Long before “found footage” horror genre was a thing, H.P. Lovecraft was doing something similar. He did first-person letter narration, and it is quite amazing. In a nutshell, we’re told the consequences of a story directly to us, which is much different than witnessing the action unfold. The latter wouldn’t have the same impact in recapping the futility and insignificance of mankind. The desperation intensifies because the narrator already knows the outcome of the narration and the futility it represents.
Many people find Lovecraft tedious to read. This is mostly because of his “liberal” use of adjectives to describe things.
But, I beg to differ.
This adjective-rich style sets the mood for the cosmic horror he writes about. and is used as a tool to depict otherwise indescribable things. Although he sometimes got carried away, still Lovecraft used this style almost perfectly.
And nothing is a better example of Lovecraft’s genius than At the Mountains of Madness. Written in 1931, and published in 1936, it is the magnum opus of Lovecraft.
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At the Mountains of Madness – Plot Summary
In a true Lovecraftian style, the story of At the Mountains of Madness is told in first-person narration by William Dyer. He is a geologist professor at the Miskatonic University in Arkham. The story is told after the events at the Mountain of Madness transpired.
Part One: William Dyer’s Letters
The novella begins with Dyer’s writings to disclose what happened during the expedition he led to Antarctica. His reason to tell such a horrible story is to prevent the new scientific expedition to Antarctica, which is heavily promoted in newspapers and media. He wants to prevent this new expedition from suffering the same fate as his did. In his letter, he describes in detail what happened to Professor Lake’s advance group. This includes how they all died, killed by ancient horrors. And, how he and his student discovered the eldritch ruins and the horrible secrets lying high in a mountain range in Antarctica.
Part Two: The Elder Things
Professor Lake’s group was sent days before the whole expedition. They discover something buried in the base of a mountain range in the North-West of Antarctica bigger than the Himalayas.
What's found are fourteen barrel-like life-forms, never before seen or known to science. These were neither animals, nor plants, but something in-between. Something else. Lake’s group found them deep in the stratum of the soil, with Cambrian age fossils dented with tools around them. This makes these life-forms at around 500 million years old. Cambrian fossils are simple, and these creature’s complexity is defiance to what evolution stands for.
Out of the fourteen specimens, six were damaged while seven were intact. Lake recalls the “Elder Ones”, creatures of myth mentioned in the “Necronomicon” written by the Mad Arab and names these creatures as such.
Part 3: The Disappearance
William Dyer and his colleagues go to investigate Lake’s camp after the main expedition loses contact with the advance group. What they find is devastating - the camp is ruined and most men and dogs slaughtered.
Upon further investigation near the campsite, they find the six mounds with the damaged creatures under them. The seven preserved ones were gone. And, they find a man and a dog who were a subject to a crude dissection experiment.
One of the expedition’s crew, Gedney, was not among the dead, alongside one of the dogs. Dyer’s group suspects Gedney went mad, killed everyone, and fled.
Part 4: The Eldritch City
Dyer and a student of his, Danforth, fly an airplane over the mountains. They discover something both fantastic and horrifying. The mountain range is, in fact, the outer range of a huge, abandoned city with alien architecture. The shape of buildings was completely paradoxical, with cubes, cones and weird geometric shapes that should not be. Yet they are.
The two land the plane and begin exploring. From hieroglyphic murals covering the walls of these structures, they learn the history of the Elder Things (or Old Ones). As the murals explain, the Elder Things came to Earth when the Moon got separated from the planet. For the building of their cities, they genetically engineered creatures named Shoggoths. These creatures could take any form and reflect any thought. They created all life (by accident, from the residue of their creations the Shoggoth.)
As Dyer and Danforth explore, they find more fragments and the histories of races beyond mankind’s comprehension. These include the wars between the Elder Things and the Star Spawn of Cthulhu, the Cthulhi, and the Mi-Go race who arrived after the Old Ones did. The murals reflect the whole passage of time for the Elder Things. How their civilization degraded after the Shoggoths rebelled against their masters. Their whole race devolved from god-like creators to primitive gatherers because of this conflict. Their main objective became survival instead of knowledge. This fact is obvious in their murals becoming more and more primitive as history goes onward.
Lastly, the murals point out that some terrible evil, unknown in name, is located in a larger range beyond the city. And it terrifies the Old Ones. The last of the murals explain when Antarctica became uninhabitable, the Elder Things moved to a large, subterranean ocean.