Stuff We Love: Why At the Mountains of Madness should give you fathomless nightmares

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Apr 21, 2017

Some horror stories start with strange noises. Blood spatter. Unidentified bodies in the woods. At the Mountains of Madness dawns with a perfectly routine Antarctic expedition whose mission it is to study the biology and geology of previously unexplored territory—which is exactly what makes it so terrifying.

H.P. Lovecraft’s sci-fi-horror hybrid doesn’t rely on instant shock value. It slowly and sadistically sends you spiraling into the depths of unspeakable terror, which you realize (too late) there is no clawing your way out of. At the Mountains of Madness only seems like a vintage Discovery Channel special, until some unnatural items start creeping into what otherwise appear to be painstakingly detailed scholarly notes, scientific jargon and all. You may not notice the aberrations at first. You probably won’t notice them at all—until later events have you flipping backwards over and over to make quadruply sure you’re seeing what you desperately hope you’re not seeing.

What only reveals itself as the layers of ice obscuring the horrible truth melt away is that the climb into Antarctica’s forbidding frozen mountains is actually a descent into madness. If the strange markings and repetitious five-pointed star patterns don’t tell you something is severely off, then what can either be described as overgrown sea cucumbers or fungal spawn that can kill with bloodsucking tubular appendages will. Because they aren’t actually dead, as an overconfident biologist thinks when he drags one to a crude dissecting table. At least not all of them are. They won’t end up as the only cadavers being dissected, either.

Original illustration for At the Mountains of Madness by Howard V. Brown. 

You’re already going to spend at least 48 hours with eyes wide open by this point anyway, so why not continue on the expedition, deeper into nameless things that should not be seen and cannot be unseen? Because there are worse things than star-headed fungal monstrosities whose smell you probably wouldn’t even be able to get out of your parka, even with that miracle detergent you saw on some infomercial in the middle of the night. There are shapeless, savage things that can grow something resembling a mouth or a limb whenever they want to decapitate their prey and leave it covered in an even more vile oilslick slime. Then there is the indescribable terror of terrors lurking in the distant mountains that glow purple in the twilight. You don’t want to go there.

With all that hyper-excited talk about the search for habitable planets and alien life, perhaps the most horrifying thing of all is what could possibly happen if some future space expedition messes with the natural order of a planet that should have never been disturbed. Human interference could throw an entire alien civilization into chaos, much like the disruption of that antediluvian city of ice ended in a violent scattering of corpses. There could also be things that are asleep and should never be woken. Ever.

Read At the Mountains of Madness (with all the lights on) here, but I take no responsibility for your eyes rolling in the back of your head as you endlessly keep blabbering Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li in a bizarre singsong voice.