Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
H.P. Lovecraft was an author who endeavored to push the boundaries of the horror genre and explore frontiers no writer has touched before. His stories cover an impressively wide array of subjects, with the horror elements often maintaining a more psychological rather than physical presence. In his short stories The Beast in the Cave, The Tomb and Imprisoned in the Pharaohs we actually get to see both types of horror at work as we are taken deep below the earth to become acquainted with the evils dwelling within.
The Beast in the Cave (1918)
When we think of ancient caves we generally picture them as being somewhere in the Middle East or a similar place with thousands upon thousands years’ worth of history to share. However, in H.P. Lovecraft‘s The Beast in the Cave, we are taken to the United States of America as our unnamed protagonist tours Mammoth Cave, part of a U.S. national park in central Kentucky.
It doesn’t take too long for the narrator to get lost and separated from his guide, at which point he begins wandering the dark tunnels in total darkness. His level of concern for the whole situation suddenly rises to its peak as he hears strange, oddly-paced and generally non-human footsteps approaching him.
One of Lovecraft‘s shorter stories at only a few pages in length, I find it to be a good introduction to the author’s style, wordsmithing capabilities as well as the general kind of horror he strives to achieve. The identity of the characters is only secondary to the experiences they go through and the setting of the cave itself.
As you might expect, Lovecraft brings the claustrophobia and confusion to life with exceptional talent and really allows us to connect with the thoughts and fears plaguing the narrator’s mind. As you will find for many of the author’s stories though, by today’s standards their resolutions do appear a bit tame, but that’s only because he was essentially the founder of countless horror tropes and archetypes used today, so that should always be taken into account.
Despite being only a few pages in length, this still remains the kind of story that will make you pause and think about the nature of man and fear itself. I don’t want to give away what takes place, but let’s just say it underscores the power of imagination when it’s running strong on the fuel that is mortal fright. All in all, an excellent way to begin your spelunking into the realm of underground horrors that Lovecraft visited time and time again.
The Tomb (1922)
Jervas Dudley has always been an impressionable daydreamer who had a rather specific goal ever since he was a child: to enter the locked mausoleum of the Hyde family whose nearby mansion had burned down many years ago. An irresistible attraction is drawing Jervas to it, but after being unable to break the padlock, he resolves to wait for his moment, however long that might take him.
He gets into the habit of sleeping on the grass next to the mausoleum, and one day wakes up with a strange impulse that launches him to a rotten chest in the attic of his home, where he finds the key he was searching for all this time. He gains entrance, and in it finds an empty coffin with the name “Jervas” inscribed on it.
The horror in this particular story is of a much more psychological nature than in the previous one, mostly because there isn’t really ever a physical threat to deal with. Rather, we are left to wonder whether Jervas is indeed going mad, or if there is something supernatural, some kind of evil luring and waiting in ambush for him in the tomb.
As expected from the author, he creates an absolutely convincing and fascinating portrayal of a man with a singularly-obsessed and fragmented mind, one that yearns for truthful explanations above all else. In my opinion, it ultimately feels like an engaging mystery with strong shades of horror, rather than the other way around. While my brief glimpse into the story may seem like it offers a bit too much information (considering how this type of plot usually goes), let me assure you that is far from the case.
The old dinosaur still has some tricks up his sleeve even for modern readers, and I myself was quite impressed and surprised at how things developed and concluded. We are introduced to an unexpected kind of evil that can lurk underneath the ground, though to be fair, whether it can actually be qualified as evil is certainly up for discussion. Ultimately The Tomb is a captivating read and one of the more memorable examples of the author’s ability to describe the madness of the human mind.
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.― H.P. Lovecraft, The Tomb
Imprisoned with the Pharaohs (1924)
Harry Houdini wasn’t just a grandiose magician and escape artist… he was also a protagonist in Lovecraft‘s short story Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, also labelled as Under the Pyramids in draft form and certain publications. The story is told from his perspective as he ventures on a vacation to Egypt in 1910. He enlists the services of a guide, and at one point must step in defuse a conflict between him and a local Bedouin leader.
The guide enlists Houdini to help settle the conflict via a “custom of great antiquity in Cairo”, which consists of a boxing match atop the Great Pyramid of Giza. Unfortunately for Houdini, he discovers it to be a ruse to lure him away into the desert and kidnap him. After being tied up and thrown into a deep pit he begins dreaming of indescribable and awe-inspiring horrors that reveal glimpses of another world.
He eventually manages to break free and begins stumbling around in the dark in search of an exit… unfortunately for him though, he is only heading deeper and deeper under the earth. Considering the identity of the protagonist (whom by the way, was very satisfied with the story and agreed to collaborate with Lovecraft on further works) and the whole set-up prior to the kidnapping, this story has a bit more of a comical flair to it than the others, at least in the first half. It’s far from being overdone, and is essentially the type of humour that stems from the rise of strange and ridiculous situations that inspire confusion.
In my opinion, that actually gives the story a greater impact when the tone shifts after the kidnapping and Houdini realizes that regardless of who he is, mortal danger and inexplicable horrors await him. The underground tunnels under the pyramids are certainly brought to life in an expertly manner and it shows that Lovecraft did as much research as he could about ancient Egypt.
This story I feel offers a good mixture of psychological and physical horror; the former stemming completely from the build-up, while the latter from the climax and ultimate revelations. The underground horrors we are confronted with are better-classified amongst the “Eldritch Gods” variety, even though the author does make a point of having Houdini dismiss his own experience as a hallucination or some sort of dream induced by the strain of being kidnapped and left for dead.
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The inclusion of that little “maybe it was true, maybe it’s wasn’t” factor at the end was a smart move as it puts us in the same boat as the narrator: do we believe the unjustifiable that our own eyes see, or do we try to explain it away with logic? How much of what we believe stems merely from what we want to be true?
Imprisoned with the Pharaohs is, in the end, an entertaining little horror story that is a bit different from Lovecraft‘s other works but certainly retains the essence found throughout the author’s writings. It’s solid in virtually every aspect and I recommend it for fans of horror shorts.
Howard Philips “H. P.” Lovecraft
(August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937)
Howard Philips “H. P.” Lovecraft was an American author who, sadly, only truly achieved fame posthumously, becoming recognized as one of the greatest pioneers of the horror genre. He is mostly known for writing the fabled Necronomicon as well as numerous short stories such as the timeless Call of Cthulhu.