Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, by John Linwood Grant

“As I grew older, they brought me night-fevers of vast, deserted plateaus and winds which scoured flesh from bone; visions of drowned cities and forbidden peaks. They gave me hints that they themselves were real, material, and they fed me concepts of stone, in all its conceivable forms, starting my first poor attempts with chisel and file. They fed my isolation from other humans, strengthened it, and they made me a sculptor.”

mountains-of-madness-revealed-hardcover-edited-by-darrell-schweitzer-choose-your-edition-signed-jhc-limited-to-100-copies-4898-p[1]Between 1930 and 1931, one of America’s premier universities launched a scientific expedition to one of the world’s last great frontiers, the Antarctic. Three of that august institution’s leading professors helmed the expedition: Dr. Frank L. Pabodie (Engineering), Dr. William Dyer (Geology), and Dr. Lake (Biology). Their ostensible goal was to drill through the surface to bring up mineral samples buried under layers of ice and stone measured as much in geologic age as material thickness. The discoveries they would ultimately make would undo the world’s understanding of itself and set the Earth on a collision course with the stars. All of this, of course, never actually happened, except in the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s masterful novella, At the Mountains of Madness, published originally by HPL’s friend Julian Schwartz in February, March, and April of 1936 as a severely edited serial in Astounding Stories .

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One of the original Astounding Stories illustrations by Howard V. Brown.
But what if it had happened?
What would the world look like now?
How would we, the human race, have responded?

 

That is the premise for this substantial new anthology from PS Publishing, Mountains of Madness Revealed, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, one time editor of Weird Tales magazine. Within its pages are 19 brand-new stories and poems by some of the leading mythos voices of our time, all of whom have taken for granted that the horrible and awesome discoveries of the Pabodie-Dyer-Lake expedition to Antarctica were all too terribly true. Also included is a wonderful introduction by the editor that takes you through the history of HPL’s story. Because of that, this volume is not recommended for newcomers to the Lovecraft Mythos or anyone who has not read the original novella. These authors assume you know the intimate details of the story, and readers without that foreknowledge will inevitably not be able to enjoy this anthology to the fullest.

For my review, I chose a story by a luminary of the field of weird fiction but who represented a gap in my reading, Yorkshire native John Linwood Grant. His short story, Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, is full of conspiracy theories, the dark web, secret and sinister governmental organizations, climate change, alien beings, and insanity to spare. Glaciers shift and ice caps melt and, in a calamitous moment, the City from Lovecraft’s story is revealed and the truth of human history as we knew it is rewritten. “Most of Lovecraft’s writing is invented nonsense, a blur of horror and science fiction which, if unusually imaginative, is yet of very limited value. Only that one tale matched reality, though the City’s emergence did encourage a mad hunt for other locations, even deep-water submarine explorations for sunken cities which house dreaming gods. Not a single Cyclopean block, not one non-Euclidean ruin, was found elsewhere, above or below the oceans.” But it hardly matters for the hapless humans of Linwood Grant’s story. The cornerstones of their understanding had already crumbled as sunlight dawned on that aeons old city, the definitive evidence of other intelligent life from beyond the stars.at_the_mountains_of_madness_6_howard_lovecraft_by_ivany86-d7jcdsw[1].jpg

Much like many of Lovecraft’s stories, this one unfolds at a leisurely pace. There’s lots of description and exposition, but it never felt unnecessary or boring. A whole worldview was unfolding before my eyes as the pages turned, one which I had previously imagined, even hoped for in that strange way familiar to devotees of fantasy and science-fiction, but had never been presented with as being real in quite this way. For one thing, this story is set in our world and our time. It’s familiar in the very same way that AtMoM is alien, oddly comforting instead of foreboding and harsh. The thrust of the plot relies on our protagonist, a Ms. Paling, completing some sort of to-scale sculpture of the revealed city of the Old Ones. In her attic, no less. She is being urged on by The Four, a group of creatures who commune with her mind, but who may also just be in her mind. Are they themselves Old Ones, or is Paling going mad after confronting the horrifying revelations of the broken ice? Nonetheless, as is so often the case, perception is reality, and she persists in her sculpting.

The City itself is the main thing, not what it contains, not even what it once contained. It is “…a holy text in stone…Lovecraft’s characters claimed they read an entire racial history in the symbols carved on the walls of their find, bands of glyphs that ran along ice-frosted walls. Perhaps they did. They were reading the wrong thing, though…The City is the answer, not what is written upon it.” The question to which the city is the answer I will leave to your reading, but I thought it was an ingenious take on HPL’s story to which I believe even the Old Gent would have been obliged to tip his hat. The ending left me feeling awe, and that is a wonderful homage to the original story which accomplishes much the same thing, if in a very different way. 2b8775f6182650fb21e7d34457044a4e[1]Linwood Grant adds a bit more human touch that HPL could muster, and I’ll go so far to say notes of admiration, respect, and even love are present in his conclusion. Like the original, the action all comes suddenly at the end in a wild avalanche, but one which ultimately feels inconsequential. The story is much bigger than that momentary (if satisfying) action can claim.

This was a wonderful story and I had a lot of fun reading it. Linwood Grant’s writing is fluid and will not at all be the barrier to some that HPL’s represents. He is a modern author writing in a modern, sensible, style. And yet it is elevated. Some of his descriptions are just beautiful, possessed with a matured sentiment tinged with longing. You find yourself yearning for a time and a place that are not, as in here, “It doesn’t matter. This planet was theirs, but their people are dead. Many times the edge of deep emotion has brushed me—better, they feel, that they had slept until the sun grew dark, than been woken to such a world. The last of the true rulers of Earth wish only to leave, to abandon their lonely vigil.” HPL wrote a story of awe, dread, and cosmic horror; Linwood Grant has managed to warp that just ever so slightly so that the exact same set piece sings not horror but melancholy, less warning and more lullaby.

Mountains of Madness Revealed is available now in hardback from PS Publishing, and I highly recommend it.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

A helpful corrective: “Lovecraft’s suggestions seem ludicrous—flying fungal things and octopus-creatures, always unspeakable horrors that cannot be pinned down. I still do not know how he got so much right, and so much wrong.

Devil’s Bathtub, by Lois H. Gresh

“The ice scraped the fur from his skin, and he smelled his own blood and it scared him. And that’s when his bones shattered. The dog was aware that his body was a limp sack filled with mush. He didn’t understand.”

91bbKUt-kBL[1]At the Mountains of Madness is not only one of HPL’s longest stories (it’s really a novella), but also one of his most popular. There are perennial rumors of a del Toro helmed film adaptation, and so let me add my meager voice to the mix, I desperately would love to see that. Many, many Lovecraftian stories take Mountains for their base and a lot of them are collected in a single volume (well, now two it seems) called “The Madness of Cthulhu Anthology” Volume One, collected by that inestimable Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi,  published in 2014 by Titan Books.  This present story is an example of one written by a seriously heavy-weight author, and one which I just couldn’t get into, even after a re-read.  Lois Gresh, according to her blurb, is a New York Times best selling author of over twenty-five books, and sixty short stories. She’s published in tons of languages and appears in many noted anthologies. So, her writing credentials (or at least, publishing credentials) are established. And let me say up front, I don’t think it’s the writing that bothered me in this story, so much as it was the plot itself.

At the Mountains of Madness is a harrowing tale of adventure, horrific discovery, and enormous implication. It’s one of HPL’s magnum opi, along with The Shadow Out of Time, which describe humanity’s rather insignificant place in the scope of the cosmos. Both stories are told with sweeping scope against a cinematic backdrop. Perhaps that background led me into this story with similar expectations, however unfairly, of scope and setting. Devil’s Bathtub, though, has a very narrow focus, as perhaps it rightly should, but for me I found it to be one which I wasn’t overly interested in.  It tells the strange story of a father and young daughter who reside at Vostok glacier outpost in Antartica, along with a few research assistanimage[1].jpgts. (Problem numero uno for me: what’s this guy doing with his kid in Antarctica? I don’t care who you work for, that probably isn’t going to happen, correct me if I’m wrong.) They’re investigating a strange circumstance near the South Pole where there seems to be a semi-sentient black ice/slime hybrid. “The ice is four hundred years old…and deep beneath it is the lake, filled with two thousand two hundred feet of liquid and life we don’t understand yet.”  Their poor dog wanders too close to the stuff and gets incorporated into it, broken down but yet still alive. It’s a bit squishy and would be terrifying if it weren’t slightly humorous. Humor I’m sure the author didn’t intend. I get trying to use a dog to tug on the emotions, but, for me at least, I have to be emotionally invested in the animal and it’s relationship to it’s human first  for that work. You can’t just toss a dog in the story and expect me to get all Old Yeller-y immediately.

What happens to the dog foreshadows, with a stunning degree of accuracy, exactly what happens to the guy and his daughter, as this slimy stuff converts them into the building blocks, quite literally bricks, of whatever it is it’s constructing. Perhaps this is the stuff of a shoggoth, perhaps not. “She looked down. Saw bright blue eyes, he whites huge around tiny irises. Stark terror. Dad. But he wasn’t really there. Only his eyes, and they were plugged into the sides of the wall like light bulbs.” And that’s really it, my chilly reconnoiterers. I didn’t find a grander, overarching theme. I couldn’t locate a clever sense of cosmic dread. There may have been a hint of a presence of a possible Lovecraftian monster, but maybe not. antarctica-29[1].jpgFor a story that talks about drilling deep into the ice, I found this to be a very surface level skate around the mythos pond. It’s possible it’s trying to say something about humanity’s insignificance by breaking the humans down into their constituent parts and using them to make something else, but if it is, to what end? There wasn’t enough of a “so what?” factor in this story to make me care about it and none of it left me with any kind of feeling of awe or dread. I hate to say it, but this has been the weakest Lovecraftian story I’ve read so far.

The writing here is unnoticeable, in both a positive and a negative sense. It doesn’t stand out as excellent prose, though it is functional and in a way, you sometimes want prose to disappear into the background of a story so the reader can get lost in the fiction. But then again, it’s also good to have a sentence or three that makes me, the reader, want to stand up and read it out loud in a public place. This didn’t do that. I have read other stories in this collection and they’ve been better, so I’d say the collection itself is definitely worth it if you’re considering whether to buy it or not. But I’m also saying if you do, maybe don’t start with this story.

I wish I had more to say friends, but sadly, I do not. The material didn’t provide it.

Until next time, I remain yours in the black litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Limp prose about cold places and broken bones: “Her bones rattled and crunched, and oh yes, she should be dead, but here she was, a limp sack of skin filled with the debris of bones and organs and muscle. What had happened to her? What was she?”