Top positive review
"IA, Cthulhu!", or, Never look a gift Shoggoth in the Mouth
on November 23, 2003
Literary theorists swear up and down to their youthful, naive charges that there are only three conflicts in fiction: Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, and Man versus Himself.
Providence recluse and Grandmaster of Horror H.P. Lovecraft, while proving handy at mastering all three of the aforementioned timeless old chestnuts, suggests there is a fourth category: Man versus Thing.
Any connoiseur of the frenzied scribblings of old Adbul Al-Hazred in the Necronomicon will find this second Del Rey collection indispensable as 1) a grimoire chock-full of searingly useful material on the recondite pursuits of those lovable, tentacled beings we know and love as the Elder Gods---mind your manners, sonny boy, they were devouring souls and mastering the Time-Space Quanitplex back when your ancestors were hobnobbing with euglena and paramecium; and 2)Scaring yourself silly.
Man versus Thing, indeed.
Lovecraft was a God among insects, a true literary Giant in the Earth, and the potent, vicious, soul-unhinging madness flowing from his deliciously warped mind is astonishing. Lovecraft took the great disillusionment that stemmed from the Great War and ratcheted it up to the next step, pounding the final nail in the coffin of scientific positivism, and his horror is Cosmic; therein lies his peculiar brilliance. Lovecraft is more than purpled prose and tentacles, in that he has created a world peopled with bloodless, bookish men of science and set them up against uncaring stellar horrors, leaving them with no appeal to God or Goodness. The crucifix won't help you against the horror bubbling out of *that* particular crypt, my good man!
In Lovecraftian fiction, Mankind thinks that by harnessing the marvels of science and high technology, He will improve himself and advance the cause and course of civilization.
Lovecraft knew better. In the Lovecraftian universe , Man is still a primitive, shambling neanderthal in trousers who lives in a dark, slimy, relatively unexplored cave. Science is a guttering tallow candle he holds before him in his trembling hand, throwing light on bulbous, slithering neighbors we had previously only dimly imagined.
And that's the *good* news. The bad news is that Man's newfound, eldritch buddies are now awfully interested in him. And hungry.
The supreme horror discovered by Lovecraftian heroes throughout the stories here---from the refugee from a German U-Boat in "The Temple", to the curious scholar who fumbles with a singularly wrong Device (shades of the Lament Configuration, possibly?), to the hapless spaceman trapped "In the Walls of Eryx"---all of them learn that Science is no friend, and Good and Evil are remote and relative terms on this tepid, livid blue-green orb hurled through cold and unblinkingly alien galaxies.
The stories collected in "The Road to Madness" offer a spyglass into Lovecraft's literary development, but that's less interesting than the gleefully ghoulish, elegant sliminess of some of the ghastly tales offered here like gemstones in the darkness: "Cool Air", "He" and "The Terrible Old Man" chronicle the dangers of befriending or robbing antique old gentlemen in Yankee alleys or Paris garrets; "The Unnameable" is a tasty little ghoul's kiss in a graveyard in which Lovecraft taunts the typical critical assessment of his prose style; "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" serves as a clever riff on the Strange Travelogue Tale, ghost-written for illusionist Harry Houdini.
But these tales, tasty as they are, are but molehills to the mountains offered up by the three jewels in this Lovecraftian crown. "At the Mountains of Madness" is surely Lovecraft's masterwork, chronicling forgotten horrors that threaten the sanity of an Arctic expedition---and possibly the world. "Herbert West: Re-animator" offers an epic account of what some good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity and a syringe of corpse-reviving re-agent can accomplish. "The Horror at Red Hook", a jaunt into some of Brooklyn's seamier quarters, advances a sound argument for urban renewal if ever there was one.
Road to madness? Quite possibly. Road to soul-crushing terror and tentacled nightmares? Absolutely. Enjoy.