At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
I’m not sure when I became aware of the word “Lovecraft”—I thought it was a word long before I became aware it was a name. The phrase “Lovecraftian horror” has long been a favorite of mine, simply because “Lovecraftian” sounds so angular and odd. But let us just say it was an embarrassing long time before I realized H. P. Lovecraft was a writer of horror fiction, and that it was important for me to read him. I chose At the Mountains of Madness over a short story collection because I’d heard it was a little more science fiction than horror, and I’m a big baby when it comes to horror, but I’m not quite sure it worked…
In At the Mountains of Madness, William Dyer, in an effort to keep other scientific expeditions from exploring the same regions, details the true story of what happened on the ill-fated Pabodie expedition, which ended with an entire camp decimated and a man driven into madness. What horrors lay at the Mountains of Madness must be left undisturbed… to say nothing of what lies beyond the Mountains of Madness…
The first thing I noticed on reading At the Mountains of Madness was Lovecraft’s distinctive writing style—elegant, sensitive, and very sad. It reminded me of, of all things, C. S. Lewis’ writing in The Last Battle. It’s accessible and often darkly beautiful. “The sunless Stygian sea”, anyone? It’s extremely distinctive and, in a way, old-fashioned. I picked up The Return of Sherlock Holmes after finishing this, and was delighted to discover that Lovecraft has some shades of Victorian to him. The structure of At the Mountains of Madness is quite nice as well; Dyer often refers to newspaper articles and other resources presumably available to you, the reader, as the Pabodie expedition was well-documented at the time. He even references Edgar Allen Poe at several points. It gives the novella a grounded feeling that’s very necessary when the cosmic horrors start popping up.
I’ll be honest—I expected to be terrified, and I was disappointed that I wasn’t. I think I have a misconceived notion of horror as a genre—the idea that it must shock me to my core is very much a product of my generation, where slasher flicks have to get more and more gruesomely creative to shock an increasingly jaded audience. Lovecraft’s horror is more delicate and, to be completely honest, a little overwrought. This novella is most set-up, which can get a little wearing, as Dyer pauses to steel himself for the horrors he’s about to relate, but it’s ultimately worth it. I’ve always had a fondness for desperate flights across arctic terrains—see The Left Hand of Darkness and Graceling, which I both loved—so when Dyer and his companion finally face the ultimate horror waiting for them in the icy depths, I was pleased. But I think I need to rethink my idea of horror, which I will as I make my way through the Lovecraftian canon (which is, blissfully, all in the public domain).
While At the Mountains of Madness is a good introduction to Lovecraft’s writing style and style of horror, I think it’s a poor introduction to his elaborate cosmology. He (or at least Dyer) assumes a basic knowledge of the Necronomicon, although, upon further research, this might be part of Lovecraft’s attempts to make the fictional book feel real. I have to admit that I had difficultly trying to parse out the description of the Elder Things—it’s only in writing this review and checking it on Google Images that I’ve realized I was wrong. (The shoggoths, however, are easier to wrap my brain around.) But the story is worth pushing through this learning curve, once Dyer and his companion are, well, deep in the Mountains of Madness. I don’t want to spoil anything, because it’s so delicately and well-constructed that I think any spoilers would be a shame. I wouldn’t start with Lovecraft here—I’ll be correcting my mistake with any collection collecting “The Call of Cthulu” shortly—but if you’re already introduced, this is a particularly lovely piece.
Although I still don’t think giant albino penguins are as scary as Lovecraft thinks they are. Sorry, man.
Bottom line: I wouldn’t start with Lovecraft here, but The Mountains of Madness is a particularly elegant piece of Lovecraftian horror. Worth a shot, after a proper introduction.