Friday, 5 June 2015

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

If you wanted a list of sentences I thought I would never say, "I have just read something by H.P. Lovecraft" would be way up there. Like, way up there. I don't read horror, and I've had bad experiences, not with Lovecraft himself, but with Lovecraft-inspired roleplaying games. I had to swear off playing Call of Cthulhu years ago, to my husband's lasting chagrin, as I found that they were too upsetting and depressing for me to play any longer. Bill and I hashed it out for a long time, trying to isolate what exactly it was that put me so on edge to play Call of Cthulhu, and while I was satisfied with our explanation of the utter lack of agency I feel when I'm playing that game, I'm not sure that gets at all of it.

There are other games where I've played characters out against overwhelming odds, with death on the line, and they haven't made me as upset. I don't know.

So because of that, I've steered far away from Lovecraft. I'm not good at horror at the best of times, and so this seemed safer if it were one of those places where my reading habits and this author never intersected.

Then I ran out of books on a weekend. Blew through all my library books. Had two days of the library being closed before I could get new ones. And my online SF book club on goodreads was reading At the Mountains of Madness. So I asked Bill if he thought I could handle it. He thought I could, and that I probably wouldn't find it scary at all. So I sat down and read this novella.

He was right. Not scary at all. Interesting, but with little sense of dread. I think I know why that is, but we'll get there in a bit.

In this book, explorers go to Antarctica and discover horrors, and the survivors are now trying to warn off another expedition. What they find there are the remnants of a lost civilization, inhuman, with still some monsters lurking in the deeps. And gigantic penguins.

This is most description, page upon page of description, and this is where I start to realize why I think it is that I'm not weirded out by this. Bill and I were talking as I was partway through, and he was saying that for him, the disturbing part is Lovecraft trying to describe the indescribable, and it's that leap where you can almost picture it but not quite that is so very unsettling.

The thing is, I am not a visual thinker. Most paragraphs of description, no matter how lush, result in no more than the shadowy edges of a picture, and more often stay as the pleasure of words. That leap where you can't quite picture it? That's me, pretty much all the time. So reading Lovecraft's descriptions is not that different from reading any author's descriptions. That sense of it remaining just outside your perception is entirely missing. Or far too present, I suppose, but I've made my peace with it.

So there was no sense of unease, just an adventure story with nasty monsters that never leaped to pictures in my brain because that just never happens. As such, I enjoyed it, and it didn't traumatize me, and I'm not feeling quite so wary of Lovecraft. Still, I won't be running out to play Call of Cthulhu again any time soon.


  1. I'm a very visual thinker, but my lack of horror with Lovecraft comes more from not finding a lot of the things horrible. I'm not terrified of a giant penguin or a fish man or a giant eggplant with tentacles. It's more fantastic than horrifying. Blood and guts and murder are scary because there's a threat, but a lot of Lovecraft relies on being terrified of the unknown and strange.

    1. I agree, too. Ghost stories don't bother me. But I wish I'd never heard of the genre of true crime. :shiver:

  2. "That leap where you can't quite picture it? That's me, pretty much all the time." - This has always fascinated me, as some people seem to be reflexively visual when it comes to reading while others are, like you say, are more immersed in the pleasure of words. I can hardly read a single sentence without some level of visualization while my wife can read an entire book and not even be able to describe how she envisioned the main character. It's baffling to me, but amazing that the same text can induce such different internal responses in people.

    1. Yeah, it's fascinating! And something you rarely realize until something jogs you that other people aren't doing this the same way. Has your wife seen the NYT article from a month ago about a study in the UK on this? I've already contacted them and done a couple of questionnaires.

      They seem to be slightly leaning on the side of it as a disability as opposed to a normal variation in human thought, but I'm hoping that will change.

    2. Thanks for the link. Now I know that it has a name, and is being researched ,at least. I'll let my wife know.

      PS, how do you read so much so fast!?

    3. I always attribute it to growing up without a TV. One of my younger sisters reads as fast if not faster. :)