This collection, the first of three volumes, may well represent the pinnacle of Lovecraft's creative genius. His knack for conjuring the most horrific and fantastical of atmospheres is unparalleled; these stories will have you shuddering with captivated horror at the incredible otherworldly landscapes and monstrosities leaping from their pages.
Plagued with a great sensitivity to cold from a young age, Lovecraft's first novel "At the Mountains of Madness" was perhaps a little closer to home than any other piece he attempted, and its sublime execution would perhaps imply this further. Regardless, this tale is arguably the greatest of the man's catalogue, with a gradual, drawn-out build up of tension and isolation into a frantic climax in a world so alien, beautiful and deadly. Reading this made me long to live in a world where such places as Antarctica still existed unexplored and mysterious, potentially housing that which men of the time could barely dream of. One loses oneself in those icy peaks, those ancient ruins, and yet one always feels as if they are not quite alone...
"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" is next in line, and one can't help but feel sceptical as to how this piece will fare up against the previous mountain of a story. Don't let the slow start sway you - this one's darn great too! As with "Mountains...", Lovecraft creates an ominous atmosphere this time via gradual exploration of Curwen and Charles' dark discoveries, once again motivated by wild curiosity. Yet in this piece something far more disturbing and horrific lurks, implied constantly in Lovecraft's subtle narrative. Less beautiful, fantastical and isolating perhaps, but all the more human and realistic and TERRIFYING as a result. There is a scene involving darkness and a pit (not going into detail here for fear of spoiling it) which will stay with you for a damn long time - a claustrophobic nightmare.
Next in line comes a little break from the longer novels, with what I consider to be the least absorbing story in the volume, "The Dreams in the Witch-House". It's pretty telling that I can't remember much about this whereas I remember the previous two vividly. I recall being somewhat intrigued with the combination of mathematics, folklore, multi-dimensions and the like, but the main plot isn't all that gripping. Worth reading, nontheless.
The following four stories all focus upon a character named Randolph Carter - a man whose personality is founded upon a pursuit of the beauty found in dreams. It has frequently been said that this character is most representative of Lovecraft himself, and I must admit feeling great empathy towards him in "The Silver Key", a short prequel to "Through the Gates of the Silver Key", which can easily be read as a commentary on a dry and absurd society - as relevant now as it was then.
The best of these tales is perhaps "The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath", which whilst seemingly having less focus and direction than his other two novels, is just filled to the brim with wonderous landscape after wonderous landscape packed full of creatures both stunning and diabolical. Carter's quest for the paradise city of his dreams is bizarre, yet wholly enticing. The previously mentioned "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" is also very atmospheric, though not a journey - this shorter story involves Carter's gradual venture into the realms of beings of chaos which dwarf humankind, and reveals much about the workings of the dream-world Lovecraft has created.
Lovecraft has created a mythos, from terrible beasts and Gods to ancient old writings and lands, which renders his readers both fascinated and ultimately insignificant in comparison. Treat yourselves folks, this is dark, atmospheric literature done properly. 5 stars don't do it justice.