The Lovecraft Reread

Old-fashioned Cemetery Horror: “In the Vault”

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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 “In the Vault,” written in September 1925 and first published in the November 1925 issue of Tryout. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.

Summary: An unnamed physician relates the story of a deceased patient, George Birch—long-suppressed details of the incident that left the man physically maimed and spiritually shaken. Birch, undertaker for the village of Peck Valley, was little concerned with the dignity of his “customers” and not above pilfering laying-out apparel. He knocked together flimsy coffins and was sometimes inexact about matching corpses to headstones. He also neglected the receiving tomb at Peck Valley Cemetery, where the dead abided aboveground through the region’s earth-freezing winters. He was not an evil man, the narrator opines, just “thoughtless, careless and liquorish…without that modicum of imagination that holds the average citizen within certain limits fixed by taste.”

The winter of 1880 is particularly hard. When spring thaw comes, the receiving tomb has nine tenants awaiting burial. Birch buries one, but is in no hurry to transfer the rest to their graves. On Good Friday (which he hasn’t the bracing superstition to avoid), he decides to get some more planting done. Leaving his nervous horse outside the tomb, he looks first for Matt Fenner’s coffin; the old man was good to him, and Birch has outdone himself in providing Fenner with a sturdy box. His first effort for Fenner, typically substandard, he used instead for Asaph Sawyer, a vindictive man with a long memory for wrongs, whom no one liked.

Just as Birch locates Fenner’s coffin, wind slams the tomb door shut. In darkness now nearly complete, Birch reaps the reward for his neglect—the rusty lock has jammed, and he’s trapped with his silent clientele. Yelling does no good, as there’s no one but his horse to hear. Birch fumbles for tools he noticed earlier. Hammer and chisel procured, he thinks to escape by chipping out part of the brick transom above the door. But how to reach it? His only ladder-building materials are the eight remaining coffins. Birch decides to pile them in front of the door, with the Fenner box on top to serve as a sturdy work platform.

Characteristically undaunted by the thought of what’s inside the boxes, Birch heaves them into a shaky Babel. In the dark he must identify Fenner’s coffin by touch; indeed, he puts it on the second-to-the-top layer by mistake, but luckily it tumbles back into his hands. He mounts the tower and gets to work. The transom brickwork is less yielding than he hoped. He chips on until midnight, to his horse’s increasingly excited neighs. At last the hole’s big enough, but just as Birch tries to scramble through, the supposedly stout Fenner coffin caves in, jouncing him two feet down into nastiness not even he can abide. A terrible stench billows out. The horse screams and bolts.

Finally as scared as his situation warrants, Birch struggles to pull himself out of the coffin and through the transom. But something holds his feet fast. Nails or splinters are the only answers his materialistic mind suggests, yet Birch screams as he kicks free, nearly fainting.

Somehow he gets through the transom, drops to the ground, and crawls to the cemetery lodge. The keeper summons Dr. Davis, our narrator’s predecessor. Davis doesn’t like the way Birch’s ankles have been lacerated. After bandaging the wounds, Davis urges Birch to insist that it was nails and splintering wood that have lamed him —permanently, for both his Achilles’ tendons have been severed. Then Davis goes to the tomb and confirms his fears.

He returns to vehemently whisper the truth in Birch’s ear. It was Asaph Sawyer’s flimsy coffin, the same size as Fenner’s, that Birch put on top of his pile. It’s split open, and Davis has seen Sawyer’s skull, crushed by Birch’s kicking. What terrified him, however, was the look on what remained of Sawyer’s face, a vindictiveness worthy of a man whose “eye-for-an-eye fury could beat old Father Death himself.” Davis tells Birch he doesn’t blame him for giving Sawyer a cast-off coffin, but he went too far in making it Matt Fenner’s. For Fenner was a little man, Sawyer tall, and Birch got what he deserved for making Sawyer’s corpse fit by cutting off his feet at the ankles!

What’s Cyclopean: In a workaday human cemetery? The tomb is “tenebrous;” that’s the best you’re gonna get.

The Degenerate Dutch: No one but us townsfolk here to speak ill of. And they do seem to spend a lot of time speaking ill of each other.

Mythos Making: Alas, not even the faintest hint of a shoggoth.

Libronomicon: No books. Birch isn’t really a book sort of a person.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Birch develops a fine case of alcoholism in the aftermath of his tomb-induced trauma.

 

Anne’s Commentary

A pulpy revenge-from-beyond tale with special resonance for me because when I was in high school, every party at a certain friend’s house seemed to end in a nearby cemetery, where there was not only a statue of the Virgin Mary that bled (apparently catsup) from its eyes but a once-magnificent receiving tomb. Half its roof had collapsed, but the marble walls stood firm, and lining the side and back walls were coffin niches, deep and tall, more commodious than most berths for the living. If one wanted to be a real badass, he or she had to climb into one of the top niches, four high and about sixteen feet from the littered marble floor. On the memorable occasion, I felt so bad about only daring to go two niches high that I snuck away from my friends while they staked out the bleeding Virgin; with no one commenting on my technique, I made it to a top niche, full of dry leaves and long-drained beer bottles.

Like many cats, however, I found the climb down more daunting than the climb up and was stuck in the niche for one of those quarter hours that feels like a quarter century. The tomb-stranded George Birch didn’t yell long because he was phlegmatic. I didn’t yell because (a) either the snarly cemetery keeper would answer or (b) something more than leaves and bottles might abide in another niche.

Eventually my friends rescued me, so I was luckier than George, but I’ve had an edgy fascination for receiving tombs ever since. They’re like halfway houses for the dead, with a motley of corpses tossed together for a frozen season and no one lively to amuse them, unless a warm body happens to lock itself in.

Like George Birch.

The choice of narrator is typical of Lovecraft: a highly educated man, this time a physician rather than a professor, because why would a professor be hanging around Peck Valley? The physician doesn’t seem happy to be there, either. He opens with an attack on the fallacy that the homely (here meaning rustic more than domestic, I think) must be wholesome. Nope, and what’s more, Birch wouldn’t have gotten away with his lax practices in the city. Lovecraft’s country folk (excluding the ones we met in “Color Out of Space”) seem a degenerate lot, like the old guy in “The Picture in the House,” the squatters in “Lurking Fear,” and the denizens of decaying Dunwich. So Birch doesn’t get to tell his own story, or even Dr. Davis, the old country doctor who treats him after his “accident” in the tomb. The narrator is much more distant from the terrible events of Good Friday, 1881. I wonder to whom he’s telling his version, which he’s embroidered with details it’s doubtful a delirious and moribund Birch would have related, including his own thoughts as the action unfolded. The narrator is also more credulous than I’d expect, making no declarations that Birch must have imagined it all or been drunk out of his skull or psychotic or fill-in-your-own frantic denial of the supernatural. Maybe he’s writing in a private journal? That’s my guess. Otherwise, PATIENT CONFIDENTIALITY, Doc!

The removed tone of narration works in such a short story. However, I might have preferred an uncharacterized third person omniscient, like the one in “Terrible Old Man,” a tad lighter on the irony.

Anyhow, still scary for me, with some nice tomby details. And the obligatory crawl-stagger-reel away from central horror on auto-pilot, because nearly fainting. And, of course, the nervous equine prophet of approaching doom. Good thing we still keep dogs and cats around to warn us of the uncanny, as Hondas aren’t nearly as sensitive to it as horses were. Speaking of cars, the demon-incarnate-puppy-squishing Asaph Sawyer reminds me of Stephen King’s Roland LeBay, whose vengeful rage also survived his death, not in a usefully weak coffin but in a Plymouth (yes) Fury.

Oh, and does anyone know where in Lovecraft country Peck Valley is? I’d like to visit me another receiving tomb for Hallowe’en.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

So… meh? Why Lovecraft felt the need to run with the “central situation” suggested by C.W. Smith, I’m not clear. This is not his usual material, and one doesn’t get the impression that he really got excited by it.

Ironically for a story in which lack of thoughtful sensitivity is the unforgivable flaw, “In the Vault” entirely lacks sensitivity. From the first urgent warnings about how very dark it will be, to the italicized melodrama of the ending, it’s almost entirely dependent on crude surface-level effects. Perhaps that’s why Lovecraft makes his second-hand narrator disclaim that he’s “no practiced teller of tales.”

The closest we get to subtlety, and it isn’t very close, is the casual use of two bits of religious symbolism. The story takes place on Good Friday, presumably to evoke images of interment and resurrection. I suppose he could hardly have even the most insensitive village citizen working on Easter, but the fit of connotation to story is as poor as that of Sawyer to his coffin. Then, Birch’s improvised climbing platform gets called a Tower of Babel. He does show a bit of hubris here, and insufficient respect for the supernatural, but the original Tower reflects an excess of imaginative zeal rather than a deficit. Again we have the surface similarity, but a poor fit underneath.

Oh, and we have the repeated suggestion that the horse is more sensitive than the undertaker. Yeah, yeah, we get it already.

The narrator says that most undertakers are “calloused and primitive specimens,” with Birch as a particularly egregious example. My experience with people who work around death is that 1) they do seem pretty calloused, and need to be reminded of which subjects are inappropriate for dinner table jokes, but 2) they are deeply conscious of the dignity of their charges. This is the central oversimplification of the story, and fits the repeated implication not only that an appreciation of horror is a sign of civilization, but that a lack of one implies a lack of the other. Playing to the audience, much?

This assumption does seem worth examining further: that an appreciation for the weird and ghastly is a sign of good breeding, sensitivity, and a willingness to follow societal strictures even when no one is watching. Imagination enforces taboo. It’s an interesting anthropological claim, and possibly not entirely off-base. It’s certainly true that horror often gets its oomph from taboo breaking. Campfire stories, urban legends, even some of the deeper myths often warn against the violation of apparently arbitrary rules. Don’t leave the path. Don’t make out with your boyfriend on the deserted bluff. Don’t fool around with dead bodies. Unseen monsters encourage us to stay within the safe circle of tribal strictures.

And yet, and yet… fear isn’t civilization’s only fundamental support, and I think that’s where this story falls down. A basic, taboo-based fear is ultimately all it’s got, and that’s not enough to support any interesting effect. Dead ankle-biters just don’t compare with shoggoths and the terror and wonder of vast cosmic vistas.

 

Join us next week for another snippet of marine horror in “Dagon.”

Image of the Swampscott Cemetery receiving tomb, Swampscott MA, available at the Wikimedia Commons by Magicpiano under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. And thank the gods, because the only actual covers we found for this story picture A) Cthulhu and B) a bank vault.


Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She recommends Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book for another take on receiving tombs.

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 available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.

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