The Primal White Jelly. On Toast.

It seems faintly ridiculous to “review” such a well-loved piece of fantastic literature (in both senses) as “At The Mountains of Madness,” so I will restrict myself to a few random reflections on it, as well as a comment on the particular edition I chose to read: the Modern Library’s “Definitive” edition.

As to the edition, it has two optional extras installed; one, an introduction by China Mieville (of Perdido Street Station fame, which you should read if you haven’t), and two, HPL’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Both contribute to the value of the book significantly, and Mieville manages to cram quite a bit of interesting and thought-provoking criticism into a few short pages (and excoriating, and to my mind rightly so, those who would attempt to forgive or ignore HPL’s “foul racist drivel”). The essay, of course, is superb, in which HPL outlines, in a sense, his philosophy of what he does, and did better than anyone.

As to the text itself, it is of course magnificent, but suffers a bit (to me) from the fact that I know the tales and the cosmology of Lovecraft Country so well that I lose the sense of shock and cosmic horror that HPL was going for in his work. I feel, instead, almost a sense of comfort, as if Innsmouth or Arkham were hometowns from my beloved childhood, and I often reflect fondly on the fish-faced, hooded, chanting inhabitants. It caused me to reflect that a reader coming to “At The Mountains of madness” for the first time would be well served to if they could read it without context: without title and without author, so that the slow warping from clinical, scientific description to other-worldly horror with the shuddering shock that Lovecraft intended. “Lovecraft” has become a name to conjure with, making it near-impossible for we in these benighted times to read his work with one-tenth the suspense they initially contained.

“At The Mountains of Madness” is particularly notable for its slow build, from scientific certainty to the shatterring of all of our petty human certainties. It is the masterwork of using science to ground what is, in essence, a fantasy, and I couldn’t help but think of the modern cinematic masterwork of the technique (and the best Lovecraftian movie in the last thirty years, setting aside the HPL Historical Society’s brilliant silent movie “The Call of Cthulhu”): Ghostbusters. In one of his director commentaries, Ivan Reitman pointed out that since he knew going in that the movie ended with a ten-story marshmallow man rampaging through New York, he had to establish reality very quickly and with certainty, so that the world would be utterrly believable before he began twisting it to his own supernatural ends. So: scientists, a library, a university, a brush with the other side. Nothing more, but it prepares the viewer for what is to come. He could have been following the blueprint of “At The Mountains of Madness.”

Published in: on September 7, 2007 at 8:49 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “At The Mountains of Madness” was my introduction to Lovecraft. While I can’t say I read it without context – I had a vague that there was such a thing as a Cthulhu mythos – I did experience some of the shock and amazement that were intended.

    I’m very interested in reading China Mieville’s introduction, so I will look for that edition.

    Thanks for the very thoughtful review.

  2. That’s a good thought. I wish I could read something by Lovecraft without knowing what to expect! But barring major brain problems, that will not be possible!

  3. Major brain problems can probably be arranged: I’ll check my local phone book for reverse phrenologists…

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