I really liked the note the previous post ended on, so I’m splitting this off into a second post for later in the same day. This is our examination of what Barnes and Noble considers to be Lovecraft’s first “real” story. There’s a few creative ideas with atrocious execution in the appendix at the back, like a story with grammar so poor it impairs readability but which contains a decent joke about some sailors finding a message in a bottle claiming to lead to buried treasure, which then turns out to be a prank. Neat and all, but not exactly a Lovecraft story, despite having been literally written by HP Lovecraft.
Fifteen-year old HP Lovecraft brings us the first “real” Lovecraft story, the Beast in the Cave, in which Lovecraft writes about being lost in a cave despite having never been in a cave in his life, having done considerable research on the subject in the library instead. I think this definitely qualifies the story as Lovecraftian.
The horrible conclusion which had been gradually obtruding itself upon my confused and reluctant mind was now an awful certainty.
Yup, definitely a Lovecraft story. This is the opening line, establishing that our protagonist was taking a tour in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, when he decided it would be fun to wander off from the group and go exploring alone. He is now completely lost and facing inevitable death, because of course he is.
Fifteen-year old Lovecraft, far from having not yet grown into his style, is so very Lovecraftian as to come across as parodic. He would evidently tone down the sesquepedelian loquaciousness later in life, and would become less enraptured with how horrifying his own stories were. He’s got that teenage affectation that using lots of really weird words must be how good writing works. Lines like this:
As I stood in the waning, unsteady light, I idly wondered over the exact circumstances of my coming end. I remembered the accounts which I had heard of the colony of consumptives, who, taking their residence in this gigantic grotto to find health from the apparently salubrious air of the underground world, with its steady, uniform temperature, pure air, and peaceful quiet, had found, instead, death in strange and ghastly form.
Would be out of place in a fan fiction only because there’s some actual interesting ideas underneath all the purple prose.
Our narrator is early on quite at peace with his imminent demise:
Hope had departed. Yet, indoctrinated as I was by a life of philosophical study, I derived no small measure of satisfaction from my unimpassioned demeanour; for although I had frequently read of the wild frenzies into which were thrown the victims of similar situations, I experienced none of these, but stood quiet as soon as I clearly realised the loss of my bearings.
However, after his torch dies and he is in total darkness, he has an encounter with some strange beast that, from its footfalls, seems to switch freely between quadrupedal and bipedal locomotion. Hearing it make a beeline for him, he gropes about for a weapon, finds some stray rocks, and tosses them at the approaching footfalls until one of them connects and the unknown creature falls. He then flees in a panic and finds the guide of the sightseeing group, who had come looking for him.
I ran to meet the flare, and before I could completely understand what had occurred, was lying upon the ground at the feet of the guide, embracing his boots, and gibbering, despite my boasted reserve, in a most meaningless and idiotic manner, pouring out my terrible story, and at the same time overwhelming my auditor with protestations of gratitude. At length I awoke to something like my normal consciousness.
This feels like the Lovecraft concept of horror in prototype: A certain and well-understood death at the hands of starvation doesn’t faze our protagonist, but one encounter with an unknown horror and he is reduced to literal gibbering. He recovers his senses pretty quickly, but still, he falls to his knees in gratitude upon rescue despite apparently having no fear of death in general.
With better access to light, the protagonist returns to the site of the confrontation to examine the creature he felled, and we get our twist ending.
Then fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place, for the sounds uttered by the stricken figure that lay stretched out on the limestone had told us the awesome truth. The creature I had killed, the strange beast of the unfathomed cave was, or had at one time been, a MAN!!!
That very fifteen-year old emphasis on the reveal is from the original.
I’m using the “Mythos” tag as a means of getting not only Lovecraft, but also August Derleth’s work in the immediate aftermath, sources of inspiration like Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow which were written before the Mythos, and much later modern addendums like FFG’s Arkham Files games (especially the Arkham Horror LCG, which is writing new stories in the same setting rather than being a vague remix of existing Lovecraft stories as most Arkham Files games have been) and the Lovecraftian Stephen King novels. By that categorization, the Beast in the Cave arguably doesn’t count. It’s definitely got Lovecraft’s style, but it’s not any kind of Mythos story. Someone just got lost in Mammoth Cave, survived off of rats and cave fish for however many years until their body was grotesquely adapted to their new environs, and then got killed by a panicked spelunker. No eldritch horror involved.
It’s in the Barnes and Noble collection, though, so I read it and now I’m writing a blog post about it.