The Pulpy Prehistory of The Thing I – At the Mountains of Madness

While magazines made of literal pulp are long gone, the spirit of the pulps is like a good movie monster–it just refuses to die. H. P. Lovecraft in particular has had a long undeath, spawning

While magazines made of literal pulp are long gone, the spirit of the pulps is like a good movie monster–it just refuses to die. H. P. Lovecraft in particular has had a long undeath, spawning eldritch children and grandchildren in the minds of audiences decades after his demise.

One misbegotten offspring of the weird fiction master is John Carpenter’s The Thing. Over the next several weeks, our pulp spotlight will be shining into the Antarctic abyss, hoping to illuminate the unhallowed ancestry of the classic movie monstrosity.

The story begins with Lovecraft’s 1936 novella At the Mountains of Madness. Published in the scifi-oriented Astounding Stories rather than his usual Weird Tales, it takes its readers on an expedition to the still largely unknown continent of Antarctica. The endeavor is funded by Miskatonic University, and our narrator is a professor of geology named William Dyer. While there are a number of specialists on the trip, each pursuing his own area of research, Dyer spends a great deal of time describing a new drill designed by his colleague, Prof. Pabodie, and their attempts to take core samples from various locations throughout the icebound land. In these early sections, the reader might be forgiven for believing this is a forerunner to Armageddon and not The Thing.

The tension mounts in a typical Lovecraftian manner. These men of science are presented with strange phenomena–odd fossils, unexpectedly high mountains, hints of architecture where nothing should live–and greet them with excitement as wonderful new discoveries. But a picture begins to form as a group at a different camp uncovers well-preserved creatures somewhere between carnivorous plant and aquatic animal, resembling the “fabled Elder Things in Necronomicon.” These discoveries may be more sinister than they first appeared. Suddenly, those investigating the strange beings die gruesome, violent deaths, leaving Dyer and company to investigate the grizzly scene.

Soon after, we leave the realm of science entirely. The heroes, in classic Campbellian style, cross the threshold of a subterranean world once inhabited by the monstrous Elder Things. We learn that these beings from the stars came to earth long before mankind, ruled the planet for aeons, and spawned most life as we know it, either intentionally or by leaving abandoned experiments long untended. But while the Antarctic setting certainly proved inspirational for The Thing, it was not the Elder Things themselves that gave rise to the eponymous movie monster, but one of their experiments.

“It was under the sea, at first for food and later for other purposes, that they first created earth-life—using available substances according to long-known methods. The more elaborate experiments came after the annihilation of various cosmic enemies. They had done the same thing on other planets; having manufactured not only necessary foods, but certain multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of moulding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs under hypnotic influence and thereby forming ideal slaves to perform the heavy work of the community. These viscous masses were without doubt what Abdul Alhazred whispered about as the “shoggoths” in his frightful Necronomicon, though even that mad Arab had not hinted that any existed on earth except in the dreams of those who had chewed a certain alkaloidal herb.”

As the amorphous slave race is introduced, Dyer’s sympathies begin to shift in favor of the Elder Things. By the end of the story, he will praise them as “scientists to the last,” declaring, “whatever they had been, they were men!” It is the shoggoth’s menacing presence that grows to disturb him, and their appearance at the climax that drives the story to its horrifying conclusion.

So what is a shoggoth? A “protoplasmic mass,” to start. It can also create and dispose of new organs at need. When it rises against its masters, it appears to suck off their starfish-shaped heads, and leave the bodies coasted in “freshly glistening and reflectively iridescent black slime.” That is an odd thing, not often commented upon: shoggoths are beetle black.

One further aspect takes this disgusting creature and propels it into the realm of nightmare. This is the simple observation that “they seemed to converse with the Old Ones by mimicking their voices.” Indeed, they “had likewise no voice save the imitated accents of their bygone masters.” These hideous monsters are capable of mimicry, of hiding their slime-coated, shifting faces behind a mask of ordinary language.

When at last Dyer confronts a shoggoth, it is memorable. It is not the final scene, and arguably not the final horror, but its power, propelled by the pulp master’s purple prose, is palpable. The sentences beg you to savor them–which is why instead of quoting that passage here, I will simply recommend that you read the fantastic little tale for yourself. It is well worth the time for any fan of the genre.

In the next installment of this series, we will see how this protoplasmic mass evolved to fill the place John W. Campbell carved for it in the frozen wastes of his 1938 novella Who Goes There?

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