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Essential reading for the devotee of the Master
on 4 December 2012
No devotee of H.P. Lovecraft should miss having this volume in their collection: however the reader who has broader tastes should be aware that the volume may not appeal to them as much. "At the Mountains of Madness" contains seven of HPL's longer works, three of which are his short novels. Like the canon of Lovecraft's work as a whole, the stories display some inconsistency in quality, however there are in the works real passages of power which render them a rewarding read.
The best of these, I feel, is the title story, "At the Mountains of Madness." This was frequently deprecated and revised by the author himself, who had some misgivings about it. It tells of a journey into uncharted lands in Antarctica, and the discoveries therein of the remains of alien races who visited the Earth in prehistoric times. The story seems to be an attempt to explain the Cthulhu Mythos, and as such contains lengthy descriptions of the race and its culture, which would actually be unwarranted in an initial exploration. It also reads like an archaeological tract, and lacking any real dialogue throughout, has a somewhat stodgy and trudging pace. Lovecraft himself realised this during his revisions. Despite this, the story contains an atmosphere of mystery, cumulative tension and real snatches of spectral terror, as in the hints of unnaturally high mountain ranges flung into the edge of space, glimpsed partially through the eyes of a frightened pilot. "At the Mountains of Madness" leans closely towards the field of SF, which much of Lovecraft's later work begins to approximate.
"The case of Charles Dexter Ward" is a much less accomplished work, being overly long and rather melodramatic, also having a laboured pace in search of an obvious conclusion. It tells of an individual who has obtained several re-incarnations through witchcraft, and the means by which he is identified as a wizard by terrified local citizens. The story "the Alchemist", one of Lovecraft's very early tales, provides a key to the work, of which it seems a fore-runner.
"The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" is a lengthy form of Lovecraft's Dunsanian works, and indeed contains number of characters and ideas set out in his early tales such as "The Cats Of Ulthar", "Celephais" and " "the Quest of Iranon." It is one of the Randolph Carter stories, (a version of Lovecraft himself) in which he explores some of his own ideas in a dream format. Some of Dunsany's influence can still be seen in this and "the Silver Key/Through the Gates of the Silver Key." Less structured than "At the Mountains of Madness", these tales have a rambling quality that interferes with the build-up of tension in the best of HPL's stories.
The reader can see a shift in Lovecraft's ideas suggesting that he may have been moving from mere horror to a kind of more mature version of SF/Horror predating other writers who have since worked in this vein. There is, I feel, a clear indication of a gradual maturing of his fantastic work which was never fully developed owing to his untimely death. The stories in this volume cannot really stand as the best of HPL, but they seem to represent the development of a vein which promised enormous potential. A laboured read in places, but worth it at times for the pulse of horror and glimpses of real power which can be found among the rambling. The devotee must not ignore these stories, the connoisseur must decide for himself.The flavour of the stories is purely original, and not to be found in the writings of other authors. Recommended with some reservation.