After nearly a decade truant, a twenty-seven year old Lovecraft has returned to us with another (according to Barnes and Noble’s unknown preface-writer) Poe-inspired tale. I doubt Lovecraft’s age will be a noticeable factor in his writing going forward, and it’s possible that some things which I had attributed to his youth will turn out to be just a thing that Lovecraft does and that I’d overlooked when I read him several years back.
By its opening lines, this story does appear to inaugurate one of Lovecraft’s most misunderstood tropes, the totally sane narrator who has been mistaken for mad due to their totally accurate recounting of a paranormal experience:
In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience.
Having not yet read the full story, there could be a thing here where, like in The Repairer of Reputations, a King in Yellow story that Lovecraft had (I’m pretty sure) at this point read, where the narrator early on mentions having been confused for insane, and then is revealed over the course of the story to, in fact, be insane, calling into question how much of the paranormal activity and even perfectly mundane setting building was real (does the narrator of the Repairer of Reputations actually live in a near-future authoritarian America, or are these just related to his delusions of being a long lost heir to an American throne that never was?).
Plus, maybe this kind of thing comes up in Poe a lot? I know it cropped up in the Telltale Heart, but I’ve only read a few occasional scraps of Poe, and most of that as required reading for high school.
Anyway, the narrator tells us how he doesn’t have any living friends, so instead he made friends with dead people, which is definitely not winning him points in the “actually sane” category, but we’re reading a horror story, so hey, this guy could be a legit psychic. Evidence stacks up in both columns. Our hero admits to having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality in childhood recollections:
I would sometimes rise very quietly in the night, stealing out to walk in those churchyards and places of burial from which I had been kept by my parents. What I did there I may not say, for I am not now sure of the reality of certain things;
But also apparently knows things that surprise others:
but I know that on the day after such a nocturnal ramble I would often astonish those about me with my knowledge of topics almost forgotten for many generations.
It’s possible that he’s misreading “astonished at how morbid your imagination is” for “astonished at how you know so much about nearly-forgotten history,” but again, horror story, it’s really not clear yet.
The main thrust of the story here is that the protagonist has discovered a forgotten tomb out in the woods as a child, and is obsessed with getting into it despite the heavy chains keeping it shut. At one point, some unknown number of years after his original discovery, he is lying in front of the tomb, and sees a (possibly hallucinatory) light within, which is immediately extinguished. Upon making this discovery, he is changed. This change is not expounded upon, except that he is then immediately able to discover the key to the tomb:
Upon returning home I went with much directness to a rotting chest in the attic, wherein I found the key which next day unlocked with ease the barrier I had so long stormed in vain.
Now, it’s been established that he has – or at least thinks he has – an obscure matrilineal link to this “Hyde family” interred in this old tomb. There’s not enough details on how this link was discovered for me to say for sure, but this story is swiftly dividing itself into two possibilities:
-That nearly everything the author has told us is delusional. There was no genealogical link between himself and the Hydes, he never found a key, he never gained entry to the tomb.
-That our narrator is a legit psychic. He was able to discover this tomb so long before his genealogical connection to the Hyde family was known because he has psychic powers, and he was able to find the key immediately after a night of revelation because of those same powers. He may be super morbid, but he’s completely sane.
Once he gets into the tomb, our narrator starts some full-on Addams Family shenanigans, sleeping in a vacant sarcophagus whose name “brought to me both a smile and a shudder” (we know our protagonist’s name is Jervas Dudley, so I’m looking forward to an all-caps revelation at the end that THE NAME ON THE SARCOPHAGUS WAS MY OWN), begins conversing with the ghosts in the tomb (or just hearing them speak, at least) enough that his speech becomes noticeably and archaically affected, and picks up literary skills from the ghosts that are unlike any writings he actually possesses.
Eventually his parents take note of the change in his demeanor, and hire some kind of private investigator to follow their kid around (is this story, in Poe-like fashion, meant to take place in the 19th century? Or is this set in the time of writing, 1927, when this “watcher” might be a literal PI?). And this is when the jig is up:
One morning as I emerged from the damp tomb and fastened the chain of the portal with none too steady hand, I beheld in an adjacent thicket the dreaded face of a watcher. Surely the end was near; for my bower was discovered, and the objective of my nocturnal journeys revealed. The man did not accost me, so I hastened home in an effort to overhear what he might report to my careworn father. Were my sojourns beyond the chained door about to be proclaimed to the world? Imagine my delighted astonishment on hearing the spy inform my parent in a cautious whisper that I had spent the night in the bower outside the tomb; my sleep-filmed eyes fixed upon the crevice where the padlocked portal stood ajar! By what miracle had the watcher been thus deluded?
It’s option A, our protagonist is completely delusional and is imagining descents into the tomb that never were. His matrilineal link to the tomb is likely imagined. The key is definitely not real. That, or there’s some serious paranormal voodoo that’s gonna get revealed somewhere in the last two pages of this story.
Our hero has developed a fear of thunderstorms and fire. This was mentioned a while ago, but when he returns to the burnt out former Hyde mansion – he’s been there a couple of times already, but this one is special – he finds out why. He finds the Hyde mansion as it was, and is possessed with the spirit of one Jervas Hyde, whose body is reduced to ash when the mansion is struck by lightning and burnt down. As he dies, Jervas Hyde resolves to find another corporeal vessel to inhabit in order to be laid to rest in the Hyde family tomb.
That’s when the hallucination ends and the protagonist’s father and some hired muscle show up.
As the phantom of the burning house faded, I found myself screaming and struggling madly in the arms of two men, one of whom was the spy who had followed me to the tomb. Rain was pouring down in torrents, and upon the southern horizon were flashes of the lightning that had so lately passed over our heads. My father, his face lined with sorrow, stood by as I shouted my demands to be laid within the tomb; frequently admonishing my captors to treat me as gently as they could.
But wait, this rollercoaster of “is he delusional or not?” isn’t over yet:
A blackened circle on the floor of the ruined cellar told of a violent stroke from the heavens; and from this spot a group of curious villagers with lanterns were prying a small box of antique workmanship which the thunderbolt had brought to light. Ceasing my futile and now objectless writhing, I watched the spectators as they viewed the treasure-trove, and was permitted to share in their discoveries. The box, whose fastenings were broken by the stroke which had unearthed it, contained many papers and objects of value; but I had eyes for one thing alone. It was the porcelain miniature of a young man in a smartly curled bag-wig, and bore the initials “J. H.” The face was such that as I gazed, I might well have been studying my mirror.
Is this porcelain miniature also a product of the narrator’s delusions? Or is he legit possessed, and his hallucinations brought on by the spirit of Jervas Hyde?
It’s actually unclear. The narrator himself is becoming uncertain by the end:
My father, who visits me frequently, declares that at no time did I pass the chained portal, and swears that the rusted padlock had not been touched for fifty years when he examined it. He even says that all the village knew of my journeys to the tomb, and that I was often watched as I slept in the bower outside the grim facade, my half-open eyes fixed on the crevice that leads to the interior. Against these assertions I have no tangible proof to offer, since my key to the padlock was lost in the struggle on that night of horrors. The strange things of the past which I learnt during those nocturnal meetings with the dead he dismisses as the fruits of my lifelong and omnivorous browsing amongst the ancient volumes of the family library. Had it not been for my old servant Hiram, I should have by this time become quite convinced of my madness.
Hiram was first mentioned about a paragraph before, so is he even a real thing? If mad, our narrator is very mad at this point, so hallucinating entire people isn’t out of the question. Unfortunately, our narrator doesn’t tell us whether this “Hiram” fellow is definitively real, i.e. whether people like his father verify that yes, Hiram’s a real person. Which is an issue, because it’s Hiram who brings us the decisive piece of evidence that Jervas is possessed, not insane:
A week ago he burst open the lock which chains the door of the tomb perpetually ajar, and descended with a lantern into the murky depths. On a slab in an alcove he found an old but empty coffin whose tarnished plate bears the single word “Jervas”. In that coffin and in that vault they have promised me I shall be buried.
If the porcelain figure and this Hiram fellow are both real things, then clearly Jervas is possessed, not insane. If the porcelain figure and Hiram are further hallucinations, then clearly Jervas is insane. Alas, I cannot look up Jervas’ father in the phonebook and ask him to confirm that Hiram is a real person, so this is where our investigation ends.
That I spent the entire post trying to figure out whether or not the narrator was insane is probably the best indication that this was a fun story to read. Lovecraft might not be doing any real Mythos stories yet, but he’s definitely become a good writer.