I am currently listening to a series of audio books that were made of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and finished “At the Mountains of Madness” last week. The story is about a scientific expedition to Antarctica that uncovers things that are far older than the fossils the explorers expected to uncover. It is narrated in the form of an eyewittness account of one of the (surviving) members.
The expedition uncovers the remains of what they first believe to be a strange prehistoric life form and later turns out to be an alien race that shaped lived on earth long before mankind truly evolved. This find is accompanied by the discovery of numerous ancient ruins at the flank and on top of a mountain range. But things are still not what they seem, members of the expedition get killed and two explorers begin to investigate the ruins on their own, first in disbelieve and than in shock about what they find there.
I will not even try to write a full review about the story, as others who are far better at this than I am have done so already, and there are literally dozens of reviews from people who approach the work of Howard Philips Lovecraft with a scientific stance. What I want to do is to share my point of view as a casual reader (or “audio book consumer”) and as a roleplayer and GM.
First and foremost, this work of Lovecraft makes for a wonderful audio book. His “experience report”-style of writing is wonderful for that (modern) format as one is only listening to the voice of the narrator that plays the part of the person giving the report.
The first part of the story deals with the set-up and preparation of the expedition with loving detail. In fact, a GM could simply take notes to gain inspiration of how to equip an expedition (or how to narrate the equip phase of one). When the later events unfold, the “reader” already has good picture in his mind about what is what. It also helps to get a grasp on 1920/1930 area technology, about what was state of the art and “best practice” back than. For those who are impatiently waiting for otherworldly things to happen in the story, this first part might a bit tiring.
The second part of the story introduces the first of such events to the reader, with the discovery of strange, non-fossilized remains of creatures completely unknown to science and mankind as such. The text contains a detailed description of the appearance of what Lovecraft fans (and fans of secondary fiction based on his work) know as “the Elder Beings”, in the form of a report of a scientists who put one of the finds onto a dissection table and . But quickly afterwards, the events leave the ground of scientific research and enter the horror part of the story, which was heralded time and time before by the narrator. I will not reveal details, but I think that this story would make for wonderful, suspense filled occult horror thriller. If the story itself would not be so well-known to most…
The third part centers on the exploration of the ruins atop the mountain and on the entry of the subterranean chambers and hallways below. Here, the story does what I call “to empty a bucket full of exposition over somebody”. By combining knowledge the explorers have from having read the Necronomicon once in their lives with what they learn from frescoes and relief-like stone works they unravel the history of the Elder Beings and the past of the city whose ruins they walk through. While this is a great part for fans of the Mythos (the complete, and back than 100% original hidden fantasy world Lovecraft created) and for those who want to harvest ideas on how to incorporate the races mentioned there in their own RPG games, me as the “reader” was a bit puzzled. Yes, these guys have read the Necronomicon (without going mad) and are for sure competent scientist in their respective fields, but unraveling all this information in that detail within mere hours had the feel of “because this has to be so right now for the story to work”, which I always take as a drawback as it does not feel organic. But that might just be me (most folks seem to regard this story as one of the best works of H.P. Lovecraft), and I shall not complain as this sections reveals details about the greater cosmos of the Mythos and how the different races interact (or have interacted) with another. The brood of Cthulhu are mentioned as well as the Mi-Go, if only briefly so as all is more about the history of the Elder Beings and the Shoggoth they have created.
The final switches back into horror mode as the two explorers venture deeper into the ruins and find out that they are not alone in there. Here, suspense and tension return and the story reaches its climax with the introduction of something more dangerous and unnerving as what the scientist had expected to meet. The pure shock and terror Lovecraft´s characters suffer from the happenings might seem exaggerated to our modern oh-so-matter-of-facts points of view, but when one comes to envision what revelations these two had been through since the start of their day (and what it truly is what they finally face) it seems quite justified.
All in all, I want to encourage every roleplayer to read the story, or to listen to an audio book version of it. It makes for an inspiring read and one can learn a bit on how to narrate by paying close attention on how the elements that have been “build up” in the first parts of the story are used in the later ones. For those who consider themselves fans of the Lovercraft Mythos, the material covered in this is story should be a must-know.