My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Having read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, what choice did I have in this Halloween season but to go on to the 20th-century sequel to Poe’s only novel, namely, one of H. P. Lovecraft’s only novels, At the Mountains of Madness (written 1931, published 1936)? Lovecraft’s characters twice refer to Poe, “hint[ing] at queer notions about unsuspected and forbidden sources to which Poe may have had access when writing his Arthur Gordon Pym a century ago.” In other words, Poe was a sort of secret documentarian of the Antarctic gothic, a new literary mode Lovecraft’s novel continues and extends by assimilating it to his overarching mythos about the squamous horrors from beyond the stars.
This Modern Library edition packages Mountains with Lovecraft’s literary-historical essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, wherein Lovecraft defines the features of the Gothic novel. It is worth quoting to see how, in this novel, Lovecraft borrows and revises these venerable tropes of a haunted modernity:
This novel dramatic paraphernalia consisted first of all of the Gothic castle, with its awesome antiquity, vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends, as a nucleus of suspense and daemoniac fright. In addition, it included the tyrannical and malevolent nobleman as villain; the saintly, longpersecuted, and generally insipid heroine who undergoes the major terrors and serves as a point of view and focus for the reader’s sympathies; the valorous and immaculate hero, always of high birth but often in humble disguise; the convention of high-sounding foreign names, mostly Italian, for the characters; and the infinite array of stage properties which includes strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like. All this paraphernalia reappears with amusing sameness, yet sometimes with tremendous effect, throughout the history of the Gothic novel; and is by no means extinct even today, though subtler technique now forces it to assume a less naive and obvious form.
What could be less naive and obvious than to convert the Gothic castle into an abandoned alien megalopolis in Antarctica, to render the insipid and suffering heroine as a STEM grad student with a penchant for Poe and other horrific lore, to humbly disguise the highborn hero-villain as a tentacle-faced alien civilization undone by worser interstellar horrors (e.g., “the cosmic octopi”) and their own protoplasmic slave-class, and to take the “high-sounding foreign name” device so far beyond Italian that we arrive at R’lyeh, Tsathoggua, Kadath, and more?
At the Mountains of Madness is the first-person narrative of a geologist named Dyer; he has recently returned from an Antarctic expedition with his Miskatonic University colleagues, where new drilling equipment promised to enable the scientists to collect deeper rock and fossil specimens, “since the primal life-history of this bleak realm of ice and death is of the highest importance to our knowledge of the earth’s past.” But Dyer and team receive more of such knowledge than they wanted or expected, and Dyer—one of the mission’s few survivors—writes his narrative to warn away future polar expeditions. What did these scientists discover?
First, an expedition finds odd animal/vegetable specimens in the ice, one of which thaws out, returns to life, slaughters the humans, and flees to the mountains. Then Dyer and the graduate student Danforth fly out to the wrecked camp to investigate; finding the carnage, they pilot their plane toward the mountains and there discover a hidden city. Wandering its streets and squares, entering its halls and towers, they learn its origins by interpreting its lost race’s (apparently very thorough) friezes and reliefs. In short, the city was built 50 million years ago by the Great Old Ones, an alien civilization whose physical form resembles a cross between a squid and a bat. The Great Old Ones once ruled the earth, but were forced back to their Antarctic landing site, also their holiest city, both by subsequent invasions of more evil alien entities and by revolts of their own slave-laborers, the Shoggoths, which they themselves constructed to serve them from protoplasmic matter. Eventually, our scientist-heroes decide that the Great Old Ones are not the enemy, but are in their civilizational drive actually akin to humanity—
God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!
—while the squalid slime-monster Shoggoths who overthrew the Great Old Ones are the novel’s prime villains. One of them slimes his way out of the cavern beneath the city to chase Dyer and Danforth back to the surface and out to their plane. While fleeing the Pole, Danforth gets a glimpse of the mountains beyond the city, where the myths of the Great Old Ones told of nameless horrors:
[T]he terrible mountains of the forbidden land—highest of earth’s peaks and focus of earth’s evil; harbourers of nameless horrors and Archaean secrets; shunned and prayed to by those who feared to carve their meaning; untrodden by any living thing of earth, but visited by the sinister lightnings and sending strange beams across the plains in the polar night…
The novel concludes with a tribute to Poe’s Pym, as the cry of the giant birds at that novel’s Antarctic conclusion, “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” is here reprised as the call of the Shoggoth and the Poe-reading Danforth’s own maddened cry as Dyer pilots the plane from the Cyclopean city and the invertebrates whose “nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence” squirm beneath it.
The narrative is told in a deliberately dry scientific prose that allows the horrors it uncovers to seem all the more grotesque by contrast with Dyer’s literary decorum. While the novel gradually gathers force and then erupts to a crescendo, Lovecraft’s métier was the short story, and I am convinced he could have gotten his wanderers into the hidden city in 20 pages rather than 40, even at the risk of sacrificing some of the opening’s elaborate scientific verisimilitude. But this is, in comparison to the mishmash of Poe’s Pym, an artful construction, if less impressive than the concentric narratives of its other evident precursor, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, here re-written for the snowbound polar wastes as a heart of whiteness.
In an introduction to this edition, the Marxist novelist China Miéville ably explicates the political subtext of the Shoggoths’ successful overthrow of their erstwhile masters and the horror it inspires in both Lovecraft and his narrator by identifying the Shoggoths with The People in revolt:
The uprising of the masses is something Lovecraft views with evident terror. This is because he both views such masses as racially inferior (“sub-human Russian rabble” in the case of the Bolsheviks) and loathes them precisely because they are the masses. There is little more contemptible and terrifying to this elitist.
You might think this is tendentious, but it is not really less tendentious than the novel itself; reactionaries and revolutionaries alike are fond of the didactic, and Miéville gets in a few good lines (my favorite: “The Shoggoths are, literally, revolting”). For my part, I am less faithful to the essentially chiliastic religious dream of The Revolution—history has given us some cause to fear revolutions even if we are not otherwise in sympathy with Lovecraft’s illiberal politics, or indeed with oppression. (How can both oppression and revolution both be bad? You would need not a revolutionary or a reactionary but a tragedian, or at least an ironist, to explain that.)
Anyway, if illiberal politics were all that mattered, we would have to toss out most of the books in our libraries, and not all of them by straight white men either, so the question of Lovecraft’s merit cannot be dispatched by a critique of his ideology, which was not much worse than that of all the other fascist or Stalinist or imperialist modernists we have grown used to admiring.
Lovecraft’s achievement is, as every critic has said by now, to recast modernity’s repressed nightmare not as the intractable remnant of Old-World daemonism or l’ancien régime, but as the inhuman vastnesses opened up by scientific materialism itself. Science has dispelled the illusions of metaphysics, displaced humanity from the center of the cosmos, and revealed life to be a chaos of rioting matter that only ever contingently assumes form. Lovecraft provides, in essence, a new myth—and it would be hard to deny that we needed one in a century that cashiered Platonism, Christianity, and humanism in turn.
If I were wholly devoted to Lovecraft and resentful that he had still not quite gained the respect I thought he deserved, here is what I would say:
“While T. S. Eliot was inventing modern conservatism by half-heartedly trying to piece the ruins of tradition back together, while James Joyce was inventing postmodern nihilism by happily spraying his ejaculate over the ruins, while Virginia Woolf was inventing elite left-liberalism by nervously pretending that spiritual-but-not-religious and privileged-but-really-guilty-about-it could somehow answer for the ruins, Lovecraft threw everything—including, above all, good taste—to the wind and devised a set of images to express something of what the world would actually look like if we ever succeeded in forgetting that we had once been Platonists or Christians or humanists. And, given that he takes his literary stand at the intersection of symbolism and naturalism no less than did Joyce, he should not even be denied a share in modernism.”
Is the above what I actually think? Probably not. The original writer must, said Wordsworth, create the taste by which he is to be appreciated. Lovecraft has not quite created the taste in me yet. But his essay on literary horror (some of which I admittedly skimmed, as it is partially intended as a reference work consisting of plot summaries) nevertheless impresses me with the breadth of his reading and the modernity of his judgments. His praise of Poe consists, for instance, in recognizing him as the first true artist of horror, on aesthetic grounds that Pater, Wilde, Joyce, and Woolf would readily appreciate:
[Poe] perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing—with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathiser, or vendor of opinion.
And his perhaps surprisingly extravagant praise for Wuthering Heights as one of the central novels of the 19th century is consonant with my own experience of that extraordinary and extraordinarily weird book. I was expecting criticism more archaic and stodgy, but Lovecraft-as-critic, in advocating for a literature of the unseen, is a true modernist.
And yet, and yet. As a fiction writer, isn’t he too literal and therefore too crude and childish? Isn’t the greatness of Poe found in the sheer suggestive vagueness, the spiritual vagary, of his symbolism? Isn’t this why Mallarmé and Melville found inspiration in Pym‘s almost empty picture of whiteness that they could never have found in trashy, puerile images of crawling slime monsters and things-from-another-world with tentacular faces? Let’s return to our imagined Lovecraft advocate and hear his (his? yes, his) answer:
“Consider how much of At the Mountains of Madness consists of Dyer’s description of the Great Old Ones’ wall friezes. A third of the novel is ekphrasis, like the book of the Iliad that describes the shield of Achilles. Consider, too, the mundanity of that ekphrasis. Lovecraft through Dyer tells us that the Great Old Ones ‘had passed through a stage of mechanised life on other planets, but had receded upon finding its effects emotionally unsatisfying,’ that last phrase redolent of advertising and popular psychology, and also goes on to detail the changing nature of their furnishings and home designs, such that we have to picture these winged mollusks as ‘they used curious tables, chairs, and couches like cylindrical frames—for they rested and slept upright with folded-down tentacles—and racks for the hinged sets of dotted surfaces forming their books,’ an image impossible to imagine without laughter. Lovecraft is too learned a critic and too conscious an artist to produce such comic effects—precisely the emotional consequence of the over-literal fantastic—without design. What, between the ekphrasis and the mundanity or near cuteness of his horrifying anti-divinities, is he trying to do? He is obviously trying to return literature to the naive concreteness of the epic, with its squabbling gods and strange journeys, its quotidian bizarrerie; he is trying to become the bard of the new age, the Homer of the scientific millennium, the de-spiritualized singer of the new gods we find on the threshold of our post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian perceptions. It is not a question of his being better than Joyce or Eliot, but of his truly accomplishing what they only wished for and gestured toward—not the invention of a new Gothic, but rather, at long last, after the Platonic, the Christian, the humanist centuries, a cyclic poem of the universe, nothing less than the restitution of the epic to modern man.”
Well, that is what a devotee would say. I would say At the Mountains of Madness is a strange, slow book, well worth reading and thinking over, if occasionally and in various ways hard to take. Maybe to say that—that a book can still be read with interest some eight decades after it was written—is praise enough.