Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review of "At 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 one of the author’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 utilize 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 can be quoted as saying that the major theme underpinning  his stories is the inapproachable nature of fear to reality.  But enough about subject matter and on to the literary merits of this collection.

Unfortunately, they are few and far between.  Lovecraft writes with the sterility of a doctor performing an autopsy.  Guilty of telling rather than showing, dialogue and inner monologue is almost non-existent, the direct description of events and places taking center stage.  And while this overly formal, technical style may be enjoyable to some, I found it tedious and difficult to fully engage with.  Regarding the works in the collection, the eponymous novella is the best.  The story of a team’s scientific mission to the Antarctic to perform research, 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 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 tales would have been original.

Despite having his own voice, it's difficult to get into Lovecraft’s groove.  Unique, readers will either flow easily with it, or run away in annoyance.  I will admit Lovecraft's brand of horror is not as overt as modern slasher films, it's always a hard time reading a book where there is nothing deeper than the inapproachable nature of fear, especially since this theme takes a backseat to the now cliche plot devices mentioned.  I could never get into King, and likewise I’ll probably never read anything else by Lovecraft.  But obviously each have their cult following, so perhaps best to supplement my review with others.  In the end, because Lovecraft was never able to form his ideas into anything longer than a novella (like King, no?), it’s difficult to see his work as more than entertainment.  If horror is your game, then Lovecraft is one of the original voices in the field.  Otherwise, it's a very specific niche that will not be to the majority's liking.

(This review has also been posted at  


  1. Lovecraft's work is not human-centred but "cosmic", that's not a place to give the regular load of dialogue. Lovecraft's writing is not sterile, it's convincing in the more scientific pieces.

    "Guilty of telling rather than showing"
    Lovecraft is about fear of the unknown, where's the unknown when you show everything?

    "In the end, because Lovecraft was never able to form his ideas into anything longer than a novella (like King, no?), it’s difficult to see his work as more than entertainment."
    And what the hell are you talking about?! Oh I stop here.

    Everybody can take a single book and write nonsense without research, patience, understanding.

    1. Eee, gads! Another angry Lovecraft fan taking my criticism personally! He's misunderstood... He's a quiet genius... He was way ahead of his time... It requires superior intellect to understand Lovecraft.... Sigh...

      We go one by one:

      Lovecraft's work is "cosmic" and therefore does not require dialogue... If we take your intent to its logical conclusion, then nothing is required save vast quantities of vacuum and silence - no plot, no character, no dialogue, nothing, just pure, eerie strangeness - like a theremin playing quietly in the dark.

      Lovecraft's writing is convincing in the more scientific pieces... And which scientific piece would that be in the collection?

      Showing vs telling Those are the basic two options in fiction. If I rephrase your question "Where's the unknown if you tell everything?" then I think you see that showing is a more powerful tool to illicit the theremin in the spine feeling Lovecraft was aiming at (but didn't hit). His cold writing did not evoke any sense of cosmic mysteriousness in me. It evoked a sense of college textbook. Good writers - good stylists - are able to evoke the underlying intent of their fiction by subtly showing. See Jeff VanderMeer, J.G. Ballard, Jeffrey Ford, M. John Harrison, and many others for examples how to use showing to draw from the reader sub-conscious responses.

      The one thing I will give you is my statement about the novella length limit. You're right. It is possible to capture larger ideas in short fiction. I think my exasperation at Lovecraft's lack of writerly talent pushed me to make an extreme statement - just as your exasperation of my cutting remarks about a writer you love pushed you to strong words.

      Sorry, but the last sentence "Everybody can take a single book..." requires an explanation. Perhaps you mean anybody can write a book of nonsense? But I don't see how that fits in with your above arguments.

      And lastly, unless you want me to consider you one more rabid Lovecraft fan who considers love of his fiction before the execution of said fiction, do respond intelligently. You want Lovecraft's fiction to be taken seriously, so respond seriously.

  2. Replies
    1. Something I have yet to put my finger on is: why do so many fans of Lovecraft and Robert Howard take negative reviews of those writers' works so personally? Maybe you can help?