H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936) is a novel that explores the isolation of human beings in the universe. By defying Western views on anthropocentrism, Lovecraft creates a narration that challenges human identity both on a philosophical and a spiritual level. Lovecraft takes the typical techniques of the 19th-century literature and subverts them to demonstrate the loneliness of the human soul in the universe. The novel constitutes the pinnacle of his so-called ‘cosmic horror’.
H.P. Lovecraft was a well-known American writer whose work was deeply influenced by another author, Edgar Allan Poe. Although the latter explores new forms of terror and intrigue narration, Lovecraft is the one who thoroughly analyzes the notion of science fiction horror. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is “a nihilistic view of the universe that, if accepted, threatens to unravel human epistemology as currently understood.” (McWilliam, 2015, p. 531). The author presents a negative outlook on the world where not only is science useless, but it is also a threat to the human future because it can reveal our irrelevance on a major scale. Therefore, Lovecraftian horror consists of the realization of our insignificance; it “lies in our acknowledging that fact” (Miéville, 2005, p. xiii). The world created by Lovecraft suggests that the belief in the importance of human life is, after all, a convenient excuse for people to feel safe. Hence, cosmic horror dismantles an “anthropocentric understanding of the universe.” (McWilliam, 2015, p. 531).
In literary terms, Lovecraft’s view of the cosmos reflects a metaphysical and aesthetic perspective determined by the awareness of the greatness of the universe in comparison to the human scale (Joshi, 2001). Cosmic horror could also be defined as a pragmatic critical theory that underestimates human features and, thus, reduces the character development in a novel. Contrary to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who affirms the relevance of the human being, Lovecraft’s poetics create a wide range of phenomena that surround the individual and overwhelm their “senses and cognitive faculties” (Ralickas, 2007, p. 367). According to Lovecraft (1995, p. 166), the hero of a tale is ”simply a set of phenomena”. Therefore, the author is only concerned with the development of characters if they are witnesses to the horror.
At the Mountains of Madness (1936) develops the story of a scientific expedition to Antarctica that ends up finding out that earthly life was produced by extraterrestrial forces. By setting this plot, Lovecraft dismantles the Darwinian theory of evolution. Therefore, he establishes a fictional theory based on “alien intelligent design” and names these otherworldly colonizers as Old Ones (McWilliam, 2015, p. 532). As earlier explained, not only does Lovecraft reduce the role of anthropocentrism in the universe, but he also creates a great threat to human existence. The isolation of the human being is both physical and metaphysical: “One’s sense of isolation is not merely a function of geographic space, but also of mental space” (Dziemianowicz, 1991, p. 186).
In this case, Lovecraft undermines human sublimity through the depiction of landscapes. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the portrayal of sceneries was used to represent “conciliatory experiences of the human condition” in romantic literature, but Lovecraft subverts this tradition (Ralickas, 2007, p. 372). For instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) feature some of the most beautiful and moving depictions of landscape. In a way, these descriptions serve as a homage to the human soul since the characters feel "a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy” (Shelley, 1993, p. 75).
At the Mountains of Madness offers one of the most ambiguous descriptions of landscapes in comparison to Shelly and Radcliffe. Antarctica's wilderness with its endless mountains and icy landscape may seem like the ultimate sublime scenery (Bogiaris, 2018). The narrator, Professor Dyer, belonging to Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University expresses the “thrill of excitement” he felt “at beholding the vast, lofty, and snow-clad mountain chain which opened out and covered the whole vista ahead” (Lovecraft, 1985, p. 7). The group of scientists experiences the same feelings at first due to their common knowledge of Western aesthetic values: they have been educated to appreciate the sublimity of nature.
However, Lovecraft soon dismantles the traditional function of nature observed in Frankenstein and The Mysteries of Udolpho. The author thinks that the subject can only be honored by the scenery when they are in “a state of ignorance”(Ralickas, 2007, p. 375). Therefore, Lovecraft states that the emotion derived from observing nature cannot be maintained for long. This is highlighted in the title of the novel with the use of the term “madness” to describe the mountains which symbolize their loss of faith in reason. However, there is a major turning point that indicates the rise of cosmic horror in the novel:
Every incident of that four-and-a-half-hour flight is burned into my recollection because of its crucial position in my life. It marked my loss, at the age of fifty-four, of all that peace and balance which the normal mind possesses through its accustomed conception of external Nature and Nature’s laws. Thenceforward the ten of us—but the student Danforth and myself above all others—were to face a hideously amplified world of lurking horrors which nothing can erase from our emotions, and which we would refrain from sharing with mankind if we could. (Lovecraft, 1985, p. 28).
This excerpt of the novel explicitly addresses the breaking point of the anthropocentric narrative and represents the essence of Lovecraft’s story. By juxtaposing the characters’ initial excitement about the natural phenomena and their subsequent repulsion toward the same nature, the author manifests the protagonists’ new awareness of Western values’ inability to depict the world as it is (Ralickas, 2008). As the plot unfolds, the once thrilling “archaic mystery” loses its spark and “nature” becomes “more and more hideously plain” (Lovecraft, 1985, p. 53-54). Ultimately, Lovecraft dismantles the greatest products of Western culture, one of which is scientific positivism. In other words, the unshakeable faith in technology and reason derived from the Enlightenment in the 18th century is presented as a fallacy that has failed to truly represent the world. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Lovecraft enhances Romanticism, since he also subverts the notion of humanism. For the author, anthropocentric thought turns out to be another misconception because on a cosmic scale the human condition is insignificant (Ralickas, 2007). This is perfectly illustrated by ruins or ancient traces of civilization. For Lovecraft, this landscape does not create “a sense of the sublime”, but rather “fails to rouse the concomitant sense of awe in the viewer” (Ralickas, 2007, p. 379).
In conclusion, H.P. Lovecraft creates a narrative that shatters the traditional views on the human subject. Although the story might sound like a science fiction narrative, the author’s purpose was to dismantle the two greater schools of thought from the 19th century: Romanticism and Positivism. The former is questioned for the relevance it gives to the human being whereas the latter is challenged for its failure to accurately portray the universe. The assimilation of the 19th-century techniques is the author's main weapon in rejecting traditional anthropocentrism and shaping his 'cosmic horror'.
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Figure 1. Karickhoff, S. (n.d.). A Trip Through Cosmos. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Trip_Through_the_Cosmos_-_Shenann_Karickhoff,_USA_(50187783878).jpg
Figure 2. Baranger, F. (2020). Illustration of the novel. [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://80.lv/articles/lovecraft-s-at-the-mountains-of-madness-illustrated-by-baranger
Figure 3. Baranger, F. (2020).Illustration of the novel. [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.artstation.com/artwork/kDrKxn
Figure 4. Morozova, O. (n.d.). Illustration from the novel. [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://morbidfantasy21.tumblr.com/post/631166993215651840/at-the-mountains-of-madness-fan-art