CD Review: At the Mountains of Madness

I’ve been meaning to go on with reviewing the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre dramas produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. I’ve had the boxed CD set for years, but time passed and other things got in the way… until I was doing a Matt Foyer-fest this past weekend and included A Shadow over Innsmouth; I realized it’d been awhile since I’d listened to any of the others, some of which Foyer also has smaller roles in.

At the Mountains of Madness is one of Lovecraft’s larger stories in length as well as scope. We’re no longer in the narrow streets of witch-haunted Puritan towns crowded with gambrel-peaked roofs, nor in the claustrophobic New England hills with their own ancient legends. This story is set in the vast, frozen wastes of the Antarctic. It’s about a team of explorers who discover what appear to be remarkably well-preserved specimens of an early but sophisticated form of life that lived on Antarctica millions of years before it was covered in ice. But in spite of their great age, these Elder Beings aren’t quite dead yet. In fact, they’re feeling much better.

It’s a story filled with adventure–dogsleds and aeroplanes, wind storms, monstrously high mountains, a lost city, giant penguins, and a thrilling chase scene with one of the usual Lovecraftian nightmare creatures. There’s been a recent attempt at a film version, but it seems to be lost in production limbo.

The story is available online at http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/mountainsofmaddness.htm.


Fleurs de Lys newspaper adThe conceit of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre is that these audio plays, recorded in the 21st century, are episodes from a 1930’s radio program, complete with deep-voiced announcer Chester Langfield and a cigarette sponsor.

This particular story is presented as an interview with a survivor of the Miskatonic University Expedition of 1930, one Dr. Dyer (Sean Branney, director and brain in a jar from The Whisperer in Darkness). He’s come forward to tell the truth about what really happened to that ill-fated expedition, in hopes that it will stop further exploration into the Antarctic.

When I reviewed A Shadow over Innsmouth unimaginable eons ago, the main criticism I had was that it was basically one long first-person narrative with another long narrative in the middle of it, and very little dialogue. That’s the way many of Lovecraft’s stories are written, but doesn’t work well with audio drama. To get around this difficulty and break up the narration, Dyer’s interview is used a framing device around “flashbacks” to events as they occurred.

We begin by hearing earlier radio broadcasts from the time when the Miskatonic University Expedition originally ventured into Antarctica; its leader, Dr. Lake (Matt Foyer), reports on his team’s progress and how the special drilling mechanism they’ve brought with them has reached down through the ice to discover a cavern, then describes the exciting finds revealed within. Not merely fossils, but whole and perfectly preserved tubular, tentacle-headed creatures that the scientists are unable to classify certainly as either animal or vegetable.

After contact is broken off during a windstorm, Dyer and a second party that remained on the coast fly inland to the site of Lake’s camp. They find the camp destroyed and Lake’s team and sled-dogs dead. That was all the world knew about the mysteriously vague and tragic outcome of the expedition… until now.

Dyer and the other men who accompany him–Danforth, Pabodie, Sherman*–soon observe that much of the damage couldn’t have been done by the fierce winds alone. Clothing and canned goods are torn and pierced in strange places. The bodies of the men and dogs they find have been mutilated in horrible ways, two of them dissected. It must be the work of a madman!

Some of the specimens that Lake examined have been buried in the snow, while half a dozen of the intact creatures are entirely missing. One man and one dog are also missing, and sled tracks lead away from the ruined camp toward the looming mountain range farther south.

Dyer and Danforth alone take the plane to try and follow the sled. They fly over the mountains, and discover a massive, ruined city spreading for miles on the other side, aged beyond belief, trapped for the most part beneath a sheet of ice. Broken tower-tops break through the frozen surface and, once they land the plane, the two men are able to climb down inside and learn something of how those ancient creatures, which they call Elder Beings, once lived.

The carvings on the walls reveal a great deal about the history and social structure of these creatures–which Dyer will tell us about at length. Like most readers of the story, Dyer’s interviewer wonders how so much abstract information could be presented via bas relief sculptures.

But there’s more here than old stone carvings, as Dyer and Danforth learn once they venture deeper into the ruins.

My favorite performance in this drama is Seth Compton as Dyer’s student, Danforth. He has a very boyish voice with a Golly-gee-willikers! sort of tone, but he’s the more perceptive and imaginative of the two men who explore the frozen city. He’s read Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym–a tale of Antarctic adventure that in some ways inspired this one. While Dyer clings to the increasingly implausible theory that Gedney, the one man missing from among the dead at Lake’s camp, is responsible for the murders of the others, Danforth insists that it’s the missing specimens, which aren’t dead after all. We’ll soon see which one is right. I’m especially delighted that Danforth recognizes the stylistic differences between the genuine artwork on the city walls made by the Elder Beings, and the degraded and mocking imitations made by the Shoggoth that’s still lurking in the cavernous depths beneath the city after countless eons.

And that leads to the chase scene I mentioned above.

Danforth also has my favorite line in the story, as he and Dyer flee in terror, pursued by the Shoggoth: “South Station Under, Washington Under, Park Street Under-Kendall, Central, Harvard…”

“The poor fellow was chanting the familiar stations of the Boston-Cambridge tunnel that burrowed through our peaceful native soil thousands of miles away in New England, yet to me the ritual had neither irrelevance nor home feeling. It had only horror, because I knew unerringly the monstrous analogy that had suggested it. … its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform–the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterranean distance, constellated with strangely colored lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder.

I think of that description whenever I stand on a subway platform on the DC Metro or London’s Underground and watch the shadow of the train coming up the tunnel.

As with all the CDs in this boxed set, this one contains some wonderful little extra items:
Mountains of Madness props

  • An Arkham newspaper clipping about the Miskatonic Expedition (the Fleurs-de-Lys ad shown above is on the back).
  • Photographs taken by Dyer and Danforth within the Elder Beings’ city.
  • Lake’s surviving notes on the creatures he discovered.

I love the detailed work on every one of these pieces. My only complaint is that I can never get the CD boxes to shut properly once I open them and take all these little bits out.
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*Pabodie is pronounced like “Peabody”. When I first listened to this, I thought there was a Sherman and Mr. Peabody joke here–but the names are in Lovecraft’s original story, which predates the 1950s cartoon about the professorial dog and his nerdy boy companion.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.