“Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!” – H.P. Lovecraft, At The Mountains of Madness
Warning, possible spoilers ahead. I do my best not to ruin the stories I review too much, but some discussion of plot is necessary.
H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness concerns the arrival of a fictional expedition to the Antarctic and their fate from the perspective of the second most traumatized member of the group. The tension is perfectly maintained from the second chapter onward, although the first chapter, I will admit, started rather slowly.
One difficulty of H.P. Lovecraft’s prose is the sheer density of it. Although if I were a modern-day editor, I would find only a few places to cut without damaging the texture, it is still cumbrous and difficult to read. I find myself getting lost in clauses, stumbling over some sentences that should not have been penned. Snark aside though, some of these uberlong sentences are charming, beautifully written and almost lyrical. The extent of description, even of the mundane, serves well to anchor us in the setting and plot even when things start to get weird. The long sentence length even adds another layer of depth to the prose when the author decides to pen a sentence with an incredibly short word count, or interjecting highly charged statements like the one that started off this post. I doubt that if every sentence were as succint as the one above that the story would have benefited from it.
I’ve heard from other sources that At The Mountains of Madness is one of Lovecraft’s best, and though my experience with this author is limited, I am inclined to agree that this work is masterful. From the visual descriptions he provides of even the most odd of creatures from the depths of his nightmares, to the blind albino penguins (so awesome), to the psychological effects of seeing That Which Should Not Be Seen, Lovecraft invokes a sense of terrible awe, wonder, and creeping madness into the text at every turn.
Lovecraft’s narrative is strengthened by his intimates familiarity with the science of his time. The concept of continental drift, so new in his time period, served very well to establish his protagonist as a man of science and to add an element of reality to a modern reader that seems uncanny when the narrator stumbles on murals depicting the world across millions of years. At other times, his science was later disproved, such as the concept of evolutionary levels or that evolution has an eventual end goal, but that shaky science was popular at his time, and still too often finds its way into modern-day narratives, much to my dismay.
Finally, this novella addresses a very very heavy theme, the nature of humanity, with a deft hand and nuanced answer that left me astounded. As the above quote showed, Lovecraft considers men not as creatures, not as shells of flesh or animals, but rather as the intellect and capacity for accomplishment and rational thought. In this, the Old Ones prove just as human as humanity is, a difficult point utterly sold to me despite the fact that the Old Ones are bizarre winged, tentacled monstrosities.
Despite the hefty prose (lighter than The Alchemist, at least!) I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a good SF/F/Horror story, although it took me 5.5 hrs to read it today. A word of advice: Break this one up over a couple of days.
You can read it as part of the collection below if you like the smell of paper, or google it since it’s public domain:
The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (Knickerbocker Classics)