Category Archives: At the Mountains of Madness

Cryptobiosis in Elder Things, Part 3 Drifting through Interstellar Space

Being essentially, asexual, immortal beings, the Elder Things are not constrained by specific life cycle functions and are not overly concerned with reproduction. In addition, their ability to enter into cryptobiosis over extremely long periods of time and under very adverse environmental conditions, means the Elder Things are uniquely adapted to survive in interstellar space. Elder Thing by Sadan Vague (

Previously we hypothesized that the Elder Things may use dark matter and/or dark energy to propel themselves through space. Additionally, we know from their discovery in Antarctica that they go into a cryptobiotic state for long periods of time. Thus, it is not surprising that they would remain in such a state for millennia, drifting thorough interstellar space. Such a mode of existence is a very energy efficient means of colonizing other ecosystems, or in their case planets. A wide variety of organisms behave in a similar manner, such as phytoplankton, invertebrates and plants (e.g. seeds). In addition, we are familiar with at least one multicellular organism that can survive the rigors of space – the tardigrades.

tard1   A tardigrade

Tardigrades, also known as water bears, are water-dwelling, multicellular, micro-animals of the phylum Tardigrada. These organisms have been found in hot springs and on the top of the Himalayas, in polar regions and the deep sea; they are some of the most resilient Terran organisms. Tardigrades can survive extreme temperatures, pressures, a absence of oxygen, dehydration, high amounts of radiation (they can withstand 1,000 times more radiation than any other Terran animal) and a complete lack of food. In fact, tardigrades are so resilient that they are one of the few groups of organisms to have survived all five of Earth’s mass extinctions. Thus, its not surprising that tardigrades are the first known animal to have survived when exposed to outer space.

One reason for the high degree of resiliency in the tardigrades relative to the exposure of high amounts of radiation in space, is its unique damage suppressor protein, called Dsup, which suppresses the frequency of DNA breaks associated with high amounts of radiation. It may be possible that among the many unique adaptations (e.g. extremely tough but flexible hide, the potential ability to utilize dark energy / dark energy), the Elder Things have its own set of Dsup proteins that allow them to survive drifting through space as intergalactic plankton.

Hypsibius                                                                                                  The tardigrade Hypsibius dujardini – an immunofluorescent micrograph

According to Dyer, early bas-reliefs found in the mountains of madness represented the preterrestrial life of the Elder Things on other planets, in other galaxies and even in other universes (more on this in a future article). Additional bas-reliefs indicated that they arrived on a “…nascent, lifeless earth…” although based on estimates of when the Elder Things arrived on Earth the world already had life but it was only microbial in nature. The Elder Things were said to have “…filtered down from the stars when earth young –.” However, while the Elder Things may have possessed an entire array of adaptations to survive in a cryptobiotic state drifting through space until they arrived on a habitable world, based on the bas-reliefs as the Pleistocene drew on the Elder Things “…had lost track…” of the ability to travel through space.

Bellerophon Cthulhu soapstone bas relief Bas-relief of the spawn of Cthulhu found in the Mountains of Madness (

Through the centuries the Elder Things experienced a war with the spawn of Cthulhu as well as a number of rebellions of their Shoggoth creations. Thus, by the time the inter-dimensional Mi-Go arrived on Earth, the Elder Things wanted to leave the planet in search of other worlds for colonization. However, when they attempted to leave Earth, they “…found it no longer possible to leave the earth’s atmosphere. Whatever the old secret of interstellar travel had been, it was now definitely lost to the race.” This passage is extremely interesting in that it makes it difficult to accurately describe just exactly how the Elder Things traveled through space.

untitled                   Elder Thing by Steve Maschuck

Based on earlier accounts of their complete lack of dependence or interest in mechanical devices we know their ability to travel through space is not based on technology. While space travel may be more of a biological adaptation, their essentially immortal status and the general absence of sexual reproduction, indicates that more than likely the Elder Things did not “loose” the ability to travel through natural selection (as least based on the way we understand how Terran evolution operates). Thus, I hypothesize that interstellar travel was more of a cultural trait or ability that was known and shared amount the Elder Things. Cultural traits, which are not evolutionary in nature, that are past from one generation to the next in humans include language and writing. Thus, interstellar travel may have been a cultural trait in the Elder Things.

Elderthing_CthulhuWars_SandyPetersen Elder Thing art for Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Wars

The colony of Elder Things that reached Earth and remained on the planet for millions of years had no need to travel through interstellar space and so not only forgot how to travel through space but even how to leave the planet’s atmosphere. Thus, over time, this ability or knowledge was simply lost, at least to those who colonized the Earth. However, their inert resiliency was not entirely lost since they could still live in the deep ocean depths and still put themselves into a state of cryptobiosis for millions of years.

Next time we will review how other colonies of Elder Things not only retained their ability to travel through space but also learned how to travel through higher dimensions to other Universes. Thank you – Fred.


Cryptobiosis in Elder Things, Part 2 Traveling through Interstellar Space

“They were the great “Old Ones” that had filtered down from the stars when earth was young – the beings whose substance an alien evolution had shaped, and whose powers where such as this planet had never bred.” – from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.


At the Mountains of Madness by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society

In addition to withstanding the cool, desiccated conditions of Antarctica, the bas-reliefs and illustrations in the catacombs of the Mountains of Madness provided evidence that the Elder Things were extraterrestrial in origin.  In fact, it was documented that the Elder Things traveled to other planets and galaxies and even visited other universes.  Additional illustrations indicate that the Elder Things could travel through interstellar space on their vast membranous wings, propelled by the “ether” also known as aether.

Ether was once thought to be some type of material found throughout space, which allowed light to pass through.  Christiaan Huygens hypothesized that as sound waves travel through air and mechanical energy can travel as waves through water, light waves needed to travel through some type of media.  Huygens described this semi-physical material as aether and it allowed light to travel even through the vacuum of space.  However, the Michelson – Morley experiment of 1887 provided evidence that light was not traveling through a luminous aether.  By the 1920s a sufficient amount of experimental evidence accumulated to indicate light did not need the aether to travel through space.


Christiaan Huygens

So, what are we to make of Lovecraft’s proposed hypothesis that the Elder Things propel themselves through space with ether?  In Lovecraft’s day the hypothesis of the ether was already largely regarded as not a valid interpretation of how light travels through space.  However, in spite of the scientific evidence for the absence of the aether, this material took on an almost metaphysical status.  For example, in Modern Science and Materialism, a book written by Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot and known to have a large impression on Lovecraft’s philosophical and cosmic view, it is stated…” The aether of space makes no impression on our senses, and its more rapid vibrations cannot be perceived. Yet we can easily understand that they exist, and in our “mind’s eye” see the ultra-violet rays which our bodily eye is blind to.” Thus, based on this metaphysical viewpoint, just because we cannot perceive or measure it, at least not yet, does not mean it does not exist.  A reality existing beyond our Earth-bound senses was a theme in many of Lovecraft’s tales including At the Mountains of Madness.

An alternative hypothesis to the utilization of aether as a means of interstellar transportation, has been that the Elder Things use dark matter and/or dark energy as a means of propulsion. However, it should be emphasized, that dark matter or dark energy is not simply a replacement for aether.  As explained by Sean Carroll, aether was a theoretical idea that could not be verified with experimental evidence.  In sharp contrast, dark matter and dark energy are observations in the universe that physicists would love to ignore but can’t (  Dark matter is a new, but currently undetectable, kind of matter that appears to be required to explain how galaxies spin with our understanding of gravity.  Dark energy is a strange force that causes the universe to expand at an accelerated rate (Calculating the Cosmos by Ian Stewart, 2016).


Elder Thing by Tom Ardans

The reluctant consideration of dark matter originates with trying to explain why galaxies in the Coma cluster move substantially faster than they should under Newtonian gravity.  Specially, based on the observed rates of movement the galaxies should fly apart and the cluster should dissolve, again based on Newtonian physics.  Since they don’t something else must be holding the cluster together. Currently, the leading hypothesis for this observation is the presence of dark matter.  Dark energy is thought of as an anti-gravity field which is driving the galaxies apart (Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku, 2005).  In addition, dark matter and dark energy combined account for 96% of the mass-energy density of the universe; our “normal” (baryonic) matter only accounts for about 4% of the total mass-density in the universe.  Thus, while as humans we have difficult time measuring or imagining what dark matter and dark energy are, the Elder Things with senses beyond our five, may be able to recognize, quantify and thus utilize these “dark” forms of mass-energy.


Maybe the Elder Things utilize dark matter as a sort of “fuel,” powering their interstellar sails (wings) and dark energy is a form of biological, anti-gravity drive that propels them through the cosmos.  However, even with such exotic forms of matter and energy, it is doubtful that the Elder Things could travel faster than the speed of light.  While certain factions of the Elder Things are known to utilize inter-dimensional travel as cited in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (more on that in a later article), it appears that the majority of them travel through interstellar space.  Since the Elder Things seem to be essentially immortal, largely through their asexuality, and have an extremely tough yet flexible outer skin, it is more than likely that the majority of their time is spent passively drifting in space in an inactive, cryptobiotic state.  Next time we will talk about the Elder Things cryptobiotic state in space.  Thank you – Fred.


Elder Thing by Henning Ludwigsen (

Cryptobiosis in Elder Things, Part 1 Antarctica

“10:15 p.m. Important discovery.  Orrendorf and Watkins, working underground at 9:45 with light, found monstrous barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature; probably vegetable unless overgrown specimen of unknown marine radiata.  Tissue evidently preserved by mineral salts. Tough as leather, but astonishing flexibility retained in places.” – from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.


Illustration by Pete von Sholly

The passage cited above is the first time in the Cthulhu Mythos that the Elder Things were referenced and described. A total of 14 specimens were found, 8 being in perfect condition, meaning all of their appendages were intact. The Elder Things were first described as “fossils,” again with tissues replaced by mineral salts, and were estimated to be found in geologic deposits from the late Cretaceous or early Eocene period (approximately 66 to 56 million years ago).

A number of times the Elder Things were described as tough as leather and yet very flexible. Thus, while not explicitly described, the Elder Thing fossils may have been perceived more as mummified remains rather than simple fossils. Such well-preserved, mummified fossils are extremely rare but are discovered from time to time. For example, in Alberta, Canada an extremely well preserved nodosaur (a type of ankylosaur) was found, providing some of the best-preserved examples of dinosaur skin and armor (; 15 May 2017).


Exhibit of a mummified  nodosaur

Once the Elder Thing specimens were brought to the field camp, it appears that an increase in temperature of their immediate surroundings contributed toward reviving them. Other environmental factors may have contributed toward this including exposure to an oxygenated atmosphere and sunlight. However, more than likely it was the rise in temperature, once the specimens were taken to camp to be thawed and dissected, that resulted in the revival of the Elder Things.


Illustration of fossilized Elder Things by Howard V. Brown for Astounding Stories.

The Elder Things may have been in a state of cryptobiosis when discovered by members of the Miskatonic expedition. Cryptobiosis was first defined by David Keilin in 1959 as “the state of an organism when it shows no visible signs of life and when its metabolic activity becomes hardly measurable, or comes reversibly to a standstill.” Essentially, the organism shows no signs of life and yet is not dead. Cryptobiosis is an evolutionary adaptation that allows an organism to essentially stop all metabolic processes during adverse environmental conditions such as the absence of water, freezing or oxygen deficiency. Once favorable environmental conditions return, the organism will resume measurable metabolic activities. Thus, unknown to Lake and the others, exhuming what they thought were large fossils, exposed the Elder Things to higher temperatures, disrupting their cryptobiosis.  Similar cryptobiotic circumstances, where an assumed dead organism was recovered from the ice and revived as a result of increasing temperatures, occurred in the early 1980’s at Norwegian and American research stations in Antarctica. We know both instances resulted in disastrous results for the human researchers and scientists.

While cryptobiosis may seem to be an attribute of only non-terrestrial life, it is fairly common on Earth. For example, cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) produce “resting spores” called akinetes when environmental conditions turn undesirable. Most frequently this occurs in fall going into winter when temperatures decline and lakes and ponds freeze over. The Akinetes settle to the bottom and when the lake ices out and “turns over,” the mixing brings the akinetes to the surface, where increasing temperatures and sunlight result in increased metabolic activities. The akinetes “hatch” and a new crop of cyanobacteria are growing in the surface waters.


A filament of the cyanobacteria Anabaena; the enlarged cell is an akinete.

The morphology of the Elder Things is described as a cross between an echinoderm (sea stars and sea urchins) and a fern. In general fern spores are not very hardy. Typically, they are only viable for a few days but under certain circumstances they can be viable for a year or a little more. Using specialized cryogenic techniques, it has been reported that spores may be preserved and viable after 15 years. However, in contrast to fern spores, the seeds of angiosperms (flowing plants), have been documents to be viable for substantially longer periods of times. Frequently, for seeds the key to their viability over extremely long periods of time is low temperature with little to no moisture. There have been reports of 2,000-year-old palm oil seeds, discovered in Israel during an archeological dig, successfully germinating. In addition, it has been documented in the mid-1990s that a Chinese water plant grew from a seed that was dated at around 1,400 years ( Again, the key to this extremely long state of cryptobiosis is existing in very dry and cold conditions. The Elder Things “fossils” were found buried in Antarctica, probably the driest and coldest place on Earth. This, in combination with their extremely tough yet very flexible structure allowed them to remain in cryptobiosis for millions of years – until they were revived by the small upright mammals.


An Elder Thing by David Maguire.

Next time we will discuss the cryptobiosis of the Elder Things in interstellar space. Also, I want to remind everyone that we have about one week to go before the Kickstarter ends for the third volume of The Journal of Lovecraftian Science. We are about 90% funded and if you are interested please check it out at Thank you – Fred.

Fossils from the Mountains of Madness (Part 2)

Greg Onychuk The Fowler                                  The Fowler Imprint (Greg Onychuk;

Of all of the fossils collected during the Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica, the most intriguing specimens were those of the footprints of the Elder Things.  As previously mentioned, a variety of fossils including ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, and a number of living marine invertebrates were discovered near Queen Alexandra Range.  However, also discovered in the sandstones were strange triangular striated marking, about a foot in diameter at their widest point. While Lake, the lead biologist on the expedition found these triangular fossils interesting and curious, Dyer who was the expedition’s lead geologist saw them as nothing more than ripple effects, which are common in sedimentary rock.  Such ripple marks form perpendicular to the direction of the wind or water (current or waves).  In this case, the fossilized ripple marks (see below) are indicative of agitation by water and were symmetrical, so they were probably formed by gentle waves or fast flow water.  In any event, based on the description of the triangular fossils, it is difficult to see how they could be mistaken for ripple marks. However, this was probably just an attempt by Dyer to explain the strange markings.


After flying over the South Pole and conducting some additional aerial surveying, Lake insisted that the new base be established in a westward direction, instead of the planned northwestward direction. This change in direction was sparked by Lake’s obsession with the strange “triangular striated marking in the slate.” Lake was convinced that these marking were not ripple marks but instead of some large, unknown organism, in spite of it being dated to be Cambrian, if not Precambrian.

In Lovecraft’s time, the Precambrian (recognized as the period of time from the formation of the Earth about 4.6 billion years ago to the beginning of the Cambrian about 541 million years ago) was generally thought to be dominated by unicellular life.  It was not until 1950’s when radiometric carbon dating was developed, that it was confirmed that multicellular life existed in the Precambrian. Indeed, the earliest multicellular forms of life are found in rock as old as 1.2 to 1.5 billion years ago. These ancient multicellular forms were a form of filamentous red algae named Bangiomorpha pubescens and were discovered in the 1990s (M.J. Benton; The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction; 2008).

funsia                                                                    Fossilized imprint of the red alga Bangiomorpha, one of the first multicellular organisms

The first recognized ecosystem dominated by multicellular species was during the Ediacara Period (between 635 and 542 million year ago). To be fair, when Lovecraft first suggested that the fossil footprints were of the Elder Things and dated somewhere between the Cambrian / Precambrian, very little was known about multicellular life in the Precambrian. The strange organisms of the Ediacara were discovered in the Ediacara Hills, north of Adelaide, Australia in 1946 by a young mining geologist named Reginald Sprigg (The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Michael J. Benton; 2008).  Many of these Ediacaran fossils looked like jellyfish, branching fronds and worms.  Some say the Ediacara species are the direct ancestors of many of existing marine fauna, while other state these species were so unlike most living forms that the majority of the Ediacaran died out approximately 540 million years ago (Benton, 2008).        The Ediacaran ecosystem in the Precambrian

Additional support for the hypothesis that the Ediacaran species represent some of the earliest known multicellular, animals on Earth was very recently presented.  Specifically, fossil fat molecules (cholesterol) were collected and measured off of a fossil of a species known and Dickinsonia.  These species lived 558 million years ago placing it firmly in the Precambrian.  So why did most, if not all, of the Ediacaran species, die out? Maybe the Ediacarans were an experiment of the Elder Things and for some reason decided to abandon and/or start over with a new “stock” of eukaryotic cells.

1024px-DickinsoniaCostata Fossil of Dickinsonia

Getting back to the fossilized Elder Thing footprints, initially one may ask why they would not be mistaken for another Ediacaran species.  The shape and appearance of the footprints may indicate that they were another flat, soft-bodied, bottom feeder, similar to Dickinsonia.  So why did Lake suspect that these fossils were footprints of some large animal and not a group of bottom-feeding species? It must have been the pattern of the fossils.  One or two fossil imprints would look like a few organisms.  However, a number of the same fossil imprint laid out in a linear arrangement, such as the dinosaur tracks shown below, is definitely an indication of the movement of some larger animal.

La-Rioja-dinosaur-footprints-protected-under-Cultural-Heritage-Law Dinosaur footprints at the La Rioja Cultural Heritage site

It was generally thought that animals did not start colonizing the land until the Silurian, between 440 and 410 million years ago.  However, in 2002 older fossilized footprints of a lobster-sized, centipede-like animal were discovered in some sandstone (see below).  These footprints are approximately 530 million years old (  Thus, it appears that some animals were wading out of the shallow seas and onto the land during the Precambrian.  Thus, these creatures were around the same time the Elder Things were moving over the Earth.  Were the lobster-sized, centipede-like animals special pet projects of the Elder Things or were they just another discarded and abandoned biological experiment, cast out to be subjugated to the forces of evolutionary natural selection?

footprints_160                                                                                                                         Some of the earliest fossil footprints of a terrestrial organism on Earth

Next time we discuss the actual discovery of the “fossilized” Elder Thing specimens.  Thank you – Fred.

img_31131.jpg           Illustration of Elder Thing footprints by Pete Von Sholly

Fossils from the Mountains of Madness (Part 1)

ATMOM_Steamgear_deviantart At the Mountains of Madness by Steamgear (

During the Pabodie – Lake, Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica, a number of fascinating fossils were discovered, in addition to the dormant Elder Things.  Frank Pabodie was a professor of engineering who developed a specialized drill that was used to bore through the Antarctic soils and bedrock, while Professor Lake was the expedition’s lead biologist who oversaw the collection of the fossils and other specimens.  In addition to Pabodie and Lake, the other two lead Miskatonic professors on the expedition were Professor Atwood of the physics department (also a trained meteorologist) and William Dyer of the geology department (S.T. Joshi [editor], H.P. Lovecraft – The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, 2001).  Over the next few articles we will be reviewing a number of the fossils founds during the Miskatonic expedition.  It should be noted that Pabodie’s experimental drill was first used just above Beardmore Glacier approximately 8,500 feet above sea-level on Mt. Nansen.

Beardmore Glacier (

Some additional drillings to the west, near Queen Alexandra Range (see figure below) revealed a variety of fossils including ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, crinoids and two molluscs including lingulae and gasteropods.  With the exception of the trilobites, all of these identified organisms are still living today.  Thus, in order to be a “time stamp” on this collection of fossils, we will first discuss the trilobites.

Central Transantarctic Mountains

Queen Alexandra Range (

Trilobites are a group of extinct arthropods, making up their own class, the Trilobita.  These organisms were some of the most successful early animals, living on Earth for almost 252 million years.  They first appear in the fossil record in abundance around in the early Cambrian around 521 million years ago.  However, there is some evidence to suggest that trilobites may have existed as far back as 700 million years or even earlier.  Once the trilobites appeared in the Cambrian, they rapidly diversified into a number of major orders. Trilobite diversity appeared to be highest in the Cambrian but were still fairly common in the Ordovician.  However, through the rest of the Paleozoic Era, trilobite diversity and abundance appeared to decline with a number of near-extinctions.  Finally, by the end of the Permian period all trilobites went extinct, leaving no known living, direct descendants. It should be noted that the trilobites were not alone in this.  Over 96% of all marine species went extinct during the Permian – Triassic extinction event, which occurred approximately 252 million years ago.  This extinction event was the largest of the big five events, where a total of 90% of all species went extinct (Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis, 2009; Evolution: The First Four Billion Years).


Fossil trilobites

Ferns are a group of “primitive” plants that have specialized tissues such as trees and flowers but reproduce by spores and not seed or flowers.  Ferns first appeared in the late Devonian, approximately 360 million years ago.  Thus, if all of these fossil finds of the Miskatonic expedition were from the same geologic time, they must have originated from somewhere between the late Devonian and the end of the Permian.


Seaweed (complex algae) may have been some of the oldest multicellular organisms on Earth, dating back more than 555 million year old, well into the Precambrian (  Thus, of all of the fossils organisms identified, the seaweeds are the oldest.


Crinoids, commonly called sea lilies, are a group of marine animals that are in the phylum Echinodermata, also known as echinoderms.  With the exception of a few specimens found in the Burgess Shale, the crinoid group (class: Crinoidea) was first well represented in the Ordovician period, between 485 and 443 million years.  While this class of echinoderms were fairly abundant and diverse in the past, today they are represented by about 600 living species.

800px-Crinoid_and_comatule A living Crinoid, also known as a sea lily.

The last set of fossils cited in this passage were “…molluscs including lingulae and gasteropods.”  The Mollusca is one of the largest phyla of animal life, second only to the Arthropoda (the insects and their relatives).  Mollusks are soft-bodied animals that have some type of internal or external shell and include clams and squid.  Gasteropods are a class of mollusks that include the snails and their relatives (L. Margulis and K.V. Schwartz; Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, 1982).  However, the term lingulae probably refers to genus Lingula (lamp shells), which is placed in its own phylum, Brachiopoda.  The major difference between the Brachiopods and Mollusks is that Brachiopod shells have upper and lower surfaces in contrast to the left and right arrangement of the mollusks.


A living Brachiopod of the genus Lingula.

From an evolutionary perspective, the mollusks are far more successful than the brachiopods; mollusks have approximately 7,600 living species while brachiopods only have approximately 350 living species.  In Darwin’s travels, he found the windswept cliffs of the Falkland Islands full of brachiopod fossils. In contrast to the total number of living species, over 35,000 species of brachiopods have been found in the fossil record.  At one point, they were the most abundant group of animals on Earth.  Given how specific species can be found in specific rocks, brachiopod fossils can be used to determine the age of the rock where a particular fossil was found.  This dating technique agrees well with more modern methods of dating rocks (

brachiopod_fossils                                Brachiopod fossils

I believe Lovecraft including the lingulae with the gasteropods as members of the Mollusca phylum is an error on his part.  I can find no evidence that brachiopods were once considered to be another class within the Mollusca phylum.  If this is not directly attributed to an error on Lovecraft’s part, then it may have been an error from his reference source, possibly the Encyclopedia Britannia.  This is one of those rare instances where Lovecraft’s research for a story was flatly incorrect.

Next time we will continue to move forward in At the Mountains of Madness to discover what other fossils the Miskatonic Expedition found.  Thank you – Fred.

At the Mountains of Madness, Part 2: The Geology of the Mountains of Madness

at_the_mountains_of_madness___concept_art_by_mcrassusart-db53yra At the Mountains of Madness, concept art by Mcrassusart.

The Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica was lead by Professor William Dyer of the Geology Department at Miskatonic. Thus, is it not surprising that a large component of the Expedition was dedicated to “…securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the Antarctic continent…” Such exploratory investigations of Antarctica were certainly warranted in Lovecraft’s day. Only 0.4% of the entire continent is covered by exposed rock with the rest it being under ice. In order to obtain some rock and fossil specimens the expedition’s engineer, Professor Frank H. Pabodie, designed and built a durable yet light weight drill that could bore through rock but also have the capacity of melting ice through the use of copper electrodes.

I could find no reference of the use of copper electrodes in ice drill systems as a means of melting ice; however, more than likely Lovecraft gave rise to this idea through his general knowledge of chemistry.  The thermal conductivity (the rate at which heat passes through a specific material, typically described as the amount of heat that flows per unit time) of copper is higher than zinc, brass, aluminum and steel so it melts ice the fastest among these metals.

When the Dyer – Pabodie Expedition reached Antarctica one of the first large-scale geologic formations they encountered were the Admiralty Range, which is a large group of high mountains located in Victoria Land. Other impressive landmarks were Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror on Ross Island.


Mt. Erebus is the second highest volcano in Antarctica, being 12,448 feet high; Lovecraft estimated its height to be 12,700 ft high. Mt. Erebus has been an active volcano for at least 1.3 million years and is described as being a polygenetic (erupts repeatedly) stratovolcano (a conical volcano built by many layers of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and volcanic ash). Thus, in At the Mountains of Madness, when one of the graduate assistants Danforth notes the intermittent puffs of smoke and the lava flows along Mt. Erebus’s snowy slopes, Lovecraft is recognizing that this mountain is indeed an active volcano. Finally, Lovecraft describes the peak of Mt. Erebus as being scoriac; both S.T. Joshi and Leslie S. Klinger in their annotated analyses of Lovecraft’s text indicate that this word describes the dense chunks or jagged blocks of lava that are filled with holes due to gases forming bubbles. Again, this is another reference to the active state of Mt. Erebus.

MtErebus Mount Erebus

A large portion of the initial drilling and geologic activity of the Dyer – Pabodie Expedition occurred at Mt. Erebus. Dyer briefly mentions how the expedition conducted several mineral borings on the slopes of Mt. Erebus and how Pabodie’s drill was successful at boring through solid rock as well as melting ice layers. In addition to observing the scoria lava structures, the expedition may have also noted fumaroles on the slopes of Mt. Erebus. These structures are openings in the Earth’s crust, typically associated with volcanoes. They release steam and gases that can include several sulfur-based gases. In contrast, the fumaroles found around Mt. Erebus form ice towers that produce very little methane or hydrogen sulfide. In fact, the ecosystems that exist in these fumaroles may be some of the most alien on Earth. Ice Fumaroles near the slopes of Mount Erebus (

While the Antarctic fumaroles may be on a dry and cold continent, the air inside these structures may have 80 to 100% humidity. In addition, while the surface temperature at Mt. Erebus can commonly be -22oF, within the fumaroles the temperature can be between 32 and 48oF. These warm, moist conditions harbor communities of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria.  Such organisms are not dependent on light to produce energy through photosynthesis like almost all ecosystems on Earth. Instead, these microbes utilize chemicals from the bedrock as a source of energy.  These are the same types of bacteria that serve as the base of the food web for the deep sea hydrothermal vents; again, another ecosystem where photosynthesis cannot occur.

Basic RGB                                                                          Various types of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria.

While ice fumaroles are not long-lasting structures, typically they are in existence for a few decades, one can imagine shoggoths using them to move through the Antarctic continent. With humid, warmer conditions, coupled with a possible source of energy (the chemolithoautotrophic bacteria), the shoggoths may have used the fumaroles as a sort of underground network for communication and travel.  The fumaroles may have also been used as refuge against the Elder Thing masters; maybe the shoggoths also used the fumaroles as a means of plotting and spreading word about their developing rebellions.

The scoria rock produced by the volcanic activity of Mt. Erebus may have been some of the building material used by the Elder Things to build their great cities in the Mountains of Madness. This volcanic rock has been frequently used as a building material by humans, including the residents of Easter Island. Indeed, some of the statues on Easter Island are composed of scoria rock but most are composed of a soft volcanic rock called tuff.

Pukao-Tongariki_scoriarock_EasterIsland_natgeo Scoria rock found on Easter Island (

In sharp contrast to Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror is an extinct volcano and Lovecraft identified it as such in the story.  He also describes it as “…white, ghost-like…” and that it has an altitude of 10,900 feet. Mt. Terror is a large shield volcano located on the eastern part of Ross Island and has numerous cinder cones and domes on its flanks, mostly covered under snow and ice. Based on Dyer, no geologic exploratory investigations were conducted at Mt. Terror.

at_the_mountains_of_madness_by_Earl-Graey-d701u1l At the Mountains of Madness by Earl Graey (

Next time we will discuss the fossil findings of the Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica.  Thank you – Fred.

At the Mountains of Madness, Part 1: Lovecraft’s Continent


While we had record low temperatures throughout a large portion of the United States at the turn of the new year, its nothing compared to some of the low temperatures and high winds experienced on Antarctica, the continent where Lovecraft’s tale At the Mountains of Madness takes place. As Joshi describes in this comprehensive biography (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, 2013), Lovecraft was extremely fascinated with Antarctic geography and exploration since he was 10 or 12. In fact he wrote three treatises on the subject: “Voyages of Capt. Ross, R.N.” (1902), “Wilkes Explorations” (1902) and “Antarctic Atlas” (1903).  Unfortunately, these treatises are lost; it would have been fascinating to read these documents and exam the map of the continent Lovecraft illustrated in “Antarctic Atlas.”

The “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration was a period of time between the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century when there was an intensive and international effort to explore the continent of Antarctica. This unique period of time for Antarctic exploration is frequently cited as being between the “Heroic” and “Mechanical” ages, when individuals tested their mental and physical endurance in conjunction with using new and emerging technologies in transportation and communication. Lovecraft takes full advantage of this merging of 18th / 19th century exploration with early 20th century technology and scientific discoveries in the development of his tale.

HMS_Erebus_and_Terror_in_the_Antarctic_by_John_Wilson_Carmichael HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic by John Wilson Carmichael

James Clark Ross (1800-1862) discovered the Ross Sea, Victoria Land, the Great Ice Barrier (later named the Ross Ice Shelf in his honor) and two large volcanoes, which he named after his two ships, Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror.  As Joshi has described, the Ross expedition had a profound impact on Lovecraft as well as his development of At the Mountains of Madness. For example, Joshi noted that the ship’s doctor, Dr. Joseph Hooker, wrote in response to his initial view of Mt. Erebus, “This was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined…that is really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us at the consideration of our comparative insignificance and helplessness, and at the same time, an indescribable feeling of the greatness of the Creator in the works of His hand.” (Joshi, 2013). With the exception of the mention of the Creator, this passage really describes the cosmic indifference Lovecraft attempts to convey in his tales.

British (English) School; James Clark Ross (1800-1862)               James Clark Ross (1800-1862)

As a result of his expeditions to Antarctica, Ross believed that the continent was actually two land masses, a larger eastern part and a small western part (see below), separated by the Weddell and Ross Seas and their associated ice shelfs.


Lovecraft believed in this hypothesis was well and in fact included a passage in an earlier draft of At the Mountains of Madness to reflect this:

“…west, but radically different from the parts lying eastward below South America, which in all probability form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger by a frozen junction of the Ross and Weddell Seas.” (from The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, edited with an introduction and notes by S.T. Joshi, 2001).

However, this version is not found in the actual tale. Lovecraft modified this passage in the final submission to Astounding Stories in late 1935 to state:

“west, but somewhat different from the parts lying eastward below South America – which we then thought to form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger one by a frozen junction of Ross and Weddell Seas, though Byrd has since disproved this hypothesis.” (from Joshi, 2001).

The bolded passages are the ones that were added. Joshi does cite that Lovecraft is incorrect in stating that Byrd disproved this hypothesis; actually, it was Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon who disproved it in late 1935 during the first airplane flight crossing over Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea (Joshi, 2001. However, the fact that Lovecraft took the time and care to make that small yet significant change to the text in At the Mountains of Madness, provides additional support to the claim that Lovecraft made every effort to make his tales as scientifically accurate as possible, with the information that was available at the time.

Mt-Erebus-lg_c9bfa69e-b296-45ca-9655-ec2347a0ddc0_1024x1024 Mt. Erebus on the continent of Antarctica

Next time we will discuss the geologic history of Antarctica as discussed in At the Mountains of Madness.  Thank you – Fred.