Lovecraft’s Pole Dance, A Review of At the Mountains of Madness
Com, and trip it as ye go, On the light fantastick toe. ~ Milton, L’Allegro, 1645
Oh the blinding glare of sun glinted ice that rises into fantastic cities. Oh fateful fairy Morgana. We shall conquer this underbelly of the earth and bedazzled will our gaze be.
Ok, I made that up. It’s over the top. I think I get Lovecraft’s intent. Nonetheless, when I read At the Mountains of Madness, I could only think of this meme:
This is the first I’ve read of Lovecraft and I only hope I find reason to disagree that it’s his best work. I won’t synopsize the plot in detail. Let’s just say: Two drama queens-cum-explorers scrutinize ice cubes and ogle albino waddlers.
Written in the late Art Deco period, AMM incorporates many of the time’s influences and mindsets. It was an era in which the great mysteries of the world were being discovered, which in turn expanded ideas of the real and imaginary. King Tut’s tomb had been discovered in 1932 with Howard Carter’s answer when asked if he say anything, “Yes, wonderful things.” James Hilton’s Lost Horizon had been out since 1933. Ideas of Atlantis were big with Madam Blavatsky and other theosophists. (All in all I think there’s a strong case to be made that Lovecraft knew of and was influenced by theosophy). Oddly, Pompeii is never mentioned in AMM I suspect Lovecraft fashioned his idea of his ancient city on Pompeii. World War I had ended and no longer could Western Europe and America go back, or as Paul Fussell wrote in his brilliant book The Great War and Modern Memory, quoting the poet Philip Larkin, “Never such innocence again.”
Combine all of this with accounts of explorers longing to adventure to the ends of the earth, to press footprints into yet unknown soil and snow. Is exploration to conquer and apply the stamp of humanity or is it to seek out that greater than ourselves? In AMM both results occur, for good or ill.
The images of the time also provide a good deal of insight to AMM. First and foremost are the Scoresby illustrations of the Fata Morgana, the mirage, seen off Greenland in 1820. (See illustration at start of this article). Lovecraft also makes specific mention to the paintings of theosophist and archeologist Nicholas Roerich, see for example Star of the Morning (1932) or Tibet. Himalayas (1933) with their exaggerated mountains of blues and teals. These are works of early modernist invention, and the style was pandemic in its distribution. See for example Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley in the US, Lawren Harris in Canada, Rabindranath Tagore in India, Christopher Perkins, New Zealand (See for example Taranaki) and many others. The works as a group are all fairly unpalatable, fiddling, and tedious, each with it’s particular theatricality, and although referencing the seen world, not really caring about that seen world. The artists seem to repeat their brand of melodramatic touch for the sake of showing it off. I’ve long thought we need a name for these historical oddments in and I now suggest “Landscape Stylism.” The works have, to quote Lovecraft, “a curious sense of fantasy” and I think often the artist’s goal was to capture, again Lovecraft, a “pervasive hint of stupendous secrecy and potential revelation,” in their “vague psychological symbolism.” So, it’s no wonder to me that Lovecraft enjoyed Roerich’s paintings, his writing in AMM fits much of what I’ve said about Landscape Stylism.
So much for influences. I suppose to I could go into literary precedents but I think that area’s been well covered by others. Lovecraft writes with a purposeful archaic weirdness, or it’s all he knows, again tough to determine. When it’s good, it’s enjoyable. For example, “This mood undoubtedly served to aggravate my reaction to the bizarre mirage which burst upon us from the increasingly opalescent zenith,” provides a glowing bit of agnomination.
Unfortunately however, Lovecrafts problems with writing are just too obvious to ignore.
The most famous criticism of his work is outlined in a short piece by Edmund Wilson titled Tales of the Marvelous and the Ridiculous. Wilson says he was asked to look at Lovecraft after writing an overview of horror. He did and he didn’t change his initial opinion. While he admitted that Lovecraft’s “stories do show at times some traces of his more serious emotions and interests,” he attracts a cult that “is on even a more infantile level than the Baker Street Irregulars and the cult of Sherlock Holmes.” Wilson’s most famous section of the piece is to list a dozen of Lovecraft’s overused adjectives and then say, “Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words — especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus.” Hah! Wilson was in rare form that day. But he has a point. Lovecraft uses “grotesque” 15 times, “nightmare” 15 times, “hideous or hideously” 17 times, “frightful” 21 times, “nameless” 24 times, “horror” 31 times, and “monstrous or monstrously” 39 times in the 40,881 word book.
What a clutter of clatter. It has been suggested that Lovecraft does this to emphasize the language, or emphasize the psychological. I’ll need more convincing that Lovecraft understood enough about writing to do either of these with a deep rationale. I think this is probably what he does. Describing the image from the Scoresby expedition he writes, “I was glad when the mirage began to break up, though in the process the various nightmare turrets and cones assumed distorted temporary forms of even vaster hideousness. As the whole illusion dissolved to churning opalescence we began to look earthward again, and saw that our journey’s end was not far off. The unknown mountains ahead rose dizzyingly up like a fearsome rampart of giants…” (Italics mine). Lovecraft sure does love crafting with hyperbole.
Lovecraft also loves vagueness. Terrors are nearly always described as unnamable or nameless things. “The nameless scent of such things was very distinct. Doubtless it was suicidally foolish to venture into that tunnel under the known conditions, but the lure of the unplumbed is stronger in certain persons than most suspect,” and “Something about this whole place, with its polished and almost glistening floor, struck us as more vaguely baffling and horrible than any of the monstrous things we had previously encountered.” These terrible things are always ill-defined, out there, unseen, and yet none of the terror we suppose Lovecraft wants comes through. When we do see something it’s a giant eyeless albino penguin or some slimy ill-defined blob.
Compare all of that to the clear description by Edgar Allan Poe in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, “…and the third, who appeared to be looking at us with great curiosity, was leaning over the starboard bow near the bowsprit. This last was a stout and tall man, with a very dark skin. He seemed by his manner to be encouraging us to have patience, nodding to us in a cheerful although rather odd way, and smiling constantly so as to display a set of the most brilliantly white teeth. As his vessel drew nearer, we saw a red flannel cap which he had on fall from his head into the water; but of this he took little or no notice, continuing his odd smiles and gesticulations. I relate these things and circumstances minutely, and I relate them, it must be understood, precisely as they appeared to us.” (1) How shocking it is then when we discover the man, and everyone else aboard is dead. I would suggest, the devil is in the details. A tale of the weird may be: Someone somewhere did something and it was something indescribable. Maybe but this is what Lovecraft accepted as the way to write from earlier works such as Horace Walpole’s gothic The Castle of Otranto.
More contemporary authors have also found Lovecraft’s work lacking. Michael Houellebecq said upon first discovering Lovecraft, “I had not known literature was capable of this. And what’s more, I’m still not sure it is. There is something not really literary about Lovecraft’s work.” (2) But even Lovecraft seems to have agreed writing, “Literature and pulp writing can’t mix.” (3)
Generally characters are sketched in minimal form because the thing that Lovecraft wants to do is to world build. This decision may have been stylistic, or it may have been in part a result of whatever mental illness he suffered from, it’s unclear as those who analyze pick and choose to fashion arguments around his fantabulous inventions. At any rate, from my point of view as a reader, he goes way overboard. This begins to cause loads of repetition. One example will suffice. When Dyer and Danforth explore the vacant city, we’re off into a massive labyrinth, miles in size. But no need to fear they wont’ get lost. “Fortunately we had a supply of extra paper to tear up…and use on the ancient principle of hare-and-hounds for marking our course….an easy method in place of the usual rock-chipping” then again four pages later “”We reduced our extra paper to shreds….This method would probably gain us immunity from straying….we could of course fall back on the more secure…method of rock-chipping.” We follow an account of their exploration, which feels much like wandering through the video game Riven except we have neither agency nor puzzles. By my calculation the description of them wandering through the old city is at least 11,000 words of the book. I needed more than a few aspirin to get through it all. As they travel miles, and miles, up and down long passages, in and out of rooms, they see wall carvings that depict the entire history of those who used to live there. They figure out entire, book length histories of actions and the rationales behind these actions just by briefly looking (their film ran out ages ago, and they make a few drawings) and they are able to memorize the scheme of the massive place as found on carved maps. Obviously one or both of them have absolutely perfect photographic memories. The point is, Lovecraft is so carried away by describing that locating this section in real space-time disappears. Further there’s no way that Dyer could get the information from the carvings. From the carvings, Dyer learns that the things derived nourishment from inorganic substances, and that they resisted ordinary temperatures, that they absorbed certain chemicals, that they had no biological basis for the family phase of mammal life. Here’s a pencil and paper. Please illustrate those concepts so there is no possibility of me misreading the message In other words Lovecraft steps out of what would even be plausible to deduce from the images.
A second major problem in the book stems from Lovecraft’s general inability to adequately deal with time in a novel. The great writer Mario Vargas Llosa said a writer has two essential things to solve when writing a novel. First is that of the narrator. I’ll give Lovecraft credit for this. Second is that of the organization of time. (4) Lovecraft fails at the second. Early on a plane flies through a gale going on at 3 pm and by 10:30 pm the plane sets down and nobody is hurt. By 11 pm two of the men are up over the highest foothills, by 11:30 pm they’re at 21,500 feet. Days stretch endlessly and the characters miraculously seem to beam themselves to new locations. Time is also corrupted, painfully so, during the exploration of the city. Dyer and Danforth leave at 7 am, fly around, land beside the city at 12:30 and head into the labyrinth, walking for miles, according to what we learn. All the while they drop bits of paper to indicate their route back. They stop to read what must be thousands of carvings, they photograph, they sketch, they continue. In order to glean what they did from the carvings, they would have had to spend months studying them. The distance they covered, in the dark, with flashlights, in winding maze caverns and tunnels would have taken weeks.
One of the fine moments of the book is when Danforth, now unstrung because of the trauma of seeing something unstated (surprise!), starts to cite the station names of Boston’s Red Line subway, from South Station to Harvard. Sadly though this would indicate they live in Boston, rather than in Arkham going to Miskatonic. Another fine moment is Lovecraft’s use of the word “beyondness,” a word I had seriously considered as the title of my novel Sundre, although not because of Lovecraft, I’d never read anything by him then.
Given the climate that Lovecraft wrote in, two routes into the future were delineated for humankind: the utopian and the dystopian. At the Mountains of Madness shows Lovecraft’s choice, not surprising for a man described at odds with the world. In describing a dystopian possibility, his characters trip the light fantastic (note that much like Lovecraft’s vague things, this is a constructionally idiosyncratic phrase that makes no real world sense) at Antarctica where it is determined that greater beings than humans once roamed, and sometimes still roam, the planet.
(1) Poe, E.A., (1838). The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. Retrieved online from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/51060/51060-h/51060-h.htm
(2) Houellebecq, M. (June 4, 2005). The Myth Maker. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jun/04/featuresreviews.guardianreview6
(3) Lovecraft, H.P. (1996). Suggestions for a Reading Guide, in The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces. Sauk City, WI: Arakham House, 1966.
(4) Vargas, M.L. (1991). A Writer’s Reality. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.