Top positive review
Not a Terrible Story at All
Reviewed in the United States on May 21, 2020
H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps America’s greatest horror writer between Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, was many things, but succinct wasn’t one of them. Lovecraft often went to great lengths establishing the atmosphere in his stories. So, his early short story, “The Terrible Old Man,” will come as a surprise to many readers. It’s quite concise, less than ten pages, and, moreover, the author displays a wry sense of humor largely lacking in his longer works. In most respects, this tale is a gem of flash fiction that works as well today as when Lovecraft wrote it a hundred years ago.
“The Terrible Old Man” was written in 1920 but wasn’t published until a year later. It came at a time when Lovecraft was transitioning from his earlier standalone horror works to the more complex stories that fit into the various complex mythologies he created. “The Terrible Old Man” is set in the fictional New England town of Kingsport, which would be the setting of some later Lovecraft stories, but otherwise bears little resemblance to those later tales. (A different version of the title character does appear in one subsequent story.)
The plot of “The Terrible Old Man” is quite simple, as you might expect in a story this short. The title character is a former sea captain living by himself. The locals know enough about him to give him a wide berth, but three strangers in town decide to rob him. That proves to be a most unfortunate decision on their part. Variations on this storyline have occurred very frequently in film, TV, and literature over the years. (Something very similar happens in the opening scene of “The Terminator”). In fact, the plot was probably older than the title character when Lovecraft wrote it. What makes the story so enjoyable isn’t what happens but the way Lovecraft tells it, or, more accurately, doesn’t tell it.
In the first half of this very brief story, Lovecraft provides a few nuggets about the décor in the old man’s home (enough to alert readers that he isn’t an ordinary senior citizen). Otherwise, readers never learn just who or what the old man really is. Similarly, the fate of the three robbers is revealed in a most roundabout manner for Lovecraft. But the way he words the story is precisely what makes it so enjoyable. His tongue is definitely well in cheek as he plays with his readers by making observations such as the fact that the robbers “were experienced in the art of making unwilling persons voluble.” For a story in which some rather unfortunate things occur, “The Terrible Old Man” has an almost playful tone.
In reviewing this story, I should note that the robbers are named Ricci, Czanek, and Silva. Further, Lovecraft notes that they are “of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions.” Some people may find these references to be racially insensitive, and, truth be told, Lovecraft uses worse language in some of his stories. However, I have read many popular contemporaneously written books, and those other authors frequently used far worse racially stereotypical language. Here, Lovecraft merely used the apparent nationality of the robbers as a shorthand method of making the point that they weren’t from the area. (It’s a frequent horror story trope to explain to an ignorant stranger, “You’re not from around here, are you?”) Today, writers would have done it differently, but it’s far from the worst language you’ll find from that era.
I enjoyed “The Terrible Old Man” about as much as possible for a story that brief. It’s not really scary, but it is economically written. And I did chuckle a couple of times thanks to Lovecraft’s turn of phrase. Readers will find far more terrible horror stories than “The Terrible Old Man.”