The Outsider (1921)
A man spends his whole life in the shadows of a castle, his contact with others being only vague and distant memories. It seems to always be nighttime, a convenient mirror for the darkness which enveloped his life from the very beginning. After countless years, however, the man decides that he has had enough of this and he will try to break free from his inexplicable torment, whatever it might cost him. He knows there to be a big black tower that stretches far into the giant trees covering his domain, and if there was a way out, that’s where it would be. And so, the man sets out to scale the tower towards light and revelations, and what he finds in himself once he reaches the top might very well be enough to send him tumbling back down into the obscurity he emerged from.
When I first read this story, as with any of Lovecraft’s books, I was instantly caught up in trying to predict what the twist at the ending would be, but in this case my thoughts were diverted to something else, and it’s the prowess with which the author creates an oppressive, unnerving and unsettling atmosphere by describing the protagonist’s secluded life. The protagonist’s thoughts and habits, the castle itself and the nature surrounding it are all given some distressing and even alarming qualities that never allow you to really feel at ease. In that sense, Lovecraft has always known how to make his talents shine.
As far as the story goes, it’s only a few pages long and if you’ve read your fair share of horror novels, I would wager that you can predict the twist at the end. Despite the fact that our hardened modern minds can see it coming, the ending is still presented and executed in top fashion and just reminds us once again how Lovecraft developed the tropes we’ve come to love in the horror genre, being one of its true pioneers.
The Evil Clergyman (1933)
A short story of only a few pages, we are presented with our beloved protagonist as he is lead to his boarding room. He was warned that “he” used to live here, and that “he” left a strange, matchbox-like device on the table and no one was to touch, or even look at it for too long. Left to his own devices and curiosity, our protagonist naturally feels the need to break the mystery of the contraption. Needless to say, he gets much more than he bargained for when shadowy figures are summoned, and one of them uses the contraption to frighten the others away. When the whole seance is finished, something has gone terribly awry for our narrator, and there is no turning back.
Barely four pages long, this story doesn’t beat around the bush in the slightest as Lovecraft found it preferable to focus on the actions rather than building a setting through meticulous descriptions. He successfully builds a strong and intense mystery around that little matchbox device, getting you to start wondering about it in every way possible from the very start. As you might imagine, we don’t get exact and precise answers to everything, but there is enough information for us to infer knowledge and come to our own conclusions.
The big horror factor in this story lies in the unknown of what’s unfolding in front of the narrator and how it came to insidiously affect him without even him realizing it. The idea of playing with forces unknown, being way out of depth and allowing oneself to become a conduit for something dark and malicious, an evil that shouldn’t exist within anyone.
The Rats in the Walls (1923)
The last descendant of the De La Poer family has a big task in front of him: the ancestral family estate in England, Exham Priory, is ruined to the core and is the last remaining vestige of their once powerful name. Much to the dismay of the nearby residents, he decides to restore the old house, and soon begins to hear them… the rats in the walls. Scurrying and scratching, they slowly sap away at his sanity and urge him to probe deeper into the estate. The narrator then makes a startling discovery: there is essentially a small city under the estate, and it was maintained by his ancestors. Dreams of a swineherd that resembles the narrator start plaguing him, and very soon he learns of the unimaginably cruel deeds his ancestors were responsible for, pushing him ever-so-closer to the edge of madness that his predecessors doubtlessly crossed over into.
Many of Lovecraft’s stories are more about the supernatural and psychological terror, but this one definitely has some more graphic, physical and visceral qualities to it. The reveal, whether you expect it or not, will stay with you for a very long time to come; the author really dove deep into the terrors that could only be born from the minds of men. This is one of those stories that I would recommend the faint of hear to avoid, which is actually quite a solid compliment about a story written almost a hundred years ago.
With that being said, you can rest assured that all the trademark psychological aspects of the author’s horror are still present as he adeptly uses the rats in the walls, the sounds they make and the imagery they evoke to put us in the narrator’s shoes and feel him slowly going insane. We are often left wondering how much of it all is real, and how much comes from the imagination of a deranged and traumatized man… a fate that might very well await most of us.
Howard Philips “H. P.” Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937) 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.