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At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror: Voyager Classics 29

by HP Lovecraft

(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 cover scanthe 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 own nightmares.

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 Kadath, p415)

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.

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