Reviewed by Jeremy Billingsley
H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is written as a journal of sorts, a first person narrative recording the doomed Antarctic expedition where something older than man was found. This is a common subject for Lovecraft, but his craft here focuses on the voice of the narrator. What we are left with—as readers—is a story told to us and not shown to us. While this can be a touchy subject, debating show verses tell as a means for fiction writing is necessary in understanding exactly what Lovecraft was doing.
Key to this storytelling style is the narrative voice. It’s close 1st person narrative and resembles a journal entry. The idea behind this is to make the horror more realistic. In fact, the narrator talks to the reader as one already familiar with the story and the narrator is just filling in the details. This close 1st person narrative provides a very limited view of the story. Most notably, the only voice we hear is the narrator’s. This is seen in two very key ways: a lack of dialogue and a lack of action.
The exception to the lack of dialogue is Lake’s recorded message concerning his dissection of one of the creatures and the end sound, the musical alien words recited and echoed throughout the climax and end of the novel. The style of the story, a story told to us or relayed to us as if in confidence, lends itself to little or no dialogue. Eye witness accounts are filled with the storyteller’s voice giving an indication of what was said without quoting the other characters. This is how most people tell stories, sitting around campfires or in bars. This is the voice Lovecraft was emulating. While this does lend credence to the sound of the story, it makes for tedious reading to have paragraphs and paragraphs of prose without those much needed line breaks. Ultimately we are provided with very selective but powerful quotations. We have Lake’s recorded message to carry the story forward and the haunting alien words. These are the only words we are allowed to “hear.”
The other notable feature absent from this method of storytelling is the lack of dramatic action. This shouldn’t be confused with a lack of plot or action. The details of the arriving group, Lake’s break and exploration to the west, his finding the mountains and finding the bodies… are all chronicled here in the pages of this novel, as is the exploration of the mountains and the city beyond, the search for the missing grad student, and the escape from the underground tunnels with something worse than the elder ones pressing in on them. What is missing is dramatic action, emotional action. We don’t hear the narrator and Davenport debate what they see or do in front of us. We are told what they do.
Where the dramatic action lacks, Lovecraft more than makes up for in descriptive detail, which can be dizzying. It could be seen as bogging down the narrative. It could be seen that way. The descriptions are painstakingly thorough, with Lovecraft in full form as an author in love with archaic vernacular and spellings, his out-of-time diction a mirror to the timelessness of the icy wasteland from where an ancient horror is just awakening.
What he also does well is that excruciating detail that comes with scientific prose. Lovecraft seems well-versed in the languages of biological and geological scientific ideas and terminologies, as well as comfortable describing at length various anatomical features to truly draw a clear picture of what the aliens looked like.
At times I would believe more a scientist dabbling in creative writing than a literary mind set these pages down and created these journals, these scientific travelogues mean to transport his readership into the fantastic. Not that one is more capable than the other intellectually, but that the language is so scientific, so formal and technical, that it would seem only one who spent their life immersed in that language and studying those subjects and working in the employ of scientific endeavors could write so effectively this account. That is what gives Lovecraft’s work the strongest voice, that he writes from a mind so far removed from what most would consider artistic.
But there is poetry in Lovecraft’s prose. It is the prose, the craft mastery of the structure of the suspense – the framing of the narrative which takes years of practice and study – that reminds the reader what a talent Lovecraft held. He was a masterful storyteller who might have struggled with dialogue and the intricacies of character building, but his attention to detail and his ability to frame the narrative for maximum suspense are really showcased in this iconic work: At the Mountains of Madness.