On “The Tomb” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Buddy… I’ve been in this family my entire life and they won’t even let me fuck the corpses of my rich ancestors.

Anthologists consider “The Tomb” to be HPL’s first mature work of fiction. This is down to the story being written nearly a decade after “The Alchemist” and the fact that 1917 marked the beginning of a period of sustained creativity that saw the creation of a number of iconic Lovecraft stories. On a less biographical note, the technical differences between the two stories are so obvious that placing “The Tomb” next to “The Alchemist” immediately makes the second story seem like a piece of juvenilia. However, while this story is far more competently written than its predecessor, I must admit that I found it a bit less interesting.

The story revolves around a young man who becomes obsessed with an abandoned crypt. Originally built to house the members of powerful local family, the crypt was abandoned after a fire consumed the family’s home and compelled them to move away. Despite living in the local area and having an entirely different surname, the narrator of the story claims some spurious relation to the powerful family and so he starts to spend his nights loitering outside the crypt and dreaming up ways of gaining access.

A lot of my dissatisfaction with the story stems from the way that Lovecraft handles the narrator’s obsession with the tomb. Stories of obsession usually feel like someone slowly wading out to sea: At first, there’s the shock of cold water encountering freshly de-shoed feet and the feeling of sand between toes, then there’s the pleasure of waves gently lapping at your knees, and finally there’s the bit where the paddler realises they are completely out of their depth and being sucked down to the oceanic depths of a life-destroying obsession. Rather than encouraging us to follow the narrator down into the depths of his obsession, Lovecraft positions himself uncomfortably between the ghoulishly precise and the evasively abstract. So… on the one hand, you have the not-particularly-subtle suggestion that the narrator is breaking into the crypt in order to have some form of sexual congress with the remains of his relatives. Then… on the other hand, you have the interesting but insufficiently explored idea that jerking off to a load of skeletons is somehow making the narrator appear more educated, cultured, and generally more high-class.

While I don’t think that Lovecraft handled these ideas particularly well, you can see him tugging on a psychological thread that was both fascinating and intensely personal: Much like “The Alchemist”, “The Tomb” is a story about a young man who defines himself in terms of his relation to a family history filled with money and power. In both of these stories, the money and power that the family once possessed have now disappeared leaving only a set of physical ruins to which the protagonist has forged a profoundly unhealthy connection. Faced with imminent death and the inability to engage with other humans, the protagonist of “The Alchemist” begins by delving into his family history and then moves on to physically digging through the ruined basement of his family home. Faced with an inability to function in the world of normal people, the protagonist of the “The Tomb” begins by spending his nights sat outside a tomb only to delve deeper and deeper into the crypt until fantasy overwhelms reality and he comes to see himself as nothing but a set of remains waiting to be laid to rest.

One of the underlying principles of art house film is that people tend to be better at remembering ideas they had to work for than ideas that were handed to them on a plate. For example, if you are a left wing film director and your script features a scene in which a character delivers a speech about the cruelty of rent-seeking bourgeois landlords then people will either agree or disagree with the contents of the speech. However, if you take those ideas and embed them in the actions of a self-serving landlord then people will walk away from the film with a tendency to compare every landlord they meet to your transparently evil character. In other words, meaning is not something delivered on high by authorial fiat, it is something that readers and authors create together albeit on terms dictated primarily by the author. I think this is why I prefer “The Alchemist” to “The Tomb”.

“The Alchemist” is ostensibly a story about a man realising that generations of premature deaths are not the result of a disembodied mystical force but an actual dude living in his basement. However, read between the lines and you discover a story about someone who is morbidly obsessed with the past whose problems are down to – surprise surprise – someone even more obsessed with the past than he is.  “The Tomb” is undoubtedly a better-written story in so far as the story’s themes and images are embedded in the thoughts and actions of a character that has enough texture and granularity to feel like a real person. However, while these ideas are actually embedded in the stuff of the story rather than present by implication, they feel less powerful partly because Lovecraft mangled the act of embedding and partly because putting them front and centre in the story means that I didn’t have to work as hard to find them.

I accept that this evaluation is incredibly subjective and unfair but re-reading both of these stories left me feeling that “The Tomb” was more of the same, albeit less fun and better written. I think I would have liked the story a lot more had HPL done a better job of either exploring the mechanics of obsession, or connecting the stuff about madness to the stuff about social class. For example, the narrator talks about how spending time in the tomb made him appear more socially sophisticated but we never get anyone else’s perception of this development. So, while the narrator may believe that his incessant literary name-dropping has transformed him into some sort of social sophisticate, it is easy to imagine him turning up at one of his parents’ dinner parties covered in mud and corpse dust only to start muttering in half-forgotten Latin about a load of unfashionable authors.

The 1990s French time-travel comedy Les Visiteurs has a wonderful recurring motif whereby the patterns of speech and behaviour that were read as ‘noble lord’ in the medieval period tend to be read as ‘deranged homeless person’ by contemporary society because class signifiers not only change with the fashions but also serve merely to broadcast one’s relationship to power and money. Place Boris Johnson at the head of the Conservative party and his Greek quotations or archly old-fashioned speech patterns read as consistent with a certain form of upper-class bohemian refinement. Place him at a coach station in a stained trek suit and his tendency to lapse into ancient Greek would get him assigned a social worker.

An author more critical of social class than HPL could doubtless have some fun with the idea of someone ‘absorbing’ class signifiers from the corpses of their ancestors only to realise that class signifiers have changed but Lovecraft’s conservatism meant that he simply could not have written that story: Suggest that social hierarchies are arbitrary to a political radical and they will see the possibility of everyone in society being placed on an equal footing. Suggest that social hierarchies are arbitrary to a reactionary like Lovecraft and they will see only the risk of their being dragged down to lowest rung on the social ladder.

Given that this blog is at least ostensibly about horror gaming, I thought it might also be fun to think about ways in which the ideas in this story might be worked into a game and I came up with a couple of uses:

Firstly, Seventh Edition Call of Cthulhu has a mechanic whereby characters can regain sanity points by spending time at a favoured place from their past. What if there was a character that drew succour from their family crypt? The rules also state that these background details can change as the character’s mental health declines and so characters who start out putting flowers on their family crypt might require greater levels of ‘contact’ the more SAN points they lose.

Secondly, I quite like the idea of someone acquiring culture and sophistication by communing with the bodies of the dead. Imagine a local historian NPC who prides himself on his knowledge of some ancient local family. Maybe the characters take the NPC’s expertise entirely at face value until he feeds them some false mission-critical information and the characters start looking into the basis for his expertise. Alternatively, imagine the characters requesting help from a local historian who agrees as long as they promise to help him break into the family crypt at which point he pulls a gun, strips naked, and invites them to help him with his ‘research’.

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