Wednesday, 26 June 2013

At the Mountains of Madness

H.P. Lovecraft
At the Mountains of Madness and other novels of terror (1964)

I was under the impression that I'd read all there was to be read by H.P. Lovecraft, albeit some time ago, but now realise that I was mistaken. The four Randolph Carter tales collected here have turned out to be familiar only by their titles, but anyway...

Opinions vary regarding the much debated talent of Howard Philips, some claiming him to be an unparalleled master of the macabre, others suggesting he was simply a hack who could barely form a sentence and didn't get out much. I think the problem may be that, very generally speaking, he was never quite a talent in the same sense as his friend and correspondent Clark Ashton Smith, and he only really had one story - namely that of the rationally minded individual inheriting a house, a book, or a packet of unspeakable Toffos from that shunned relative mentioned only in hushed tones, and then the expressed dismissal of superstition followed by a subsequent eating of words during the inevitable climatic encounter with tentacled foreigners from beyond time; or at least variations on that theme.

I'm not even sure it's fair to call Lovecraft's fiction stories in the traditional sense, most of their purpose being the contrast of a regular guy obliged to admit the existence of that which is revealed as real and squelchy on the final page. His narratives serve simply to compound the contrast, to keep things going long enough to allow for a build up of suspense, none of which should necessarily be taken as indicative of a failing on the part of the author. Whilst H.P. Lovecraft may only have told one story, he often told it with such expertise as to circumnavigate the problems of repetition; indeed, by the time he came to write At the Mountains of Madness, his mastery can surely no longer be subject to question.

By the 1930s, Lovecraft's seemingly increased interest in the sciences had rooted his best tales in solid empirical foundations, serving to provide a more startling and effective contrast with his subject than is found in earlier tales more obviously inspired by Poe or Lord Dunsany. At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and The Dreams in the Witch-House all work exceptionally well in this respect, framing nameless horror in a context of archaeological, genealogical, or mathematical discourse, a great improvement on juvenile efforts which would spend the first half of the story telling you how scared you were going to be. The three examples named above were amongst his longest works, and even if it really was all just one story, these tales are a testament to Lovecraft's descriptive powers, specifically in that these three sustain the reader's interest at such a page count with hardly any narrative action.

On the other hand, whilst the Randolph Carter stories may suggest that Lovecraft actually did have other tales to tell, they also support the conclusion that he never quite worked out how to tell them. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, despite entertaining digressions with talking cats and a voyage to the moon, rambles and bores with its endless sentences piling one self-consciously grandiose image upon another and then another, page after page after page without ever going anywhere of consequence. It may be one of the most laboured, indigestible pieces of writing I've ever struggled to finish. Through the Gates of the Silver Key, written much later and in collaboration with E. Hoffman Price is an improvement, greatly benefiting from the sort of cosmic and pseudo-scientific musings which informed The Dreams in the Witch-House and others; but is still unsatisfying, reading like a transitional piece or work unfinished.

Everyone is entitled to a stack of unreadable shite in their portfolio, and it's possibly only because Lovecraft left such a relative dearth of material that his more comical efforts are so well remembered. At the Mountains of Madness is at least deserving the accolade of masterpiece - the work of an author who had at last found his voice, and it seems such a terrible shame that we will never know where his fiction would have gone had he survived 1937.

1 comment:

  1. I always like the fact that the protagonist of "The Call of Cthulhu" visits a boarding house on West Street, Auckland. Most of that street is now under a motorway but I pass its remnants on a daily basis and have always wondered what eldritch horrors lurk within.