is going out of his way to signal the influence. Indeed, the Roerich connexion may help to explain one anomaly in the text. Lovecraft here equates the vast superplateau discovered by Dyer and Danforth with the Plateau of Leng; but when he had first invented this locale (in “The Hound”) he had placed it in Asia. Lovecraft may have been so struck by Roerich’s paintings—which seemed to embody his own conception of the Plateau of Leng—that he bodily transferred both the mountains they depicted (recall that the “mountains of madness” are explicitly declared to be taller than Everest) and the plateau to the ice-bound south. He probably did not set the tale in the Himalayas themselves both because they were already becoming well known and because he wanted to create the sense of awe implicit in mountains taller than any yet discovered on the planet. Only the relatively uncharted antarctic continent could fulfil both these functions.

  Some impatient readers have found the scientific passages—especially at the beginning—excessive, but they are essential for establishing the atmosphere of realism (and also of the protagonists’ rationality) that make the latter parts of the novel insidiously convincing. At the Mountains of Madness, which avowedly presents itself as a scientific report, is the greatest instance of Lovecraft’s dictum that “no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” [37] Indeed, the narrator claims that even this account is a less formal version of a treatise that will appear “in an official bulletin of Miskatonic University.”

  The real focus of At the Mountains of Madness is the Old Ones. Indeed, although initially portrayed as objects of terror, they ultimately yield to the shoggoths in this regard; as Fritz Leiber remarked, “the author shows us horrors and then pulls back the curtain a little farther, letting us glimpse the horrors of which even the horrors are afraid!”[38] There is, however, even more to it than this. It is not merely that the Old Ones become the secondary “horrors” in the tale; it is that they cease, toward the end, to be horrors at all. Dyer, studying the history of the Old Ones—their colonisation of the earth; their building of titanic cities on the Antarctic and elsewhere; their pursuit of knowledge—gradually comes to realise the profound bonds human beings share with them, and which neither share with the loathsome, primitive, virtually mindless shoggoths. The canonical passage occurs near the end, as he sees the group of dead Old Ones decapitated by the shoggoth:

  Poor devils! After 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 . . . and this was their tragic homecoming.

  . . . 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!

  This triumphant conclusion is, however, prefigured in a number of ways. When Lake’s decimated camp is discovered, it is evident to every reader (although Dyer cannot bring himself to admit it) that the destruction has been the work of the Old Ones. But are they morally culpable here? It is later ascertained that the immediate cause of the violence was a vicious attack upon them by the dogs of Lake’s party (Dyer, trying to look at matters from the Old Ones’ perspective, alludes to “an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defence against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia”). Some of Lake’s men have been “incised and subtracted from in the most curious, cold-blooded, and inhuman fashion” by the Old Ones; but how is this different from the crude dissection Lake himself had attempted on one of the damaged specimens? Later, when Dyer and Danforth discover the sled containing the body of Gedney (a specimen which the Old Ones had taken with them), Dyer notes that it was “wrapped with patent care to prevent further damage.”

  The most significant way in which the Old Ones are identified with human beings is in the historical digression Dyer provides, specifically in regard to the Old Ones’ social and economic organisation. In many ways they represent a utopia toward which Lovecraft clearly hopes humanity itself will one day move. The single sentence “Government was evidently complex and probably socialistic” establishes that Lovecraft had himself by this time converted to moderate socialism. Of course, the Old Ones’ civilisation is founded upon slavery of a sort; and one wonders whether the shoggoths might be, in part, a metaphor for blacks. There is one tantalising hint to this effect. Late in the novel the protagonists stumble upon an area that, as they learn later, has been decorated with bas-reliefs by the shoggoths themselves. Dyer reports that there is a vast difference between this work and that of the Old Ones—

  a difference in basic nature as well as in mere quality, and involving so profound and calamitous a degradation of skill that nothing in the hitherto observed rate of decline could have led one to expect it.

  This new and degenerate work was coarse, bold, and wholly lacking in delicacy of detail. . . .

  Recall Lovecraft’s remark in “An Account of Charleston” (written less than a year earlier) on the decline of architecture in Charleston in the nineteenth century: “Architectural details became heavy and almost crude as negro craftsmen replaced skill’d white carvers, though the good models of the eighteenth century were never wholly lost sight of.” But the identification of shoggoths and blacks is perhaps too nebulous and imprecise to be worth pressing.

  The Old Ones, of course, are not human beings, and Lovecraft never makes us forget that in many ways—intellectual capacity, sensory development, aesthetic skill—they are vastly our superiors. Even this point may be capable of a sociocultural interpretation, for the Old Ones—who created all earth life—can perhaps be seen as analogous to the Greeks and Romans who, in Lovecraft’s view, created the best phases of our own civilisation. There are a number of similarities between the Old Ones and the ancients, slavery being only one of them. At one point an explicit parallel is drawn between the Old Ones in their decline and the Romans under Constantine. One thinks of In Defence of Dagon: “Modern civilisation is the direct heir of Hellenic culture—all that we have is Greek”; and elsewhere in the same essay: “perhaps one should not wonder at anything G
reek; the race was a super-race.” The Old Ones, too, are a super-race.

  The exhaustive history of the Old Ones on this planet is of consuming interest, not only for its imaginative power but for its exemplification of a belief that Lovecraft had long held and which was emphasised by his reading of Spengler’s The Decline of the West: the inexorable rise and fall of successive civilisations. Although the Old Ones are vastly superior to human beings, they are no less subject to the forces of “decadence” than other races. As Dyer and Danforth examine the bas-reliefs and piece together the history of their civilisation, they can detect clear instances of decline from even greater heights of physical, intellectual, and aesthetic mastery. No simplistic moral is drawn from this decline—there is, for example, no suggestion whatever that the Old Ones are morally blameworthy for their creation of shoggoths as slaves, only regret that they were not able to exercise greater control over these entities and thereby subdue their rebelliousness—and it seems as if Lovecraft sees their decadence as an inevitable result of complex historical forces.

  Not only have the Old Ones created all earth-life, including human beings; they have done more: “It interested us to see in some of the very last and most decadent sculptures a shambling primitive mammal, used sometimes for food and sometimes as an amusing buffoon by the land dwellers, whose vaguely simian and human foreshadowings were unmistakable.” This must be one of the most misanthropic utterances ever made—the degradation of humanity can go no further. The Old Ones had created all earth-life as “jest or mistake”; and yet, “Nature had played a hellish jest” on those very Old Ones—first, perhaps, because they were annihilated by the shoggoths, and then because the few remnants of their species who had fortuitously survived to our age were revivified and suffered further horrors at the hands of the loathsome protoplasmic entities they have created. Human beings, accordingly, become merely the dupes of dupes, and Nature has the last laugh.

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