Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, May 25, 2013

H. P. Lovecraft, _At the Mountains of Madness_

I USUALLY AVOID genre fiction, but I have heard/read about Lovecraft so often that I decided I should read one. He's even in the Library of America now, and if he can keep company with Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Raymond Chandler, he's worth a try, right?

So I tried him on a recent flight--this novel comes in at just about 100 pages, so it seemed a good bet.

Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid.

The setting is an antarctic expedition. A scouting group transmits reports of an astonishing discovery--the remains of a wholly unknown species--then falls silent. A second group sets out and finds the camp of the scouting group, who have almost all been horribly killed. Looking for the single possible survivor, they come across the ruins of an abandoned city, built long ago by an ancient non-human race, presumably extinct, but no (spoiler alert!)... some have survived (!), and it was these survivors who, once thawed, killed the scouting party (!!) unless they were killed by the even worse slave-race this non-human society created to do their dirty work, the Shuggoth (!!!).

According to my edition's introduction, by China Miéville--incidentally, much more interesting than the novella itself--Lovecraft is more famous for his mood and atmosphere than for his plots. The plot of At the Mountains of Madness, to my mind, is not that interesting, and the mood and atmosphere I found positively irritating, due to what I think of as Adjective Over-reach.

My composition students often fall into Adjective Over-reach. For instance, they assume that if they write, "It was an amazing trip," the reader will be duly amazed. The poor lonely adjective "amazing" is expected to all by itself, without further detail,  affect the reader as overpoweringly as the writer him- or herself was affected by the trip. But, when you come down to it, "amazing" amazes no one. You have to give the reader more than that if you hope to amaze, or even convey that you were yourself amazed.

Lovecraft too seems to expect adjectives to get the whole job done.  For instance: "The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque extremes of sinister bizarrerie." H. P. is not giving us readers a lot to work with here; the buildings are big, dark, made of masonry, and they don't look like anything we have ever seen. He's hoping to give us a chill by throwing in "grotesque," "monstrous," and "sinister," but, like "amazing," such words only name an effect they had on an observer without giving us a clue as to why he was so affected. Even the key nouns here--"aggregations," "perversions," "extremes," "bizarrerie"--give us nothing sensory at all, nothing to see, hear, touch. If I were Lovecraft's editor, I would have told him to take it down to "masonry" and start again from there.

This is exactly why I can't read Mark Danielewski, by the way. He is the contemporary Adjective-Overreacher par excellence.

I did get a chuckle, though, when a few pages later Lovecraft mentioned "geometrical forms for which an Euclid could scarcely find a name," among them "shafts with odd bulbous enlargements." A shaft with an...odd bulbous enlargement? Hmm, I bet Euclid, or anybody, could find a name for that one.

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