Mythos: The Terrible Old Man, The Tree, and the Cats of Ulthar

The Terrible Old Man

It was the design of Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva to call on the Terrible Old Man.

They’ve got foreign names, though, so the safe bet is that these three are actually the villains and the Terrible Old Man is either misunderstood or else (more likely) brings well-deserved suffering on those who dare be Italian, Polish, and (according to Barnes and Noble) Portugese.

The inhabitants of Kingsport say and think many things about the Terrible Old Man

There’s more to this sentence, but what matters here is that Kingsport is now a thing. This shows up in a couple of other Lovecraft stories and also in Arkham Horror. Honestly, if you wanted to condense the Cthulhu Mythos down such that Kingsport and Arkham were the same town, that’d be defensible. They’re both New England towns and the only things that really distinguish Kingsport from Arkham are which specific stories and landmarks happen to be placed in one location or another. If you wanted to combine them, you could.

The Terrible Old Man, not otherwise named, is super creepy and weird. He lives in a creepy old house, he talks to bottles with little bits of lead suspended in them, and the lead moves, apparently in response. The people of Kingsport mostly leave him alone on account of how spooky he is, but our protagonists are immigrants, and therefore evil/stupid:

Those who have watched the tall, lean, Terrible Old Man in these peculiar conversations, do not watch him again. But Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions, and they saw in the Terrible Old Man merely a tottering, almost helpless greybeard, who could not walk without the aid of his knotted cane, and whose thin, weak hands shook pitifully. They were really quite sorry in their way for the lonely, unpopular old fellow, whom everybody shunned, and at whom all the dogs barked singularly. But business is business, and to a robber whose soul is in his profession, there is a lure and a challenge about a very old and very feeble man who has no account at the bank, and who pays for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.

The plan is for two of the robbers to break into the house and torture the Terrible Old Man until he reveals the location of his hidden pirate treasure, whereupon the third robber will be waiting outside in the getaway car. Things do not go according to plan, in an ambiguous but spooky way:

Little things make considerable excitement in little towns, which is the reason that Kingsport people talked all that spring and summer about the 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. And some people even spoke of things as trivial as the deserted motor-car found in Ship Street, or certain especially inhuman cries, probably of a stray animal or migratory bird, heard in the night by wakeful citizens. But in this idle village gossip the Terrible Old Man took no interest at all. 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.

Intriguingly spooky, but also possessed of strong undertones of racism. This story is pretty much Lovecraft in a nutshell, and it’s basically a replacement level Lovecraft story in terms of quality. If you picked a Lovecraft story at random, you’d probably get something about as good as this.

The Tree

Our heroes today are Kalos and Musides, a pair of ancient Greek sculptor brothers. One day they get an offer from the Tyrant of Syracuse:

Of great size and cunning workmanship must the statue be, for it was to form a wonder of nations and a goal of travellers. Exalted beyond thought would be he whose work should gain acceptance, and for this honour Kalos and Musides were invited to compete.

Apparently the Syracusan tourist industry needed some help getting off the ground.

As the two work on their sculptures, using the same workshop but working on separate statues, Kalos falls ill and eventually dies. Musides makes him an awesome tomb, and buries Kalos with branches from the olive grove where he communed with his muses, as Kalos had requested. An olive tree grows near the grave at incredible pace and to incredible height. On the day the Syracusans arrive to collect Musides’ statue, there is a terrible storm, and Kalos’ tomb, Musides’ statue, and Musides himself are all destroyed by it.

But the olive grove still stands, as does the tree growing out of the tomb of Kalos, and the old bee-keeper told me that sometimes the boughs whisper to one another in the night-wind, saying over and over again, “Οἶδα! Οἶδα!—I know! I know!”

My assumption here is that Musides realized, working in the same workshop and seeing Kalos’ work alongside his own, that he would never defeat his brother, and thus poisoned him, and then Kalos got his revenge from beyond the grave. It never really says, though. Apparently Kalos’ ghost tree knows something, but isn’t saying what.

The Cats of Ulthar

It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat;

Ulthar: The city of Anonymous.

Before this law was passed, though, there was an old couple who trapped cats and then tortured them to death apparently out of pure spite.

Then one day, a bunch of probably Romani people come trundling into town. Romani are allegedly descended from Egyptians (it’s where the term “gypsy” comes from), and cats are strongly associated with Egypt, so this is probably not going anywhere good for that spiteful old couple. I say probably Romani, but it’s not totally explicit. The stereotypes are all there, though:

In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, and bought gay beads from the merchants. What was the land of these wanderers none could tell; but it was seen that they were given to strange prayers, and that they had painted on the sides of their wagons strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams, and lions. And the leader of the caravan wore a head-dress with two horns and a curious disc betwixt the horns.

And it’s a Lovecraft story, so it’d be weird if the stereotypes weren’t perfectly accurate all the time. Funny enough, I’m pretty sure the Romani are shaping up to be the heroes:

There was in this singular caravan a little boy with no father or mother, but only a tiny black kitten to cherish. The plague had not been kind to him, yet had left him this small furry thing to mitigate his sorrow; and when one is very young, one can find great relief in the lively antics of a black kitten. So the boy whom the dark people called Menes smiled more often than he wept as he sate [sic] playing with his graceful kitten on the steps of an oddly painted wagon.

This kid seems pretty sympathetic, and when his kitten gets tortured to death, his people are probably going to be the vehicle of well-deserved vengeance.

And indeed, the kid’s kitten goes missing, he is told of the evil couple, and he raises some pagan prayer in a foreign tongue, and then the caravan leaves. But that night, the cats of the town get together and eat the couple. The villagers find their clean-picked skeletons a couple of weeks later, after noticing no one’s seen them in a while and working up the courage to check in. So it turns out that the law against killing cats is as much a public safety regulation as an animal rights thing. Like, “Warning: Local cats are vengeful and organized.”

This story has a neat idea, but for the most part it’s a pretty rote Lovecraft tale with the exception that people very definitely not New England WASPs are depicted positively. Apparently it’s Boston and the Romani against the world.

1 thought on “Mythos: The Terrible Old Man, The Tree, and the Cats of Ulthar”

  1. > The Terrible Old Man
    This is very much a “annoying teenagers stick their head where it don’t belong and satisfyingly die” horror story, but the annoying teenagers are annoying foreigners.
    > The Tree
    I don’t know any interesting factoids about this story except that Lovecraft thought it’s garbage.
    > The Cats of Ulthar
    I love this story and think it’s one of the high points of Lovecraft’s writing. The events, characters and location of this story is referenced in a few other Lovecraft stories.

    Like

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