At the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraft and the not-so-other other?

I know there are modern readers who are uncomfortable with what they perceive as racism in HP Lovecraft’s writings. I can understand the case they might make about dehumanizing “the other”, although I disagree it’s more pronounced in Lovecraft than other horror writers of his time. I furthermore accept that Lovecraft used racist language in his correspondance, but I’ve only read his fiction and I have little interest in his letters or personal life.

But as I read his stories these days, I try to be sensitive to what might bother other people, even if it doesn’t bother me personally. I’m happy – eager, even! – to revisit familiar texts with new perspectives. As such, I want to share something that caught my eye re-reading At the Mountains of Madness. I hadn’t recalled this bit, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if weren’t for the complaint that Lovecraft’s dehumanizes “the other”, and by extension makes it easier to dehumanize people who look or behave differently. (If I’ve mis-stated the case about Lovecraft and racism, I would welcome any corrections!)

At the Mountains of Madness is about an Antarctic expedition that discovers frozen aliens. The aliens thaw out, attack the expedition, and then flee toward their secret underground city. The third-act twist is that there’s something even worse in the underground city. Spoiler: it’s a shoggoth. At one point, the human protagonists discover the thawed and escaped aliens, called Old Ones, have all been slaughtered by the shoggoth. He ponders that they didn’t deserve it, that they were explorers just like himself and his colleagues. He puts himself in their place, imagining how they must have been shocked to find themselves suddenly awake amid equally shocked men and dogs:

That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch – perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia…poor Lake, poor Gedney…and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last – what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!

Bolding mine, of course. Lovecraft continues in this vein, as he’s wont to do, for a while. But it surprised me that Lovecraft’s main character is so willing to extend the rubric of humanity to murderous, starfish-headed, space-vegetable aliens. This is literally the opposite of dehumanizing the other. He calls the Old Ones “men of another age”.

I don’t mean to read too much into it, as I don’t think Lovecraft was a particularly thoughtful or careful writer. He doesn’t really do characters or motivations, or even anything about the human experience other than being afraid of the unknown. He’s about as pure as horror can get in that regard. When you read Lovecraft, you’re placing an order for extra cosmos, hold the humanity. But whatever you can infer about Lovecraft’s opinion on people and races and the human condition, whatever messages and subtext you cull from his goofy stories, just remember that one of his typically under-written protagonists at least had the empathy to feel bad for frozen aliens in the Antarctic!

I’ve written about the fact that I’ve had to make my peace with Lovecraft. I grew up reading him and dearly love his squamous entities, antediluvian villains, and effete, scholarly protagonists. It’s only later in life that I learned about his thoughts on race and class, or understood what he’d written in some of his stories like his description of a lower-class immigrant neighborhood in The Horror at Red Hook.

Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor’s Island, with dirty highways climbing the hill from the wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court Streets lead off toward the Borough Hall. Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian”. The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing. The houses are generally in solid blocks, and now and then a many-windowed cupola arises to tell of days when the households of captains and ship-owners watched the sea.

From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion. The clang of the patrol is answered by a kind of spectral silence, and such prisoners as are taken are never communicative. Visible offences are as varied as the local dialects, and run the gamut from the smuggling of rum and prohibited aliens through diverse stages of lawlessness and obscure vice to murder and mutilation in their most abhorrent guises. That these visible affairs are not more frequent is not to the neighbourhood’s credit, unless the power of concealment be an art demanding credit. More people enter Red Hook than leave it—or at least, than leave it by the landward side—and those who are not loquacious are the likeliest to leave.

It took me well into my twenties to come to the realization that Lovecraft likely would’ve hated and feared me. I would, at best, be a yellow-skinned devil with inscrutable allegiances and sly motives. A cultist no doubt, not actually a participant in the story, but perhaps a sailor would relate the tale of my barbarous and evil nature to one of Lovecraft’s gentlemen protagonists. I’d be a footnote in the Mythos like one of the “low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant, mongrel celebrants” Inspector Legrasse contended with in Call of Cthulhu.

I still read Lovecraft. I have a dog-eared copy of his stories that I return to annually. I still watch movies or shows that attempt (and fail) to adapt his stories, or even if they have the barest of Lovecraftian themes like The Block Island Sound or Offseason. I can’t help it. His stories were formative works and I cannot resist the pull to consume or be consumed by them, even when I know some of his writing came from the repugnantly racist, bigoted, and classist ideas he personally held. I am swept into the dark tide of his text. Helpless.

Together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.

Interesting discussion. I can’t add to it. You guys are beyond my depth, but my brother, a sort of gypsy artist who freelances on t-shirts and vans and whatnot did some Cthulu drawings at one point. Thought I’d post one here. I believe this is from Mountains of Madness:

Yeah, reading Tom’s post (which was really spot-on in the various observations vis a vis characters or lack thereof!) immediately made me think ‘go read Red Hook and get back to me’ .

That said, as soon as you finish, go read Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a retelling of Red Hook from the cultists POV, mostly. I seem to remember the author’s note about it being pretty similar to what Telefrog just wrote, too. Helps convince me that though the man was definitely racist, and that streak was the core of a lot of his work, it isn’t essential to to it, somehow.

Honestly, though, lately I’ve preferred folks inventing their own mythos- the podcast The Magnus Archives did a pretty good job of it, I thought.

Yes, I also remember that part as striking. It’s an interesting inversion of HP tropes. Instead of looking at a group of villagers and discovering they are actually fish monsters, he looks at some frozen monsters and the twist is, they were actually “people”, in that they had cities, cultural artifacts, technology, etc.

I think it’s because at the end of the day, it is simple: At the Mountains of Madness is a scifi tale first, and a horror story second. It makes a lot of emphasis on the scientific group (scI), on their exploration (scI), and later on the story of the world hopping aliens (scifi).

Other Lovecraft stories are horror first, scifi second, where the scifi elements are a backdrop to have the horror.

The dude was racist (and classist, something people don’t discuss unlike his racism, but it features much more heavily on the writing), but it isn’t like he was it so much that he wrote horror stories with the purpose of delivering racist metaphors, so yeah, he could write normal horror stories and normal scifi stories.

Did this go away in his later writing? It’s interesting that he became a socialist at the end of his life, around when he wrote At the Mountains of Madness.

Although I have no doubt Lovecraft was racist we still have similar “horrors”, though reduced to memes on Facebook.

“The people of Walmart, shambling moo-moos of insatiable hungers and insatiate urges, wobbling like Sysphian meteors towards 50% off signs from the hopeless instinct to fill their deprived and undeveloped souls with the meaning denied to them by their terrible and cruel gods through the purchase of ever more dish towels and jeggings. I pitied them as much as I feared them. They looked on me with undisguised contempt as they shoveled Hot Pockets into their gaping maws.”

We just don’t put it quite like that anymore.

I bought a big faux-leather bound tome of Lovecraft’s stuff about a decade ago. This one, I think (edit: yep). I didn’t know anything about Lovecraft’s work, really; I don’t read much horror and there’s that UK/US split which I think over-emphasises authors playing on home turf (I got a lot more HG than HP pushed my way for tales of alien terror). Probably the only reason I purchased it is, other than that edition looking kinda cool, is that Lovecraft’s work is often cited as influential on a lot of other media (specifically, for me, videogames). Plus I wanted to know more about ol’ squidface.🦑

Having now dug out said book I can see the bookmark from my last (sole) expedition entombed not even 1/4 the way through.

It’s not really my thing; a lot of purple prose for an ADHDer to try and wade through (I was coping as well as I could). Then I got to The Rats in the Walls (approx. 10 stories/100 pages in) and that was, uh, quite something to blithely wander into*.

As a modern(ish, 2008 may as well be a century ago) printing, it maybe could’ve done with a bit of a heads up about that stuff, somewhere between the gushing intro and select high praise from contemporary authors. It need not have been doom, gloom and moral hand wringing entirely, we’re all complicated creatures and if he did tend toward socialism in his later years that might’ve been a cool thing to read about, in context, alongside At the Mountains of Madness**.

But I think the beautiful thing is that I don’t feel I need to. A lot of those shit-upon Others are now reclaiming and reforging his work into new experiences, and more thoughtful ones at that. Lovecraft Country may have sorta failed in the final stretch, but it presented a compelling (and earned) damnation of those white-skinned devils with their inscrutable allegiances and sly motives.

So I still think it’s cool to be into Lovecraft. I wouldn’t shun it. Read it, and be horrified for the right reasons. But be prepared to be horrified for the wrong ones, too.

*🎵 Racist caaaat, racist cat, what aaare they naming you. Racist caaaat, racist cat, it’s not your faaauuulllt. 🎵 :(
** Page 422, apparently. May have to skip ahead and give it another go.

Hahahaha. Yeah, that’s a nutty one.

In my youth, I read it, cringed, and moved on. I chalked it up to the same of-his-time issue that made Twain name his Jim character in Huck Finn. I hadn’t yet developed the sense of literacy to understand the difference between the two. One is a fully-developed character with motivations, agency, and meaning. The other is a cat.

I appreciate that perspective/insight Tom!

I spent a bit of time in Red Hook, pre-gentrification in the late-90’s, My wife (GF at the time) and I got semi-stalked by a roaming pit bull walking from a friend’s apartment one afternoon in Red Hook. But I never managed to visit without thinking about that Lovecraft story, and that he was such an asshole.

@Telefrog captured both his allure and the repulsion of his philosophies more eloquently than I could express.

Much of his pull for me is muddily tied to the obliquely ‘Lovecraftian’. My adolescent introductions to Barabara Crampton in the Re-Animator, the HP Lovecraft Historical Society’s goofy, but well-produced Scary Solstice holiday music, and the work of HP inspired authors such as Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti.

I guess I’ve managed to separate my appreciation of his fiction from the artist as I drive around town… (closest spelling I could get!)

That is a sweet drawing, Mark! But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts its either Rats in the Walls or Dreams in the Witch House. Mainly because there’s no time in Mountains of Madness when someone is sleeping in a comfy bed.

(Dreams in the Witch House just got a particularly execrable adaptation in Guillermo del Toro’s Netflix anthology. I believe it was directed by the woman who did the Twilight movies, it starred Ron Weasley, and it was oh-so-painful for a Lovecraft aficionado to watch. There’s infinitely more Lovecraft in your brother’s drawing.)

You guys are great! I knew if I started this thread I’d have fun stuff to read from y’all. :)

My introduction to Lovecraft started with a bunch of weird stuff in D&D monster manuals. Actually, I think it was technically a manual of deities and demi-gods? A lot of funky Lovecraftian stuff in there, alongside other weird things. But for whatever reason, the Lovecraft stuff seemed weirdest? I can only imagine what the text snippets said. I can only imagine how many hit dice Azathoth has or what Cthulhu’s armor class is.

I also had an illustrated book of monsters that included detailed pictures of Old Ones from Mountains of Madness. Sure enough, a ridged barrel body, a starfish head, flippers and tendrils and maybe even eyeballs at the tips of the starfish star, big ol’ wings. Yep, that’s what Lovecraft wrote, all right, and it looks about as risible as you’d expect. Hey, artists, maybe let people’s imaginations do the lifting? I mean, not everything was meant to be drawn.

(I also remember the devil-like overlords from an Arthur C. Clarke (?) story called Childhood’s End in the book. At least that stupid thing looked somewhat scary.)

But I had these pictures from books before I’d read any of the stories, so my introduction to Lovecraft was through dumbly literal artists. Contrast these to something like what Mark’s brother drew, which is more about a state of mind than an attempt to transliterate the imagination of a man with an almost luridly useless vocabulary. In fact, I rather resent those other artists for cramming their visualizations down my throat when I was young and impressionable!

I think it must have been later, after D&D, that I actually came across a whole bunch of Lovecraft paperbacks and read them. And kept them. And still had them forty years later, despite the faded covers, yellow pages, and destroyed spines. They’ve been replaced recently thanks to my friend Chris Marquardson, and that’s part of why I’ve been rereading some of the stories: there’s nothing quite like breaking in a new hardcover volume of an old favorite.

That he was capable of injecting something interesting and human into this scenario just makes his inability to extend that to all walks of humanity all the more unfortunate, although not surprising (given the times). Of course, it’s also broadly true that if he could have included more bits like these, he might be remembered for interesting characters and better writing. But he was who he was.

The ideas are eternal, though. No question.

First printing, which eventually was halted because both the Lovecraft estate and Moorcock sued or something like that (it also included Elric and a whole bunch of Morecockian nonsense stuff).

I actually just broke down and picked up a good condition copy from somewhere. So excite. It was my first exposure to Lovecraft as well (weirdly I didn’t come back to it until King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes).

Is that the one where the big horror reveal is that the narrator has some kind of inferior bloodline in his ancestry?

I think where I come down on Lovecraft (big disclaimer, I am in know way an aficionado, I just read much-to-most of his works at some point years ago) is that the racism is inherent and inseparable from some of his works (see the above, and the the Innsmouth stuff where the horror is that the people are becoming genetically inferior), and not so much others (where the horror is about living in an uncaring and fundamentally not-understandable universe).

However, to me, his racism suffused enough of his writing that I can’t help but wonder about the rest of it. Like this:

I would almost believe that he wrote the Old Ones to be “[white] men of another age”, extending them humanity because they are behaving like explorers and scientists, like white men do. And he would insert them into his hierarchy above brown people and below (or at least next to, or hell, above, to drive home the “small ant in an uncaring universe” theme) the white man.

edit: also this:

The Pathfinder 1E take on Cthulhu was always gloriously dumb for both at once being a stupidly over-difficult encounter but also still somehow supremely disappointing compared to the unfathomable inevitability Lovecraft described.


Lovecraft was definitely a racist ass, and that’s poisoned the well of his writing for me, but then again, I don’t really like much horror anyway, so it wasn’t a substantial loss. Still got a couple of worn anthologies moldering in a closet somewhere, which feels apropos.

My intro to Lovecraft was watching this gem in the theater of the NATO base in Naples, Italy, back in the day:

I was a reader so this sent me scrambling to find his stuff, and I read a ton of it, but it was all so very long ago that I remember the cultural spinoff much better than I do any of the stories that I read. I’ve never re-read any of it because of the racism.

Was it this one?

I had this and I flipped through that thing all the time. You’re right about it solidifying and ruining my perception of Lovecraft’s monsters for later works. To this day when I see a Deep One or a ghoul in a movie, my mind instantly rebels if it doesn’t look like the way I expect based on this. Lovecraft Country’s version of shoggoths was the latest instance of disconnect.

(Fun fact - the blue bouncy Spawn monsters in Quake are directly lifted from the illustration on the cover.)

I somehow read Lovecraft before I started playing D&D, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cthulhu mentioned in the Deities & Demigods manual. Crazy! But there he was with Hastur and a bunch of other zany Lovecraftian monsters. I thought it was weird that any of the gods (Lovecraftian or not) had stats at all.

If it has stats, the players can and will kill it. Sigh. D&D (& Derivatives)

ScreenPix has been showing this movie every now and again. Dean Stockwell is deliciously wacky, but Sandra Dee is way out of here element here.

Nah. It’s probably the most egregiously notorious and overt example - imagine a Winnie the Pooh print run where Tigger suffers from a horrifying misprint that results in every copy burned in a big fire, the printers put out of business and everyone involved sworn to secrecy.

[Highly Pernicious Lovecraft]: Imma havin’ me some of THAT!

Probably the only good thing to come of it was this exchange in Color Out of Space, which maybe isn’t a direct reference, but one I can’t help but take as homage to ‘unfortunately monikered Lovecraftian felines’ (with the side benefit that it is kinda funny).