After a trip to the electronic jumble of crushed literary ambitions that is the Kindle store, I am now the proud owner of a (digital) copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s public-domain-friendly At the Mountains of Madness. Let’s dig right in, shall we?
First off, I think it’s worth discussing my prejudices going into this book. I’m familiar with Lovecraft as a junk auteur, famous mostly for derailing adolescent imaginations and providing tentacle festishists with enough material to last out the millennium. I’ve heard his prose style ridiculed in several creative fashions, and aside from a glowing review by Joyce Carol Oates and similar commendations from Stephen King, the guy’s literary credentials don’t come too highly recommended. He’s the author of choice for people who’d rather be playing video games (not to hate on gamers, but…).
I went into At the Mountains of Madness expecting an alpine slog, and, thankfully, that is not what I found.
Lovecraft is definitely no John Updike, but merely as a constructor of prose, he’s not that bad. He’s certainly a good sight better than Philip K. Dick, whose painful style was rescued solely by virtue of his bat-shit ideas. No, Lovecraft can construct a sentence, even if he does overindulge in some less-than-descriptive descriptors.
His handling of plot isn’t bad either. In fact, it’s chronically engaging. At the Mountains of Madness is told in the first person by William Dyer—middle-aged geologist and essential member of an arctic expedition tasked with hacking its way to the pole and collecting a series of very un-spooky minerals. That is, of course, until those minerals become very spooky indeed.
At this point I am about 25-percent through the book, and it’s a testament to Lovecraft’s plotting that we really haven’t seen that much of the monsters at this point. It’s a good slow reveal.
Dyer’s narrative takes the form of a plea to future explorers to steer the hell clear of the eponymous mountains, so most of the action takes place off-screen, as Dyer has to survive in order to recount the tale. This means that the unfortunate Professor Lake—a colleague of Dyer’s at the fictional Miskatonic University—has the bad luck of happening upon the mountains of the book’s title, and the tentacled beasties contained therein. When I left off, Lake had just finished an extensive recounting, via wireless, of the strange mountains, structures, and creatures that he has found frozen in the arctic deep. Both scientists are excited about the tentacled beats and…then things go very badly for Professor Lake. I haven’t gotten to the part where Lovecraft describes exactly how, but I’m willing to bet it has something very much to do with those intricately described winged cucumbers that popped up in Chapter III. Oh yeah, and speaking of which…
Despite my earlier prognosis of Lovecraft’s writing, it is worth noting that his style is, in its own way, eccentric. It is lopsided to an extreme, providing gruelingly intricate descriptions of physical objects and almost no characterization to speak of.
Lovecraft lets us know a holy fucking lot about the special drill that this arctic expedition uses to enter limestone caverns. We know how long the bit is, the mechanics of its operation, the number of extra bits that the expedition has taken along in case of the drill’s premature breakage. And, despite all this technical info, we are told little more about the explorers themselves other than that they exist and are professors.
This habit for selective over-description has been omnipresent so far in my reading of Mountains of Madness. When describing the frozen ice monsters, Lovecraft provides their facial geometry with such exact specifications that you practically have to have graphing paper available in order to keep track of the dimensions. Then, on top of that, we’re given a deluge of adjectives that describe and describe and describe without really describing anything.
Check out this prime example of how to over pack a sentence:
“For our foot journey we discarded the heaviest of our flying furs, and took with us a small outfit consisting of pocket compass, hand camera, light provisions, voluminous notebooks and paper, geologist’s hammer and chisel, specimen bags, coils of climbing ropes, and powerful electric torches with extra batteries; this equipment having been carried in the plane on the chance that we might be able to effect a landing, take ground pictures, make drawings and topographical sketches, and obtain rock specimens from some bare slope, outcropping, or cave.”
Two-thirds of this information (unless the book takes a very drastic turn in its next quarter) is straight-up unnecessary. And there are examples like this on nearly every page. He has an enthusiasm for lists that borders on the maniacal.
Good thing this guy knows his way around a plot.
Next up: an encounter with the beasties and an exhausting description of a hidden, arctic city.