At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
The week of September 13 I reread H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness from my Corrected Ninth Printing of Arkham House's At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels. This is a good story, but I have to admit that the story's power was diminished by the fact that I knew everything that was going to happen. I did not feel that way at all when I reread "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" back in March of 2018--in fact, even though "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" no longer held any surprise for me, my reread of that tale lead me to gush that it was a masterpiece classic deserving of "5 out of 5 unblinking fish eyes."
So, why might I prefer "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" to At the Mountains of Madness? At the Mountains of Madness feels a little long and tedious, a little cold and clinical, and can be kind of repetitive (e. g., Lovecraft mentions painter Nicholas Roerich again and again, when once would have been sufficient.) As you probably know if you are reading this, the plot of At the Mountains of Madness follows an Antarctic expedition that discovers a huge city built by aliens (the "Old Ones" or "Elder Things") many millions of years ago and pieces together from sculptures the history of that alien society, which, among other things, created the human race and went to war with Cthulhu and with the Mi-Go, the natives of Pluto. The story, which is over 100 pages long, spends page after page describing the aliens' biology and architecture and history. With the exception of the last quarter or so of the tale, the story kind of feels like a technical report, the narrator being pretty detached from what is going on. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is much more direct, personal and human--the narrator is in the thick of things, his own life and his own sense of himself at stake. While At the Mountains of Madness shares many themes with "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"--cultural and societal degeneration, subversion and violent revolution, the psychological danger of learning the truth about the universe and our place in it--"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" addresses these themes in a more personal and direct way, and adds themes I find particularly compelling, like weird sex and miscegenation, worries about one's own identity and disappointment in one's self.
(Perhaps the most interesting distinction between the two stories is how the hideous revolution wrought in Innsmouth results from an American inviting in aliens from overseas, while the revolution that overthrows the Antarctic city of the Elder Ones is the result of the aliens' own genetically engineered slave race rising up against them and supplanting them--might this reflect fears of blacks rising up against whites and/or technology becoming the master of the humans who created it?)
At the Mountains of Madness is a quite good cosmic horror SF story, but it doesn't thrill and chill like some of Lovecraft's other work--just four out of five star-shaped burial mounds.
I looked through some of the volumes of Lovecraft's letters I own to see if I could find any fun tidbits about At the Mountains of Madness. The story was first printed as a serial in Astounding (then edited by F. Orlin Tremaine) and in letters to Duane W. Rimel (February 12 and June 20, 1936) HPL complains at length and with considerable specificity about editorial changes made to the story for magazine publication, but does praise the illustrations for the story; in a January 18, 1936 letter Lovecraft even tells F. Lee Baldwin that, "The chap who drew those monsters must certainly have read the text with care." Such sentiments are repeated in letters to Robert Bloch (March 14, 1936 and an undated one from June 1936) and to Donald Wollheim (February 7, 1936.)
"Red," "Honolulu" and "The Pool" by W. Somerset Maugham
I reread three more stories by W. Somerset Maugham from East and West, the first volume of The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham. All three of these tales are about disastrous sexual relationships between white men and Pacific Islanders, and one features a suicide. Maugham is an expert craftsman, and these stories are all just the right length, pace, and tone, including just the right level of detail to create believable and interesting characters, settings and situations without going overboard and burying you in superfluous verbiage. Catastrophic love relationships, suicide, and the experiences of people who find themselves in an alien milieu are among my favorite themes, so I am absolutely on board with what Maugham is doing with these stories.
"Red": We observe the meeting of two white dudes who have spent the last 25 or 30 years in Samoa, a Swedish philosopher who moved to the Pacific for his health (old books are chock full of peeps who move south for their health) and an obese American sailor. Through their conversation we learn about their relationships with women, and Maugham reveals to us the terrible truth about love--erotic relationships are tragically asymmetric and even passionately attached couples quickly get sick of each other. A downer!
"Honolulu": This is an above average Maugham story, full of interesting stuff, and I think characteristic of his stories in general, so if you are curious to read one Maugham story to get an idea what he is all about, I think this would be a good one. Maugham's portrait of Hawaii at the start of the 20th century is pretty interesting, and this story (judged by 2020 standards, as if I would do such a thing) is even more racist and sexist than most Maugham stories, so if you are writing your dissertation on white supremacy and patriarchy in early 20th-century literature penned by male homosexuals, well, here is grist for your woke mill! Anyway, "Honolulu" is about a cheerful and obese ship captain, Butler, who has gotten in a lot of trouble in his life (like getting drunk so his ship sinks and innocent people are killed) but has managed to maintain a good attitude nonetheless. Butler tells a story to our narrator (Maugham stories often have elaborate framing devices so that the text consists of a guy repeating with his own additional commentary a story he heard from some other guy) about that time the first mate of the little schooner Butler ended up skippering after his drunken boo-boo fell in love with his (Captain Butler's) girlfriend. Both the mate (hilariously known as "Bananas") and the girlfriend (known simply as "the girl") are native Hawaiians (Maugham calls them "Kanakas.") Bananas was a good sailor, so Butler didn't fire him for harassing his girlfriend, he just beat him up. Immediately after Bananas recovered, Butler, who had never been ill in his life, got some disease no white medico could diagnose and started wasting away. The girl of course thinks this is black magic employed by the jealous Bananas. There is a clever twist ending that I had forgotten about and which took me by surprise--it is not a cheap gimmicky surprise, but the kind of surprise that feels real that I probably should have expected.
"The Pool": A Scottish banker takes a job in Samoa because his lungs are bad (see?--I told you.) He marries a beautiful half-caste girl he sees bathing in a pool. Because of a multiplicity of cultural differences, their marriage is a disaster, and the banker becomes a violent drunk and his career collapses--things then get worse from there. Feminists take note: this story depicts a woman who would rather have a strong lover who hits her than a sniveling sensitive man who grovels before her and begs forgiveness for his infractions.
"A 'Pushover' Job," "In The Night," "Shock Therapy," "In the Bathhouse" and "Carpenters" by Varlan Shalamov (trans. John Glad)
For much of the period 1937-1954, Varlan Shalamov was imprisoned in various labor camps in the region of Siberia known as Kolyma. After his release he wrote many stories about life in the Gulag, and I read five of them in the last week in an internet archive scan of a 1980 book of selections from Shalamov's six volume work, Kolyma Tales, translated by John Glad. Glad splits the collection into seven parts, and I read the five stories in the first part, which bears the heading "Survival." These stories are quite short, the five of them totaling like 30 pages altogether. All five stories are well-written and are compelling historical documents, but some are like journalistic accounts or fragments, while others have a traditional narrative structure.
"A 'Pushover' Job": At the start of this story the narrator describes to us the "Siberian dwarf cedar," a tree or shrub that in winter leans close to the ground to protect itself from the cold and wind and in summer becomes erect again. We are told the tree can be fooled into standing erect in winter by burning a fire near it. Maybe this tree is a symbol of the people who have so long lived under a tyranny emanating from Moscow or more specifically the prisoners in the Gulag? Anyway, we learn that the Communist Party's eggheads have the (fallacious) belief that needles of the dwarf cedar, when ingested, can cure scurvy. Scurvy being a problem among the Gulag prisoners, the administrators of the forced labor camp have the needles processed into a noxious goop and compel all the inmates to choke down a dose of this gunk daily. Collecting the needles is considered the easiest job in the camp, and our narrator, who is a physical wreck after working in the gold mines that are the ostensible purpose behind the Kolyma forced-labor camp system, is given the job of collecting needles as a little break. Even the easiest task in the Gulag, the narrator finds, is difficult, dangerous and corrupting.
"In The Night": At the beginning of the story we meet two prisoners; the scene demonstrates how little food the prisoners are provided. Earlier in the day a man was buried in a shallow grave, and at night these two men dig up the body and steal the underwear from the corpse--they expect to sell the article for food or tobacco.
"Shock Therapy": While "A Pushover Job" and "In the Night" are more like anecdotes or vignettes, "Shock Therapy" is a full scale story with characters, a plot that has a beginning, middle and end, and a little humor. Gulag prisoner Merzlakov is a big man, tall and husky. He has observed that the meagre rations issued the prisoners are not enough to sustain large men, and that as a result large men like himself die off much more quickly than small men. He is caught eating food meant for the horses, and the guards beat the crap out of him. Scared of being sent back to the mines, Merzlakov hides the fact that he has recovered from the beating, remaining bent over 24/7, tricking the authorities and doctors for months into thinking the guards broke his back. Walking around all bent over, he looks like a gorilla (Merzlakov is compared to different animals several times over the course of the story.) But when he is sent to a better equipped hospital, staffed by a doctor who is an expert at identifying fakers, our hero's ruse may be unraveled.
"In the Bathhouse": The prisoners in the forced labor camp are regularly trooped out a bathhouse some distance form the camp, stripped, and given the opportunity to wash while their clothes are put in the "disinfestation chamber." In journalistic fashion (no characters or plot this time) Shalamov describes the many reasons why men who are filthy from working in a gold mine and are crawling with legions of parasites are not relieved when it is bathhouse day, but instead dread its arrival.
"Carpenters": Like "Shock Therapy," this has the conventional elements of a piece of fiction. The driving force of "Carpenters" is the life-threatening cold of Siberia and the prisoners' quest for warmth; one telling detail is that when the prisoners awake in the morning in their barracks, their hair has frozen to their pillows. When an official comes to a work gang saying he needs some carpenters, the foreman tells him he is out of luck, that this gang is made up of political prisoners, intellectuals--the foreman suggests that the official go to one of the gangs composed of petty criminals. Enticed by the idea of working in the carpentry shop, which is heated, two of the political prisoners claim to be carpenters, humiliating the foreman and putting themselves in a tough situation--these smarty smarts don't know the first thing about working with wood and axes and saws, and once in the toasty warm shop they learn they are required to make thirty axe handles a day when they don't even know how to make one!
In September I have also read a bunch more of those politically incorrect and NSFW Japanese comic books about young women suffering (and embracing!) various psychological issues. The funniest and perhaps most outrageous was Yuugai Shitei Doukyuusei by Kuroha. Pretty "out there" but presented with absolute seriousness is Takane no Hana wa Midaresaki by Itou Ei. One that is fun and funny and not terribly outrageous, though like the other two manga I am recommending it questions conventional values (or is it that these manga are documenting current evolutions in conventional values? hmmmm...) is Yoshida Satoru's Hatarkanai Futari.