Friday, July 13, 2012

'Nuff Read: At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition

Like many avid readers who have certain books that they enjoy, this is not the first time I've read H.P. Lovecraft's, At the Mountains of Madness, a fairly short (in terms of page count), but dense (regarding descriptive language and vocabulary) horror novella. Just as in order to consider oneself to be "well-read," a reader must have engaged with one of the Bronte sisters at some point, it would be hard to take someone seriously as a well-rounded student of literature who has not at least sampled Lovecraft if not as recreational reading, then as a student of genres. Too often, I think horror, like romance, is marginalized and compartmentalized so as to be seen as unworthy. Au contraire, mon frère!

Though I would classify AtMoM as more of a short story (albeit an extended one), the hook for my reading of this recently published "Definitive Edition" was the new introduction by British author (and occasional comic book writer--DC's recently concluded Dial H series) China Miéville. Beyond Lovecraft's tale, it is Miéville's analysis that this comment will focus in great part on.

Here is a brief teaser for AtMoM ( "The Barren, windswept interior of the Antarctic plateau was lifeless—or so the expedition from Miskatonic University thought. Then they found the strange fossils of unheard-of creatures...and the carved stones tens of millions of years old...and, finally, the mind-blasting terror of the City of the Old Ones." This is one of Lovecraft's pieces that would become integral to what is now understood as "the Cthulhu mythos."

The thing about AtMoM, and Lovecraft's work in general, is that much of the imagery contained therein has so permeated our popular culture by this point that most folks don't even know enough to recognize the original source. From the recent film Prometheus (2012), to the many video game (the Gears of War trilogy and Borderlands to name two) character designs to list, Lovecraft's detailed and dark descriptive language has been lifted to such an extensive degree that what was once perceived to be iconic can now be mistakenly thought to be common. What Miéville' introduction (which includes some spoilers for the uninitiated) does is to offer some historical context to Lovecraft's style and craft that creates an interesting gateway to deeper literary analysis of fiction writing in general, and the horror/supernatural genre in particular.

In the "real world" I am a high school English teacher, and can attest to the fact that deep literary analysis, beyond simply identifying basic literary strategies at work, and a somewhat superficial presentation as to the reasons behind the author's choice of strategies, is among the most challenging skills for students to master in an authentic voice. Unfortunately, it is also a skill that is not meaningfully tested on government mandated assessments and so is deemed unworthy of extensive effort in most classrooms.

As I read Mieville's essay, I considered how I could use it in some more advanced classes as an example of deep literary analysis as it touches on some important considerations that excellent students are capable of making, given the opportunity. In fact Mieville's thesis (from the second paragraph), points the reader in the proper direction for initial analysis: "... we must see Lovecraft as a product of his time. We can make sense of him, and his astonishing visions, only to the extent that we understand him as defined by the specific horrors, concrete and psychic, of the early twentieth century."

Also included as part of The Definitive Edition is Lovecraft's own literary analysis piece "Supernatural Horror in Literature." Whether as entertainment (for which this edition is not necessary and much of Lovecraft's stories are available in most good public libraries) or for an academic burst of analysis, I recommend At the Mountains of Madness for an eerie and breezy summer read. If you'd like to borrow this edition (or another), please let me know and I'd be happy to share.

You do think of yourself as "well-read," no?


Anonymous said...

I enjoy Lovecraft thanks to you my friend, even if the movie adapations cross over into the absurb. It's very interesting to note what an outright racist Lovecraft was. - Jerry

Mister Scott said...

Thanks for commenting, J-Rock--stop by again soon!