Vacation Necronomicon School, summer 2010 reading assignment for 27th July 2010: “At The Mountains of Madness”.
“Your short assignment today […] Lovecraft’s descriptions of Antarctic terrain (both “real” and imagined) are stirring and almost poetic […] Again and again he invokes the art of Nicholas Roerich. Create your own representation of madness, using any technique you would like.”
TASK TWO: 27th July 2010.
1: A note on the visual inspirations for the novella At the Mountains of Madness (written 1931, published 1936).
At the Mountains of Madness contrasts a painterly — and perhaps even cinematic — vision of the immense Antarctic landscape, with Lovecraft’s use of a highly precise and scientific language. Written in February/March 1931, much of his technical inspiration and language could have been supplied by the book-length memoirs and reports which arose from the first Byrd Antarctic expedition (1928-1930). Byrd commanded the first of the most advanced and well-equipped of the ‘machine age‘ expeditions. Twelve straight-jackets were also supplied on the expedition, in case of madness. The success of the major expedition and its sweeping aerial photography captured the popular imagination, and illustrated books were issued very soon after their return. Byrd issued his 422-page book Little America (1930), and other team members brought out their own illustrated books.
Possibly it was this saturation of the market with Antarcticania that caused the editor of Weird Tales to reject “Mountains”? Or was it perhaps felt that the widespread atmosphere of hero-worship around Byrd would not, at that time, permit a powerful story of the horrific bloody failure and descent into madness of a major mechanised Antarctic expedition? This may be the reason why “Mountains” was only published five years later in Astounding Tales, and then in a harshly edited form.
Even if Lovecraft had not been able to afford to buy the book-length Byrd expedition memoirs, he would undoubtedly have seen many expedition photographs reproduced in popular magazines. National Geographic was in existence at that time, and Lovecraft could hardly have failed to pick up the special Antarctic expedition edition of August 1930. It is also interesting to note that the National Geographic of February 1930 had led with a 54-page photo-story titled “Seeking the Mountains of Mystery” (an expedition on the China-Tibet frontier to the unexplored Amnyi Machen range).
One must also note the Oscar-winning silent documentary film, With Byrd at the South Pole (Paramount-Publix, 1930) which had had its New York premiere on 19th June 1930. S.T. Joshi states that some of Lovecraft’s earliest stories, written as a young child, are of Antarctica and that the icy southern continent was a lifelong interest. So Lovecraft can hardly have avoided seeing this major and acclaimed film — possibly the letters, biographies and articles in the print-only journal Lovecraft Studies (which has: “On At the Mountains of Madness : A Panel Discussion” in issue 34; and “Behind the Mountains of Madness : Lovecraft and the Antarctic in 1930” in issue 14) have more to say on this matter. But I do not have access to these print-only resources, except as they sporadically appear online via Google Books.
In “Mountains” there is certainly a most strikingly cinematic account — almost a ‘montage of anticipations’ — of the final banking approach of the aeroplane as it soars over the pass to allow the first maddening views of the Leng plateau. There is also the description of the vast mirage seen from an aeroplane, which suggests the experience of watching a cinema screen. I suggest these parts of the story may have been inspired by a cinema experience, more than by the paintings of Roerich.
There are also five passing references in “Mountains” to the mystical Theosophist/Buddhist paintings of Russian exile Nicholas Roerich — S.T. Joshi states that Lovecraft had visited Roerich’s gallery when it opened in New York in 1930 for the show Shambhala. The paintings were apparently made, or started with sketches, on Roerich’s expeditions to try to locate the mythical mountain paradise of ‘Shangri La’ in the Himalayas (1923-28).
“The Last of Atlantis” (1928 or 1929), by Nicholas Roerich.
Lovecraft certainly thought these paintings by Roerich captured something…
“Better than the surrealists, though, is good old Nick Roerich, whose joint at Riverside Drive and 103rd Street is one of my shrines in the pest zone. There is something in his handling of perspective and atmosphere which to me suggests other dimensions and alien orders of being—or at least, the gateways leading to such. Those fantastic carven stones in lonely upland deserts—those ominous, almost sentient, lines of jagged pinnacles—and above all, those curious cubical edifices clinging to precipitous slopes and edging upward to forbidden needle-like peaks!” — letter to James F. Morton, March 1937.
Examples from Roerich’s acclaimed “Architectural Studies” (1904-1905), made during a visit to Russia, are also likely to have been seen by Lovecraft.
Were there more natural visual sources, closer to home? Since the story was written in February/March 1931, one might also assume that Lovecraft was mixing the usual elements of autobiography and local natural atmosphere into his fiction. We might imagine him knocking ice off his ink-well, and generally shivering in the cold of yet another bitter New England winter. Unexpectedly, this was not so — the winters of 1930-31 and 1931-32 were unusual in being among the very mildest then on record in the USA. Lovecraft is said to have detested the cold — as do all those who live in poverty in a house without central heating and who have a poor diet — but he seems to have been a lifelong devotee of Antarctic exploration, and he was no doubt both charmed and calmed by the frozen silent views of ice and snow seen from his windows in winter. Perhaps “Mountains” arose partly as a form of compensation for the loss of such cherished views, in that second unexpectedly mild winter?
2: Visual art.
“Create your own representation of madness, using any technique you would like.”
3: Further open-access reading, available online.
On ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ : Enveloping the Cosmic Horror by C.Y. Lee.
Annotated Bibliography of Antarctic Fiction.
Representations of Antarctica : a bibliography.