At the Mountains of Madness is a novella by horror writer H P Lovecraft, written in 1931 and first published in Astounding Stories. The story is a summation of Lovecraft’s lifelong fascination with the Antartic, beginning from the time when he had followed with avidity reports of the explorations of Scott, Amundsen and others in the early decades of the 20th century. The early parts of Lovecraft’s tale also clearly show the influence of Admiral Byrd’s expedition of 1928-30. The story details the events of a disastrous expedition to the Antarctic continent in September 1930 and what was found there by a group of explorers led by the narrator, Dr William Dyer of the fictional Miskatonic University. Throughout the story, Dyer details a series of previously untold events in the hope of deterring another group of explorers who wish to return to the continent. The novella’s title is derived from a line in The Hashish Man, a short story by fantasy writer Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany: “And we came at last to those ivory hills that are named the Mountains of Madness…”.
I’ve made mention before of the Lovecraft Circle, the group of visionary young American writers who, in the early years of the 20th century, contributed their horror stories to pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Black Cat. Whilst Robert E Howard and H P Lovecraft himself would go on to become the most famous of these authors, of all of them Clark Ashton Smith was perhaps the most gifted writer. Smith actually thought of himself primarily as a poet and only turned to prose due to the meagre financial rewards that his poetry had garnered. Even so, his longer work is marked chiefly by an extraordinarily wide and ornate vocabulary, a sort of ‘fleshed out’ version of his poetry, in which plot and characters are subservient to his literary milieu. Individually, Smith’s highly imaginative, genre-spanning visions of worlds of fantasy, horror and science fiction, combined with his profound understanding of the English language, have earned him wide and lasting acclaim. However, it is his collaboration with other members of the Lovecraft Circle to create a shared universe that is perhaps his greatest achievement. Smith, Howard and Lovecraft were the leaders of the Weird Tales school of fiction, and corresponded frequently although they never met (the writer of oriental fantasies, E Hoffman Price, is the only man known to have met all three in the flesh). Together they created and developed the alternate fictional worlds of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique, as well as the dark, disturbing and unique Cthulhu Mythos. For most of his life, Smith lived in physical and intellectual isolation in Auburn, California, which earned him the nickname ‘The Bard of Auburn’.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, where he also lived for most of his life and eventually died in 1937. Despite his relatively short life and modest literary output – three short novels and about sixty short stories – he left an indelible stamp on the field of supernatural fiction, of which he is regarded as the leading twentieth-century American exponent. Lovecraft was gifted with a fertile imagination which, fed by the independent study and reading that was forced upon him by frequent illnesses which disrupted his schooling, spurred him to write many essays and poems early in his career based on the wide knowledge he acquired. But it was in the writing of horror fiction that Lovecraft truly excelled, especially after the advent in 1923 of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, to which he contributed most of his stories.