It’s October! And you know what that means. Monsters, vampires, zombies, skeletons, ghosts, and crazy people with meat cleavers. And–of course–the greatest spooks of them all: the elder gods! If you want to get into the horror genre, you’d better read something by H. P. Lovecraft at some point. Why not his famous novella, At the Mountains of Madness?
H. P. Lovecraft, everyone’s favorite insensitive hikikomori! The pulp horror author who followed in the footsteps of Edgar Allan Poe, and ended up a huge inspiration for Stephen King. Lovecraft is famous for creating the Cthulhu mythos, in which humanity and all its achievements is less than a dust speck in the grand cosmos, because the real movers and shakers are none other than the elder gods. These otherworldly creatures are so powerful and so sublime and so spooky, just thinking about them for too long might make your head explode.
But seriously though, At the Mountains of Madness is a great read, so long as you’re cool with… I don’t know, older stuff. And by that I mean lots and lots and lots and LOTS of description. I don’t think there’s a single line of dialogue in this thing? It’s very different from a book you’d pick off a shelf at Barnes and Noble (well, so long as it isn’t in the classic lit section). A detailed plot summary of Mountains would probably be shorter than your average back-of-the-book blurb, as not much actually happens? Let’s see:
Once upon a time, some scientist dudes (none of whom are characters with personalities or backstories) go to Antarctica! This place was pretty creepy back in the early 1900s, since nobody knew much of what was down there. There could have been anything down there… robot snowmen, talking owl pirates, even sharkbergs. But of course, there wasn’t anything ridiculous like that. Just aliens called the elder things, giant albino penguins, and the biggest and baddest spliced sludge creature of them all: the shoggoth.
And that’s the story. Our protagonist is just writing down everything he observes about Antarctica, most of which is ice and a spooky atmosphere (oppressive, overwhelming nothingness). But there’s the huge ancient city to explore too, and finally after a hundred or so pages there’s an alien to run away from. The moral of the story is… don’t mess with aliens! Stay the hell away from Antarctica! And humanity is NOTHING, damn it!
Some people will read Lovecraft and find it pure drivel. “Nothing happens! It’s just a guy going on and on and on and ON about nothing!” In other words, Lovecraft was the first blogger?! In his defense though, if he tells us too much about the actual horrors, we would all go insane.
But what about all of Lovecraft’s fans? This fellow had to become famous for some reason. In part I imagine it’s just the unique concepts he is getting across, which have been captivating imaginations and influencing aspiring horror authors for decades now. But the writing itself is really worth reading–no, absorbing. Check out how he describes the mountains (of madness):
“It was as if these stark, nightmare spires marked the pylons of a frightful gateway into forbidden spheres of dream, and complex gulfs of remote time, space, and ultra-dimensionality. I could not help feeling that they were evil things—mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething, half-luminous cloud background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial, and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world.”
It’s as unwieldy as it is melodramatic, and it’s this sort of tone that permeates most every paragraph of the entire novella. And if you play a drinking game in which you take a shot for every time Lovecraft throws in a ridiculously theatrical adjective, you’ll be dead sooner than you can shout “Tekeli-li! Teleki-li!”
Bottom Line: At the Mountains of Madness is not a character-driven or plot-driven piece, but is much more about its setting and (especially) its atmosphere. Large chunks of it are also much more “Lovecraft’s Guide to Aliens!” than an actual story. As such, it’s not exactly a page-turner, and I would not say all of its build-up results in a particularly astounding payoff. However, it can certainly get you in the foreboding and ominous Halloween mood! Experience the terror for yourself this season, should you have the time.