Only 10 years after the publication of this book Europe had been nearly completely destroyed, the Soviet Union controlled most of the east, America controlled the rest, the atom had been split, and the technology needed to take men to the moon only needed perfecting. Computers, radar, jet engines, women in the workplace, a Jewish state inside Palestine, the neutering of any meaningful monarchies in England and Japan … a total change in civilization. All within about 10 years.
There’s a scene near the end of this book that stood out for me more than almost any other and that is when they first hear and them come upon those albino penguins. The image is at first somewhat comical, then a little sad, too. The scene stood out for me because those penguins seemed to make for a wonderful metaphor for our own existence – blind, pale, helpless, easily frightened chattel to be trampled over by far, far greater powers. The birds were totally indifferent to their surroundings, utterly incapable of comprehending their fate or that anything of any greater importance was going on around them, aside from the inconvenience of being disturbed.
I felt as if Lovecraft had somehow felt the pulse of the times and was able to create a vision of what we as a species were about to do to ourselves during the late 1930’s and into the 1940’s. That dread that is on every page of the book is palpable and captures what some, but not nearly enough people, must have felt when visiting Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia before war broke out: a terrible helpless feeling of unease all around that nobody could escape from and a feeling that tragedy was about to happen again.
And the book’s warning to all future adventures to leave well enough alone and to not explore to deep into regions that are best left unexplored, though a theme that crops up in science fiction very often, is more than just a trope here. Lovecraft seems to be intuiting the dangers of man meddling with things he can’t control by foreshadowing nuclear war with those terrible visions beyond the mountains. Lovecraft is saying that the old way of life will forever change if man proceeds on its current course, that poking our noses where they don’t belong will, though not unleash the darkest horrors of the ancient universe, somehow corrupt us from within.
Lovecraft is saying that science and reason can only take us so far before we get lost in a labyrinth of confusion, causing us to splinter as a society and species, forcing us from one extreme to the other, slowly eroding our own sense of self and art and culture, that all the greatest learning will eventually lead to an even greater forgetting; a forgetting of ourselves. Lovecraft seems quite content to stay put, to not pass that terrible boundary we charged right over in the 10 years after this book was written.
It’s very pessimistic in its conclusion, however, I can’t say I blame him either; he knew which way the wind was blowing. And I should be careful in reading too much into this book because after all he was trying to just write a damn entertaining page turner with some first-rate horror that Hollywood is still trying to copy to this day (either great films like Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and Darabount’s ‘The Mist’, or failures such as Ridley Scott’s beautiful but deeply flawed ‘Prometheus’). Yet the best stories, the ones that resonate with each generation are more than just fun reads, there does have to be something more to the pie than just a pretty pie crust.
Lovecraft writes very simply, clearly, and is a master at teasing out splinters of information at just the right time as to build the for boding. And even when there is really not much actually happening, he still manages to fascinate, such as the telling of the strangeness of the Old Ones and their life on early, ancient Earth. He doesn’t bog us down with needless emotional scenes, rather, he uses Danforth as the emotional sounding-board to juxtapose with Dyer’s cool, clinical, detachment. The rest is all supreme imagination and, honestly, horror so well written that I was genuinely scared and kept looking over my shoulder. It’s really quite uncanny.
But there is much more here than a writer’s wonderful imagination creating a mythos just for fun, Lovecraft has tapped into a vein that still resonates because he not only knows how to write a great story, but also because he knows what frightens us and because he intuited so much of what was just about to happen to the world in the coming years. Lovecraft is sort of a mile marker, a sign post, a line in the sand on which one side is all that came before and on the other is all that he warned humanity not to cross over less it destroy itself.
And so here were are looking back at a base camp we can never return to; only madness awaits us ahead.