“At the Mountains of Murkiness, or From Lovecraft to Leacock” (1940) by Arthur C. Clarke

Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936)

Surely, I thought, the mad Arab, Abdul Hashish, must have had such a spot in mind when he wrote of the hellish valley of Oopadoop in that frightful book, the forbidden “Pentechnicon.”
—Arthur C. Clarke, “At the Mountains of Murkiness” (1940)

Four years after “At the Mountains of Madness” was published in the pages of Astounding, and three years after Lovecraft had died, his work was already being parodied (Clarke could not know that he was far from the first). “Murkiness” was only Clarke’s fifth story to see print, published in the amateur sci-fi zine Satellite #16 (vol. 3, no. 4, March 1940), and is a very respectable early work. Like many later pasticheurs, it focuses on the most obvious aspects of Lovecraft’s writing and imagery to lampoon; unlike many of them, it does so from a very British standpoint, with Clarke deliberately drawing inspiration from the humorist Stephen Leacock.

As a spoof, the work is quite fannish. One of the key plot points revolves around how the Elder Things authored the stories about themselves in Weird Tales, which is why no one believes in them—and at the end the explorers find and misapprehend a note:

Destroy human race by plague of flying jellyfish (?Sent through post in unsealed envelopes?). No good for Unknown – try Gillings.

Fans of science fiction would recognize Unknown as one of the premier fantasy pulps of its day; Walter Gillings was the editor of the British pulp Tales of Wonder. The explorers, unfamiliar with these nuances, take it for an actual insidious plot and flee. Exeunt, pursued by eldritch horror requesting whether they mind condensed milk in their tea.

It is difficult to say what lasting impact Lovecraft had on Clarke; certainly, he was a fan, but he never attempted to add to the Mythos as such, aside from noting that the Programming Manual for the HAL 9000 Computer: Revised Edition was published by Miskatonic University Press. Thematically, one could argue that Lovecraft’s science fiction may have been an inspiration for some of Clarke’s stories, particularly the sense of cosmic horror in stories such as “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953), but “Murkiness” was the only time Clarke explicitly tried his hand at anything explicitly Lovecraftian. If there is a distinction to be had for Clarke’s “Murkiness,” it may be as one of the earliest Lovecraft-related works written by a homosexual author outside of Lovecraft’s immediate circle of friends such as Samuel Loveman and R. H. Barlow.

On New Year’s Day 1951, Robert H. Barlow, who had been Lovecraft’s friend, correspondent, and literary executor, took his own life. The motive is believed to have been the threat of exposure: Barlow was homosexual. It was a difficult time and place in which to be a homosexual; not just 1950s Mexico, but for most of the 20th century in most countries. In the United Kingdom a year after Barlow’s suicide, the British mathematician Alan Turing would be charged with “gross indecency” for having a homosexual relationship, and chemically castrated. Small wonder, then, that many homosexual men opted for extreme discretion, rather than submit themselves to prosecution. Turing would commit suicide in 1954.

This was the world of Arthur C. Clarke.

“At the Mountains of Murkiness or, From Lovecraft to Leacock” has nothing overtly to do with the fact that Clarke was homosexual—relatively little of Clarke’s fiction does. We will never know what quips or insinuations he might have made, without the hovering threat of discovery. Would he have made anything of the lack of women on Lovecraft’s expedition? Or the asexual reproduction of the Elder Things?

The chilling factor of the United Kingdom’s laws against homosexuality in 1940 cannot be measured, but no doubt it was far greater than whatever sub-zero temperatures populated the imaginary Antarctica of Poe, Lovecraft, and Clarke. What might he have written differently? Would it have been different at all? We will never know.

“At the Mountains of Murkiness” has been reprinted a number of times since it was first published, most notably in At the Mountains of Murkiness and Other Parodies (1973), The Antarktos Cycle: At the Mountains of Madness and Other Chilling Tales (2006), and The Madness of Cthulhu: Volume 1 (2014).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

 

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