Field of Science

At the Mountains of Madness

December 14, was the 100 years anniversary of the first expedition to reach the geographic South Pole in the middle of the continent of Antarctica. Until then only segments of the coasts were known and partially mapped.  

Fig.1. The dog Chris inspecting a grammophone during the Scott Expedition in Antarctica  (photo by Herbert George Ponting, 1911).

It is no wonder that such an unknown land influenced the imagination of many writers and later film directors. 

"At the Mountains of Madness" is a science-fiction/horror story by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), written in February/March 1931 and originally published in three parts in the February, March and April 1936 issues of the pulp-magazine "Astounding Stories" (also one of the first pulp- and horror fiction magazines ever to be published).
The story is written in a first-person perspective by geologist William Dyer, a professor from Miskatonic University, which led a geological expedition to Antarctica in "1930".
The expedition discovers first strange fossils, eons of years older then all other signs of life on our planet, and finally a mountain range, much higher and darker then ever imagined. But after a carefully investigation along the borders of the mountains and the discovery of even more strange fossils, contact get lost with a part of the team and the narrator makes his way to discover what happened at the Mountains of Madness.
Lovecraft incorporates in his story many scientific observations made at the time, especially the discovery of fossils. Little was known about the geology of Antarctica; rock exposures comprise only 1-3% of the land area and are limited to isolated coastal regions and to the peaks of the Transantarctic Mountains, crossed for the first time by the Ernest Shackleton-expedition in 1908. Only in 1928-1930 the Richard Evelyn Byrd-expedition collected the first fossils.
Still today sites with fossils are rare spots; from Antarctica we know some dinosaur species, synapsid species, a plesiosaur, Eocene mammals and a terror bird - however plant remains are by far the most common fossils and especially these plants proofed that Antarctica was once a tropical paradise.
Lovecraft describes the fictional discovery of a cave that acted as sediment trap for millions of years:

"Washed down from unknown jungles of Mesozoic tree ferns and fungi, and forests of Tertiary cycads, fan palms, and primitive angiosperms, this osseous medley contained representatives of more Cretaceous, Eocene, and other animal species than the greatest paleontologist could have counted or classified in a year."

Also other authors located a tropical Lost World near the Antarctic continent. Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) published in 1918 the first part of a science-fiction book in the "Blue Book Magazine": "The Land That Time Forgot". Here a primordial world populated by tropical forests and of course dinosaurs is located on the island of Caprona, a land mass near Antarctica, first reported by the (fictitious) Italian explorer Caproni in 1721. The tale inspired two movies: "The Land That Time Forgot"(1975) and "The People That Time Forgot"(1977).

Fig.3. Cover art for first combined edition (1924) of The Land That Time Forgot.

1 comment:

  1. The BBC radio adaptation of At The Mountains of Madness is being repeated at the moment on Radio 4 Extra. The full series is available on the iPlayer until the 23rd of this month. Probably not accessible from abroad but I don't know. I find it hilarious.


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