At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels Critical Essays

H. P. Lovecraft


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Since Lovecraft’s death in 1937, his fiction has gained steadily in popularity and critical prestige. This is hardly surprising, for his work, taken as a whole, possesses a strange but undeniable power, in large part because he avoids the standard horror fare of vampires, ghouls, and werewolves. He concentrates instead on creating a sense of horror that is as much intellectual and spiritual as visceral. There are few “chase” scenes in Lovecraft’s work and few of the battles to the death between heroes and monsters readers have come to expect from modern writers of horror fiction such as Stephen King. What readers experience instead is a gradually increasing sense of horror grounded in the awareness that the universe is not at all as people traditionally have conceived it. Humans are not the center of this or any other universe; they are mere specks of sentient matter protected only by their own ignorance and relative insignificance. All that knowledge finally can provide, as several of Lovecraft’s narrators explain, is horror too great to bear.

A further strategy Lovecraft employs involves denying his characters the conventional props of religion and science. Lovecraft himself was a professed atheist, and his stories usually are set within a larger framework that might be called existential. The God of Judeo-Christian tradition is wholly absent, rendering moot the question of divine assistance in combating the monstrous creatures of Lovecraft’s imagination. His characters neither seek God’s help nor seem to expect it. In “The Dunwich Horror” (1929), perhaps Lovecraft’s best-known story, several Miskatonic professors turn not to the Bible for help in foiling an evil plan to open the gates between dimensions, but to the Necronomicon. Science, constructed as it is from a mistaken view of the universe, is likewise of no real use. In fact, as the scientist-narrator tells readers at the beginning of At the Mountains of Madness, science’s wisest course might be “to deter the exploring world in general” from uncovering more evidence of humankind’s true place in the universe.