Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Cliffs of Insanity!!!

... er, I mean, The Mountains of Madness. Close enough.

The book "At the Mountains of Madness" by H. P. Lovecraft is actually a collection of three short novels of around 100 pages each, together with perhaps six short stories. As I've mentioned before, this is my first time reading Lovecraft or the Cthulhu mythos, so I thought I'd give my perspective. What follows are some


The first story I read was the eponymous "At the Mountains of Madness." The setting for this story was the Antarctic, which was a cool choice, and also made me feel a little sad as a 21st-century Earthling. Just eighty years ago, when Lovecraft was writing this, there were still parts of the world that science had not yet explored; he therefore had the leeway to invent fantastic mountain ranges in Antarctica, together with hidden countries in the depths of Africa and other out-of-the-way places. These days there is no frontier, everything has been photographed from above and there are no secrets. I guess the only exceptions are space and the oceans, and it probably isn't coincidental that some of the most effective modern horror stories take place there. (I'm looking at you, Event Horizon.)

Anyways. It's important for Lovecraft to set his book in a largely unknown wasteland, because his narrator is a scientist, and it's important that the scientist remain credible. He's a geologist, part of an expedition that includes biologists and other specialists. The major theme of this story is interesting: there's an obvious contrast between science and the supernatural, but rather than concluding that science is inadequate to explain the supernatural or that their spheres do not overlap, the conclusion is that science SHOULD NOT be used to probe the spiritual. In this story, along with the other Lovecraft pieces in this book, there's a profound terror at waking ancient secrets, of disturbing forces that have been forgotten. Science is, by definition, a drive to discover and increase knowledge, and in these stories, doing so causes terrible results.

In this respect, I think that Lovecraft was impressively ahead of his time. These stories date from the 20s and 30s, well before the dropping of the atom bomb or the development of Agent Orange. I think it's much more palatable today to say that there are some discoveries science shouldn't make, that we might be better off without certain inventions (leaded gasoline, trans fat, the hydrogen bomb). I'm guessing his anti-science perspective was considered much more radical in those days. Then again, maybe not... there's always an element of society that looks with suspicion and fear at change, and I guess the horrors of gas warfare and machine guns in WWI might have started similar trains of thought.

Of course, a difference is that the scientists, scholars and researchers in Lovecraft's stories aren't creating something new; instead, they are rediscovering something old. Earlier I used the word "supernatural", but only with hesitation. To me, supernatural implies something noncorporeal, like ghosts or spirits. By contrast, Lovecraft's "other" is very, very physical and tangible. The threat isn't that something will scare you, it's that something will eat you. These things have long histories and societies and past dealings with humans.

One thing that I appreciate about Lovecraft, while also being frustrated, is that he's much more of a hinter than a teller. His narrators write in a state of advanced fright, and their minds skitter away from the most awful things that have happened to them. This is kind of cool, in that it's a Hitchcockian way to build dread through atmosphere instead of shock. However, it's also annoying in that it becomes repetitive, with the narrator constantly referencing something without providing any actual information about it. They also spend far too much time coming up with adjectives that pile on top of one another to try and convey something about the topic without providing any concrete details, which often leads to results that are more funny than scary. "Horror crept into my mind as I struggled to resist the insane memories of the dark and ancient eldritch terror which chaotically threatened to slither out of the buried secrets of a forgotten and ancient past." (I made that sentence up. It didn't take a lot of effort.)

I guess what I'm trying to get at is, while I appreciate his some-things-are-best-left-hidden theme and his well-constructed mythos, Lovecraft doesn't seem like that great a writer. Now, part of this may be due to differences between literary tastes in 1926 versus 2006, or it could be that I've gotten too used to my own authors and this would seem better to a horror fan. When you get down to it, though, the repetitiveness of the prose, the clunky or nonexistant dialogue, and the narrow characters (usually just a job description and a lot of fear) leave me feeling let down.

And yet... While I enjoyed "At the Mountains of Madness," it didn't really frighten me. "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," while still subject to the same criticisms, actually did. I can think of a few reasons why: the setting is more familiar, a suburban community rather than Antarctica; the "supernatural" bit is also more familiar, touching more on necromancy, vampirism and demonology than the wholly-original elements in "At the Mountains of Madness". Granted, it didn't really terrify me, but for the first time in a while I can feel a little creeped out after putting down a book.

The collection begins with a forward by a Lovecraft scholar introducing the works, of which he seems to rank "At the Mountains of Madness" at the top. I can see why he might do so, it feels more original to me than the others, but as a story I far prefer "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." Mainly just because there's more happening in it; AtMoM mainly consists of a single discovery and a single journey, while TCoCDW covers several centuries, has a varied cast of characters, and included multiple discoveries and conflicts. It doesn't seem to suffer from the same padding as the former, and so there's less opportunity for the narrator to wax eloquent.

Another common element in the stories is that the reader is always far ahead of the narrator. The narrator will provide enough clues to describe what's happening very early on, but will either postpone actually drawing that conclusion for several dozen pages or will never get it. This is especially evident in TCoCDW, where the question of just what happened to Ward becomes extremely obvious just a few pages in, but the narrator, despite having all the evidence and being quite willing to make other mental leaps, remains stunningly obtuse. I'm not entirely sure what the reason for this is. Is it to make the readers feel smarter and superior to the people telling the story? Or is it like an 80s horror movie, where you see that the door is unlocked and want to yell out, "Lock the door!"

Bottom line: I'm glad I read these stories, and I'm pleased to better understand a body of work that is referenced by so many things I've enjoyed (INWO, the Illuminatus! trilogy, Internet comics, etc.). I also think it's good for me to occasionally visit genres I don't read much: it keeps me open-minded, and gives me a broader perspective of what's being done (or has been done) in fiction. Having read this, I do not feel compelled to run out and devour all of his other books in the same way I've done with Vonnegut and Stephenson; I feel like I've gotten a representative sample of Lovecraft, and that should be enough for me. If I ever do return it will probably be for The Call of Cthulhu, because I love that title and it seems to be the most well-known of his. Until then, I'll just be really careful not to write about Yog-Sothoth.... oh, no!

1 comment:

  1. The lovecraftian adjective pile-up example sentence was dead on! And really does enjoy NOT revealing the monsters in his story--or only giving you the faintest glimpse of them, which I'm not all that into either. Point of interest though, Mountains of Maddness gives you a general idea of the Lovecraft story pattern for the Cthulhu mythos, but his dream mythos is more in the style of Lord Dunsany and that's a whole other kettle of fish.

    It's too bad you're not going to delve much deeper (mostly because I wish I had more people to discuss stuff I've read with) but Lovecraft is hardly everyone's cup of tea.