The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe on H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”

June 3, 2021 by Essay Writer

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was one of the greatest horror writers in history of the literature and his works inspired many authors, many books and many movies. Just to name a few, author of many successful psychological horror books, Stephen King, has included H.P. Lovecraft besides few other horror writers in the introduction to his 2014 novel “Revival” referring to them as “some of the people who built my house“ (King) and even included a citation from Lovecraft’s short story “The Nameless City.“ Lovecraft’s influence is heavily present even in the cinematography and most noticeably in the horror movies like “The Thing” or “Evil Dead”.

Just as H.P. Lovecraft inspired many authors, he himself had been inspired by many before him, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith and most noticeably Edgar Allan Poe. Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimorean who had fair success with his stories and poems and became a well-known person although his works have been criticized fairly often. H.P. Lovecraft was clearly influenced by Poe and perhaps sought in him some figure of a teacher in his works. H.P. Lovecraft stated in his letters to Rheinhart Kleiner that “Poe was my God of Fiction“ and that “ When I write stories, Edgar Allan Poe is my model.“ (Lovecraft, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner) While to find more subtle influences on Lovecraft we need to go deeper, the most obvious ones are present in the form of his undying respect to Poe and horror authors in general in stories such as “The Pickman’s Model” in words “only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear” (H. P. Lovecraft) although in the story he’s referring to a fictional painter. The astonishment of bringing fear to people’s hearts, however is clear and undoubtedly present in many of his other stories. The story that probably stands out the most is “At the Mountains of Madness” which is clearly inspired by Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” which shares partly similar setting, strong sense of unknown, subterranean forgotten lands and even a sinister interjection “Tekeli-li”.

Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” tells allegedly a true story of a man who comes to Poe to write down his story as a word of fiction because no one would believe him if he stated that it was true. The story contains two differing parts, one written by Poe and the other by Pym himself, as the story says. Of course, the whole novel is a work of Poe, written after a publisher convinced him to write a novel rather than a short story that he was used to because American readers wanted a full, longer story with one developed plotline. It says the story of Arthur Gordon Pym who by a series of strange coincidences and decisions ends up at sea, on a boat with his friend and many other sailors. After a second mutiny their number is reduced to four and they continue to live on a ship which was damaged during a storm. They are slowly running out of supplies and are eventually driven to cannibalism as they draw straws and devour one of them. Pym’s friend dies from his wounds and Pym is left with a former mate of the boat, Dirk Peters, friendly, but a huge and strong man. After that they are at last found by another ship, the captain of which takes them aboard. The ship ventures through a sea and stops by on a series of islands located somewhere east from the South America. The captain eventually decides to sail where no other human has ever sailed and that is to some of the unknown coasts of Antarctica. While the ship has passed some of the icebergs and they are clearly in the polar region they encounter a densely-forested group of islands with black-skinned people native to this area. The natives are dangerously looking and armed with clubs overall, they seem friendly. The crew with the captain, Peters, and Pym follows them and the captain seems to make a few arrangements with the chief of the natives.

After a week, they are readying to leave and all are invited to a celebratory feast by the natives. All but a handful of men left on a ship leave for a feast and are eventually led through a narrow gorge in which Pym and Peters observe a cavern in which they are safe from a disaster shortly following. The natives prepared a trap and buried the gorge with all the sailors under tons of earth and stone. Pym and Peters are alive but trapped in a cavern. They are starving for few days but ultimately find a way out of the cavern. The ship with the few sailors was destroyed by the natives but Pym and Peters still try to get to the shore. They are, however ambushed by a small group of natives which they beat and take one as a captive. Pym and Peters steal a canoe from the native and manage to sail away to the south. The captive native, Nu-Nu is, as Pym discovers, afraid of anything white and with every mile southern he grows more and more impatient. Eventually everything in their surroundings begins to change, water turns white, huge white birds fly close and a huge cataract looms in their direction. Nu-Nu dies of fright. Finally, as their ship approaches the cataract a huge white figure rises up and the story ends. The story is unfinished and Poe ends it with an explanation that Pym died a few years back and the last chapters are therefore lost. It is revealed that Peters is alive and well, living in Illinois, however he won’t talk about these events.

It seems strange that Lovecraft found inspiration in this story in particular because while this was the only novel and the longest piece of fiction that Poe had ever written it was also one of his least successful. It was bashed by critics for its constant shifting in the tone, its gruesome details and mostly its lack of ending and conclusion. The evidence is, however, clear and Lovecraft himself acknowledges influence of Poe in “At the Mountains of Madness” in a way.

This novella is one of the longest pieces of fiction that H.P. Lovecraft had ever written and one of the most intriguing and lore-expanding in his Cthulhu Mythos. His works were always somehow connected, with all the stories obviously happening in the same universe. This idea is confirmed by many minor characters and some major ones appearing in more than one book, the city of Arkham and other fictional cities and villages appearing and corresponding with one another and most noticeably the various damned religious cults, beliefs, books containing forbidden knowledge all referring to the Old Ones, races of mysterious beings that came from space to the Earth long before the dawn of humanity.

The story of “At the Mountains of Madness” follows a polar expedition of Miskatonic University of Arkham, fictitious city in Massachusetts. William Dyer, a geologist that was present at this expedition is telling this story and probably publicly presenting it with all the evidence to stop an oncoming Starkweather expedition to Antarctica that is going to follow the footprints of the horrendous Miskatonic expedition. The retrospective story begins with introducing the expedition crew comprised of various experts in their fields such as biology, geology, technical engineering and students serving as assistants and crew. One half of this crew eventually go chasing a lead, one of their professors of biology found in the dirt they were examining and fly off approximately 300 miles to the north-west from their original camp to investigate this further. The professor of biology, Lake, stays in contact with the rest of the expedition via a wireless communication and informs them of the 14 specimens of pre-historic life forms, significantly older than any known evolved being which they found in an underground cavern, 6 of them damaged and 8 of them preserved almost perfectly. Lake shares also various information regarding other matters of interest such as discovery of a wide set of mountains, some even approximately 35000 feet high, which would mean that they are higher than Himalayas. Also, he states that he’s going to dissect one of the specimens and after the dissection he shares the details. The beings he found predates even the oldest known life on Earth and do not share a similarity with any known animal or plant. Lake also promises that he will give another information the next day via wireless, however the next day the other half of expedition crew after surviving a horrible storm coming from the direction of Lake’s group can’t get in touch with him. The other half, where the person in lead is Dyer, follows Lake’s group and eventually finds their camp desolated, probably by storm and all the people of Lake’s group are dead and so are their sledge dogs however, one of the students from Lake’s crew is missing along with one dog. The 14 specimens seemed to be missing, thought to be blown away by the wind, however the damaged ones are found buried in the snow by, what Dyer’s group assume, Lake’s crew driven to madness by the storm. The next day Dyer and one of the students, Danforth fly an airplane across the mountains. They discover a preserved old stone city, half-frozen and they land just at the boundary of this ancient. Dyer and Danforth starts to explore the city, finding a wide set of mural carvings and sculptures describing the history of the city and the beings Lake discovered.

Dyer and Danforth progresses through the city discovering that this old race, the Elder Ones, created primitive life on Earth and were eventually forced under the ground into an underwater sea by a sheer cold. Dyer and Danforth realize that Lake’s group was actually slaughtered by the eight Elder Things that Lake dragged from the underground cave possibly in hibernation. Two explorers, however continue because of their assumption that in one of the honeycomb-shaped buildings is an entrance to the underground sea and during this journey they stumble upon the evidence that the Elder Things have returned to this city dragging with them sledges with the missing student and a dog which bodies they eventually find cut up in a strange matter, almost as if the Elder Things were studying them. They eventually find the entrance that seems to be leading to the subterranean sea where they find four of the remaining Elder Things slaughtered presumably by a Shoggoth, a creature of species that the Elder Things created a long time ago to provide physical strength and help them with building their cities. Shoggoths however later gained independence as Dyer uncovered from the mural carvings. The Shoggoth notices them and starts chasing them through the caves. Dyer and Danforth ultimately escape the caves and the city and shaken by this horrendous experience fly back over the mountains, however Danforth takes one last look from the plane towards the horizon and the far away mountains, even higher than the ones Miskatonic expedition came across as the mural carvings of the Elder race have stated. He sees a mirage of a cyclopean city of which even the Elder Things were afraid of as was visible from the carvings and this one look drives Danforth insane for the course of a few months.

H.P. Lovecraft was inspired by many other authors as I have previously stated and the title of this novella is a reference to one of the stories by Lord Dunsany – “The Hashish Man” and more precisely from the sentence “And we came at last to those ivory hills that are named the Mountains of Madness…” (Plunkett). However, the most obvious source of inspiration is Edgar Allan Poe. Dyer and Danforth state in the beginning of the novella that the icy continent reminds them of one of Poe’s poems and these two discusses Poe’s work seeming quite familiar with it. Dyer himself stated in the novella that he “was interested … because of the Antarctic scene of Poe’s only long story – the disturbing and enigmatical Arthur Gordon Pym.” (H. P. Lovecraft) Further in the story we can observe another direct mention of Poe’s work and that in words “Danforth has hinted at … sources to which Poe may have had access when writing his Arthur Gordon Pym a century ago” (H. P. Lovecraft) referring to the frightening sound that they heard either by the Elder Things or the Shoggoth reminding them exactly of the shrieks of “the gigantic, spectrally snowy birds of that malign region’s core. “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!”” (H. P. Lovecraft) ,however the shrieks “Tekeli-li!” were not only produced by birds in the original Poe’s novel but also a terrified scream of the native savages “From absolute stupor [the savages] appeared to be, all at once, aroused to the highest pitch of excitement, and rushed wildly about, going to and from a certain point on the beach, with the strangest expressions of mingled horror, rage, and intense curiosity depicted on their countenances, and shouting, at the top of their voices, Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” (Poe) This evidence leaves us to believe that “Tekeli-li” may be understood as an interjection of horror, fright. That is presented in Lovecraft’s story as well when Danforth catches a glimpse of the forbidden cyclopean city “At the time his shrieks were confined to the repetition of a single mad word of all too obvious source: “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” (H. P. Lovecraft)

Another obvious influence of Poe are the white deformed animals featured in both stories. Poe’s big white birds can be seen in those few last pages as Pym is approaching the cataract. “Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil.” (Poe) Lovecraft incorporated white birds into his story in the form of deformed penguins, huge in size and living as sort of a livestock for the Shoggoth. “For it was only a penguin – albeit of a huge, unknown species larger than the greatest of the known king penguins, and monstrous in its combined albinism and virtual eyelessness.” (H. P. Lovecraft) These forms of animal deformations lead us to one of the biggest similarities of these two stories and that is quite visibly the inspiration by the Hollow-Earth theory.

The Hollow Earth theory was a scientific theory popular in the 18th and 19th century that stated that Earth had an underground sea with entrances at the both poles. This theory was proven to be false, in the meantime however many authors took an inspiration from this theory namely Edgar Allan Poe or Jules Verne. The theory also stated that aurora borealis was a product of escaping fumes from inside of the Earth and that inside of this hollow planet is another species of men waiting to be discovered. This is easily found in Poe’s novel as Pym states that he sees a “light gray vapor in the southern horizon … having all the wild variations of the Aurora Borealis.” (Poe) and “there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger… than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.” which probably refers to the undiscovered species of men living in the hollow Earth. The paleness and eyelessness of these underground creatures are common in the nature in the case of a species living in complete darkness, often in underground caves. Lovecraft’s penguins are a perfect example of that and while in his novella it’s stated directly that there is a “sunless sea that lurked at earth’s bowels” I doubt that he was inspired by the Hollow Earth theory, mainly because that theory was far too old in his times to be relevant and the discoveries and exploration of the Earth have significantly advanced since the theory was popular and in my opinion he was instead inspired by the authors that were originally inspired by this theory.

Poe’s influence was undoubtedly present in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” but it is not a subject of plagiarism. Lovecraft’s novella is written in partly the same setting and incorporates few features of Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym” but develops its own unique story including the vast development of the Cthulhu Mythos present in many Lovecraft’s stories prior to this one and features completely different path of the story than Poe. Distinctive features of Poe’s novel such as cannibalism, people with black skin, eyes and teeth, antagonist in the form of a human or densely forested area behind the polar circle stays unique to the Poe’s novel. Other features such as pale deformities Lovecraft presents in different way or to minimal extent and finally those few features that seems almost identical are simply nods, references and quotations from Poe’s original work complete with his name stated each time. Even the blood-curdling scream “Tekeli-li!” is nothing but a matter of comparison that the characters used to describe what they had just heard and what had it reminded them of.

Why was Lovecraft inspired by such a bizarre and not exactly well received work of fiction? Lovecraft was always fascinated with the unknown and he himself stated in his long essay that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature) In the times of writing “At the Mountains of Madness” a significant part of Antarctica was yet to be discovered and that part was exactly where Lake’s doomed expedition ventured. An unexplored part of the Earth combined with the longest story of one of his favorite authors surely stirred up a storm of ideas and in the end “At the Mountains of Madness” was written.

Works citedKing, Stephen. Revival. New York: Scribner, 2014.

Lovecraft, H.P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. Athol: Recluse Press, 1927.

Lovecraft, H.P. The complete fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2011.

Lovecraft, H.P. Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2005.

Plunkett, Edward. A Dreamer’s Tales. George Allen and Sons, 1910.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: complete tales and poems. New York: Fall River Press, 2012.

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