Monday, September 3, 2012

At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of MadnessAt the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is as close as one will get to an epic adventure quest by H.P. Lovecraft. If you're an old role-playing game geek like me, this will appeal to the dungeoneer in you. Plenty of delving and mystery in this one!

If you're a fan of the movie Prometheus, you'd do well to hark back to the origin of many of the movie's tropes. They are similar, at least on the surface: An impossibly old alien race creates life on earth for the purpose of enslaving it, yadda, yadda. If you hated the movie Prometheus, you'd do well to hark back to the origin of many of the movie's tropes . . . need I go on?

The story begins with that rarefied sense of heroic antarctic exploration that permeated the accounts of Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton's expeditions. At that time, such an expedition was fraught with danger, due to drifting ice, unforeseen logistical shortcomings, and, of course, the weather. Since the Antarctic was relatively unknown when Lovecraft wrote the story, it's easy to see why he would set his story in what appeared in that day to be an utterly alien place, though it was right here at home on planet earth.

Or was it "home," really? Whose home? And for how long?

Now, I'm a big Lovecraft fan. But there was one thing, stylistically, that drove me absolutely nuts about this story. It's a minor thing, but it prevents me from giving an unbridled five-star rating to the story. Frankly, I really disliked the use of shortwave reports between the narrator, William Dyer, and Lake's remote base. The choppiness of the language seemed correct and historically accurate to me, since shortwave radio had been in use for only a decade or so before Lovecraft wrote the story. The characters would, like Lovecraft, have been habituated to using short, choppy phrases because of the telegraph system that preceded the explosion of shortwave radio in the 1920s. But what didn't seem correct, and what threw me out of the rhythm of the story, was the use of flowery words and complex phraseology in the messages themselves. They aren't as blatantly ugly on paper as they are when read aloud. Try it sometime. It feels overwrought and contrived. Not to mention that these info-dumps could have been spread out and integrated into the story itself a little better.

But this is a minor complaint. All-in-all, I loved the slow escalation of the horror in the story. It begins with a lot of hyperbole and, indeed, engages in it throughout. Still, Lovecraft manages to build the sense of dread to a fitting crescendo. In several instances, I was surprised by a plot twist that I should have seen coming. Ah, Lovecraft, you trickster! You fooled me again!

One thing I really enjoyed was the narrator's ambiguous feelings regarding the Old Ones. Though his primary emotional reaction toward these beings are fear and revulsion, there is also a moment of pity and near-empathy that I found endearing.

This is not my favorite Lovecraft story. But it's not one of his lesser works, either. If you haven't had a crack at Lovecraft, it's not a bad place to start. And if you're a Lovecraft fan, as I am, you'll recognize many of the elements, though you'll be surprised by others, such as the narrator's conflicting feelings that I've outlined above. I'm no expert on Lovecraft's evolution as a storyteller, but I have to wonder if these surprises are indicative of a certain maturation in his writing. Someone smarter than me with more resources and time will have to determine that. For my own reading enjoyment, though, At the Mountains of Madness, though flawed, still reflects the writer's genius. Ia, Ia Lovecraft!

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