Horrible Monday: At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror: Difficult to engage with

If you start your week off with a horror novel, maybe you’ll feel like your life really isn’t so bad after all.

H.P. Lovecraft horror and fantasy short story collectionshorror book reviews H.P. Lovecraft At the Mountains of MadnessAt the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror by H.P. Lovecraft

Fans of Stephen King take note: This work and other tales of H.P. Lovecraft were among King’s main inspirations. Lovecraft bases most of his stories out of his Providence, just as King uses small town Maine so often as a setting. Likewise, each utilizes quirks of rural life and old wives’ tales to spin tales of the macabre that never quite fully explain themselves. Ghosts, miasmas, fiery pentagrams, voodoo magic, mysterious deaths, and the other typical plot devices used by horror are never intended to fully connect with reality. Lovecraft himself has said that the major theme underpinning his stories is the inapproachable nature of fear to reality. But enough about the subject matter, and on to the literary merits of this collection.

Unfortunately, they are few and far between. Lovecraft writes like a scientist dissecting a pig. He tells rather than shows; dialogue and inner monologue is almost non-existent; the direct description of events and places takes center stage. And while this overly formal, technical style may be enjoyable to some, I found it tedious and difficult to fully engage with.

Of the works in At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror, the eponymous novella is the best. In this story of a team’s scientific mission to the Antarctic, Lovecraft uses the unknowns of the most southern continent as a setting for an unbelievable experience that may or may not involve aliens and ghosts. While at first the mission goes smoothly, strange things begin happening, until only two of the scientists remain. These two go on an exploratory mission of their own to discover the answer to the many questions that have arisen with their discoveries, only to be presented with more mysteries. The three remaining stories in the collection would now be considered generic. But taken in the context of when they were written (the first half of the 20th century), certainly midnight hauntings, miasmas in the basement, ghosts in the attic, trips to the graveyard, and other such tropes would have been more original.

Though he has a unique voice, I just couldn’t get into Lovecraft’s groove. I will admit Lovecraft’s brand of horror is not as overt as modern slasher films. But I always have a hard time reading a book when there is nothing deeper than the inapproachable nature of fear, especially since this theme takes a backseat to the plot devices mentioned. I could never get into King, and likewise I’ll probably never read anything else by Lovecraft. That he was never able to form his ideas into anything longer than a novella makes it difficult to see Lovecraft’s work as more than entertainment. If horror is your game, then Lovecraft is one of the original voices in the field. Otherwise, nothing special here.

FanLit thanks Jesse Hudson of Speculiction for contributing this guest review.


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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

View all posts by Jesse Hudson (guest)

9 comments

  1. He did write in a specific style, and it probably doesn’t resonate with most readers today. I started reading him in the 1970s and I thought the stories were creepy and scary, but they use the reader’s imagination as much as his own. Now I think I might find some of them unintentionally funny. The people who are using HP as a springboard for original work, like Thomas Ligotti and Caitlin Kiernan might be more to your taste.

    • Marion, thanks for your patience regarding my horrible ignorance of the horror genre. Given that so much of it is used in sensationalist, superficial fashion, that is, rather than examining something deeper in the soul or psyche, I’ve generally given horror a wide berth. However, that I’ve never heard of Ligotti or Kiernan offers some hope that there is a literary side to the genre, perhaps just hidden deeper in the shadows. (Ha!) Thanks for the comment. I’ll check those authors out.

  2. Amster /

    I think it’s safe to say that the subtext sailed right past you on “At the Mountains of Madness”. I hate to call you dumb, but it is what it is. Actually, the main theme underpinning all of Lovecraft’s work isn’t the nature of fear, it’s COSMIC INDIFFERENTISM. In Lovecraft’s own words:

    “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”

    …and this…

    “Contrary to what you may assume, I am not a pessimist but an indifferentist- that is, I don’t make the mistake of thinking that the… cosmos… gives a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitoes, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos, or other forms of biological energy.”

    That’s what The Mountains of Madness is REALLY about. The nature of fear? Sure, the person narrating the story and his companions are afraid, but to the cosmos at large their feeling are insignificant. I don’t know how much Lovecraft you’ve actually read, but I would suggest The Call of Cthulhu. It’s both his most famous story and one that best encapsulates his Existentialist philosophy that humanity is completely insignificant to the cosmos at large and will one day be swept aside by forces infinitely more powerful than they are. Maybe these ideas don’t seem so radical in the light of modern science, but at they were revolutionary at the time because they directly challenged the Religious based philosophies that dominated human culture for nearly its entire history, the idea that humanity is special and that there’s a benevolent God or god’s looking out for man’s best interests.

    You might want to pick up a more recent volume of his works, one with an introduction by S.T Joshi. He’s far better at explaining this stuff than I am. Your ideas about Robert E. Howard are equally out of date and off the mark. Try reading some scholarly articles on the authors your critique before dismissing their ideas as shallow. It will save you the embarrassment.

    “Nothing deeper than the inapproachable nature of fear”??? I think not, but thanks for giving me a good chuckle.

  3. Fair enough; Lovecraft’s quotes certainly fit his stories, and I can always appreciate a writer challenging the status quo. Where I continue to balk, however, is the premise. No matter the inapproachable nature of fear to reality, or cosmic indifference, the nihilism overwhelms. I’m not religious, but the lack of value Lovecraft assigns to life is worrying. If this is all meaningless, why be kind to my neighbor? Why fall in love and start a family? Why not give up now instead of pushing on to the end? Had Lovecraft posited a replacement to religion that gives life meaning, the book would be worth further examination. Criticizing something without filing the void you create is only half the battle.

    Conan is largely in the same nihilist vein; the world will always be barbarous and civilization a pipe dream. In other words, don’t try to improve standards for yourself or society, rather give in and live like a barbarian like the rest. Forgive me, but even if the world has not evolved much further than the Hyborian Age, I like to think that what little progress has been made is a step in the right direction.

    Call me enlightened, call me progressive, call me pathetically hopeless, but I’m not a defeatist like Lovecraft and Howard, and I appreciate my literature as such.

  4. Amster /

    I don’t think you really understand the concept of existentialism, certainly not as it relates to Howard or Lovecraft. Sure, on a cosmic scale, life has no meaning – except whatever meaning that we as individuals ascribe to it. You should try reading Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, in which a small group of individuals race against time to save the world from a cosmic catastrophy. Sure, their victory is probably only temporary, and on a grand scale it’s all but meaningless, but to those individuals, and to the civilization they rescued, it means everything. Of course, that’s a major theme of Robert E. Howard as well. Take this quote from “Queen of the Black Coast”:

    “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

    I can assure you there’s a lot more to it than just boobs and adolescent wish-fulfillment. Just because you choose to not see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

    • And such moments of profundity are immediately followed by three scenes in the following voice:

      “He was almost a giant in stature, muscles rippling smoothly under his skin, which the sun had burned brown. His garb was similar to hers, except that he wore a broad leather belt instead of a girdle. Broadsword and poniard hung from his belt.
      “Conan, the Cimmerian!” ejaculated the woman. “What are you doing on my trail?”
      He grinned hardly, and his fierce blue eyes burned with a light any woman could understand as they ran over her magnificent figure, lingering on the swell of her splendid breasts beneath the light shirt, and the clear white flesh displayed between breeches and boot-tops.”

      I’ve read Vance and Zelazny, Le Guin and Eddison, Tolkien and Lewis, and never once did I read such trite. Conan may possess occasional scenes of brilliance like that you quote above, but my uncle too can wax philosophical over a can of Budweiser. But of course, he’d much rather talk about the good ol’ days of wine and women. Howard is the same; dashes of poignancy blanketed in cheap sensationalism.

      Regarding S.T. Joshi you mention in your previous comment, I found an interesting quote of his on wikipedia. “The bulk of Howard’s fiction is subliterary hackwork that does not even begin to approach genuine literature” and “The simple fact is, however, that his views are not of any great substance or profundity and that Howard’s style is crude, slip-shod, and unwieldy. It is all just pulp—although, perhaps, a somewhat superior grade of pulp than the average.”

      But to get back to the topic of the review above, I have not read The Dunwich Horror and therefore cannot comment on it. Perhaps it would be interesting to see how he plays out the conclusion, i.e. whether we get the Hollywood smile, or a little twist that makes a person think about what was actually accomplished. I am done with Howard, but perhaps I will give Lovecraft another swing?

      • Amster /

        “And such moments of profundity are immediately followed by three scenes in the following voice:

        ‘He was almost a giant in stature, muscles rippling smoothly under his skin, which the sun had burned brown. His garb was similar to hers, except that he wore a broad leather belt instead of a girdle. Broadsword and poniard hung from his belt.

        “Conan, the Cimmerian!” ejaculated the woman. “What are you doing on my trail?’

        ‘He grinned hardly, and his fierce blue eyes burned with a light any woman could understand as they ran over her magnificent figure, lingering on the swell of her splendid breasts beneath the light shirt, and the clear white flesh displayed between breeches and boot-tops.’”

        I honestly don’t know what the problem is. The passage is highly descriptive, it puts the reader into the center of the action, and it reveals to the reader what’s going on in the characters’ minds, all with an economy of words. Most importantly, it reveals Howards unique style, which many writers who followed tried their best to imitate, though none successfully. My guess is that you’re simply hung up on the violence and overt sexuality. Of course, if one were to dismiss all literature that contained sex and violence, then you’d have to eliminate many of the greatest works produced throughout history. You claim not to be religious, yet your hang-ups about sex and violence, as well as your disturbance at the idea of an indifferent universe would hint otherwise. Just a suggestion, but you COULD try not being such a pussy.

        “I’ve read Vance and Zelazny, Le Guin and Eddison, Tolkien and Lewis, and never once did I read such trite. Conan may possess occasional scenes of brilliance like that you quote above, but my uncle too can wax philosophical over a can of Budweiser. But of course, he’d much rather talk about the good ol’ days of wine and women. Howard is the same; dashes of poignancy blanketed in cheap sensationalism.”

        I don’t believe you, Jesse. This is not the first time you’ve made unsubstantiated boasts about what you or your friends and neighbors “could” do. And yet here you are, reviewing an actual book, and yet you’ve so far proven that you’re not capable of forming philosophical ideas about the works you’ve reviewed. And the name dropping is not impressive. Any ape can “read” Vance, Zelazny, Le Guin , and any number of authors, but is he capable of UNDERSTANDING them?

        “Regarding S.T. Joshi you mention in your previous comment, I found an interesting quote of his on wikipedia. ‘The bulk of Howard’s fiction is subliterary hackwork that does not even begin to approach genuine literature’ and ‘The simple fact is, however, that his views are not of any great substance or profundity and that Howard’s style is crude, slip-shod, and unwieldy. It is all just pulp—although, perhaps, a somewhat superior grade of pulp than the average.’”

        It’s true, Joshi is no fan of Howard, and if I ever find myself in a room with him, I’d love to have a discussion in which I’d try my best to persuade him to my point of view. But Joshi IS a big fan of Lovecraft, and Lovecraft had nothing but the highest respect and admiration for Howard. Now that you’re so fond of quoting Joshi, I guess we can assume that you’ve conceded your argument on Lovecraft.

        I’d like to add that I’m truly impressed by your ability to cherry pick quotes on Wikipedia. You’re quite the scholar, Jesse.

  5. Someone linked this repulsive excuse for a review on one of the H.P Lovecraft fan pages I am proud to be a member of, and I have no idea why, as you are obviously no fan of his work. Giving At The Mountains of Madness a poor critique is tantamount to giving The Fall of The House of Usher a poor review. This epic tale of cosmic terror is well recognized as one of the foundation blocks of modern horror, and very little written in the last twenty years can even hold a candle to it. Perhaps I’m biased, as I love Lovecraft’s work above all others, appreciate and even savor his use of antiquated terms and poetic writing style.
    I’m guessing you only wrote this aberration to get page views, as it’s clearly not a subject you understand, in which case, views you have, from people who are offended by your abject lack of taste and who will not be back.

  6. Hey, folks, we run a civil site here. I’m sorry, Amster and Cindy, that you don’t agree with Jesse’s review, but you’d be more persuasive if you’d quit insulting him. You’re not helping your case.

    You can’t expect everyone to feel the same way about Lovecraft as you do — we all have different tastes and preferences. Just because Jesse’s are different doesn’t make his opinion invalid. He doesn’t claim to be an expert on Lovecraft (he clearly states that he’s not) so we can take his review as what it is: an explanation of why he didn’t like this book. That’s what this site is about and we invited Jesse to share his opinion on this book because we trust his taste and thought it might be helpful to those who are not familiar with Lovecraft’s work.

    We’d be happy for you to kindly explain your point of view without resorting to rudeness, name-calling, and incorrect assigning of motives. I’m sure that many readers would love to hear what an expert has to say about Lovecraft’s work and they will most likely be influenced by fans who are able to express themselves civilly.

    (Cindy, Jesse did not post this review here and he doesn’t care how many page views it gets since he merely gave us permission to repost it with a link back to his own blog).

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