At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror:
Voyager Classics 29
(Voyager, £8.99, 552 pages, paperback, first published 1966, published
17 June 2002.)
These days I suppose a novel of terror would involve protagonists in
Northern Ireland or
Middle East, rather than terror deep beneath the ground, dreams and
the long-forgotten but shadowly remembered distant past as hinted at
in obscure and prohibited texts. H.P. Lovecraft wrote these novels between
the two World Wars in a different era. He was very influential on Fantasy
and SF, but are the novels and novellas still worth reading except as
historical curiosities? I first read Lovecraft's stories when I was
12 and loved them. I had that feeling then of wishing that there was
more. But I didn't want to reread them and I could see even at 12 that
there was an element of splendid archaic silliness to them. I was 12
in the 1960s. Alarmingly, there were then fewer years between Lovecraft
and me than now lie between today and the '60s. The novels were always
archaic; of some weird past place of the imagination.
They remain worth reading because they are still way out there somewhere
on the dark border between genius and madness, with the candle guttering
in a feeble breeze reeking of some nearly remembered stench. For instance,
I cannot think of many other novels that contain little or no direct
speech. Only the speech of Gods and the incomprehensible utterances
of the Old Ones get quotes. Instead, these are written as narrated tales.
This should not work but it does. For instance here is a description
of a conversation:
"Books were apparently being flung about and papers wildly rustled,
and upon stepping to the door Mr Ward beheld the youth within, excitedly
assembling a vast armful of literary matter of every size and shape.
Charles's aspect was very drawn and haggard, and he dropped his entire
load with a start at the sound of his father's voice. At the elder
man's command he sat down, and for some time listened to the admonitions
he had so long deserved. There was no scene. At the end of the lecture
he agreed that his father was right, and that his voices, mutterings,
incantations, and chemical odors were indeed inexcusable nuisances.
He agreed to a policy of greater quiet, though insisting on a prolongation
of his extreme privacy."
(The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, p225)
This successfully gets the main point across, conveys that Charles
is probably only humouring his father, places a first suspicion, which
turns out to be key to the plot, in the reader's mind about this uncharacteristic
reasonableness and is written in beautiful erudite language you could
enjoy reading aloud. It is also written with impeccable grammatical
construction. Lovecraft's uncanny skill for choosing only the right
details to mention is applied more famously to the horrible events and
scenes, encouraging the reader to fill in the terrible details of their
Indeed many of the lengthy descriptions invite filling in. Instead
of the writing invoking clear visual images, it rather invokes a mood
in the reader who then conjures up pictures of their own. Fantastical
and impossible landscapes, terrible monsters and distorted travel across
time, space and other dimensions are all laid out in this fashion. Picking
a description at random:
"Toward evening he mounted a low grassy rise and saw before him flaming
in the sunset the thousand gilded spires of Thran. Lofty beyond belief
are the alabaster walls of that incredible city, sloping inward toward
the top and wrought in one solid piece by what means no man knows,
for they are more ancient than memory."
(The Dream-Quest of Unknown
Described, but not depicted, is an amazing city indeed. It is equally
amazing that the writing works. From a lesser pen, such descriptions
often seem silly, pedestrian or baffling and eventually tedious. Lovecraft
keeps it going page after page after page. You so much want to see the
things that he is describing, whether amazing or horrible, that you
imagine them. It was that, more than the plots, that kept me reading.
I wonder what the TV generations make of them? The reader who expects
to be shown all will probably be bored.
Review by Richard Hammersley.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: