At the Mountains of Madness – HP Lovecraft

Lovecraft was born in 1890 and died in 1937 – he wrote this novella in 1931. It was rejected as ‘too long’ by the editor of Weird Tales. It was eventually serialised by Astounding Stories over three months.

This is the first piece of Lovecraft writing I’ve read. It involves an ill-starred expedition to Antarctica to research geological samples. The story is narrated by William Dyer, a geologist from Arkham’s Miskatonic University. His hope is to stop an upcoming expedition by relating a horror-filled story of his earlier mission.

As the narrator, Lovecraft – through the voice of Dyer – tells the misfortunes of the expedition. Lovecraft obviously knew his Antarctica, his geology, the aeons of the past – though some have changed – and he’s able to give the reader, through the discovery of pre-Cambrian strata and Archean slate with fossilised impressions, the evidence that Earth’s evolutionary history is drastically wrong.

When the team’s biologist doesn’t respond to wireless calls, Dyer and his colleagues investigate. The forward drilling team has been brutally slain in their camp along with their dogs. The biologist, Lake, had been performing autopsies on creatures from a cave unlike any other beings on the planet. With a few baffling clues left at the scene – a man is missing, presumably having gone insane, and killed the rest of the party. Of the eight presumed corpses of the unlikely entities Lake was dissecting, four are missing. Have the missing bodies come back to life?

Dwyer and his man, Danforth, fly the remaining plane through a pass in a range of mountains 35,000′ high, and find an utterly alien stone city of gargantuan proportions, long ago abandoned on the far side of the range. The pair explore the endless city, covered partly by glaciation, and plumb their way deeper and further underground. They find glyphs, cartouches and bas-reliefs that tell a story. Dyer recognises the creatures because of their similarities to ‘the Elder Ones’ from a fictional occult tome, the Necronomicon. They came to Earth many millions of years ago ‘filtering down from the stars.’

The Elder Ones are followed down by the Cthulhu and they battle for their very existence. Much of the Lovecraftian mythos is on display in this story. The horror of what the pair piece together from the stone carvings, and why their fellows were slain at the forward camp come to light, or are at least speculated about. I shan’t spoil any potential reader’s of this story by mentioning more details. Suffice to say, the whole trip through the labyrinthine city – which takes up more than 60% of the novel – layers one horror on top of another.

Lovecraft obviously set out to make the alien city as forbidding, strange, unearthly, dark and nefarious as possible. But even he cannot avoid slipping into admiration for the architecture and artwork – which he mass-labels ‘decadent’ for some unexplained reason.

I’m aware Lovecraft wrote this during the Depression and that his personal circumstances were quite straightened. His views of the world being inhabited by higher beings from the stars millions of years before hominids evolved, beings that didn’t care about such lowly creatures as us, says a lot about how Lovecraft didn’t fit well into what he saw as an uncaring American society. He seems to have been a solitary man who’s many writings were never recognised in his lifetime.

Even though Dyer has Danforth to talk to as they endure the horrors of the city, Lovecraft never allows dialogue to take place. He uses Dyer to narrate any communication they have. To me, this made the descriptions of the stone city a fair chore to get through. There’s no handle on the pair – except fear and speculation, then more fear. Lovecraft’s ladling on of layers and more layers of the heaviest and most depressing prose was an effort to read. I almost felt Lovecraft himself was lost and feeling his way through the utterly alien city.

This is a novella and could be read fairly quickly if one could stay awake.

Mordred’s Coals out December 14

Mordred’s Coals




Mordred’s Coals

Science Fiction novel (hardcover - pre-order) Available after December 14, 2018


First SF novel I’ve written comes out within two weeks.

This is something I always wanted to do. I wanted to write books in my 20’s – but I was too flaky; in my 30’s I forgot about writing and pursued other things; 40-50’s I had a go at writing a book about space vampires. It wasn’t that flash, and suddenly everyone was writing about vampires, space and otherwise. The manuscript of this material was exceptionally turgid and not very inspiring. Reason: I tried to write the way I thought other people did. What a massive flop that was, but I learned a valuable lesson – don’t do that.

Two years ago I thought I’d have another go with Mordred’s Coals. I wrote as I would, me, the writer. Sounds dumb that I wouldn’t have stumbled on this plan earlier, but I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t ready.

As I’m sure all writers’ find, when confronted with a blank page, flashing cursor, or just staring blankly into space, I struggled to make sentences work, characters speak naturally, and paragraphs look readable. I wrestled with it for a while thinking: how do writers do this? I pressed on. Eventually, I fell into a groove that I knew was my style. It wasn’t like anybody else’s, which I’m thankful for.

Mordred’s Coals only ever had a loose framework that I wasn’t particularly careful about staying within. I painted myself into corners with plot points but always managed to escape. Sometimes I just waited, trying not to force the problem – answers always turned up. The novel ran away a little, beyond 150k words. I knew I needed a denouement. Enough disparate parts of the story were floating around to tie off the ending satisfactorily.

I feel fortunate to have found an editor (Vanessa, Night Owl Freelance/ who: believed it was a great story, thought my writing was good enough, and did a terrific job editing. Without her this novel would not have seen the light of a reader.

So, to anybody who feels the desire to write a novel – do it. Struggle along. Put pen to parchment, or a finger to an iPad.

I have another SF novel in her queue – Dark Orouboros – I hope that can be published early next year.

This is the craft I’ve always wanted to try but felt I wasn’t able enough. It’s a beautiful way to spend time: watching characters develop, plot points come out of left field, and be able entertain readers.