At his worst, HP Lovecraft was a racist Anglophile who droned with an incessantly archaic and enigmatical prose that was shifted towards the purple. His characters could be bland and forgettable, and his plots often served no further purpose than presenting an unknowable horror to destroy the minds of these lifeless homuncular denizens of the Lovecraftian realm.
I don’t read a lot of HP Lovecraft.
But at his best, he can pull you into a dark and unpleasant reality, barely glimpsed beyond the horizon. A reality so riven by terror that the very act of witnessing it necessitates the breaking of one’s mind. His strange and terrible mythos is perhaps greater than any single story he told, giving him a ponderous Gestaltian legacy that is both inescapable and inflated. We all know his name, but how many of us actually like him?
In the entire history of Cannonball read, there are fewer than a half-dozen Lovecraft stories reviewed. If you search for “Lovecraft” on this site, you get more references to him than you do critiques of his work (even if you remove reviews of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff). Even within the cosmic horror genre he created, I think he is more poorly represented here than Peter Clines, a more modern and accessible writer.
HP Lovecraft is more impenetrable and distant than that thin and translucent veil that separates our reality from his nightmares.
But – damn. When he’s good, he is sooooo fucking good.
Here, in At the Mountains of Madness, HP Lovecraft takes us on a doomed geological survey of Antarctica. Told in the first person by Dr. William Dyer of Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, a group of explorers into a mountain range on Antarctica greater in size than the Himalayas. There, they discover previously undiscovered fossils from before the Cambrian period, and the remains of an ancient civilization that pre-dates humanity. This story is written, by Dyer, as to ward off further study to spare others the horrors they witness.
At the Mountains of Madness is the first story of his I ever read, some twenty-five years ago, and it has embodied the idea of nameless dread ever since. I think I have spent most of my reading life trying to recapture what I found here: the visceral horror of discovery in a desolate wasteland of ice. Like a moth to the flame: I love the cold of winter, I moved to the mountains, and I got a degree in archaeology with a focus on human pre-history. It’s like I was unintentionally trying to re-create this story.
I never went to Antarctica, though. I mean, I’m not crazy.
But the impact of this story on me is primeval. This left it’s mark on my soul before I ever picked up a book by Stephen King or even knew who J.R.R. Tolkien was. I was re-reading this story before I ever thought of going to college, or living in the mountains. This story has been a steady companion throughout my life, and I can see the marks it has left on me. The music of my life is held together by the rhythm of this story.
And I have never been able to reconcile my deep connection here with my general apathy (and occasional antipathy) towards the rest of Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
In this single instance, for me, he struck an absolutely perfect chord, and its resonance has never left me.
I will never forgive Ridley Scott for making Prometheus. Guillermo del Toro was planning an adaptation of this story, but put it down for fear that Prometheus had stolen his thunder due to the visual similarities between the two stories.