Mountains of Madness: A Journey through Antarctica
by John Long
From the foreward by Tom Bowden:
Long, a scientist-romantic, is a keen student of Antarctic writing and his quotations from men like Byrd, Cherry-Garrard, Mawson,
Scott and Shackleton add lustre to this outstanding account. By coincidence, the party landed near the mythical location chosen by novelist H. P. Lovecraft for his classic Gothic story, At the Mountains of Madness
, where a geological expedition stumbles across a strange and hidden civilisation. While blizzard-bound in their tents, the four expeditioners passed the time by reading Lovecraft out loud. Their isolation engendered their own moments of madness, courageously described by Long.
There is a clue in one of H.P. Lovecraft’s quotes selected by John Long from At the Mountains of Madness
Half-paralysed with terror though we were, there was nevertheless fanned within us a blazing flame of awe and curiosity which triumphed in the end.
Tim Bowden is the author of two books on Antarctica, Antarctica and Back in Sixty Days
and The Silence Calling: Australians in Antarctica 1947–97
From the preface by John Long:
During the three months I spent in Antarctica on the 1991/92 expedition, every evening my colleagues and I took turns at reading aloud a few pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic gothic story, At the Mountains of Madness
, first published in 1931. In that book an expedition to the remote wilds of Antarctica finds evidence of an incredibly ancient civilisation still inhabited by strange beings. At the time of writing it, Lovecraft based his hidden civilisation in a totally remote, unexplored location inland from the Transantarctic Mountains at 76° South. This position (which incidentally Lovecraft cites with an exact latitude and longitude) coincided with being directly inland towards the polar plateau from the mountains where we were based near the end of our long sledging journey. Most of the Cook Mountains had never before been investigated on the ground, so we were the first humans to scale several of these lofty peaks, to explore for geological treasures and to discover many new fossil sites there.
Yet, always, each evening, we would anxiously await to hear more of Lovecraft’s gradually unnerving tale. Recently I pulled out my old maps from the field trip and saw that I had annotated the northern-most mountain range in the Cook Mountains as the ‘Mountains of Madness’. The name has no official status. It was our little joke for the expedition, yet somehow it has stuck in the back of my mind.
A strange and hostile land
I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against
my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic—with its vast fossil hunt and its wholesale
boring and melting of the ancient ice caps (H.P. Lovecraft).
Thus begins the epic horror story At the Mountains of Madness, a twisted tale of an Antarctic fossil-hunting expedition that went horribly wrong, culminating in the death or madness of most of the expeditioners. At the time this was being written, in 1930, Sir Douglas Mawson was on his last Antarctic expedition, the British–Australian–New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE 1929–31), cruising and mapping much of the unseen coastline of this vast, largely unknown continent. In those days it would not have seemed so mysterious for a continent the size of Antarctica to hold many scientific secrets, perhaps even the vestigial traces of lost civilisations or the fossil remains of higher life forms not found anywhere else on the planet,
as Lovecraft’s doomed explorers eventually discovered. The reality was simple in 1931: an incredibly small portion of the Antarctic
landmass had been explored at all, and virtually nothing was known of its geology or its palaeontology.
Most people, quite rightly, think of Antarctica as a land of hostility, an almost alien and unfriendly landscape. Mawson dubbed it the ‘home of the blizzard’ in his epic book of the same name. Vaughan Williams’ musical score for the 1948 classic film Scott of the Antarctic
(which became his Sinfonia Antarctica
in 1953) used haunting, lilting tones to paint a musical portrait of a cruel, inhuman Antarctica; his refrains are somewhat similar to how one imagines the mythological sirens’ songs that were said to lure sailors to their deaths.
In 1931 the concept of ‘plate tectonics’ was indeed a controversial and much misunderstood theory that few scientists took seriously. The German geographer Alfred Wegener had published his book on the subject in the 1920s but he never gained acceptance in the scientific circles of his day. In Lovecraft’s novel At the Mountains of Madness
, the summary presented is indeed a futuristic, yet uncannily correct, view of the situation as we understand it today. On finding the maps and charts of the ‘Ancient Ones’, the civilisation that is discovered existing in the remote part of the continent, the expedition’s scientist (also the narrator) notes how Antarctica was depicted as being the centre of a once gigantic supercontinent:
As I have said, the hypothesis of Taylor, Wegener and Joly that all continents are fragments of an original antarctic land mass which cracked from centrifugal force and drifted apart over a technically viscous lower surface—an hypothesis suggested by such things as the complementary outlines of Africa and South America, and the way the great mountain chains are rolled and shoved up—receives striking support from this uncanny source.
Antarctica is also the most recent of the continents to be discovered, explored and inhabited by us humans. Over 2000 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle hinted at the early existence of an unseen southern continent because he saw a need to balance out the mass of the large northern hemisphere continents. As the northern landmasses were under the star Arktos
, so Aristotle postulated that a great southern land must exist, which he dubbed Antarktos
. Ptolemy (150AD), the Egyptian geographer, went further by agreeing that this southern land, which he referred to as terra australis incognita
, must exist, and furthermore that it would be fertile and populated. He claimed that it was cut off from the rest of the world by a region of fire and some others went on to say that it was inhabited by fearful monsters. Such ideas naturally discouraged further exploration to the Antarctic region for many centuries to come.
On the snout of the Alligator
It was so much simpler—so much more normal—to lay everything to an outbreak of madness on the part of some of Lake’s party. From the look of things that demon wind must have been enough to drive any man mad in the midst of this centre of all earthly mystery and desolation (H.P. Lovecraft).
This passage is one that sums up well how Antarctic explorers often feel about the wind, which is enough to drive a person to the brink of insanity after weeks of incessant howling gales. For us, the wind was both evil and a blessing, at times uncomfortably cold and cruel, yet at other times blasting away the snow covering our precious fossil-bearing rocks, exposing the timeless treasures we had ventured down to this inhuman landscape to find.
At the crucible of shark evolution
. . . the inevitable inference was that in this part of the world there had been a remarkable and unique degree of continuity between the life of over three hundred million years ago and that of only thirty million years ago (H.P. Lovecraft).
In this passage from At the Mountains of Madness
Lovecraft suggested that the ancient life of Antarctica may have remained unchanged for millions of years, perhaps unaffected by the several major extinction events that nicely carve up our geological time scale into the neat blocks we call ‘periods’. As absurd as this notion now is in the light of many new discoveries of fossils from Antarctica, which indeed testify that extinction events did occur globally, Antarctica (as the hub of Gondwana) may well have been a crucible for the evolutionary radiation of certain vertebrate groups. In this respect, if the earliest true sharks, called ‘neoselachians’, did originate here, as this chapter suggests, then Lovecraft’s fictional hypothesis is not far from reality with respect to this one group. Sharks may well have had an evolutionary explosion in ancient Gondwana, reaching a rapid peak of evolution, then remaining unchanged for many hundreds of millions of years. Sharks only recently disappeared from the seas around Antarctica when the freezing polar conditions set in.
Base blues and arrival home in Australia
It is now my terrible duty to amplify this account by filling in the merciful blanks with what we really saw in the hidden transmontane world—hints of the revelations which have finally driven Danforth to a nervous collapse (H.P. Lovecraft).
Madness, so they say, is just a relative degree of sanity. After a long spell out in the wilds of Antarctica, one’s sanity can be strained from the pressure of constant danger, the long hours of working and from the endless days of boredom spent tent bound when it is bad. Although none of us went ‘mad’ in the traditional sense, it would be true to say that my emotions and feelings were definitely heightened, sitting far above their normal background levels.
So much for the afterglow
Perhaps we were mad—for have I not said those horrible peaks were mountains of madness? But I think I can detect something of the same spirit—albeit in a less extreme form—in the men who stalk deadly beasts through African jungles to photograph them or study their habits. Half paralysed with terror though we were, there was nevertheless fanned within us a blazing flame of awe and curiosity which triumphed in the end (H.P. Lovecraft).
Lovecraft writes in this passage about how the spirit of investigation, the flames of curiosity, eventually triumphed over the fear and adversity of their ill-fated expedition. I can empathise with his words, as the passion to research our new finds would eventually triumph over the lingering adverse effects of our expedition. However, straight after my journey through the mountains of madness, my first task was to settle back to normal life once again.
Select references: historical and literary
Lovecraft, H.P. At the Mountains of Madness, and other novels of terror, Panther books, Granada Publishing, UK, 1968
Lovecraft, H.P. 1, 4, 58, 92, 104, 151, 195, 210, 216
(Note: I haven't actually read
this book, but I did
see an episode of New Scooby Doo Mysteries today where a fan of professor Hatecraft scares the gang by dressing up with a live octopus on his head, a la Cthulhu. In the end Harlan Ellison and Hatecraft walk off the set hugging. I think I was impressed. I'm not certain.)
(EDIT: I saw it again today. It was episode 12, "Shrieking Madness," in Scooby Doo Mysteries something or other. This was sort of an origin episode: Freddy Jones, Jr., Velma, Daphne, Shaggy and Scooby are all new college students and don't know each other. Harlan Ellison lambasts Professor Hatecraft's work as at best a fraud. A fan gets upset and puts an octopus on his head, but also gets some sort of kinetic powers that are never explained, and goes on a rampage. The names have been changed: both Cthulhu and the Necronomicon are renamed Char-Gar-Gothakon. Hatecraft is forced to go public and admit he made the entire mythos up, it's all make-believe. The fan with the octopus head breaks down. Eventually Cthulhu is pulled up hanging off the side of a building from Hatecraft's legs, who is holding on to someone else's legs for dear life. Ellison and Hatecraft plan a new project together called "A Boy and His Shoggoth" or something like that. Hatecraft suggests a forgetable alternative title.)