The strength of H.P. Lovecraft’s masterpiece lies in its closing of aesthetic distance between the text and reader. Lovecraft achieves this effect by building the suspense/tension slowly and subtly, encouraging the reader to engage in/anticipate the progression of events, and in so doing drawing them to the edge of an actual psychological threat. Here we will discuss this means of approach and its implications in regard to the story’s overall success.
First let us establish a basic concept pertaining to the nature of the tale.
The forward action employed is the breaching of man through the frontier of the unknown. Here lies a central theme that runs through the heart of Lovecraft’s collective body of work: the minimization of mankind’s significance in the universe; the upending of the perceived natural order. This is promised to the reader from the very onset, as the narrator presents us with a choice: turn back and remain safe, or press on and become privy to wonders/horrors beyond the ken of man; to descend into the claustrophobic depths of the buried world, where we may reconnect with our most base, primal fears.
How does Lovecraft live up to this promise? He initiates a measured, incremental buildup.
The story is perhaps one of the finest examples of what is known as the “complex discovery plot.” This structure has four movements: onset, discovery, confirmation, and confrontation. The onset, in this case, is Dyer’s (the narrator) initial warning: his plea to halt the advance of a new Antarctic expedition. “I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the Antarctic – with its vast fossil-hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice-cap—and I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.” Here the threat is established, if only vaguely, allowing the reader’s imagination free reign. The narrative then progresses by describing in meticulous detail the preparations for/launch of the Miskatonic University’s Antarctic expedition. Here the measured tone of the story is set, the members of the expedition are fleshed out as clearheaded, rational thinkers, rooted firmly in science and fact. This setup is key to the next plot movement, that of discovery.
There is a series of gradual discoveries that build toward the confirmation and ultimate confrontation, and Lovecraft rolls them out masterfully. The reader is always given just enough information to infer what may be lurking around the next corner, fostering a closer relationship with the text. This begins with the striated fossil imprint discovered at one of the initial dig sites, which changes Lake’s priorities in regard to the expedition’s direction. “It seems he had pondered a great deal, and with alarmingly radical daring, over that triangular striated marking in the slate; reading into it certain contradictions in Nature and geological period which whetted his curiosity to the utmost, and made him avid to sink more borings and blastings in the west-stretching formation to which the exhumed fragments evidently belonged.” Then there is the discovery of the enormous, previously undiscovered western mountain range, which in turn leads to the uncovering of the underground cavern holding the dead, unclassified creatures Dyer comes to refer to as the “old ones.” “Strange barrel growth is the Archaean thing that left prints in rocks. Mills, Boudreau, and Fowler discover cluster of thirteen more at underground point forty feet from aperture.” Then there is the mirage that Dyer and his companions notice as they fly toward the westward mountains to reconnect with Lake’s party: “The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque extremes of sinister bizarrerie…” Their landing at Lake’s advance camp finds the place in utter disarray, the men and sled dogs slaughtered, some crudely dissected. “Now I must add that some were incised and subtracted from in the most curious, cold-blooded, and inhuman fashion. It was the same with dogs and men. All the healthier, fatter bodies, quadrupeal or bipedal, had had their most solid masses of tissue cut out and removed, as by a careful butcher.” This leads to Dyer and Danforth’s ultimate flight beyond the mountain chain, coming upon a hidden, ancient city. “Perhaps we even half thought the sight a mirage like that we had seen the morning before on first approaching those mountains of madness. We must have had some such normal notions to fall back upon as our eyes swept that limitless, tempest-scarred plateau and grasped the almost endless labyrinth of colossal, regular, and geometrically eurhythmic stone masses which reared their crumbled and pitted crests above a glacial sheet…” All of these revelations, frantically rationalized by the narrator, serve to draw the reader ever closer to the text. Nothing here is supernatural—there is simply the unknown.
Which brings us to the confirmation, the confirmation of Dyer and Danforth’s (and the reader’s) creeping fears; that the implications of the presence of this ancient race are inextricably linked to the fate of mankind. In the heart of this eldritch city, cut off from the world by millions of years, the men gradually discover, to their horror, that mankind is an accidental offshoot of alien experimentation—an aberration. (Lovecraft goes to great lengths and meticulous detail to articulate this revelation convincingly.) “They were the makers and enslavers of that life, and above all doubt the originals of the fiendish elder myths which things like the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Necronomicon affrightedly hint about. They were the Great Old Ones that had filtered down from the stars when earth was young—the beings whose substance an alien evolution had shaped, and whose powers were such as this planet had never bred.” It also becomes clear that earth’s former rulers were just as flawed and misguided as its current ones, and that their race came to a sudden and terrible ruin, their monstrous slave-creations rebelling and killing everything in their path.
And this leads us to the pinnacle of horror: the confrontation—the point where aesthetic distance comes closest to breaking completely. In the depths of the city (very much in the gothic tradition), Dyer and Danforth are attacked by a Shaggoth, one of the amorphous, shapeshifting slave-creations of the old ones. “It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering all over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter…” The men escape the city with their lives, only for Danforth to spy something even more maddening upon their aerial retreat: “a single fantastic, daemoniac glimpse, among the churning zenith clouds, of what lay back of those other violet westward mountains which the Old Ones had shunned and feared. It was very probable that the thing was sheer delusion born of the previous stresses we had passed through, and of the actual though unrecognized mirage of the dead tranmontane city experienced near Lake’s camp the day before; but it was so real to Danforth that he suffers from it still.” Lovecraft leaves the reader dangling madly, possessed by the idea of what still lays in wait beyond those mountains of madness—cyclically leading back to a new onset.
Written by W.J. Renehan