At the mountains of madness


Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the visionary writer generally regarded as the mastermind of modern horror fiction, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890. The precocious only child of an ill-fated marriage, he endured a cloistered and traumatic upbringing. Lovecraft never knew his father, a traveling salesman of English ancestry who was institutionalized with syphilitic dementia in 1893. He was raised in his birthplace, the Victorian mansion of his maternal grandfather, by an overprotective mother and two maiden aunts. At the age of eight he discovered the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, whose aesthetics marked him forever.

Frequent illnesses disrupted the boy’s formal schooling, but he devoured books on astronomy and Greek mythology and was enthralled by the poetry of Dryden and Pope. Financial reversals occasioned by his grandfather’s death in 1904 forced the family to sell their ancestral home and seek lodgings in a nearby duplex. The move intensified an already claustrophobic relationship with his mother, who instilled in Lovecraft a profound conviction that he was different from other people.

Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908 and over the next five years became as reclusive as any of his eccentric fictional narrators. He gradually emerged from his depression through membership in the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), a group of fledgling writers who published their own magazines. In addition to contributing poetry and essays to various journals, he put out thirteen issues of his own paper, The Conservative (1915–23), and began a prolific correspondence with colleagues. The five volumes of his posthumously issued Selected Letters (published 1965–76) represent some of Lovecraft’s most substantial prose and reveal him to be an artist and philosopher of wide-ranging intellect. “Lovecraft [was] one of the most exhaustively self-chronicled individuals of his century,” says his preeminent interpreter, S. T. Joshi. “His letters are the equivalent of a Pepys diary in the exhibition of the fluctuations of his mind and heart.”

In 1921, while attending a convention of the UAPA in Boston, Lovecraft met Sonia Greene, a widowed Brooklyn milliner seven years his senior. Their brief, disastrous marriage took him to New York City for two years; his return to Providence in the spring of 1926 prompted the greatest creative outburst of his short career.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” observed Lovecraft in his pioneering essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1925–27). Guided by this dictum, he produced a relatively small body of fiction: some sixty stories, most of which appeared in the newly founded pulp magazine Weird Tales. Three of them—The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926–27), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), and At the Mountains of Madness (1931)—are generally classified as short novels. Many of Lovecraft’s early pieces are innocuous, dreamlike creations heavily influenced by the Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany. In stark contrast are his harrowing tales of terror set against a meticulously described, historically grounded New England landscape. Lovecraft’s most acclaimed stories are those in the cycle known as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Combining elements of horror and science fiction, they are an extended elaboration of Lovecraft’s recurring fantasy that an entire alien civilization lurks on the underside of our known world. Included in the cycle is At the Mountains of Madness, in which an unsuspecting expedition uncovers a city of untold terror buried beneath an Antarctic wasteland. “At the Mountains of Madness ranks high among the horror stories of the English language,” said Time. Joyce Carol Oates reflected: “There is a melancholy, operatic grandeur in Lovecraft’s most passionate work, like At the Mountains of Madness; a