"The Lurking Fear" was originally released as a four-part serial in Home Brew between January and April 1923. It was later reprinted in its entirety in the June 1928 issue of Weird Tales. There are no significant textual differences between the two versions of the story. However, the 1923 serial is notable for including illustrations (two per installment) by none other than Clark Ashton Smith. These illustrations are, in the words of S.T. Joshi, "very curious line drawings" of trees and vegetation. HPL apparently didn't think much of these drawings, as they didn't depict anything described in his story.
Like so many Lovecraft stories, "The Lurking Fear" is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, in this case a journalist whose "love of the grotesque and the terrible … has made my career a series of quests for strange horrors in literature and in life." Accompanied by "two faithful and muscular men" named Bennett and Tobey, the narrator is exploring a "deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear." Tempest Mountain is located in the Catskills of southeastern New York and the eponymous lurking fear the narrator seeks is reputedly
a daemon which seized lone wayfarers after dark, either carrying them off or leaving them in a frightful state of gnawed dismemberment.The narrator is not the first reporter to be drawn to this part of rural New York. Just a month prior to the start of the tale, "an eldritch panic" had seized the area, when
One summer night, after a thunderstorm of unprecedented violence, the countryside was aroused by a squatter stampede which no mere delusion could create. The pitiful throngs of natives shrieked and whined of the unnamable horror which had descended upon them, and they were not doubted. They had no seen it, but had heard such cries from one of their hamlets that they knew a creeping death had come.
In the morning citizens and state troopers followed the shuddering mountaineers to the place where they said the death had come. Death was indeed there. The ground under one of the squatters' villages had caved in after a lightning stroke, destroying several of the malodorous shanties; but upon this property damage was superimposed an organic devastation which paled it to insignificance. Of a possible seventy-five natives who had inhabited this spot, not one living specimen was visible. The disordered earth was covered with blood and human debris bespeaking too vividly the ravages of daemon teeth and talons; yet no visible trail led away from the carnage.
This horror baffled the authorities and reporters alike. The locals, however, knew it was the lurking fear, the exact nature of which varied from telling to telling. The one thing all tellings agreed upon was that the lurking fear "dwelt in the shunned and deserted Martense mansion" which is why the narrator and his compatriots were determined to explore it long after all other investigators had left the scene of the horrific massacre of mountaineers described above.
Being "a connoisseur of horrors," the narrator and his two armed companions made their way to the Martense mansion to determine whether the legendary lurking fear was a "solid entity or vaporous pestilence." Once there, they set themselves up in one of the old house's rooms on the second floor and waited. They also made use of the room's large window to monitor the grounds. If there were any truth that this place was indeed the lair of the lurking fear, they would take note of it. Further, the three men took turns keeping watch through the night so that there was no chance they'd be caught unawares – or miss a clue that might help them uncover the truth of what was happening on Tempest Mountain.
The narrator is awakened from his turn to sleep by a "devastating stroke of lightning which shook the whole mountain." He finds himself alone, Bennett and Tobey nowhere to be found. Instead, he sees, in the "flash of a monstrous fireball," a frightful sight,
a blasphemous abnormality from hell's nethermost craters; a nameless, shapeless abomination which no mind could fully grasp and no pen even partly describe.
The narrator flees back to his hotel room in a nearby town, but is haunted by what might have happened to his companions. Because of this, he decides he must resume his investigations, no matter what the consequences.
"The Lurking Fear" is an early story by Lovecraft and it shows. More so than most of his later output, this is truly a pulp story, filled with melodrama and hackneyed turns of phrase. Despite that, there's a great deal to recommend it, not least being the Martense mansion itself, a classic "huge ruined pile" of the sort that could easily appear in a D&D adventure. Without revealing too much, I will say here that the narrator isn't wholly wrong to see the mansion as the seat of the lurking fear but there is much more happening than he realizes, the revelation of which is surprisingly effective, the story's literary shortcomings notwithstanding. In addition, "The Lurking Fear" touches upon themes to which Lovecraft will return again and again throughout his writing career, such as the weight of history and physical degeneration. Reading "The Lurking Fear" is thus an opportunity to see H.P. Lovecraft before he was fully the H.P. Lovecraft whose name is forever linked to the genre of cosmic horror he bequeathed to the world.