Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
As much as H. P. Lovecraft enjoyed writing about otherworldly horrors, he was also no stranger to the more grounded and dark compulsions laying dormant within us, seldom shying away from exploring them if his mind wandered this way. The Alchemist, The Cats of Ulthar and The Terrible Old Man are three of his lesser-known short stories, each one dealing in their own strange ways with the theme of retribution.
The Alchemist (1916)
Written eight years before it was published, the story opens on an oddity for Lovecraft‘s works: a named protagonist, Count Antoine de C-. We learn of a curse which has been propagated through Antoine’s noble family when one of his ancestors became responsible for the death of a dark wizard called Michel Mauvais.
The wizard’s son, Charles le Sorcier, condemned all of the ancestor’s descendants to die at the age of thirty-two… and so they did, mostly in mysterious circumstances.With his thirty-second birthday approaching and the last servant of his family passing away, Antoine begins to explore his bloodline’s ruined estate, and unknowingly inches closer to unravelling the curse which took his family. While I have described Lovecraft‘s stories as lacking the punch they did when they were published with the twists being predictable by today’s standards, I am extremely glad to say this did not fall into the category.
More than a hundred years after it was written by a seventeen or eighteen-year-old Lovecraft, I still found the end to be sweet and surprising, going into a direction I hadn’t really considered. The build-up to the final reveal as Antoine explores his family’s castle is superb, constructing a sense of dread and mystery, all while drawing us to pity our protagonist, a man who simply had the misfortune of being born into terrible circumstances.
It is quite difficult to discuss how precisely this story deals with theme of retribution without spoiling the end, but it is certainly refreshing to witness a revenge story from the perspective of the one it is inflicted on. Because of how satisfying it is to see people get their dues, most authors make it quite clear who is in the right and who is in the wrong so they may get on with the spectacle of revenge.
In The Alchemist we’re never quite sure how much the family deserves this curse, and whether the brief account we’ve been given is even to be trusted at all. In a corner of my mind, I kept wondering if maybe this curse would turn out to be something just and necessary, and that greatly helped in retaining my attention. It’s certainly an unusual take on retribution, and I’m willing to wager at the time, it was even more so.
The Cats of Ulthar (1920)
Revenge doesn’t always have to come in human form, as we see in The Cats of Ulthar. Returning to our usual favourite unnamed narrator, we are told the story of a town called Ulthar and why it has a law forbidding the killing of cats. An old couple is introduced to us, and they are the furthest thing away from sweet as their favourite hobby is murdering cats. One day a caravan of wanderers passes through the town, and amongst the people is an orphan with a small kitty… who naturally disappears shortly after their arrival.
The wanderers prepare to leave the town, but not before the boy pronounces a prayer, sealing the old couple’s fate and justifying the existence of their sacred cat law. Animal cruelty is something most of us have little to no tolerance for, to the point where the death of humans feels more acceptable, at least in a fictional setting. The killing of animals is more often than not completely senseless and gratuitous, which already lends this story a powerful context.
It takes Lovecraft all of two seconds to convince us we are looking at the worst old couple in the world and they deserve everything which might be coming their way. He knows how to develop our hatred from one page to the next, and by the time we get to the actual retribution it feels like a cathartic release. However, I do believe under the veneer of a relatively simple and traditional revenge story hide a few moral qualms.
Namely, all emotions aside, how does the “punishment” of the old couple stack up to their crimes?
Is the life of an animal truly equal to that of a human, even a borderline useless one?
While it is unquestionably satisfying to see them get their dues, there is still something to think about in regards to our own definition of a rightful vengeance.
I can certainly understand why this story was one of Lovecraft‘s favourites and considered one of his best early works; it has everything you want in a revenge plot, from philosophical considerations to the satisfaction of a successful reprisal.
The Terrible Old Man (1921)
The saying about revenge being a dish best-served cold, while an unbearable cliche, has some truth to it. In most cases, it takes time for the whole vengeance equation to realize itself, from the wrongdoings of the perpetrators to the ultimate resolution of the agent of revenge. However, there are cases where payback for one’s transgressions come in an immediate and brutal form, as they do in The Terrible Old Man.
As the tale begins, we are told of an old man living alone in ancient house, so old none could ever remember him being young. The locals’ knowledge of his biography is fuzzy at best, but it is believed he captained East Indian clipper ships and has amassed a giant fortune over the course of his life.
His yard is adorned with a bizarre collection of stones, and some have even observed him carrying conversations with strange bottles. Though the locals avoid him, three young robbers, Angelo, Joe and Manuel, learn about the treasure and decide to relieve him of it. Manuel and Angelo head inside the house, while Joe waits outside in the getaway car. The “interrogation” is taking long… way too long… and then, there were screams.
Being a modern reader, I doubt the twist of this story is something you would never see coming, and nevertheless it manages to be greatly satisfying. There are few scum more despicable than those who prey on the elderly and the defenceless, and that’s precisely what the three robbers are: the scum of the Earth.
Lovecraft doesn’t really make any notable attempts at humanizing them, and to be honest, this story does bear a hint of xenophobia towards immigrants. While I wouldn’t call the story outright racist or discriminatory, it does bear the marks of the time it was written in. The old man himself is a pretty interesting character to drive the revenge narrative forward, mostly due to the vague nature of the mystery surrounding him.
|1112||Chartwell Books||July 1 2016||978-0785834205|
Even at the end when we can piece a few things together here and there, large portions of his painting remain covered in mist. Because we know much more than the robbers, it’s quite pleasurable and even fun to see them drawing closer and closer to their doom, to the vile ending they truly deserve at the hands of someone or something we have difficulty describing. The immediate nature of this retribution also plays an important role in making the ending as satisfying as it might… after all, few things feel better than seeing evil deeds punished swiftly… even if it does entail horror from the beyond.
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.