Monday, July 18, 2005

At the Mountains of Madness

It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.

H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

I managed to find a paperback edition of At the Mountains of Madness in an American-style drugstore on our way to the Savoie restaurant, where we are now banqueting on oysters. The cover displays a fur-covered skull with two yellowed, rodent-like teeth and from the hollow eye-sockets there burn two pairs of bright eyes belonging to formless Kafkaesque beasties. A furry worm is crawling in and out of the sockets.

Josef Škvorecký, The Engineer of Human Souls
I remember that cover, which, if I'm not mistaken, belonged to a Ballantine edition in circulation in the early 1970s. I first saw it in a paperback bookstore in central Connecticut; it was the kind of place where much of the stock — the Lovecraft being among the exceptions — consisted of books whose covers had been torn off and returned to the publisher, the subsequent sale of which was a contractual violation. There were other Lovecraft titles in the same rack, with similarly gruesome cover treatments. I don't think I had ever heard of the author; they certainly didn't teach his books in high school (we endured Catcher in the Rye instead), and nobody I knew read Lovecraft the way some of us read Vonnegut or (wince) Richard Brautigan. I wouldn't catch up to him until years later, and then just a little here, a little there, until, eventually, and probably in fact because of the allusion to it in Škvorecký's novel, I read At the Mountains of Madness, which I suspect is the only Lovecraft I would go out of my way to read a second time — as I lately have done.
"A kind of hack writer," I say. He imitated Poe. Wrote macabre stuff. In fact he wrote only a few brilliant pages in his life. Only one scene."

The Engineer of Human Souls
Today, there's even a Lovecraft volume in the Library of America, which actually is pretty funny considering how awful a writer he was, even when he was at his best. Lovecraft isn't for everybody, and I wouldn't want to read too much of him, but it's impossible to deny the pleasures his work can provide. He may have been a sick, racist creep as a human being, but then so was Poe, his great model. Both vipers are safely dead ("aeon-dead," I can hear Lovecraft intone) and their venom has lost its potency.

At the Mountains of Madness narrates a scientific expedition to Antarctica during which the explorers — first an advance contingent, which meets a horrible end, then a smaller party consisting of the narrator and a man named Danforth — encounter the remnants of a vast civilization ancient beyond all human measure. That civilization had been created millions of years previously by a species of migrants from space, beings on the order of giant sentient echinoderms, whom Lovecraft calls "the Old Ones." It had collapsed long before our own epoch under the twin pressures of the advancing Antarctic ice and the revolt of their slave creatures, the immense, hideous Shoggoths. Or something like that. It doesn't do to get bogged down in the "mythos," though some people have done just that and gone on to make a career of it. The bottom line is that something hideous, old, and very dangerous, something that would much better have been left undisturbed, gets disinterred from the ice, and that something even worse is out there, somewhere, lurking around.

And of course the damned dogs are hip to it from the beginning. Lovecraft repeatedly hammers us in the head with the fact that the dogs that accompany the advance party know that there's something really nasty about the specimens their masters dig up. The narrator quotes the wireless transmissions that relay the findings to the base camp:
Dogs growing uneasy as we work...

Having trouble with dogs. They can't endure the new specimen, and would probably tear it to pieces if we didn't keep it at a distance from them...

Have brought all to surface, leading off dogs to distance. They cannot stand the things...

Job now to get fourteen huge specimens to camp without dogs, which bark furiously and can't be trusted near them.
He pounds it in so mercilessly that it's actually a relief when we find out that the dogs have been slaughtered by the same unknown horror that has wiped out the advance party — but no, because in fact there are more dogs with the narrator and Danforth when they find the ravaged remains of the camp, and those dogs aren't very happy about the situation either.

The climax of the novel occurs after the narrator and Danforth reach the site, find the remains of their companions, explore the ruined megalopolis (which features miraculously preserved sculptural friezes that, with a few moments inspection, reveal the entire history of the civilization in great detail), and find the savaged bodies of several of the Old Ones near the entrance to a vast subterranean sea. It dawns on the pair that the re-animated Old Ones, as terrible as they are, are not the worst thing they have to fear. There are, incongruously, some rather cute giant blind albino penguins hanging about at this point, but it's the Shoggoths, slayers of the Old Ones and harbingers of the ultimate evil that dwells in the distant, unexplored mountains beyond, that are the real menace. The recognition scene is, perhaps uniquely in all literature, conveyed entirely in olfactory terms:
We realised ... that our retreat from the foetid slime-coating on those headless obstructions [the butchered Old Ones], and the coincident approach of the pursuing entity, had not brought us the exchange of stenches which logic called for. In the neighbourhood of the prostrate things that new and lately unexplainable foetor had been wholly dominant; but by this time it ought to have largely given place to the nameless stench associated with those others. This it had not done — for instead, the newer and less bearable smell was now virtually undiluted, and growing more and more poisonously insistent each second.
Follow that? So at last we find that the snark is a boojum, a creature that only Terry Gilliam could ever animate, half train, half sea-cucumber, a "foetid, unglimpsed mountain of slime-spewing protoplasm whose race had conquered the abyss and sent land pioneers to re-carve and squirm through the burrows of the hills..." — something in fact remarkably like Karl Rove.

To write this badly — and please believe me when I say that I write this without a trace of condescension or irony — requires more than immense talent; it requires absolute genius, divinely inspired, and it is why At the Mountains of Madness is a great bad book — a thing infinitely preferable to any number of bad great books.

When Škvorecký published The Engineer of Human Souls, he selected as chapter titles the names of a select handful of representative American and British writers — Poe, Hawthorne, Conrad, etc. — but ended the novel with "Lovecraft," a bizarre but, I think, entirely defensible choice. Lovecraft deserves his place in the pantheon for making a virtue of awfulness — in both senses of the word.
"Lovecraft didn't have a great range of fantasy, but what he had was intense. It was more like an obsession than a fantasy. Like all prophets."

"What did he prophesy?" asks Irene incuriously...

"The same as all prophets, Nicole. Doom."

The Engineer of Human Souls
Skvorecky quotes one final passage, presumably the one "brilliant" scene cited earlier. It's a dreadful and wonderful bit of writing, a splendid mixture of lyricism and hogwash. At the close of the book the narrator and Danforth fly away to safety, but not before looking back and, in the process, catching a glimpse of the unexplored high peaks in the far distance.
There now lay revealed on the ultimate white horizon behind the grotesque city a dim, elfin line of pinnacled violet whose needle-pointed heights loomed dreamlike against the beckoning rose color of the western sky. Up toward this shimmering rim sloped the ancient table-land, the depressed course of the bygone river traversing it as an irregular ribbon of shadow. For a second we gasped in admiration of the scene's unearthly cosmic beauty, and then vague horror began to creep into our souls. For this far violet line could be nothing else than the terrible mountains of the forbidden land — highest of earth's peaks and focus of earth's evil; harborers of nameless horrors and Archaean secrets; shunned and prayed to by those who feared to carve their meaning; untrodden by any living thing on earth, but visited by the sinister lightnings and sending strange beams across the plains in the polar night — beyond doubt the unknown archetype of that dreaded Kadath in the Cold Waste beyond abhorrent Leng, whereof primal legends hint evasively.
Škvorecký omits the final sentence of the passage, which reads, "We were the first human beings ever to see them — and I hope to God we may be the last." Yeah, well, we all know how that turns out.