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 of Astounding Stories. It has been reproduced in numerous collections. In 2010, it was announced that a film adaptation would be made, directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi describes the novella as representing the decisive "demythology" of the Cthulhu Mythos by reinterpreting Lovecraft's earlier supernatural stories in a science fiction paradigm.

Plot summary

The story is written in first-person perspective by the geologist William Dyer, a professor 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 higher than the Himalayas.

File:At the Mountains of Madness -image002.jpg

The group that discovered and crossed the mountains found the remains of fourteen ancient life forms, completely unknown to science and unidentifiable as either plants or animals, after discovering an underground cave while boring for ice cores. Six of the specimens are badly damaged, the others uncannily pristine. Their highly-evolved features are problematic: their stratum location puts them at a point on the geologic time scale much too early for such features to have naturally evolved yet. 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 dissection experiment has been done on a man and dog. Dyer elects to close off the area from which they took their samples.

Dyer and a graduate 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 compared with any human architecture. By exploring these fantastic structures, 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. As more buildings are explored, a fantastic vista opens of the history of races beyond the scope of man's understanding, including the Elder Things' conflicts with the Star-spawn of Cthulhu and the Mi-go who arrived on Earth some time after the Elder Things themselves. Uncannily, the images also reflect a degradation in the order of this civilization, as the Shoggoths gain independence. As more resources are applied to maintaining order, the etchings become haphazard and primitive. The murals also allude to some unnamed evil in an even larger mountain range just past their city which even they fear greatly. Eventually, as Antarctica became uninhabitable even for the Elder Things, they migrated into a large, subterranean ocean.

The two eventually realize they are not alone in the city. The Elder Things missing from Lake's camp had somehow returned to life and, after slaughtering the explorers, returned to the city of their origin. Dyer and Danforth discover traces of the Elder Things' earlier exploration, as well as sledges containing the corpses of the man and dog missing from the camp.

As the two progress further into the city, they are ultimately drawn to a massive, ominous entrance which is the opening of a tunnel which they believe leads into the subterranean region described in the murals. Compulsively they are drawn in, finding further horrors: evidence of dead Elder Things caught in a brutal struggle and blind six-foot-tall penguins wandering around placidly. They are confronted with an immense, ululating horror in the form of a black, bubbling mass, which they identify as a Shoggoth. They escape with their lives using luck and diversion. On the plane high above the plateau, Danforth looks back and sees something that causes him to lose his sanity. He refuses to tell anyone (even Dyer) what he saw, though it is implied that it has something to do with what lies beyond the larger mountain range that even the Elder Things feared.

Professor Dyer concludes that the Elder Things and their civilization were destroyed by the Shoggoths they created and that this entity has sustained itself on the enormous penguins since eons past. He begs the planners of the next 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 1930–31. Only his last name is mentioned in the text of Mountains, though he is fully identified in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time", where he accompanies an expedition to Australia's Great Sandy Desert.


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.

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.[1]

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.[2]

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 eight of 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.


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.[3] 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.[4]

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."[5]

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".[6] In fact, Miskatonic University's expedition was modelled after that of Byrd.[7]

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."[8]

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, whose concluding section is set in Antarctica. Lovecraft twice cites Poe's "disturbing and enigmatic" 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.[9]

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.[10]

Other possible sources include A. Merritt's "The People of the Pit", 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", 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."[11]

S.T. Joshi & Schultz's An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia suggest that 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, which was republished in 1930.[12]

The title is believed by Joshi to derive from a line in Lord Dunsany's short story "The Hashish Man": "And we came at last to those ivory hills that are named the Mountains of Madness...".

Lovecraft's own "The Nameless City" (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.[13]

As for details of the Antarctic setting, the author's description of some of the scenery is in part inspired by the Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and the illustrations of Gustav Dore both of whom are referenced by the story's narrator multiple times.


This story was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright on the grounds of its length.[14] The story eventually appeared four years later in Astounding Stories.


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 and scientific terms. Mountains explains many elements of the "Cthulhu Mythos" in terms of early alien civilizations that took root on Earth long before humans appeared, going so far as to use contemporary scientific findings as backing. Frequent references are made to primitive lifeforms like Crinoids and geologic time periods like the Paleozoic. In this rationalization "strange aeons" suddenly becomes "the Precambrian" or "the Archean epoch" (though the definitions of these time periods have since changed.). He frequently uses scientific language to describe creatures and places, even alluding to the separation of the moon from the earth and the breakup of Pangaea and a limited early understanding of continental drift. Though in the modern cast these references are extremely dated, they were cutting edge for their time.

However, practicing occultist and co-author of The Necronomicon Files John William Gonce III asserts that this supposed demythologizing is itself mythical, writing that Lovecraft "never divorced magic from his fiction; he simply married it to science." Gonce says Lovecraft continued to use occult plot devices in his stories until the end of his life.[15]

The story has also inadvertently popularized the concept of ancient astronauts, as well as Antarctica's place in the "ancient astronaut mythology".[16]

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 Guillermo del Toro and screenwriter Matthew Robbins wrote a screenplay based on Lovecraft's story, but in 2006 had trouble getting Warner Bros. to finance the project. Del Toro wrote, "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."[19] In July 2010 it was announced that the project would be made in 3D with James Cameron as producer.[20] A radio adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness is available from the Atlanta Radio Theater Company.

The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society[21] produced a 1930s-style radio drama of the story, featuring a full cast, original music and sound effects. It is packaged with photos from the expedition, newspaper clippings and other feelies.

The psychedelic rock group H. P. Lovecraft wrote and recorded a song titled "At the Mountains of Madness", which was based on the novella. The song appears on the band's second album H. P. Lovecraft II and a live performance of it, recorded at The Fillmore, is included on their Live May 11, 1968 album.

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

The film Alien vs. Predator was partly inspired by At the Mountains of Madness, according to the film's DVD commentary.

The title of John Carpenter's horror film In the Mouth of Madness is a play on Lovecraft's books At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The film itself also plays heavy references to Lovecraft's stories and themes.

In October and November of 2010, BBC7 broadcast an abridged reading in five half-hour episodes performed by Richard Coyle.[22]



In May 2005, Elder Signs Press published Hive, by Tim Curran. This book was to serve as a sequel of sorts to At The Mountains of Madness. However, author Curran took great liberties with Lovecraft's original tale. In the story, set in the present, the Plateau of Leng had crumbled under the ice and snow due to geological changes, the Shoggoths are non-existent (with Dyer's accounts of them overthrowing the Elder Things having been chalked up to stress and madness), and the Elder Things, both living and ethereal, still exist under the Antarctic ice. The plot deals with a group of American explorers unearthing an Elder Thing tomb and citadel. A parallel plot also deals with an expedition using an experimental submersible to breach Lake Vostok, which is named as the location of the underwater city to which the Elder Things fled.

The book also heavily borrows thematics from John W. Campbell's story Who Goes There? as well as its two film adaptations.

Upon release the book was met with mixed reviews from both critics and Lovecraft fans alike.

Beyond The Mountains of Madness

Chaosium games released a campaign book titled "Beyond The Mountains of Madness" for their Call of Cthulhu rpg system. This book edited and written by Chaz and Janyce Engan (and many others) details the Starweather-Moore expedition return to the ice to discover the truth about the Miskatonic Expedition. The book incorporates quite well many of the aspects of the original Lovecraft story, including references to the Poe story, Nicholas Roerich, Danforth and Dyer.

The game book won the Origins Award for best role playing supplement, and while receiving some criticism for perceived "railroading" of the plot - has also been praised for its readability as a novel, and its dark ending which mirrors Lovecraft's nihilistic writings.

A Colder War

"A Colder War" is a loose sequel to "At The Mountains of Madness", by Charles Stross, where the secrets from beyond the mountains of madness are used by the superpowers of the cold war to dreadful effect.

See also



  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (2005) [1936]. "At the Mountains of Madness". At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition. New York, NY: The Modern Library. ISBN 0-8129-7441-7 (paperback) Check |isbn= value: invalid character (help). 
  • Pearsall, Anthony B. (2005). The Lovecraft Lexicon (1st ed. ed.). Tempe, AZ: New Falcon. ISBN 1-56184-129-3. 

Web sites


Script error

  1. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, p. 4.
  2. H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. V, p. 228; Joshi, p. 181.
  3. S. T. Joshi, The Annotated Lovecraft, p. 175.
  4. Joshi and Schultz, p. 132.
  5. Joshi, p. 18.
  6. H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. 3, p. 144; cited in Joshi, p. 183; see also Joshi, p. 186.
  7. Manhire, Bill (2004). The wide white page: writers imagine Antarctica. Victoria University Press, p. 315. ISBN 0864734859
  8. Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, p. 84. Joshi regards this suggestion as "facile" - Annotated Lovecraft, pp. 17-18.
  9. H. P. Lovecraft, letter to August Derleth, May 16, 1931; cited in Joshi, pp. 329-330.
  10. William Fulwiler, "E.R.B. and H.P.L.", Black Forbidden Things, p. 64.
  11. H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. III, p. 186; Joshi, p. 175.
  12. Joshi and Schultz, pp. 10-11.
  13. H. P. Lovecraft, "The Nameless City", Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, pp. 104-105; cited in Joshi, pp. 264-265.
  14. Joshi, S. T. (2001). A dreamer and a visionary: H.P. Lovecraft in his time. Liverpool University Press, 302. ISBN 0853239460
  15. Gonce, John William, and Harms, Daniel. The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend. 2003 edition, p.97
  16. Jason Colavito, The Cthulhu Comparison
  17. Anthony Pearsall, The Lovecraft Lexicon, p. 326.
  18. Ibid, p. 146.
  19. Guillermo Del Toro Films, At the Mountains of Madness
  20. "Guillermo Del Toro Finally Arrives 'At The Mountains Of Madness'! Best Movie News Of The Year?"
  21. "HPLHS"
  22. BBC Radio Page for the series. [1]

External links

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