At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
I think it’s important to start this review by recognizing how tremendously influential Lovecraft in general and At the Mountains of Madness is in particular has been. He basically created and popularized the whole Things Man Was Not Meant to Know subgenre of horror / fantasy / sf or whatever it really is. The Elder Gods threatening the very sanity of the planet comes from Lovecraft and not only do his motifs show up rather blatantly in works like Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October as well as more recent series like John Ringo’s Special Circumstances and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters International, I suspect that you would never have gotten a TV show like the X-Files without Lovecraft.
So Lovecraft is hugely influential (the World Fantasy Award used to be a bust of Lovecraft) but that doesn’t mean that he’s an easy author to read. Most of the problem is that he was writing in the 1920s and 1930s and his fiction style comes off as slow moving and dated. At the Mountains of Madness takes the form of a narrative account of a disastrous expedition to Antarctica written long after the expedition’s survivors returned with the hope of dissuading the next expedition from beginning. It is filled with long and impressive descriptions of the geology of the continent and the remarkable discovery of a series of fossils the like of which have never been seen on the planet. Isolated from the rest of the world the scientists begin to discover that a wholly unanticipated species inhabited the earth tens of millions of years ago and the more they discover about this early life form the more horrific the story becomes.
And yet, while it is definitely creepy and Lovecraft has many subtle tricks to increase the reader’s understanding that things are going badly wrong, it is still a very slow moving story thanks to the narrative style. Today this book would have been written as a third person narrative following the expedition in “real time” and the action scenes that are quickly summarized in the original would have been fleshed out to play a much more significant role in the book, but that’s not how Lovecraft wrote and I think it makes the book harder to approach for today’s readers.
I listened to an audio version of the novella narrated extremely well by Edward Hermann who did a masterful job of bringing the text to life, but even so it remains a slow moving story. That being said, I still highly recommend it due to its influence over the decades since it was published.
On a Winter’s Eve by Chris L. Adams
This short story is flat out creepy. In it Adams consciously adopts the style of the pulp writers of the 1930s and 1940s and is so successful that you wouldn’t be surprised to learn this was a lost work of H.P. Lovecraft. The tension builds slowly as the other-worldly threat first makes itself known and then begins its haunting attacks on a family living far from civilization in wooded, snow-covered mountain lands. Since the story is told from a first person perspective years after the event, you know the narrator is going to survive, but it doesn’t feel that way as the danger mounts and the body count expands. This one will linger with you and give you second thoughts about looking out the window to watch the snow.
The Blonde Goddess of Tikka-Tikka by Chris L. Adams
Chris Adams continues his homage to the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s with this quick novella about an adventurer who would fit well into a story by Robert E. Howard. The problem he encounters, however, is all H.P. Lovecraft and Adams does a very good job of building suspense as ancient horrors return to the earth. This is a fast moving tale which you’ll want to read in one sitting. There’s a tiny twist at the end of the story that gives some well-appreciated justification to the villains’ actions. I’d happily read a sequel.
Strangers by Dean Koontz
This is one of those novels that will linger in your thoughts for decades and I don’t just mean an image or two. From the very first chapter, Koontz starts cultivating feelings of suspense and ever increasing tension that will have you desperately turning pages, or, if listening to it in audio as I did this time, finding excuses to keep the book playing long after your commute is completed. What is especially impressive for an author who made his reputation in the horror genre is that it’s not even clear that there is going to be a supernatural element for half the book. It opens with a man who finds himself hiding in the closet after apparently sleep walking. He’s sore, he’s frightened, and he has no idea what is going on. But it isn’t until he pulls himself together and sits down at his computer to continue writing his new novel that things get really eerie. He finds that while sleep walking he has typed page after page of just two words: “I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.”
Koontz then shifts focus to a young doctor on her day off who panics and flees in a fugue state when she notices a pair of black gloves. Next we meet a retired marine who is suddenly terrified of the dark and trying desperately to hide his fear from his wife. None of these people have any apparent connection, yet they are all showing evidence of psychological suffering they can’t explain. Later in the book we meet a young child who has become terrified of doctors and a priest whose deep and abiding faith suddenly collapses so that he throws the chalice in the middle of Mass. And the list goes on. What makes this all the more frightening is it is way too easy to imagine yourself suffering these almost normal problems which means that you will enjoy a high level of empathy with each of these very well drawn characters.
As we get deeper into the novel, elements of a vast conspiracy begin to be uncovered with the real possibility of danger to the people trying to find out why they are suffering these bizarre symptoms. This ramps up the tension to a whole new level as we also begin to meet people who have gone over the edge and even kill themselves as a result of the psychological harm they have suffered. At the same time suppressed memories begin to pop free in those suffering and they separately begin to evolve plans that will ultimately bring them together to find out what incredible event triggered all of this.
I don’t want to give away the end of this novel, but I found it to have a totally satisfying conclusion. The chief villain, when he is revealed, is both frightening and believable. This is a long book—nearly 30 hours in audio—but every page is worth reading.
Watchers by Dean Koontz
Thanks to some recent deals on audible, I’ve been listening to Dean Koontz novels again. I first read this one about thirty years ago when I was in college and I and my roommate both loved it. The novel revolves around a dog with human-level intelligence and the monster that’s trying to kill it. Along the way, a couple of humans get involved and move heaven and earth to try and save the animal. I’m not really a dog person, but who wouldn’t love Einstein in this novel? The strangest thing about this book is that, as in Strangers, this is a horror story that really isn’t about the horror. It’s about the bonds people forge in tough times and the lengths they are willing to go to out of love. This is a touching book with one of the best villains in literature. I’m not sure that I agree it is Koontz’s absolute best novel, but it certainly is a great one.
Lightning by Dean Koontz
Who keeps saving Laura Shane’s life and how does her special guardian know she’s in danger? It’s the question that dominates this intense thriller by Dean Koontz. The novel opens with a drunken doctor being called to deliver a baby (Laura) who’s birth is having complications. He stumbled to his car but is prevented from driving to the hospital by a mysterious stranger who ties him up, calls the hospital to tell them the doctor is drunk and not coming, and then waits with the doctor long enough to make certain he can’t escape and get to the hospital anyway. The baby is born alive and well under another doctor’s care and the stranger disappears.
He then continues to intervene in Laura’s life throughout her childhood, preventing her from suffering grievous harm, but not insuring she has a stress free life. As the novel progresses we come to know Laura very well and him somewhat well. It quickly becomes apparent that he is a time traveler who comes from a totalitarian state that he has lost confidence in and is determined to destroy. How Laura fits into his plans is not clear, but he is determined to make certain she survives to adulthood--until his plans are discovered by his superiors and everything goes to hell. Now Laura, her son, and the guardian must evade time traveling hit squads while they figure out how to save the world.
Time travel novels thrive or fail based on their ability to deal satisfactorily with paradox. This novel succeeds on this count. Koontz has created a deft set of time-travel rules that serve his plot well but appear to avoid the contradictions that so many authors fall into. And at the same time, he weaves into his plot some excellent surprises that greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the story. My only real complaint is that in this second reading--decades after my first reading--parts of the second half of the book seemed to drag and I wished it was shorter. That being said, the ending is superb and I enjoyed it thoroughly.