TENTACLED ARRANGEMENTS: OLIVER HOLM’S CELEBRATION OF H.P. LOVECRAFT

March 15, 2017, was the 80th anniversary of the untimely death of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. In the decades following his passing, Lovecraft has steadily gained more and more recognition as a master scribe of all ‘things’ phantasmagorical and weird, as the deadpan-faced poppa of Cthulhu & friends, and as a purveyor/conveyor of that unknowable unknown which eats flesh and sucks souls. In our day, Lovecraft is a VIP among VIPs, and his writings gold-rimmed canon.To celebrate what Lovecraft did in his life, we are proudly presenting this nerdy off-centre feature, consisting of three parts: [1] one about his best short stories, [2] one about his best novelettes, and [3] one about his best novellas – all in the humblest opinion of the responsible scribbler, one Oliver Holm, with an odd hint or two from the rats in his walls, we suspect. Maybe you haven’t ever read any Lovecraft and want to. Maybe you have, and hated it. Maybe you’ve read a little, some, or even all of it, and could do worse on a gibbous-moon evening than geeking off a little bit more on his ever-nameless, über-blasphemous, super-accursed, extra fungoid, and very, very, very, very hideous fiction. This loving write-up is for everybody, including fishmen.

To date, I’ve ploughed through Lovecraft’s collected stories three times: first as a spellbound teenager, who was concurrently taking his first tentative steps into the extremer nethergrounds of heavy f**king music. Playing incessantly on my cheapo stereo were death metal records such as Blessed Are the Sick, Cause Of Death, The Ultimate Incantation and Deicide’s eponymous debut. All of these classic DM longplayers contain more or less apocryphal allusions to Lovecraft and his amorphously swirling mythos, hence making for a thematically befitting soundtrack, though atmospherically maybe not quite so.

Then I read all of it again as a panicky 23-year-old student, itching to finish his thesis (re: ‘how to translate H.P. Lovecraft into a language that is not archaic, antiquated, anachronistic English’). I recently grabbed a couple of dog-eared paperback omnibuses for a third perusal, now as an incorrigible, long-since desensitized horror fan who just can’t get enough thrills ‘n’ chills, and who fervently believes that pitch-black coffee, snickerdoodles, and Yog-Sothoth is a most perfect combo for afternoon sit-downs. Has my reading experience developed over the years? Most certainly – but essentially not. Lovecraft still delivers goosebumps galore and shivers aplenty like few other mad dabblers in that which is horrifically horrifyingly horrible. And usually when someone (or something) does, they owe me a short drink.

I’ve compiled this tripartite list, partly because I can’t limit myself to only a single one, and partly because wordcount is a significant factor when trying to fully appreciate Lovecraft’s writings. There’s only so much of the uncanny incarnated that one can stuff into a 2500-word short story! Also, because Lovecraft’s lengthier works are inarguably his most refined, literarily accomplished, not to mention exquisitely ‘eldritch’, putting together just one all-encompassing list of his finest fiction would exclude most – if not in fact all – ghostly yarns and ghastly tales of a modest wordcount. That would be such a shame, because even when Lovecraft is not wholly the Lovecraft he became, Lovecraft is far better than most.

One quick important note: along with unbridled, unashamed fandom, these lists contain minor as well as major plot spoilers, the latter of which are loudly announced in capital letters immediately beforehand.
Happy fhtagning! {;,,,;}

SHORT STORIES
‘The Outsider’ [1921]
I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world -or no longer of this world […]
Gobbled up with delight by the readers of fantasy/horror pulp magazine Weird Tales when it was printed in the April 1926 issue, Lovecraft’s ‘The Outsider’ remains a ubiquitous fan-favourite to this day. It reeks of Edgar Allan Poe from start to italicised finish and takes place inside an archetypal gothic setting: a derelict underground castle of old, replete with dust-laden cobwebs, heaps of skeletal remains, and musty tomes. The unnamed protagonist is a lonely, melancholy *SPOILER* apparently not-so-flesh-eating ghoul, who is desperate to find sunnier, much livelier whereabouts than the terribly glum subterranean quarters where he has resided for what seems to be decades, centuries, perhaps even millennia. So, one dayless day, this wretched specimen of the undead resolves to scramble up the castle’s “single black ruined tower” and search for greener pastures in the overgrounds – with resulting bittersweet tragedy. A quirky piece of \m/ trivia: US death metal veterans Nile lifted the fantastical phrase “… amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka …” from this particular story and used it as an evocatively epic title for their 1998 debut album. Since then, band boss Karl Sanders has frequently dug into the Lovecraftian oeuvre to find inspiration for lyrics and song-titles, exactly like a gazillion other songwriters in the death metal community, along with its neighbouring subgenres.

‘The Music Of Erich Zann’ [1921]
There in the narrow hall, outside the bolted door with the covered keyhole, I often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread-the dread of vague wonder and brooding mystery. It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth […]

As with other celebrated works of Lovecraft, ‘The Music of Erich Zann’ has been transmogrified into a considerable number of modern adaptations, including short films, animations, pencil drawings, and instrumental pieces (not to mention the obligatory plethora of heavy metal songs). Penned in late 1921, it is narrated by an ageing academic, recounting his stranger than strange experience as a breadline-teetering lodger in a mysterious, now impossible-to-find, street of an unspecified French city. The elusive Rue d’Auseil (whose distinguishing noun, spelling error aside, tellingly translates into ‘threshold’) is located in an incredibly steep, crazily sloping neighbourhood, made all the more unwelcoming by an evil-smelling nearby river. Here, taking up humble accommodation in the street’s tallest building, the narrator hears the music of Erich Zann, a mute viol player described first-off and first-hand as a “small, lean, bent person, with shabby clothes, blue eyes, grotesque, satyr-like face, and nearly bald head”. After that chance encounter, the weird turns eerie to become stark terror.

‘The Music of Erich Zann’ plays on a recurrent theme in Lovecraft’s fiction, which is the inability of the human senses to process, even sufficiently register, otherworldly stimuli. As to extraterrestrial cacophonies, intergalactic strains, etc., turning up elsewhere in the Lovecraftian mythos, just take a peek at this lovely portrayal of the blind idiot god Azathoth from The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926-1927): “that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity […] beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes”. Earache Records, take note.

‘In The Vault’ [1925]
Horrible pains, as of savage wounds, shot through his calves; and in his mind was a vortex of fright mixed with an unquenchable materialism that suggested splinters, loose nails, or some other attribute of a breaking wooden box. Perhaps he screamed. At any rate he kicked and squirmed frantically and automatically whilst his consciousness was almost eclipsed in a half-swoon.
Most people only witness human death as its compounded with ‘-bed’ – or perhaps, intermittently, at the ensuing funeral service. Few people, by vocation, regularly observe death as it happens. Others again deal exclusively in the aftermath, be it spiritual matters or that which calls for a rather mundane hands-on approach. ‘In the Vault’, written in September 1925, is a tale of the maniacally macabre which literally goes ankle-deep in the dead. (*SPOILER* all right, not-totally-dead!) The story was initially rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright on the grounds of its “extreme gruesomeness”, which he thought would positively short-circuit the whole censorship apparatus. Yes, gruesome it is … and not just underneath the coffin lids. George Birch, undertaker made protagonist, is a truly heartless lowlife, whose transgressive conduct among the recently deceased and their purposely jerry-built coffins would make even the most phlegmatic prosaists rattle in their graves.

‘In The Vault’ is not at all Lovecraft’s finest in regards to plot originality, storytelling, or language, but its climax has a sky-high gooseflesh factor, and the ending line (italicised, naturally) shows the full extent of Birch’s taboo-wrecking malpractice in the corpse-handling business, leaving little pity for both his physical injuries and mental woes. Revenge, in truth, has no bounds.

‘Cool Air’ [1926]
It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangour of a metropolis, and in the teeming midst of a shabby and commonplace rooming-house with a prosaic landlady and two stalwart men by my side.

Supernatural horror in the everyday humdrum … it is somehow twice as hair-raising, spine-tingling and blood-curdling, innit? ‘Cool Air’ from 1926 is both typical and atypical of Lovecraft: it contains zero references to forbidden grimoires, extraterrestrial deities, and all that jiggly jazz. On the other ghoulish hand, its narrator suffers from a bizarre phobia – one that makes him shiver exceedingly much whenever he feels a draught of (you guessed it) cool air. Several of Lovecraft’s protagonists are haunted by extreme irrational fears, triggered by a mind-crippling encounter with something abnormal, paranormal, and/or supernormal. Plus, there is a decent splotch of abhorrently oozing liquid towards the end! Stock elements or lack thereof aside, ‘Cool Air’ features on this list quite simply because it is a delightful piece of spooky fiction, easy to read and easy to get. Beware of reclusive upstairs tenants who are hysterical about keeping a temperature at 55-56 Fahrenheit or lower in their residences, and who stuff every nook and cranny with exotic spices and overly pungent incense. They are not … right.

On a curious note, the frail-skinned and sickly Lovecraft was uncommonly sensitive to cold, and he asserted in letters that exposure to frosty weather drastically affected both his respiratory and circulatory systems, on occasions even to a life-threatening degree.

‘Pickman’s Model’ [1926]
It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel.

At the beginning of November last year, I went to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid for the first time. My personal highlights of the guided tour were the entire mesmerising Bosch room and Francisco de Goya’s nightmare-inducing masterpiece ‘Saturn Devouring One Of His Sons’ (titled so posthumously by others). This oil-based grotesquery is one of Goya’s 14 so-called Black Paintings, all of which he painted directly onto the walls of his two-story residence, as a haunted, embittered, death-fearing septuagenarian. Seeing it ‘live’, perusing the grisly-gory details, again made me think of ‘Pickman’s Model’ – and vice versa. What did Goya see that made him render in frenzied brush strokes a monstrosity so loathsome, so vile? No one will ever know. As for Richard Upton Pickman … why, just read the story! ‘Pickman’s Model’ is one of Lovecraft’s most interestingly structured, centred around a progressively more inebriated one-way dialogue between the narrator and some unnamed acquaintance, punctuated by ad-lib cogitations on ‘real art & artistry’ and – towards the end of it – nervous summaries of choice paintings in Pickman’s gloomy, faraway workshop/gallery. As for that lollipop-slurping abomination profiled in the excerpt above, it deserves a badass cameo in a big-screen movie. Or a starring role. In a trilogy. Wait, make that a five-season TV production.

It is generally estimated by his biographers that Lovecraft wrote approximately 100,000 letters in his lifetime – a staggering epistolary feat by any comparison. One of many dearest pen pals was his fellow writer-of-the-weird Clark Ashton Smith, whose flabby creations in sculpture and painting Lovecraft paid tribute to by namedropping them in a number of his stories, including “Pickman’s Model”.

Honourable mention: “The Beast in the Cave” (1905)
For a moment I was so struck with horror at the eyes thus revealed that I noted nothing else. They were black, those eyes, deep, jetty black, in hideous contrast to the snow-white hair and flesh. Like those of other cave denizens, they were deeply sunken in their orbits, and were entirely destitute of iris.

The first draft of this 2,500-word story was penned in the spring of 1904, when Lovecraft was just a 13-year-old teenager, and the finished version dates to April 21 the following year. Taking into account his unripe age, it is a remarkably well-written piece of fiction, however devoid of explicit ties to the still-expanding multiplex mythos which makes Lovecraft’s writings truly Lovecraftian. “The Beast in the Cave” is worthy of a mention solely because of how impressive it is that a mere teenager wrote this. Also, the highfalutin, old-fashioned language – given a voice in an expressly erudite, scientifically reflecting protagonist – and the gradual shocking revelations highlighted in italics are already at this fledgling stage key identifiers of Lovecraft’s literature.

So what is it about? A beast in a cave, enough said. The whole ‘deep down in the dank’ scenario remains timelessly chilling (anyone else who has soiled their undies to The Descent?), and “The Beast in the Cave” should doubtless work wonderfully as a literary thrill pill to be read minutes before a creepy jaunt into the Postojna Cave in Slovenia, or any suchlike subterranean tourist location. Try not to stray from the group!

NOVELETTES
‘The Shunned House’ [1924]
Out of the fungus-ridden earth steamed up a vaporous corpse-light, yellow and diseased, which bubbled and lapped to a gigantic height in vague outlines half-human and half-monstrous, through which I could see the chimney and fireplace beyond. It was all eyes – wolfish and mocking – and the rugose insect-like head dissolved at the top to a thin stream of mist which curled putridly about and finally vanished up the chimney.

On 135 Benefit St., Providence, Rhode Island, lies the actual ‘shunned house’ where the haunting horrors of this early Lovecraft novelette unfold. Using the “street view” function of Google Maps to zoom in on the address does not exactly set the proper mood. This banana-tinted, 3½-storied house lies peacefully and picturesquely bathed in sunshine – and there is even a cutesy, bright-red Volkswagen Beetle in the snapshot! Everything in and about ‘The Shunned House’ is the blaring, gibbering antithesis of cute. In it, Lovecraft fiddles with hushed hearsay of vampirism, lycanthropy, and diabolism, while its climactic shock scenes are overflowing with gallons of preternatural slime, mucus, sludge, and gunk. Some readers may yawn over the passages chronicling the inhabitants’ extensive genealogy (with multiple cases of freak death and freakier insanity), the fungoid fungus popping up all over, and likely also the introductory anecdote of Edgar Allan Poe’s unsuccessful courtship decades before. All readers, though, should happily glug down the yucky denouement, featuring *SPOILER* a monstrous gelatinous elbow, with indecorous relish.
‘The Shunned House’ was to have been Lovecraft’s first printed book. However, sadly, it was not even officially published until October 1937, seven months after his premature death of intestinal cancer and following years of struggling to make ends meet, chiefly by odd-jobbing as both a ghost writer and an editor. Arkham House eventually released 50 unbound and 100 bound copies of the original printed sheets – in 1959 and 1961, respectively – and, needless to mention, these strictly limited editions have become much-coveted items, with auction prices at thousands of dollars for a well-preserved book.

‘The Call Of Cthulhu’ [1926]
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This, the opening passage of ‘The Call Of Cthulhu’, is perhaps the most gorgeously disconcerting text Lovecraft ever crafted. In just six lines it encapsulates the literary philosophy of ‘cosmicism’, which pervades (especially) his authorship from the late 1920s and onwards. Many diehard fans consider this 12,000-word, three-part novelette Lovecraft’s magnum opus – partly because of its literary qualities, partly because of its unspeakably awful supervillain, partly because it marks the kick-start and subsequent consistent unfolding of that fictional universe habitually referred to as “The Cthulhu Mythos”. This is where Lovecraft definitively becomes himself, even if similar motifs of cosmic horror had been explored rudimentarily before, e.g. in ‘Dagon’ from 1917, while the evil tome of all evil tomes, the Necronomicon, was by now a routine component. ‘The Call Of Cthulhu’ moves elegantly from chilling overture across thrilling subnarratives to its killing finale, with some of the author’s most graceful wordsmithery sprinkled on top. Lovecraft himself, strangely enough, was lukewarm towards it, yet it is plainly and purely a timeless masterwork.
Now, in 2017, Cthulhu is a mainstream megastar, pronounced in no way like his dearest daddy intended [Khlûl-hloo]. His many-tentacled phizog wriggles on hoodies, coffee mugs, leggings, plush slippers, and numerous other types of hipster paraphernalia. He has run as “the greater evil” in the last couple of presidential campaigns (thus far, alas, in vain), spawned countless role-playing modules, been hauled up as a Metallica mascot, pulled a very ugly disney in ‘The Adventures Of Lil Cthulhu’, et cetera ad nauseam. That is not dead which can loads of pop culture merchandise sell – and the stars have apparently been right for a long time …

‘The Colour Out Of Space’ [1927]
This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space – a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.

Two years ago, or barely so, I went to a cosy coffee-and-cake evening lecture on astrobiology. One of the fundamental principles of this academic discipline, the dryly wisecracking professor told us, is that man understands life purely on the basis of known life; that extraterrestrial existence may be nothing like anything of this earth. Counter-inspired by one too many stupid, bubble-gummy portrayals of alien lifeforms in then-contemporary science fiction, Lovecraft got cracking with ‘The Colour Out Of Space’. And yes – before you sarcastically *eek* at that, know that ‘colour’ is indeed used merely by analogy, and that it causes repulsive deformation of livestock, provokes the growth of unnaturally oversized, unsavoury crops, and insidiously injects the jibber-jabbering crazies in a whole family of ill-fated townsfolk. Plot in short: In June 1882, a bizarre, physically impossible meteorite creates a sensation as it plummets down into the hills west of Arkham, Massachusetts, eluding the baffled scientists right until its equally mysterious disappearance. ‘The Colour Out Of Space’ remained Lovecraft’s personal favourite among his own pieces, quite understandably – and to think he was given a ridiculous one-off payment equal to roughly $350 in present-day money by Hugo Gernsback, editor of Amazing Stories, for its publication in the magazine … well, is just ridiculous.

There is striking consensus among fans, biographers, and reviewers that Lovecraftian horror translates very poorly into motion pictures, or being taken ‘ex libris’ all together. Of course, there are notable exceptions, one being the almost entirely b/w German adaptation Die Farbe from 2010. Another worthy mention goes to an unlikely Danish amateur stage production entitled Farven fra det ydre rum (direct translation) from October 2016, with just a smidgen of humour added, e.g. in the form of specially designed “Arkham Fresh” water bottles handed out on the premiere night!

NOVELLAS
‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ [1931]
And yet I saw them in a limitless stream – flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating – surging inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare. And some of them had tall tiaras of that nameless whitish-gold metal … and some were strangely robed … and one, who led the way, was clad in a ghoulishly humped black coat and striped trousers, and had a man’s felt hat perched on the shapeless thing that answered for a head…

There’s something queer about those Innsmouth denizens. Something … ‘fishy’. About them hangs a perpetual stench of deep-sea corruption, of aquatic evolution gone awry and much slimier than biologically necessary. The tainted, decrepit seacoast town which these squelchy fish-frog hybrids call home is possibly the most vivid of Lovecraft’s fictitious New England localities, and rightly so. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is basically an eyewitness exposé, which bit by pelagic bit reveals the icky ichthyosic metamorphosis-in-progress among a shunned community of seaport dwellers, who reportedly dwell a bit too much in the sea and a bit too little in the port. For a Lovecraft story, it has a bunch of commonalities/intertextualities (e.g., the ill-boding Cthulhu fhtagn! chant as well as manifold references to good, ol’ Dagon). Yet it also offers a few storytelling components rather uncommon to his works, namely a protracted action sequence plus a happy ending. OK, sort of a happy ending. Across five chapters – one of which is devoted to an, admittedly, much too lengthy whisky-fuelled monologue in apostrophe-heavy dialect! ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ follows its narrator’s bus ride into and frantic escape from *blob-gloppy* mutation, with a juicy backstory and a de-rigueur plot twist to keep things nicely afloat, maritime pun so very much intended.

In November 1936, publisher William Levi Crawford released 200 hardcover copies of the novella, making it the only Lovecraft book to be published in his lifetime. The author, however – once again – was less than enthusiastic due to its professed literary “defects”, but the 27,000-word novella has nevertheless become widely influential and inspirational. Of all the wacky by-products and spin-offs which corroborate that, I will only mention the carol ‘It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Fishmen”. And really only mention it!

‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ [1934-1935]
It was all the ultimate apex of nightmare, made worse by the blasphemous tug of pseudo-memory. One thing only was unfamiliar, and that was my own size in relation to the monstrous masonry. I felt oppressed by a sense of unwonted smallness, as if the sight of these towering walls from a mere human body was something wholly new and abnormal. Again and again I looked nervously down at myself, vaguely disturbed by the human form I possessed.

‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ is anti-anthropocentrism epitomized. It depicts humanity as a pitifully insignificant, infinitesimal dust speck in a cosmos that forevermore remains – to quote H.G. Wells – vast and cool and unsympathetic towards us. Lovecraft composed its +25,000 words over three backbreaking months and revised his way through at least two entire drafts, yet again proving to be his own worst pettifogging critic. And he loathed the final manuscript so much he promptly dispatched it by mail to his friend August Derleth (who later, posthumously, anthologised most of his works). This whopping piece of science fiction details the sudden, perplexing lapse-out-of-consciousness befalling one Nathaniel Peaslee, professor of economics at Miskatonic University. During five years, four months, and 13 days, Peaslee travels to suspect regions and devours piles of esoteric tomes, e.g. the Unaussprechlichen Kulten Of von Junzt and Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, while he communes with a motley bunch of questionable new acquaintances. One day – snap! – he ‘wakes up’ mid-lecture, ostensibly quite himself again … but all is not well. ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ is more sci-fi than horror, more weird and eerie than foul and scary, crossing nine-digit time spans and hinting at tremendous interstellar vistas beyond the beyond. However laborious and long-winded a read it can be in parts, it is overall a captivating piece of true “Yog-Sothothery” with a glorious adrenaline-pumping segment in the concluding chapter.
True to academic custom and hyperbolic fandom, speculation about possible autobiographical traces in Lovecraft’s writings has been rife. His many idiosyncrasies – most of them eccentricities – have produced fertile ground for all sorts of wild conjectures, of which a lot are doubtless true! Most importantly, there is his supposed alter ego, Randolph Carter, an introverted and melancholy writer of stories, who appears in a total of seven stories. Also, both of his parents ended their lives in a mental institution called Butler Hospital, which presumably stimulated him to habitually revisit themes of dementia and (fear of) degeneration. As for the five-year bout of amnesia which propels the narrative behind ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’, Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908, compelling him to mainly stay indoors and write poetry … until 1913. Coincidence? You decide.

‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ [1931]
I could not help feeling that they were evil things – mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething, half-luminous cloud-background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial; and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world.

Antarctica, the one remaining unconquered continent. 5,400,000 square miles of frozen vastness, so indifferently hostile towards furless primates, so mercifully rapid in its deadliness. Already in his fragile preteens, Lovecraft wrote a couple of treatises on the early intrepid explorations of Earth’s southernmost continent, making it the poetically perfect setting for his most formidable, elaborate work of fiction. “At the Mountains Of Madness” is sci-fi horror sublime, the acme of his authorship, which it took him many bitter years of drudgery to reach, occasionally thwarting his own progress by submitting to the hopelessly narrow confines of marketable pulp literature, whether it was out of self-doubt or imminent impoverishment. Yes, OK, pardon the fanboying … but I am really not exaggerating. Commenced by Lovecraft on February 24, conceived years before, and completed in just barely a month’s time, ‘At the Mountains Of Madness’ recounts the – literally and figuratively – chilling discoveries of The Miskatonic Antarctic Expedition of 1930-31, led by geologist William Dyer (anonymous in the novella). A daring sub-expedition first encounters mountain ranges whose “[m]ain summits exceed Himalayas”. Then, farther to the north-west, these dispatched surveyors happen upon a number of deep-frozen barrel-shaped entities, purportedly lifeless, and formerly of a life incomparable to that of this planet. Not long afterwards, radio contact is lost. And so begins the harrowing account of a rescue mission gradually becoming nightmare, with Dyer accompanied by a graduate student named Darforth, who very significantly is well-versed in the Necronomicon and various other obscure, occult literature. The subsequent chapters of this grand-epic story are just too flawlessly put together and too consummate in their build-up to recap in brief, so I won’t. What remains to be said is that ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ is my absolute favourite Lovecraft story thanks to, frankly, its utter immensity – the vistas, the entities, the horrors, and the text itself. Each of its 41,000 words and every scientific detail about palaeontology, topography, cryogenics, etc., was painstakingly selected to convey a mind-numbing feeling of humankind’s insignificance. Simply textbook, nonpareil stuff, ladies and gentlemen, that becomes greater and grander with every successive read.

Mexican screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro has been pushing and pulling for almost ten years to create a movie based on ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’, with Universal Studios granting him a 150-million-dollar budget just a couple of years ago to make it happen. That was, however, back in 2010, and especially following the disaster that was Ridley Scott’s Prometheus from 2012, the future spells uncertain. If there really does exist a puny mortal who can convincingly transpose the enormousness of “an utterly tenantless world of aeon-long death” onto a 50-foot wide cinema screen, Guillermo it is!

It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.

Postscript
80 years ago, Howard Phillips Lovecraft died of small intestine cancer – malnourished, disillusioned, and uncelebrated outside of a tight-knit circle of friends and fellow writers. To contemplate how much fantastic fantastical fiction he potentially still had to offer the world is virtually heart-rending. So, let us not do that! Instead, let us celebrate the masterpieces he did create, read them again and again – then once again – because, indeed, they are all readily available in the public domain, just a google search away for everyone to gorge on. Lovecraftian horror “is not dead”, but virtually here, there and everywhere, reinforced and reinvigorated by miscellaneous authors who continue to whisk up the protoplasmic pre-primordial soup, artificially grow sentient tentacles, and goggle insanely into the mind-boggling and mind-joggling blackness of space illimitable. Iä! Iä!”

This feature by Oliver Holm originally appeared in Zero Tolerance Magazine, issue 078. Back issues are available to buy from our shop.

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