Mars is one of the most frequently visited worlds for writes of science fiction and weird tales. From H.G. Wells to Clark Ashton Smith to Ray Bradbury, the general Earth-like appearance of Mars has always made it an attractive home for non-Terran stories.
In his lifetime, HPL did appreciate many of these stories. Early in his life HPL did read and enjoy the stories of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, although later he generally criticized many such inter-planetary tales for making alien life highly anthropomorphic in appearance, feelings and desires (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft; S.T. Joshi, 2013).
John Carter of Mars by Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell (johncarterofmars.ca)
In an essay entitled “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” (originally written in 1934) HPL criticized “space-travel fiction”, calling it an overcrowded genre with material that is insincere, conventional, trite, artificial, full of false emotion and puerile extravagance. I will not go into the details of the essay but it is very interesting and can be found in Collected Essays, Volume 2: Literary Criticism – H.P. Lovecraft (edited by S.T. Joshi; 2004). While HPL highly criticized may of the tropes that were being develop in early 20th century science fiction, he referenced several novels and stories that he considered to be semi-classics with one of them being H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. The “octopod-like” very alien appearance of the Martians must have fascinated HPL as a refreshing deviation from the human looking aliens that dominated the pulp magazines. The end of The War of the Worlds must have appealed to HPL as well; the fact that humans, with all of their technology and intelligence, were not responsible for the downfall of the alien invasion.
H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds, illustrated by Tom Kidd
While HPL mentioned Mars numerous times in his astronomical essays, he only directly referred to the red planet once in his stories. Specifically, in Through the Gates of the Silver Key (co-written with E. Hoffmann Price) as Swami Chandraputra is describing Randolph Carter’s travels through time and space he says that Carter “…gazed at the Cyclopean ruins that sprawl over Mars’ ruddy disc.”
The largest volcano on Mars, Olympus Mons, is also the solar system’s tallest planetary mountain (www.smithsonianmag.com); it is 374 miles in diameter, which is about the size of Arizona. Olympus Mons is 15.5 miles tall, which is almost 3 times larger than Mount Everest.
A size comparison between Olympus Mons, Mount Everest and lle de Hawaii (from livingsta.hubpages.com)
Olympus Mons was identified and known by astronomers since the 19th century. It was one of the few structures on Mars that could be seen during the planet-wide dust storms. Giovanni Schiaparelli first named it Nix Olympica, meaning the snows of Olympus. Later the name was changed to Olympus Mons when it was confirmed that it was a volcano.
A view of Olympus Mons from the Viking 1 orbiter (education-portal.com)
When Randolph Carter visited the Cyclopean ruins that sprawl over Mars, was HPL referring to Nix Olympica, one of the few features that could be seen on Mars during its dust storms? Given HPL’s interest in both astronomy and detail in his stories, it would not surprise me. However, we may never know the true answer to this question.
Next time we move to the first outer or “greater” planets in our solar system – Jupiter. Thank you – Fred.