Monday, June 25, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tomb

H.P. Lovecraft is one of those authors I first encountered because some of the older guys I know who played D&D claimed that "the game is based on his stuff" or some variation thereof. So, taking them at their word, I sought a collection of his stories at my local library. What I found was a copy of an old Ballantine anthology called The Tomb and Other Tales, which, as it turns out, contained a lot of Lovecraft's early, less overtly cosmic stories. As a result, my initial impression of HPL was that was a 20th century Poe -- not a bad thing in itself but certainly not what I had been led to believe about him based on the comments of my elders in the hobby. I simply couldn't see much of a connection to D&D and wouldn't until the release of Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium in 1981, when I again return to the Old Gent's works.

Even so, those early stories stuck with me, particularly "The Tomb," which was not only the lead-off story of that collection but the very first example of Lovecraft I ever read. I must have been 10 or 11 years old when I did so and, while perhaps not one of Lovecraft's greatest works, it nevertheless had an effect on me. "The Tomb" was written in 1917, but didn't appear in print until 1922, when it was published in the March issue of a periodical called The Vagrant. The story begins as the first-person narrator introduces himself:
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. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism.
My name is Jervas Dudley, and from earliest childhood I have been a dreamer and a visionary. Wealthy beyond the necessity of a commercial life, and temperamentally unfitted for the formal studies and social recreations of my acquaintances, I have dwelt ever in realms apart from the visible world; spending my youth and adolescence in ancient and little-known books, and in roaming the fields and groves of the region near my ancestral home. I do not think that what I read in these books or saw in these fields and groves was exactly what other boys read and saw there; but of this I must say little, since detailed speech would but confirm those cruel slanders upon my intellect which I sometimes overhear from the whispers of the stealthy attendants around me. It is sufficient for me to relate events without analysing causes.
I don't think it's a stretch to suggest there's a bit of autobiography going on here, or at least idealized autobiography, with Dudley a stand-in for Lovecraft. At the same time, the fact that the narrator admits to being committed to an insane asylum calls into question almost everything he says, including the details of his life and personality. In any event, Dudley soon reveals to the reader the extent to which he is unwilling to acknowledge a distinction between the real and unreal by becoming obsessed with a mausoleum he finds in the woods behind his ancestral home.
I will tell only of the lone tomb in the darkest of the hillside thickets; the deserted tomb of the Hydes, an old and exalted family whose last direct descendant had been laid within its black recesses many decades before my birth.
      The vault to which I refer is of ancient granite, weathered and discoloured by the mists and dampness of generations. Excavated back into the hillside, the structure is visible only at the entrance. The door, a ponderous and forbidding slab of stone, hangs upon rusted iron hinges, and is fastened ajar in a queerly sinister way by means of heavy iron chains and padlocks, according to a gruesome fashion of half a century ago. The abode of the race whose scions are here inurned had once crowned the declivity which holds the tomb, but had long since fallen victim to the flames which sprang up from a disastrous stroke of lightning. Of the midnight storm which destroyed this gloomy mansion, the older inhabitants of the region sometimes speak in hushed and uneasy voices; alluding to what they call “divine wrath” in a manner that in later years vaguely increased the always strong fascination which I felt for the forest-darkened sepulchre. One man only had perished in the fire. When the last of the Hydes was buried in this place of shade and stillness, the sad urnful of ashes had come from a distant land; to which the family had repaired when the mansion burned down. No one remains to lay flowers before the granite portal, and few care to brave the depressing shadows which seem to linger strangely about the water-worn stones.
It doesn't take a close reading of the text to anticipate that this tomb will play a central role in the plot of the short story, as Dudley becomes more and more obsessed with it, to the point that he sleeps outside in the woods just to be near it. Eventually, as a result of a dream, Dudley seeks out the key to the chains and padlocks that keep the tomb closed. When he finds the key, it's located, strangely, within the attic of his own home, which only makes him wonder more about the tomb and its contents. Naturally, Dudley cannot resist the urge to open the lock and enter, which is when the story really begins.

Re-reading it, I still have a great fondness for "The Tomb," an opinion Lovecraft himself apparently shared, even as he disavowed many of his earliest efforts in later years. It's very effective in its evocation of mood, particularly of loneliness, isolation, and creeping madness. I suspect that's why it's stayed with me all these years. Though clearly influenced by Poe (and, to a lesser extent, by Stevenson), it stands up well in its own right, especially in the way that it plays with questions of materialism and the supernatural, two themes to which HPL will give greater attention in his more mature works.

11 comments:

  1. This does feel like an OSR story. Daydreaming, old objects in the attic, the allure of death. I think your comment on "idealized autobiography" gets to heart of it.

    Mythos or not, this seems to me to relate to another post, also just up: http://sordnbord.blogspot.com/2012/06/maybe-little-too-much-cthulhu-in-osr.html

    It's getting a bit stale, musty. Just us and our petty gods, waiting for a stock HPL bolt to strike. As Gramsci put it:

    "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

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  2. Idealised autobiography indeed; your story mirrors my own in part, James.

    My mother maintained -- alongside a complete collection of yellow-spined Agatha Christie paperbacks and a number of reference books on the occult and supernatural -- a vast library of cheap, trashy, almost always black paperback horror collections. As a child I was drawn to the lurid and horrific covers but had to be clever and stealthy if I wanted to read them.

    Many years later, I encountered Call of Cthulhu, and something about Lovecraft's name stirred something in my memory. I went home, and sure enough amongst my mother's collection was The Tomb and Other Tales. It was this edition, and although I'd not read it before, I soon made up for that oversight, starting with -- of course -- "The Tomb" itself.

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  3. That's the very same edition I first read!

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  4. That is a weird -- dare I say eldriich -- coincidence.

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  5. That sounds very much like the first Lovecraft collection I read, also in a Bantam series. But the first story for me was "Rats in the Walls" (still a favorite), so perhaps it was a different volume.


    And "The Tomb" describes very well just how I want an old, lost tomb to feel to the players in a game.

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  6. I just re-read this story last week. Great one. Gamers who aren't aware of him should be made so.

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  7. As a bonus, if you're into such things, that phrase in the second quote is also the obvious source of the name for The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, a disturbingly cool band whose songs are almost all inspired by Lovecraft's writing to one extent or another.

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  8. That is a seriously '70s title font and color. Ghastly, but not in an HPL way.

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  9. A favorite story of mine too. Here's my reading of it for Librivox in one of their Horror Story Collections. It's the last one:


    http://archive.org/details/horror_001_librivox

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  10. All the mentions of HPL on this site and I was always able to resist the temptation til now. These excerpts finally got me. Now I have even more summer reading to do. Grrrr!

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  11. No way! The tomb was my first Lovecraft story, too! It was the first story in the Penguin Classics "The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories."

    The one with this cover:
    http://www.tower.com/thing-on-doorstep-other-weird-stories-h-p-lovecraft-paperback/wapi/100555518

    Only having heard vaguely some of the names of Lovecraft's elder gods and such, I dove right in and was like "whoa dude, where have you been my entire life."

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