H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror/fantasy writers of the 20th century, impacting writers and filmmakers like Stephen king, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter, Guillermo del toro, Brian Yuzna, and Stuart Gordon (who directed many Lovecraft adaptations such as Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, and Dagon).
Today I look at At the Mountains of Madness: And Other Tales of Terror, which features At the Mountains of Madness as its main story. The other stories accompanying it are The Shunned House, Dreams in the Witch House, and The Statement of Randolph Carter. For people looking to get into Lovecraft, this collection will serve as a decent introduction to his world. You’ll come out of it knowing the names Necronomicon, Miskatonic, Arkham, and Old Ones. You’ll also go insane with forbidden knowledge. OK, maybe not, but you’ll still have a good time.
At the Mountains of Madness
Originally Written in 1931; First published in Astounding Stories, 1936
1/2 (out of 4)
The irony of At the Mountains of Madness is that while it introduces a number of aspects of The Cthulhu Mythos, it’s also a semi-difficult read, being a bit too verbose and clinical in its telling. It is also thin on plot – the story takes the form of a journal account of a geologist’s visit to Antarctica, only to discover an ancient city and monsters lurking within. At the Mountains of Madness mostly features a description of the architecture and tell-tale sculptures that he witnesses, and only really gets going at the end. Basically, it’s over before it begins, but there are enough interesting concepts being introduced here to make it worth the read.
Miskatonic University professor William Dyer accompanies an expedition to Antarctica only to discover the fossils of ancient life forms that appear to be both plant and animal. Soon after, the men of one split-off camp are slaughtered in horrific fashion, and some of the specimens are gone. This leads Dyer and his partner Danforth into an abandoned city which has an architecture completely alien to anything known in human history. The pair discover murals which seem to describe the history of the alien builders – referred to as the “Old Ones” who created shapeshifting monsters dubbed Shoggoths, which helped them build their civilization. The old ones eventually had to deal with a Shoggoth rebellion as well as invasions from beyond the stars by the Mi-go and the spawn of Cthulhu. Eventually the pair have to outrun a chasing Shoggoth, and one of them seems to go insane after catching a glimpse of something that even the Old Ones were afraid of.
Although slow, At the Mountains of Madness offers a fascinating peek into the world of the “Elder Things” and it works when it conveys the horror of the monsters, like the bubbly, shapeless Shoggoth entities and the star-headed old ones with their multiple tentacles. Dyer’s description of what he sees is realistic in the sense that you would expect the prose to be scientific and exact in nature, which may turn you off if you are into a more easygoing style. Nevertheless, Lovecraft communicates the utter alienness of the environment and makes connections to the Necromonicon, the forbidden book of knowledge that subjects of Miskatonic should probably stay away from but never do. I could see the influence of the ancient-aliens storyline in other works like John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (which was released 2 years after Lovecraft’s story was published in Astounding Stories), which of course led to The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s The Thing. You can see influences on Horror Express and The X-Files as well. Of course, Lovecraft himself borrowed from Edgar Allen Poe, whom he references a few times in his stories. In particular, the Antarctic setting and bizarre cry of a Shoggoth (“Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!”) is inspired by The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
At the Mountains of Madness succeeds in communicating the loneliness and isolation of the Antarctic. The story works best when you realize its implications – that mankind is not only alone in the universe, but is under threat from ancient, powerful beings that should not be woken up.
The Shunned House
Originally written in 1924; first published in Weird Tales, 1937
(out of 4)
The Shunned House is a haunted house story involving something a bit more horrifying than the usual spectral entity. This “ghost” can take the form of a yellowish “corpse-light” which can dissolve a human into goo. But before we get there, we are treated to the unique and tragic history of the Harris family, whose members (adults, children, and live-in-maids alike) all met unfortunate ends not long after moving into the cursed mansion on Benefit Street. The protagonist and his uncle, Dr. Whipple, seem to have traced the origins of the evil back to one Etienne Roulet, a Frenchman who got involved in certain dark things.
The house itself is the star of the story, with its bizarre weeds, horrible smells, and glowing, alien-looking fungi growing in the cellar. Lovecraft manages another shoutout to Poe, telling the reader how the author would walk past the Benefit Street house every day and, ironically, never realize how close he was to something so dark and terrifying. The history of the house is interesting and the ending has a nice ghost-hunter vibe to it. By the way, according to Wiki, The Shunned House is based on an actual house in Providence, Rhode Island, built in 1763 and is still there (135 Benefit Street).
The Dreams in the Witch House
Originally written in 1932; first published in Weird Tales, 1933
(out of 4)
My favorite of this group of stories, Dreams in the Witch House takes us to the city of Arkham and into a weird home with an oddly-angled room. Staying in the room is Walter Gilman, a student of mathematics and quantum physics, interested in the history of the house and the bizarre stories surrounding former occupant Keziah Mason, who maintained that certain “lines and curves” could “be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond.” Soon after, the woman – said to be a witch – vanished from her cell. Gilman becomes obsessed with the irregular shape of the walls and ceiling in his room, pondering on whether they have an important mathematical significance. Soon, the horrible dreams come – of entering other dimensions, plummeting through multiple abysses of inexplicable colors, and being visited by an old crone and a rat-like creature with a bearded human face and sharp teeth, with human-like hands where its paws should be. As he slowly loses his sanity, Gilman is continuously threatened by this pair in his dreams, as they attempt to take him to the “Black Man” who wants him to sign the Book of Azathoth in blood at the “center of ultimate chaos.”
We all agree it’s in Gilman’s best interest not to do any such thing, but the longer he stays in the witch house, the more his dreams and reality become blurred, and he finds himself involuntarily drawn to faraway places in time and space. As an example of Lovecraft’s running theme of horrible fate, Gilman may not have a choice. Dreams in the Witch House is a great page-turner, filled with dreamscapes beyond the scope of human reason, witches and monsters, other dimensions, a disturbing sacrifice, and terrible revelations. It’s a perfect “weird tale” and serves as a good introduction for those not familiar with Lovecraft’s work, demonstrating his themes of forbidden knowledge and alien threats. Stuart Gordon adopted it for his entry into 2005’s Masters of Horror series, but honestly the story is superior.
The Statement of Randolph Carter
Originally written in 1919; first published in The Vagrant, 1920
1/2 (out of 4)
The Statement of Randolph Carter is a simple short story of about 7 pages, written in first person as a testimony to what happened to poor Harley Warren when Randolph Carter accompanied him to an ancient cemetery – rest assured that Warren never came back when he descended into that dark pit with stone steps. Inspired to go there by “an ancient book with undecipherable characters,” Carter stayed on the surface and kept in contact through a portable telephone system, through which he could hear Warren’s screams “Curse these hellish things – legions – My God!”
The Statement of Randolph Carter works in a similar manner to The Shunned House – two people investigate unmentionable things only to end up wishing they hadn’t. The Shunned House is the better story, being more fleshed out, but this one does its job in the limited number of words allotted. In the end, I found myself wanting more. By the way, Randolph Carter is a recurring character in Lovecraft’s stories.
At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales is a must-read for lovers of horror, weird fiction, and anybody who wants to get into H.P. Lovecraft. Pick It Up From Amazon. Also try H.P. Lovecraft The Complete Collection.
– Bill Gordon