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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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H. P. Lovecraft's The Terrible Old Man: A Detailed Summary and Literary Analysis

Like its eponymous hermit, “The Terrible Old Man” may be slight, but it packs a stunning wallop – especially for an early Lovecraft story. Leslie S. Klinger notes that it is “the shortest of any of Lovecraft’s significant stories,” and Ruthanna Emrys lauds it as “a remarkable thing: a succinct Lovecraft story. It’s a piece of minimalist brushwork, with most of the narrative suggested by negative space.” Despite its short stature – weighing in at a mere 1,142 words – it is universally considered one of the most effective stories from this period in his career. Its brevity, subject, tone, and self-control all belie the two writers who most directly influenced it: Lord Dunsany and Ambrose Bierce.


Many of Dunsany’s tales follow the misadventures of thieves, often in groups, with “The Probable Adventure of Three Literary Men” being most similar to Lovecraft’s tale. It also directly influenced “The Nameless City” (which was written almost exactly one year later, in January 1921) with its story of three bards who decide to raid the ruins of a long-deserted subterranean city in search of a storied cache of forgotten poetry, only to meet with destruction, never to be heard from again. Dunsany also lends his King James-y, “quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” style of prose, along with his tendency for disciplined subtlety, tauntingly unresolved endings, and vapory allusions to barely visible horrors.


Ambrose Bierce was likely responsible for the subject matter – ghost pirates, pirate hoards, and sinister hermits – which feature most prominently in his ghost story, “The Isle of Pines,” wherein a trio of greedy robbers decide to ransack the cabin of a recently deceased mariner – widely suspected of piracy and known for paying for his goods with ready cash – only for catastrophe to strike them.


It was also very likely influenced by Washington Irving’s two famous piracy tales: “Golden Dreams” and “Guests at Gibbet Island.” In the first, three treasure hunters slobber over the stories of pirate gold which the local crank – a terrible old man with cutlass scars and a carefully guarded chest – shares at the village inn. When he disappears during a storm, they sally forth at night to uncover his hoard using the clues he dropped, but they find themselves tracked and then chased down by what seems to be his ghost, leading to a horrible accident. In the second, a broody abolitionist parable, a pirate who retired and grew wealthy from the slave trade, is hounded by the ghoulish figures of three of his hanged crewmates, who come to collect him with their nooses still cinched around their throats.


While Lovecraft is never explicit about the Terrible Old Man’s piratical career, it is certainly hinted at, and in any case, his vague curriculum vitae benefits the story by leaving much to the imagination. What results is a story that succeeds much more from what it chooses to obscure than from the few details it allows us to glimpse – like a pair of watchful eyes gleaming through the dusk.  





The story, which takes place in the sleepy, Massachusetts shipping town of Kingsport, begins with the remark that three men – Angelo Ricci, Joe Czanek, and Manuel Silva – have determined to visit the Terrible Old Man – a local hermit who “dwells all alone in a very ancient house … near the sea, and is reputed to be both exceedingly rich and exceedingly feeble.” This, the narrator observes, is a two-fold perk for the men, because they are professional robbers.


The Terrible Old Man is a local enigma: no one alive remembers him being young, and his background is obscure and subject to speculative rumors. The principle belief is that he became rich as a captain of East Indian clipper ships, but eavesdroppers and snoops have darker theories: they note that:

“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...”

and much commentary is directed at his bizarre collection of bottles, each of which appears to contain a small lead ball which is suspended from the cork like a pendulum by a piece of string. This is innocuous enough, but the peeping toms have reported 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.”


In general, the Terrible Old Man is feared but respected by the locals – reviled but left alone – and since he pays for his goods (suspiciously) in antique gold doubloons, his financial solvency has lent him a vague sense of gentility, though his utter creepiness prevents him from having friends or company.


Ricci, Czanek, and Silva, however, are foreigners (being Italian, Polish, and Portuguese, respectively), and share none of the Kingsport locals’ fearful reverence. They plan to “interview” (viz., beat and interrogate) the old fellow with the aim of learning where he keeps his seemingly limitless horde of gold coins. One quiet night – approaching from three different directions – they converge on the old man’s remote cottage, the sight of which – and “the way the moon shone upon the painted stones” – briefly repels them, but they are determined, and Ricci and Silva knock on the door after peeking in and overhearing the hermit “talking childishly to his bottles with pendulums.” They are admitted inside while Czanek keeps watch from the getaway car.


His wait is long and anxious. The more “tender-hearted” of the three, he hates to imagine the brutality with which his friends are treating the demented eccentric, and becomes repulsed by the “hideous screams” that he hears coming from inside the cottage, recalling that he had warned “his colleagues to be as gentle as possible with the pathetic old sea-captain.” But Ricci and Silva’s interrogation doesn’t seem to be going well in spite of their apparent violence: he keeps checking his watch and wondering when they’ll return, and he does not “like to wait so long in the dark in such a place.”


Finally, he hears the sound of footsteps coming up the walk from the old man’s house, and the front gate swings open, but he doesn’t see his friends:


“in the pallid glow of the single dim street-lamp he strained his eyes to see what his colleagues had brought out of that sinister house which loomed so close behind. But when he looked, he did not see what he had expected; for his colleagues were not there at all, but only the Terrible Old Man leaning quietly on his knotted cane and smiling hideously. Mr. Czanek had never before noticed the colour of that man’s eyes; now he saw that they were yellow.”


Jumping forward in time, the narrator placidly observes how “little things make considerable excitement in little towns,” recalling how Kingsport was animated with gossip all that spring and summer when three corpses were washed up on the shore, savagely mutilated (“horribly slashed as if by many cutlasses and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels”) beyond recognition. Others gossiped about the abandoned car found near the old man’s house, or about the “certain especially inhuman cries” heard that night. But the Terrible Old Man is disinterested in the gossip:


“He was by nature reserved, and when one is aged and feeble one’s reserve is doubly strong. Besides, so ancient a sea-captain must have witnessed scores of things much more stirring in the far-off days of his unremembered youth.” 




Beyond its tightly-written, cinematic aesthetics, “The Terrible Old Man” is, sadly, most noteworthy for its xenophobic subtext as an ethnic revenge narrative. Peter Cannon most famously and succinctly addressed its hateful nature by calling it “little more than a polemic against the intrusion of people Lovecraft regarded as 'foreigners', that is, the non-English immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century as cheap labor to fill the factories of an increasingly industrialized America."

The three victims are immigrants – a Portuguese, Pole, and Italian – who have turned to crime in order to thrive in their new country. To them, crime appears to be their natural profession, and as Lovecraft puts it, “business is business.” They view the Terrible Old Man’s treasured and mysterious horde as ripe, unwatched produce fit to be harvested by enterprising souls. By virtue of merely existing in Kingsport, without having bothered to learn its ways or develop a respect for its culture (and this is Lovecraft’s perspective, mind), they consider themselves worthy of its legacy and view its acquisition as a matter of fact and form. They think of robbery as an manner of conducting work, describing their plan to torture the old man as an “interview” and their plot to rob him of his savings as a mere “design.”


For Lovecraft, the blue-collar, non-Anglo immigrant class turn to crime as naturally as they breathe, and their second greatest misstep is that they underestimate the native New Englanders as “pathetic” and “weak” – perfect prey for cunning criminals who are intrepid enough to turn robbery into entrepreneurship. By dismissing the locals in general – and the Terrible Old Man in particular – they fail to suspect what lurks beneath the surface: how did this old man acquire so much wealth?

The same could be said of New England in general, for it became the financial center of the United States up through the early 20th century through a combination of vicious competition, aggressive trade, notorious stinginess, and involvement in a number of shameful enterprises, ranging from unfair labor and smuggling to slave trading and piracy.


Indeed, the Terrible Old Man is not revealed to be some benign power, or to be protected by angels or guardian ghosts: his wolfish appearance and savage, predatory nature is at odds with a more conservative, nationalistic understanding of “good, old Yankee stock.” Instead, it seems to acknowledge the darkness inherent in New England history, and to cast the Old Man (and hence, the spirit of Anglo New England itself) as a sinister villain – unquestionably evil and certainly not someone worth emulating – along the lines of Dracula or Dr. Jekyll.


To Lovecraft, the moral – while certainly still racist – can hold this unsavory view of Old New England in tension with its anti-immigrant message. As Joshi puts it in An Epicure in the Terrible: “[the story] reveals two … primary themes: that of illusory surface appearances (the old man appears weak and helpless to the robbers but turns out to be nothing of the kind) and that of unwholesome survival (the old man, like certain other Lovecraft characters, is older than anyone should naturally be).”

Rather than some good, gray patriarch, we find a hibernating devil ensconced in the heart of New England society, consumed with the past (only speaking, as he does, to what we must assume are the captured souls of his old crewmates, and doing so with “childish” delight), but just as capable of lashing out at threats to his peaceful somnolence.


Whatever spell he learned overseas to keep himself (and the spirits of his men) alive for longer than anyone can remember is immaterial, and Lovecraft does well by avoiding the weeds of over-explanation. All that does matter is the core narrative that whoever this man is and whatever he represents, it is treacherous, insidious, and savage, and to underestimate him for his age and apparent indifference is to invite disaster. Although Lovecraft unfortunately pollutes an otherwise compelling story with his xenophobic nonsense, it is undeniable that within its few pages lurks an ironic parable of the perils that come with prejudice of any kind: where the bandits expected to find a feeble senior citizen, they encountered a savvy predator.


Likewise, despite Lovecraft’s half-hearted attempts to paint his trio of gangsters as knavish thugs, they come across as intelligent, likeable, and naïvely optimistic: their plans are well-developed, their logic sound, and their execution almost surgical. Indeed, their nervous getaway driver – “more than ordinarily tender-hearted” – is downright human, and his fate is regretted by any reader whose headstone doesn’t pompously read “I AM PROVIDENCE.”


If anything, Lovecraft has painted a highly unfavorable portrait of White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant New England, as a greedy, perfidious, savage, unsporting culture feeding off of its immigrant classes like a bloated, old spider snaring industrious, young flies to keep itself alive long past the expiration date. Regardless of whether you find this story offensive or insightful – or insightfully offensive – it is difficult to deny that it has earned its place of honor as a powerful and effective entry in the canon of American horror fiction. 





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