On “The Terrible Old Man” 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.

This is basically the 1920s equivalent of a right-wing Gran Torino meme.

“The Terrible Old Man” (full text) was written on January 28 1920 and was first published in the amateur press journal Tryout, which would also be the first point of publication for stories such as “The Cats of Ulthar”, “the Tree” and “In the Vault”. Aside from providing Lovecraft with a publishing platform, the editor of Tryout (one Charles W. Smith) would also publish Lovecraft’s poetry and non-fiction. This long-term collaboration also resulted in Lovecraft travelling to meet Smith in his home town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a journey that would inspire details from a number of different stories including, most notably, “The Shadow out of Time”, which is set in Smith’s neighbourhood.

“The Terrible Old Man” is a short, sharp and ill-tempered piece whose underlying assumptions cast Lovecraft in a rather unflattering light. Like “The Statement of Randolph Carter” the tone and imagery is considerably more dark and macabre than anything written under the auspices of the so-called Dream cycle. This is not a story of ruined temples and defunct golden ages but of burglaries, run-down houses, cars parked in side-streets, and sinister foreign influences.

The most obvious foreign influence is a gang of burglars who go by the names of Angelo Ricci, Joe Czanek, and Manuel Silva. People only passingly aware of Lovecraft’s reputation for racism might miss the significance of these names as they are all European in origin: Ricci is Italian, Czanek is Polish, and Silva is Spanish. The thing to remember about Lovecraft’s racism is that it, first and foremost, a product of the early 20th Century when people had racial hierarchies that were far more granular and perverse than those in operation today. In other words, while a contemporary audience might look at names like ‘Ricci’ or ‘Czanek’ and visualise different flavours of white guy, an early 20th Century reader would read those names and visualise racial others. As Lovecraft himself puts it:

“But Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions”

So these people were not only immigrants, they were immigrants from non-English speaking countries. They were ‘Alien’ and because Lovecraft was Lovecraft and Lovecraft was a mad racist bastard even by the standards of early 20th Century racists, the sense of racial otherness was further extended by the fact that they did not even come from the town of Kingsport. This shows us the outlines of Lovecraft’s racial hierarchy: We start with the people who come from our local area. Then we have people who are genetically different by virtue of the fact that they come from a different town in New England. Then we have people who are even more genetically different because they weren’t born in the US, and then we have the people who are even more genetically different than that because they were born in countries where the dominant language is not English. Frankly, if Lovecraft considered white people born in Spain to be ‘alien’ then it’s hardly surprising that he wound up with a mortal fear of Eskimos. Reading “The Terrible Old Man” left me with the impression that describing Lovecraft as a ‘white supremacist’ was, if anything, over-estimating his open-mindedness when it came to racial matters.

The fact that “The Terrible Old Man” is set in Kingsport is also significant as this is the first story to feature one of Lovecraft’s fictional New England cities. I touch on this question in my review of Joshi’s book on the Cthulhu Mythos but I have always been somewhat puzzled by the attempts (particularly by game-designers) to try and wrangle Lovecraft’s fictional towns into some kind of coherent shape. In truth, I suspect that Lovecraft came up with his fictional names in order to liberate himself from the responsibility of correctly depicting specific places. If you set your story in Kingsport rather than Marblehead, Massachusetts then you can not only warp the fabric of the town to suit your literary needs, you can also fill the town with all kinds of fucked-up shit without running the risk of annoying the locals. It’s interesting to note that while Lovecraft nerds have spent the last few decades pushing back against the idea of there being a coherent ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, relatively few people seem to have extended this tendency to the geography of Lovecraft’s world.

Aside from the preposterous xenophobia and the first appearance of a Lovecraftian place-name, “The Terrible Old Man” also sees the first airing of ideas that would later inform more celebrated stories such as “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Whisperer in Darkness”.

The first suite of ideas revolves around the idea of the foreign not only as a kind of genetic impurity but also as a source of cultural degeneracy. This will become more obvious when we consider the plot. “The Terrible Old Man” opens with a really vivid description of a sinister old dude living in Kingsport:

“He is, in truth, a very strange person, believed to have been a captain of East India clipper ships in his day; so old that no one can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few know his real name. Among the gnarled trees in the front yard of his aged and neglected place he maintains a strange collection of large stones, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern temple. This collection frightens away most of the small boys who love to taunt the Terrible Old Man about his long white hair and beard, or to break the small-paned windows of his dwelling with wicked missiles; but there are other things which frighten the older and more curious folk who sometimes steal up to the house to peer in through the dusty panes. These folk say that on a table in a bare room on the ground floor are many peculiar bottles, in each a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string. And they say that the Terrible Old Man talks to these bottles, addressing them by such names as Jack, Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, Peters, and Mate Ellis, and that whenever he speaks to a bottle the little lead pendulum within makes certain definite vibrations as if in answer. Those who have watched the tall, lean, Terrible Old Man in these peculiar conversations, do not watch him again.”

I love the details of the property surrounded by gnarled trees and sinister stones that resemble foreign idols. The fact that the idols are themselves foreign is obviously significant in and of itself but it also speaks to a more generalised xenophobic belief that travelling the world and visiting far-off places must somehow rub-off on the traveller and twist their soul in much the same way as those trees have become gnarled.

The second suite of ideas that will be returned to in later stories is the idea of people having their souls sucked out of the bodies and preserved in a variety of jars and bottles. I love the fact that Lovecraft refuses to speculate on why the Terrible Old Man might have a load of people trapped in bottles; maybe they are people who have tried to burgle him in the past. Maybe they are his former ship-mates. What’s also interesting is the idea that the Old Man spends his time conversing with these bottles as though he were talking to friends. This idea of sorcerers and aliens being able to suck people’s minds out of their bodies crops up in a number of different Lovecraft stories but there’s something really impressive about the eerie simplicity of a bottle that communicates through a lead pendulum on a string.

The grace and simplicity that flows from Lovecraft’s decision to tell a story through implication rather than description becomes apparent once the trio decide to burgle the Terrible Old Man’s house. Equipped with a car, they park outside with a driver sat waiting and all we know of what takes place in the house is that the driver hears screaming and assumes it’s his friends beating up the Old Man. However, when he leaves the car and goes to investigate, all he finds is the Old Man grinning and leaning on a cane. From there, the story cuts straight to the aftermath and the discovery not only of the abandoned car but also the mutilated corpses of the burglars. Lovecraft then draws the whole thing to a close with a further implication that the Terrible Old Man might well be older than he first appeared but then he’s done: A complete story, complete with a weirdly-detailed racial hierarchy and a number of fresh ideas in less than 1200 words. That is now considerably less than this piece about the story.

While “The Terrible Old Man” may highlight quite how rabidly xenophobic Lovecraft was even in the years before his marriage and his moving to New York, it remains a masterclass of concision and power. Especially when you consider that Lovecraft is a writer who is now famed for his ornate and over-baked language.

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