H.P. Lovecraft Week – David Ward Wrestles with Madness

From the outset, I wish to claim, with no small significance, that this piece is less a review, bound in reflective passages of indiscriminatory minutiae and personal indulgences, then it is a paen of prose for that scribbler of things bizarre, mutable, and altogether otherworldly, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Here you will find not the voice of the balanced, or dare I claim, sane, writer, but rather the utmost praise and . . .

Enough of that. Lovecraftian pastiche can only get one so far. I’m here to write a few words about me and At the Mountains of Madness, one of HP Lovecraft’s longer, and certainly one of his finest, works. The man wrote millions of words during his brief time on the planet, and while he never truly achieved anything that we might term “success”, his legacy is unmatched in the horror genre. He’s been mimicked, lauded, cursed, and in some truly creepy cases, beatified (yes, there are people out there who seriously believe that the Necronomicon is real – this scares me a very great deal).

Now why At the Mountains of Madness? Because it was my first. I was introduced to HP Lovecraft by the amazing episode of The Real Ghostbusters called “The Collect Call of Cathulhu” (and, no, that is not a sales pitch for the earlier article in this HP Lovecraft-themed week, but a genuine admission). I was fascinated by what was happening: cults, weird cephalopods, a big nasty book that contained some of the worst magic that ever existed – it screamed at every horror-driven bone I had in my body. I needed to find out if the writer named in the television show was real, and I discovered, to my absolute delight, that he was.

So started the search for HP Lovecraft. I had very little money at the time, but I had discovered a love for second-hand bookshops, and during a visit to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I found an all-but untouched copy of At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror by Lovecraft for a dollar. I ran to the desk, slapped a greenback on the counter, and emerged from the shop into the early evening sun with a small package in a brown paper bag. I still own the book, though I have had to tape the cover more than once. It’s even got a little scribble on the first page: PODSW (Property Of David Sandford Ward), which I dutifully scribbled in a number of books that I had at the time, and this new acquisition was no exception.

Post-scribbling, I took it upon myself to read. I think I made it through three pages. I had absolutely no idea what this madman from Rhode Island was going on about. These aren’t words! These are the ravings of a lunatic! While the latter may indeed be true, but I’ll leave said observations for the Lovecraftian scholars out there, I am, of course speaking of Lovecraft’s encyclopedic and, let’s face it, intimidating vocabulary. To date, my heaviest incursions into literature were JRR Tolkien and Stephen King. Great writers, to be sure, but their vocabularies paled in comparison to what I saw on these pages (it was, of course, later when I realized that a monumental vocabulary does not mean excellent writing – to quote King: “This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.”).

Still, I pursed my face, put my head down, and tried again, in the cramped, hot backseat of my parents’ old Toyota Celica. By the time we made it to our hotel, I had succeeded – I had made it to chapter two on page 11, and I almost, almost, knew what was going on. It was a story about a man who had survived a trip to the Antarctic, and he was warning people to stay away, specifically to stop a second expedition that was due to sail south in the very near future. Between that and its conclusion, throw in some creatures that were biological impossibilities, genetics, archaeology, vivisection, and that creepy thing in the dark that no one wants to admit is there, but we know. Oh, we know.

This novella took more brute strength and ignorance than anything else I had brought on that trip (sorry, Steve), but it turned out to be the most rewarding. While it was nothing like anything I’d read to date, its underlying creepiness was undeniable. Here was a tale about the history of our world, about every species on the planet, told through the etchings of creatures long dead and their unfathomable creations. The story even mentioned everyone’s favourite Old One, Cthulhu (it’s not actually a character, but it is referenced), which put a big stupid smile on my face. Many of the themes, and creatures, mentioned throughout Lovecraft’s works are in this tale: science, exploration, the Old Ones, the Elder Things, the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, and Shoggoths, and it’s considered one of the central tales of the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos” (a term I found quite funny after reading most things by Lovecraft – Cthulhu only appears in one of the stories, and even then, it only pisses and gets hit by a boat before going back under the ocean). I also find it’s a novella that gets better with every subsequent read, and I’m sure I’ve read it as many times as Yog-Sothoth has globulous bubbles.

Despite Lovecraft’s misogyny, which is only really apparent by his refusal to include a female character that isn’t a witch or a cult member, and his racism (dark skinned people do not come off well in his works), I still find myself going back to these truly weird tales of vestigial and subaquatic creatures from space as they do battle with themselves, and us, through the reaches of space and time. This started with At the Mountains of Madness, and it propelled me into the entire series that was then being published by Del Rey: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macbre, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Doom that Came to Sarnath, The Tomb, The Lurking Fear, and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Between them all, I have consumed all of the mythos with the dream-cycle to boot. I’ve read about Nightgaunts, Dholes, Old Ones, Elder Things, Shoggoths, Nyarlathotep, Dagon, Deep Ones, Ghouls, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, Space Polyps, and a cornucopia of other nasties. Dialogue be damned! Give me rambling and sometimes non-sensical prose laden with heavy, polysyllabic words. Make me reach for the dictionary; make me sweat for my terror. Fling me into strange worlds, architectures, monsters, and even geometries. The man is a landmark in the history of horror unto himself; his influence is undeniable; his stories keep scaring the shit out of me. And I keep smiling.

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