Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book 58, Antarctica: "At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft

Gah! Taking a bus to Kuala Lumpur in three hours, so this post is also going to be rushed. But what a treat, in the middle of this survey of serious world literature, to be able to get at some pulpy horror fiction! (That's why I'm doing this, Mohan, so shut your trap about how Antarctica isn't really a country.)

I'm only semi-familiar with the Lovecraftian canon: I've read a collection of short stories and been initiated into his twisted universe via spin-offs like the Campus Crusade for Cthulhu and Li'l Cthulhu. This here volume is supposed to contain his first systematic summation of how all his monstrosities fit into history and geography: the Elder Things, the Shoggoths, the Mi-Go, and the Star-Spawn of Cthulhu Him/Itself.

It's a ruddy good read - it's less than a hundred pages, so you can go slow, following Lovecraft's baroquely ornamented language (he sure does love the word "eldritch"!) in the guise of the geologist William Dyer's documentation of the doomed Miskatonic expedition. Folks say this author doesn't care much about plot, but the twist really hits me, just as it did in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.


Dyer moans and groans throughout most of the narrative about the unspeakable and unbelievably ancient horror that is the city of the Elder Things. But once he starts exploring the city properly and examining its murals, he somehow gathers enough information to (improbably) piece together a cogent gazillion-year history of the race, focussed on how their artistry and knowledge declined over time, depriving them even of their means of escape from this planet on their space-traversing wings.

The real advent of their downfall, of course, is the rise of the very creatures they chemically evolved as semi-sentient labour: the blob-like, amorphous Shoggoths. They lead a revolt, gain some traction, get defeated, and then rise again by the end, even mastering some crude understanding of writing, and certainly possessing themselves of enough fury that they eviscerate any Elder Things they see in their path.

Dyer actually ends up *identifying* with the tentacle-headed aliens who slashed apart his fellow researchers, as they're by no means as barbaric and hideous as the Shoggoths (an opinion no doubt helped by the fact that one said Shoggoth is ravenously chasing him through a tunnel at the end).

Take a step back for a second and consider that Lovecraft is writing this in 1930s America. That's right: all this talk about slave uprisings and barbaric culture is precisely a reaction to the rise of black Americans and their contributions to mainstream culture: the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, Josephine Baker in the cabaret halls of Paree. There's a confirmation of this subtext in the introduction by China Miéville (which I thoroughly recommend). Creepy.


Miéville also talks about how the blank slate of the frozen continent serves as a screen on which writers can project their wildest fantasies. But evidently, the slate isn't so blank anymore - the story's had enough of an impact that paleontologist John Long's done a book titled Mountains of Madness: A Scientist's Odyssey in Antarctica . And inevitably, someday, someone's gonna get the funding to do a film version. (It almost happened!)

So when enough ice melts and Antarctica gets settled, this book is gonna be part of their heritage. Hell, they might even erect an Elder Things city theme park! Wouldn't you go there? Maybe in the summer.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Yeah, the placemarker's thrown my whole map out of whack. I'll figure out how to fix it eventually.

Representative quote:
The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque forms of bizarrerie. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath. There were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five. All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer giganticism.

Next book: James Hall's Sangoma, from Swaziland. I think.

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