Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Terrible Old Man,” first published in the Tryout in July 1921. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
Summary: No inhabitant of Kingsport remembers a time when the Terrible Old Man was young, and few know his real name. Rumor has it he was once captain of an East India clipper; since he pays for all his purchases with antique Spanish coins, rumor also has it he’s hidden a considerable fortune in his ramshackle house. The front yard of this ancient abode features gnarled trees and standing stones painted like idols. (Scary stones are an ongoing theme in this story.)
Small boys who’d otherwise taunt the Terrible Old Man keep away, but the occasional curious adult creeps up to a certain small-paned window looking into a room unfurnished save for a table laden with peculiar bottles. Each bottle contains a bit of lead suspended like a pendulum. When the Terrible Old Man addresses these bottles with names like Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, and Mate Ellis, the pendulums vibrate in seeming response. (Presumably these names can be heard due to breaks in the window from the “wicked missiles” hurled by the boys.)
Angelo Ricci, Manuel Silva and Joe Czanek aren’t put off by what the curious have to tell. To professional robbers like themselves, the lure of a feeble old man sitting on treasure is irresistible. One night Ricci and Silva venture up to the window and observe the Terrible Old Man in uncanny conversation with his bottles. Still undeterred, they mask and knock on the door. Meanwhile Czanek sits in the getaway car in the street behind the Terrible Old Man’s house. The screams he hears from inside don’t bode well for the poor old fellow, and Czanek nervously watches the rear gate for his colleagues. At last footsteps approach the gate, but it’s only the Terrible Old Man who appears, leaning on his cane and grinning. For the first time, Czanek notices that his eyes are yellow.
Kingsport inhabitants long gossip about three unidentifiable bodies that washed up with the tide, “horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels.” The Terrible Old Man takes no part in speculation. After all, he probably saw many more remarkable things in his long-ago sea captain days.
What’s Cyclopean: Absolutely nothing.
The Degenerate Dutch: The thieves’ names are notably ethnic. They are “of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions.” One is left with the worrisome feeling that Lovecraft might have expected one to root for the terrible old man. And he, of course, must have something foreign about him too to be properly scary—the “Eastern idols” in his yard.
Mythos Making: The story takes place in Kingsport—the same town where Ephraim-as-Asenath went to school. And the terrible old man, for whatever it’s worth, has yellow eyes.
Libronomicon: The terrible old man is apparently not much of a reader.
Madness Takes Its Toll: This story contains absolutely no mentions of madness or asylums.
The Terrible Old Man is a remarkable thing: a succinct Lovecraft story. It’s a piece of minimalist brushwork, with most of the narrative suggested by negative space.
While the racism is subtle in this one—subtle for Lovecraft, I mean—it’s clearly there, and clearly supposed to contribute to the mood of the story. This is the very standard horror trope of a criminal running into a bigger monster who, for all that he’s a monster, ultimately reinforces the social norm. [ANNE: Heh, the winner for me in this story category is a pulp comic in which the thief knocked over an old lady to snatch her purse. Then the PURSE ate him. Urp.] The terrible old man is inside “the charmed circle of New England life and traditions” and keeps that circle strong and safe in a horribly traditional manner.
But the real narrative isn’t the overt events—the attempted theft, and the violent response. It’s in the unspoken background that this story breaks away from the standard tropes and queasy-making racial subtext to create something memorable. Where Shadow Out of Time tells you every detail of Yithian architecture, here there are only fascinating questions. How did a 200-year-old retired pirate captain come to live in Kingsport? Why does he keep his crew as lead pendulums swinging in bottles? What do the stones in his front yard have to do with it all? It would be easy to come up with three or four wildly divergent stories answering those questions, each several times the length of this tidbit.
Terrible Old Man appears to be very much at the edge of the Mythos. In fact, it’s not at the edge but at the start: this is Lovecraft’s first mention of the fictional New Englandtowns that eventually form the geographic center of his oeuvre. It takes place in Kingsport, presumably on the other side of town from the HallSchool. Kingport will eventually be joined by other towns around the Miskatonic river valley, and get at least a little fleshing out. Here, it’s a name and a couple of streets.
Perhaps this is why there’s no sign of the larger cosmos—not unless the terrible old man is secretly a deep one or a servant of Nyarlathotep or a leftover cultist who occasionally offers aid to wayward Yith in exchange for help with his little mortality problem. And he could be any of those things—or he could be something completely different that never comes up in any of the stories. There are more things in heaven and earth, and they are all pretty terrifying.
I have an enduring fondness for this tale, a tiny seed pearl steeped in the influence of Lord Dunsany and also, to my reader’s ear, of M. R. James. No overwrought first person narrative here—instead our narrator is a third person divinely distant from the action but sparing of his omniscience. The voice is educated, ironic and wry. The style verges on prose poem with its descriptive repetitions, the gnarled trees and painted stones and feeble old man. In sharp contrast to the central Mythos tales, the horror is allusive and oblique, the violence kept off-stage. Yet as in the best of Lord Dunsany and James, the reader gets plenty of fodder for his imagination to work itself into a shiver, or two, or many.
Who, and What, is this Dude?
I imagine the Terrible Old Man rather liked being called “terrible,” but I like to think of him as TOM. Meaning no disrespect, bottles, I swear. I doubt TOM was the most reputable of sea captains. In fact, I have a feeling (squeeish fan girl variety) that he was a pirate or at least a business associate of pirates. Spanish gold and silver; buddies named Spanish Joe and Long Tom; black magic, come on. So TOM is a pirate (retired) and a sorcerer (present), a kind of necromancer perhaps, the way he appears to store souls in bottles for reconstitution into deadly material form as needed. This magic reminds me of the technology used by the Fungi from Yuggoth in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” except they preserve their pilfered minds in cans. Factor in the Yithians’ ability to transfer minds in “The Shadow Out of Time” and the twist Ephraim Marsh gives this feat in “The Thing on the Doorstep”, and could be that we start to see a pattern of authorial anxiety. Hey, guys? Know what would be really awful? How about the alienation of one’s mind from one’s body into a rugose cone, or a woman, or a bottle or can? Brrr!
To his other neat achievements, TOM adds the spice of unnatural longevity and…what? He has freaking yellow eyes! Dogs bark at him! Look up “Dogs, barking” on TV Tropes: not a good sign, because canines always know when something weird is walking around. (Cats know, too, only they like weirdness unless it’s likely to eat them personally.) Is TOM some form of demon, or vampire? Is he the acolyte of a god who’s marked him with its own unholy ocular aspect? I pick the last possibility, but that’s just me. The beauty of this kind of story is the malleability of its mystery. Hey, if you want to think TOM is a Soong android, go for it. No way, unless maybe Lore, but again, it’s your sandbox, have fun!
The Bad Guys:
So, an Italian and a Portuguese and a Pole go into a bar, I mean, an old sea captain’s house….
Yes, there aren’t any Yankee thieves in this story, only immigrant types who don’t know any better than to ignore the warnings of their betters, that is, the earlier immigrant types. Oh well, at least the Polish guy feels bad about robbing and maybe torturing to death a pathetic old man. I guess we can assume that TOM himself is Anglo-Saxon, though it would be an assumption since we don’t know his name or anything about his appearance apart from his long white beard and yellow eyes.
The Polish guy still gets it in the end, because though the “alien” thieves are bad, TOM is badder and ultimately more alien. On the surface the story looks like a revenge-of-the-increasingly-beleaguered-white-man drama. Another pattern may be squirming under the surface. I glimpse the Lovecraft sucker punch: Whoa, you think that’s scary, what about this? As in, oh no, star-headed radiates; OH NO, SHOGGOTHS! Or, oh no, Yithian cones; OH NO, SPACE POLYPS!
The narrator speaks of a “charmed circle of New England life,” to which the thieves do not belong. In a tale as ironic as this one, I wonder if we should only take that remark at face value. After all, in Lovecraft, New England life is much more often cursed than charmed, even at its upper-crustiest levels.
Join us next week for disturbing underground cities—and a possible example of how to suppress women’s writing—in H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop’s “The Mound.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s “The Litany of Earth” was recently published on Tor.com. Her work has also appeared in Analog and Strange Horizons, and she can frequently be found on Livejournal and Twitter. While she currently makes her home outside Washington DC, she’s originally from Massachusetts, and it really isn’t at all like that.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is now available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.