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Omnibus: At the Mountains of Madness - H.P Lovecraft
Member Name: hogsflesh
Omnibus: At the Mountains of Madness - H.P Lovecraft
Date: 09/10/08, updated on 29/11/08 (190 review reads)
Advantages: Some good, spooky stuff
Disadvantages: Some of the stories in here are poor
Lovecraft is best known for creating the Cthulhu Mythos, an elaborate cosmology which has been expanded since his death by other writers, game developers etc. The gist is that the universe is full of profoundly weird, unbelievably ancient, apocalyptically scary entities which need to be avoided at all costs. Lovecraft's work is pretty dark, with man but a tiny, insignificant speck in a cosmos teeming with vile creatures, and anyone who manages to catch a glimpse of the hidden realities that underpin our world is likely to end up incurably insane.
I'd always assumed that Lovecraft would be imaginative but stodgy. I actually enjoyed his writing more than I expected to. His style is perhaps a bit too verbose (and his vocabulary doesn't seem that great), but his prose is no clunkier than that of other pulp writers from the 20s and 30s. He rarely describes his creatures in any detail. Instead we are told that entities are vague, too hideous to comprehend, or (particularly convenient) 'indescribable'. But this works in the stories' favour, as everyone will imagine something slightly different.
Lovecraft's also famous for throwing in unexplained references to other fictional things, most famously the made-up book The Necronomicon of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I rather like these references. They spark the imagination in the same way as Star Wars did when I was a kid - there's a whole universe of stories out there, of which we're only seeing a few. This is probably why Lovecraft's fictions have lent themselves so well to roleplaying games.
Criticisms are that he isn't very good at describing characters' feelings, and there's hardly any dialogue in his stories. He also stays away from female characters generally, unless they're witches; and some of his racial politics are supremely dodgy.
'At The Mountains of Madness' is the first novella here. An Antarctic expedition gets more than it bargained for when it uncovers unspeakably vast new mountain ranges; a gigantic, prehistoric city built by man's precursors on earth; and some... other things. The sense of scale in the story is quite unsettling, even if the descriptions are typically vague. The discoveries made by the scientists do have a touch of the uncanny about them, as they come to realise (inevitably) that mankind ain't so important after all.
Some of the creepy stuff at the beginning of the story is reminiscent of John Carpenter's film of The Thing. This is an impressive story, making good use of the idea that shocking things may yet await discovery in our world. It's also pleasantly open-ended. The main weakness is that the alien noise heard by the scientists is more silly than scary.
'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' is also very good - probably the best of the longer stories. A young man, Ward, investigates the activities of his ancestor, a warlock named Joseph Curwen. Things gradually turn nasty as it seems that Curwen isn't as dead as he should be. There are two parts to this story - there's a description of the life of Curwen, the hideous necromancer; and then there's the slow degradation of Ward himself as he delves deeper and deeper into things that man was not meant to know.
Both parts are really creepy. The descriptions of exactly what happens are kept deliberately ambiguous, and are all the more effective for it. Lovecraft is fond of powerfully unpleasant smells, of loud banging noises, or things that set dogs howling. The story is set in New England, Lovecraft's usual territory, and has the recent past intruding in horrible fashion on the present. There's a real nastiness to it, as well. All Ward wants is knowledge, but the cost is incredibly high. Perhaps the main set-piece is a little disappointing, as someone explores an underground laboratory complex, but overall the story is excellent.
'Dreams in the Witch House' is a shorter story (about 50 pages) and similar to Charles Dexter Ward. It's probably the scariest of all the stories here. A young mathematician is haunted in his dreams by a 17th century witch and her hideous familiar, a rat-like creature called Brown Jenkin. A potent combination of his mathematics and her magic seems to be on the verge of bringing about some kind of apocalyptic catastrophe on a cosmic scale...
The apocalyptic stuff doesn't really work. But the idea of a man being sucked into something huge by forces beyond his comprehension (again!) is well handled, but it feels a bit extraneous to the rather creepy rest of the story. What's effective is the small-scale spine-tingling stuff, like coming to realise that your hideous dreams are really happening, or the sound of scratching behind the walls of your bedroom. The loathsome Brown Jenkin is an impressively horrible creation that's really stuck with me. Sadly, I have yet to dream of him.
The other stories aren't so impressive. They're a sequence of stories about Randolph Carter, probably a version of the author himself, and his adventures in a dream-world. The first, 'The Statement of Randolph Carter', an early work, is a short and predictable horror tale. But then we're launched into 'The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath', the final novella. Carter moves through a magical landscape in search of some Elder Gods, who he hopes will grant his wish to be allowed to visit a dream city that he thinks looks quite nice...
This is imaginative, I'll give it that. But really, I have no stake in the actions of ghouls, moonbeasts, night-gaunts and so on; by setting the story in Carter's dreams, Lovecraft doesn't give us any reason to care. This is perhaps the disadvantage of his vagueness about describing things: he goes on and on about 'the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep', but we've only his word for it that this is a bad thing. Ultimately this isn't a satisfying story, and it certainly isn't scary.
'The Silver Key' is a kind of sequel, as the ageing Carter tries to return to the dreamlands of his youth. It's a bit inconsequential, but has a nice open ending. Unfortunately, there's another sequel, 'Through the Gates of the Silver Key'. This was co-written by someone called E Hoffmann Price, a correspondent of Lovecraft's, and has the feel of fan fiction about it. It's pretentious and rather clumsy, and it's hard to remember much about it.
For the most part, I was impressed with Lovecraft, and have gone on to read a lot more. He combines silliness and the uncanny, and for all his faults, is worth a go. He occasionally made my spine tingle, which is all one needs in a horror author. This edition, with an introduction by Lovecraft's friend and colleague August Derleth, is available on amazon for less than £5.
Summary: A nice, cheap collection of Lovecraft's longer stories.