Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; The Terrible Old Man
“Little things make considerable excitement in little towns, which is the reason that Kingsport people talked all that spring and summer about three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels, which the tide washed in.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re talking about “The Terrible Old Man”, a wonderful short story, but seemingly short on depth. I chose this one because I wanted a bit of a reprieve from the magnitude of Call of Cthulhu and I wanted to get some of these shorter stories out of the way. My intention is to finish on the last longer pieces “The Shadow out of Time” and “The Whisperer in the Darkness.”
This short story feels a bit more like an introduction to Kingsport, one of Lovecraft’s infamous coastal cities, than a fully thought out story; a kind of a character study if you will. We revisit Kingsport a few more times, and we even get to meet up with the Terrible Old Man again in another story, but more on that later.
The tale begins with three immigrant men, one of Italian descent, one of Portuguese, and one of Polish, who decide to call on the Terrible Old Man. Quickly we are told, “This old man dwells all alone in a very ancient house on Water Street near the sea, and is reputed to be both exceedingly rich and exceedingly feeble…”
So why do these three men want to visit with him? Because thier “…profession was nothing less dignified than robbery.” It makes sense that they’d go after what they thought, being new to Kingsport, would be easy pickings.
It’s believed that the Terrible Old Man was “...a captain of East India clipper ships...” and through his captaincy developed a “...fortune of indefinite magnitude…” which he houses on his property. Property which is neglected with “gnarled trees” and “…a strange collection of large stones, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern Temple.”
Now it may be that I’m fresh off of “The Call of Cthulhu” but the reference to “idols in some Eastern Temple” peaked my spidey senses. This is not the exact description of the Cthulhu idols, but this story was written years before the development and cohesion of his mythos, so I contend that these rocks and idols were one of two things: a construct to Dagon, or a tribute to Cthulhu. Dagon, however has taken up residence in a different town, which we come to understand in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” so if the Terrible Old Man wanted to worship Dagon, he would have gone the few miles down the road to Innsmouth, because well, Dagon lives there.
Not to mention the fact that R’lyeh is sunken in the Pacific somewhere and if the Terrible Old Man was part of the East India Company then it’s more than likely that at some point in his career he came across remnants of a cult which held the Cthulhu idols themselves. I’d contend the reason for the vague description is because Lovecraft himself hadn’t solidified what Cthulhu looked like and only attributed him to “some Eastern Temple.“
Kingsport is also the absolute best Lovecraft location to read about around Halloween time (Which I can attest to because that’s when I read this one!). The imagery is spectacular and the atmosphere elicits those classic spooky New England vibes. Take “The Festival” for example. The description of the ramshackle houses, strange noises that literally go bump in the night, and odd chanting coming from unknown location; the strange architecture, and the meandering streets.
In the Terrible Old Man, as the three thieves approach the house, Lovecraft describes it preeminently as a haunted house: it’s decrepit, the trees are gnarled, and there are rocks set about in ritual fashion amongst the rotten overgrowth in which strange idols sit about. “This collection frightens away most of the small boys...” and also, “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…on a table in a bare room on the ground floor there are many peculiar bottles, in each a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string.“
Here we have a reminiscence to another story. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” Curwen would take the essence of people from their graves which he called their “saltes” and he would use them to raise these people from the dead. The Terrible Old Man talks to these bottles, calling them by what can only be his old shipmates names (with names such as Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, Mate Ellis, and…Peters). As he speaks with them the bottles and the lead make “definite vibrations as if in answer.” Could the lead in these bottles actually be “saltes” of his old shipmates?
Beyond that there is also the connection that the Terrible Old Man pays for everything with “Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.” Which is exactly what Curwen did as well.
Incidentally this Spanish gold and silver is what our trio of thieves is after, so their strategy is to send in Ricci and Silva to force the Terrible Old Man to give them the riches, while Czanek stays outside as a look out.
Czanek could hear gut wrenching screams coming from the house which we’re meant to believe they’re the screams of the Terrible Old Man, but this is Lovecraft and we know better.
Czanek hears the front gate open and goes to look, but instead of finding his fellow robbers, he finds “…only the Terrible Old Man leaning quietly on his knotted cane and smiling hideously.” Then we are given one last indicator of the Terrible Old Man’s malevolence. “Mr. Czanek had never before noticed the colour of that man’s eyes; now he saw that they were yellow.”
We come to the quote which opens this essay, and find that the three men were torn up with cutlass slashes, which “...so ancient a sea-captain must have witnessed scores of things much more stirring in the far-off days of his unremembered youth.”
Now the question is: did the Terrible Old Man actually kill these men? I’d wager the answer is no. Remember what happened in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward?” Curwen brought the dead back to life to be slaves using their essential “saltes”. I believe that’s what’s in those jars. The “saltes” of his old crew. I think he called those crewmen back from the grave and the old crew cut up the robbers and disposed of them in the ocean. Unlucky for some.
I hope everyone enjoyed that spooky story, but join me next week as we read “Old Bugs”
One of the most enjoyable things in doing this project is gathering the connections between the stories. For example The Terrible Old Man is also Thomas Olney’s guide in “The Strange High House in the Mist.” Where he is still a curmudgeon, but eventually Olney gets him to loosen up a bit. The greatest part of that story to me is the fact that he is still called the Terrible Old Man, but there is no indication as to why. Olney peruses him because he’s so curious about what the house is, and eventually gets him to open up about his dark knowledge which leads to Olney’s terrifying adventure in that story.
As mentioned earlier, Kingsport is also where my favorite Lovecraft story takes place, “The Festival.” where we dont get to see a Terrible Old Man, but we do get to see a Sinister Old Man, who leads our narrator astray. I like to think that they are the same Old Man (we never actually get his name, and somehow that makes him even more esoteric), but it is possible that everyone in Kingsport has had some kind of strange within them. The town reminds me so very much of Collinsport from the old show “Dark Shadows.” That was a sinister old town where every resident had a secret to hide.
Kingsport also plays a key role in the stories “The Dream Quest of Unkown Kadath” and “The Silver Key” as well as a brief mention in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” where we are told of the strange rituals which take place there.
Taking all that information in, it’s safe to say that the ocean is not a safe place in a Lovecraft story. Both the costal cities in Lovecraft country (Innsmouth and Kinsport) have a very gothic and sinister undertone, and that mainly comes because all the sailors that come in from the sea, bringing in with them the terrible things that dwell there.
One has to almost wonder, because this is cosmic horror, if Lovecraft lived and wrote now, would the sea still have such a draw? Now that we have space travel, would the space ports be where a modern Lovecraft would focus on? In the 20’s the ocean was still feared. The Ocean was still a place where the unknown was just around the corner. A place where unknown things could dwell and infect and inflict upon weary travelers. In a modern world space now holds that place as the great unknown. The Final Frontier as it were. Would, in fact, a modern Lovecraft have Kingsport be a spaceport instead of a coastal city?