According to some critics, H. P. Lovecraft is the twentieth century’s leading horror writer and a transitional figure between the late, or neo-, Gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and the more recent horror fiction of Stephen King and other contemporary writers in the genre. There is no doubt that Lovecraft has had an influence upon the genre and that his techniques for creating chills and thrills are used by the many horror writers who have followed him. These same techniques can assist any author in creating similarly tales of terror. Therefore, in this post, we will examine the methods of his madness.
For those who are unacquainted with the story, a summary is in order:
“The Lurking Fear” is divided into four parts:
- “The Shadow on the Chimney”
- “A Passer in the Storm”
- “What the Red Glare Meant”
- “The Horror in the Eyes”
With “thunder in the air,” the protagonist-narrator, a sort of nineteenth-century ghost hunter, accompanied by two strapping men, George Bennett and William Tobey, ascends Tempest Mountain, the scene of a “catastrophe,” to visit a deserted, reportedly haunted mansion. He says he wishes he’d invited reporters to join him, as then others would share his secret knowledge and it could have been they, not he, who tells the story of the fear he discovered lurking there. No animals live on the mountaintop, and “the ancient lightning-scarred trees” appear “unnaturally large and twisted.” After parking his automobile, the trio make their way through the forbidding forest, the protagonist recalling the myths and legends that have accumulated over the years concerning the Martense family, the mansion’s ghosts, and a demon that is said to abduct “lone wayfarers after dark.”
According to one story, villagers abandoned their homes one night, complaining of having sensed a catastrophe involving the sudden deaths of many squatters in a nearby village.
The next morning, a search party finds evidence that many of the squatters were attacked by the fangs and claws of some nameless monster: “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 demon teeth and talons; yet no visible trail led away from the carnage.” Local residents “quickly connected the horror with the Martense mansion,” despite its three-mile distance from the scene. A thorough investigation of the house and its environs, however, turn up nothing, and, after three weeks, the reporters on the scene disperse, leaving the protagonist alone to investigate the possibility that “thunder called the death-demon out of some secret place.”
The men take up their vigil in the bedroom of Jan Martense, sharing a “four-poster bedstead,” which they drag “from another room” and place “laterally against the window.” They’ve hung three rope-ladders from the ledge outside the room, in case the demon appears inside the house and will use the stairs to escape if it should appear from without the house. All the men are armed, and two sleep in shifts, while the third keeps watch.
After his watch, the protagonist falls asleep, has “apocalyptic visions,” which awaken him, and he realizes that one of his companions, Bennett, is gone, “God alone knew whither.” His gaze is fixed upon the bedroom’s fireplace. A terrific bolt of lightning lights the room and the surrounding countryside, awakening the frightened Tobey, who starts “up suddenly,” casting his shadow upon the “chimney above the fireplace,” but the shadow is a hideous and monstrous one that terrifies the ghost hunter: “the shadow on that chimney was not that of George Bennett or of any other human creature, but 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 next instant, the protagonist discovers, he is “alone in the accursed mansion, shivering and gibbering. George Bennett and William Tobey” leave “no trace, not even of a struggle” and are “never heard of again.”
In part two of the story, the protagonist awakens in his “hotel room in Lefferts Corner,” unaware of how he managed to escape the mansion and drive down the mountaintop and ignorant as to whether Bennett and Tobey also managed to get away and, if so, where they might have gone. He is convinced of the reality of the experience he’s had, however, and of the reality of the demon he’s encountered, for, its lying of one of his limbs--”a heavy arm or foreleg”--upon his ‘chest” proved its “organic” nature.
The protagonist, determined to return to the mansion, enlists the aid of a reporter he’d met, Arthur Munroe, and they discover an “ancestral diary” that sheds light upon some of the Martense family’s exploits.
Accompanied by a few local men, the protagonist and Munroe attempt to ascend the mountaintop again, but are stalled by a torrential downpour. The men wait out the storm inside a shack, barring the door. They have no light but their “pocket lamps” and occasional bolts of lightning. When the storm passes, the protagonist unbars the door, and awakens Munroe, but, he finds, Munroe is not asleep: “For Arthur Munroe was dead. And on what remained of his chewed and gouged head there was no longer a face.”
In part three of the story, the protagonist digs up the body of Jan Martense, whose grave is located in one of the more inhospitable sites of the forbidding landscape, for he has now become convinced that the demonic shadow he saw the night he’d kept vigil within Jan Martense’s bedroom is not corporeal, after all, but a “wolf-fanged ghost that rode the midnight lightning” and that the ghost is that of the occupant of Jan Martense’s grave. As he digs at the grave, the protagonist recalls the history of the Martense mansion that he’s learned from the “ancestral diary.” It was built in 1670 by a reclusive Dutchman, Gerrit Martense, whose equally reclusive progeny soon “deteriorated,” restricting their travels to the local area and marrying the “menial class about the estate,” thereby populating the locality with the squatters who’d recently come to ruin.
Jonathan Gifford, “an Albany friend of Jan Martense,” was disturbed when their correspondence broke off abruptly. Journeying to the Martense mansion, he was told by the “sullen, odd-eyed Martenses” who resided there that Jan was killed by a stroke of lightning. They showed Gifford his unmarked grave, but he was suspicious and returned to dig up the plot. When he did so, his suspicions were confirmed, because the body’s skull was “crushed cruelly as if by savage blows.” Although no crime could be proven, when the story was reported, the Martenses were ostracized and dark legends about them and their house began to accumulate. After 1810, the house was deserted.
When the protagonist finds that Jan Martenses’ coffin contains nothing more than “dust and nitre,” he “irrationally” continues to dig, falling through the bottom of the grave, into a tunnel beneath the burial site. The underground passage extends in two directions, and the protagonist chooses the one that leads toward the Martense mansion. After he crawls for an hour through the narrow confines of the tunnel, it ascends, revealing two “baleful” eyes of a clawed monster that digs its way past the terrified intruder, summoned to the surface by the sound of thunder. The protagonist manages to claw his way to the surface and finds he has emerged “in a familiar spot. . . on the southwest corner of the mountain.” He sees a red glare in the distance. Two days later, he learns “what the red glare meant”: the monster had attacked a squatters’ cabin, and the squatters had set the cabin ablaze with the monster inside: “In a hamlet twenty miles away an orgy of fear had followed the bolt which brought me above ground, and a nameless thing had dropped from an overhanging tree into a weak-roofed cabin. It had done a deed, but the squatters had fired the cabin in a frenzy before it could escape. It had been doing that deed at the very moment the earth caved in on the thing with the claw and eyes.”
In part four of the story, the protagonist returns to the underground passage, but it has caved in. He also visits the site of the monster’s attack, but finds only the bones of its victim. Despite having been struck by lightning, the monster seems to have escaped unharmed. He next inspects the now-deserted hamlet that the monster had previously attacked, killing seventy-five squatters. He discovers that the “odd mounds and hummocks of the region” are like “tentacles” radiating from the Martense mansion. Thinking that the mounds and hummocks resemble “molehills,” the protagonist digs into one of them, discovering within “a tunnel or burrow just like the one through which” he “had crawled on the other demoniac night.” He returns to the mansion, seeking the “core and centre of that malignant universe of mounds,” excavating the cellar of the house, before discovering this “core and centre” to be the chimney in Jan Martense’s bedroom, at the base of which, outside the house, the protagonist’s excavations have brought him. A wind blows out his candle, leaving him in utter darkness. He seeks cover “behind a dense clump of vegetation,” and, as thunder booms, he wonders what monster it shall summon or whether “anything [is] left for [the thunder]. . . to call.” He witnesses not one, but thousands, of shapeless shapes that, ultimately, take the form or deformed monkeys:
The thing came abruptly and unannounced; a demon, ratlike scurrying from pits remote and unimaginable, a hellish panting and stifled grunting, and then from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life--a loathsome night spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity. Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents' slime it rolled up and out of that yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress--streaming out to scatter through the accursed midnight forests and strew fear, madness, and death.
God knows how many there were--there must have been thousands. To see the stream of them in that faint intermittent lightning was shocking. When they had thinned out enough to be glimpsed as separate organisms, I saw that they were dwarfed, deformed hairy devils or apes--monstrous and diabolic caricatures of the monkey tribe.
Once again, the protagonist manages to escape, after shooting the last of the fiends, and he arranges to destroy the mansion, dynamiting it, and to “stop up all the discoverable mound-burrows.” However, he remains anxious, wondering whether, the world over, “analogous phenomena” may not also exist. Even “a well or subway entrance” now makes him tremble, he concludes, and he is forever haunted by the memory of the visage of the monster he saw after shooting it, which turns out to have been one of the Martense family members:
What I saw in the glow of flashlight after I shot the unspeakable straggling object was so simple that almost a minute elapsed before I understood and went delirious. The object was nauseous; a filthy whitish gorilla thing with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur. It was the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling and chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life. It had looked at me as it died, and its eyes had the same odd quality that marked those other eyes which had stared at me underground and excited cloudy recollections. One eye was blue, the other brown. They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family; the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.
Note: "The Lurking Fear" may be downloaded, FREE. Here's the link.
Now that we have pinned the specimen upon the board, let’s “murder to dissect.”
Stories told in parts or chapters are not new. However, Lovecraft’s “Lurking Fear” is a lesson in how to make such narrative segments, which, in the genre of horror, might be called “slices of horror,” maintain mystery and heighten suspense by presenting seemingly unrelated, bizarre incidents which, at story’s end, are unified in an explanation that accounts for these incidents and the relationships among them.
In the first part of the story, Lovecraft hints at several possible identities for his story’s antagonist or--he is not clear even as to their number--antagonists. The villain could be a ghost, a demon, or some sort of monster with fangs and claws. He is ambiguous as to the creature’s origin as well. Local residents believe that it is associated with the Martense mansion atop Tempest Mountain. However, the narrator of the story, who is also the narrative’s protagonist, suggests that it may be linked to the weather--particularly, to the thunder. (The mansion and the weather, in fact, may themselves be connected in some way, as the house’s location, atop a mountain that takes its very name from a storm, or “tempest,” suggests.) Lovecraft’s multiplication of these possibilities is only one instance of such multiplications to be found in “The Lurking Fear.” On one occasion, the protagonist is certain that the creature is “organic,” or corporeal, but, later, he is just as sure that it is incorporeal. Obviously, it cannot be both, so which is it, tangible or intangible?
Another way by which Lovecraft multiplies possibilities (and therefore promotes ambiguity) in his tale is by suggesting several possibilities as to the creature’s point of origin. It is said to dwell in “some secret place.” Is it located in the house, in Jan Martense’s grave, in an underground tunnel, in the “odd mounds and hummocks of the region,” or elsewhere? Indeed, at times, it seems to drop out of the sky. Is it of an aerial nature? Neither the protagonist nor his companions, George Bennett and William Tobey, staying overnight in the mansion, know whether to expect the ghost, the demon, or the clawed monster to attack them from within or from without the house, so they are careful to suspend three rope-ladders from the ledge on the wall outside the room, one for each of them, in the event that the monster’s assault is from outside rather from inside the house. When the creature abducts Bennett and Tobey, it’s as if the men simply ceased to exist: they are simply gone, leaving “no trace, not even of a struggle,” and are “never heard of again.” Repeatedly, the reader wonders just what sort of threat it is that the protagonist faces. There are clues aplenty as to its possible identity, but none of them add up. All is confused and ambiguous. Therefore, and thereby, the story’s horror is increased, and its terror mounts.
In part two of the story, determined, despite what has befallen George and William, to solve the mystery of the Martense mansion, the protagonist, enlisting the aid of a journalist, Arthur Munroe, and some local men, is returning to the mountaintop when the onset of a violent rainstorm forces them to seek shelter inside a rude shack. In the darkness therein, Munroe is killed, losing his face to the monster’s appetite. Earlier in the same part of the story, the protagonist asserted his conviction that their adversary is “organic,” because, he says, he felt it rest a limb upon his chest. Once again, however, Lovecraft leaves open alternatives as to the nature of the story’s antagonist. The sensation that the main character felt of something laying a limb upon his body and the gouging of Munroe’s head and the devouring of his face suggest an entity that is corporeal. However, the silence with which the monster comes and goes and its ability to get inside the locked hovel imply that it is incorporeal. Is it a ghost, a demon, a monster of fang and claw? A combination of such creatures? Something else entirely? Ambiguity--hence horror--reigns.
This ambiguity is further complicated in the third part of the tale, when the protagonist, now supposing the monster may be a ghost, rather than an “organic” entity, visits the grave of Jan Martense. After digging up and discarding the coffin within the grave, he digs farther down, and falls through the bottom of the grave, into a tunnel, wherein he encounters the adversary. Previously, all he’d seen of it was its shadow, which he described as “a blasphemous abnormality from hell’s nethermost craters; a nameless, shapeless abomination which no mind could fully grasp and no pen even partly describe.” Now, the monster is described as having eyes that glisten and glow “with a baneful and unmistakable effulgence,” as bearing a claw, and as moving “with Cyclopean rage” as it tears “through the soil above that damnable pit,” the tunnel in which the protagonist encounters it. Later, hearing of the monster’s attack upon a squatters’ cabin, the description that the squatters give is, again, of a “nameless thing” with a “claw and eyes.” Much of the hideous appearance of the creature is supplied by the reader’s imagination, rather than by Lovecraft’s description of it, and the monstrosity of the entity is thereby magnified, since it is a rare occasion during which words, even of the most skillful author, can match the apparitions that one’s imagination can conjure out of fear. Lovecraft’s description is accomplished in the same manner as he creates, maintains, and heightens the mystery and the suspense of the story itself: he portrays it piecemeal, describing only this feature or that feature of its overall appearance and leaves much of the monster in the dark, so to speak. At the same time, by having previously supplied the reader with an array of possibilities as to the nature of the antagonist (ghost, demon, monster with fangs and claws), he has provided some possibilities from which the reader may piece together the rest of the entity, which is likely to be some conglomeration of these alternatives. Later, Lovecraft’s protagonist will offer readers yet another description, different than those that he has supplied already.
Part four of the story links the mountaintop mansion to the surrounding countryside in which the “nameless thing’s” attacks occur. When the protagonist, visiting the site at which the seventy-five squatters had been killed by the monster a few days before, he discovers “odd mounds and hummocks of the region” which are like “tentacles” radiating from the Martense mansion. He digs into the side of one of these mounds, finding a tunnel that he follows back to the house, intent upon finding its origin, and, outside the mansion, near its chimney, he locates a hole, out of which rushes not one, by thousands, of the monsters he hunts, looking, again, different both from the shadow that the protagonist saw on the chimney inside Jan Martense’s bedroom and the eyes and claw he saw inside the tunnel. At first, the fiendish creature seems to have no specific shape: “from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life--a loathsome night spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity. Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents' slime it rolled up and out of that yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress--streaming out to scatter through the accursed midnight forests and strew fear, madness, and death.” However, after the protagonist shoots one of the things, he sees that it does have an appearance similar to that of a familiar creature. It resembles an ape or a gorilla, but one that is terribly deformed: “The object was nauseous; a filthy whitish gorilla thing with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur. It was the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling and chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life.” The fiendish creature is, the protagonist realizes, with almost palatable horror, a descendant of the Martenses themselves: “It had looked at me as it died, and its eyes had the same odd quality that marked those other eyes which had stared at me underground and excited cloudy recollections. One eye was blue, the other brown. They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family; the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.”
The mystery of the monster is solved, but the reader must fit together the pieces of the puzzle that Lovecraft’s protagonist-narrator has provided, piecemeal, throughout the story, resolving apparent discrepancies and contradictions for him- or herself, which makes the story more intriguing than it might have been had the author done this work on the reader’s behalf. In doing so, the reader is apt to conclude, from the story’s hints at incest and cannibalism and the once-wealthy family’s descent into poverty before they’d abandoned the house that, as a result of incestuous intermarriages over generations, the family’s descendants have mutated into a starving, cannibalistic clan who are dependent upon human flesh for their sustenance and have, therefore, dug the “tentacles” of tunnels as a means of stalking the squatters and other inhabitants of the surrounding countryside, whom the mutants kill and feed upon. Perhaps the storms enrage them. Certainly, at times, the storms provide the cover of darkness, except during intermittent flashes of lightning, and they are violent enough to require that people seek shelter indoors, where they are trapped. Appearing abruptly from their hidden tunnels, the mutated cannibals seem, at various times to various victims, to be ghosts or demons or monsters most notable for their bright eyes and hideous claws.
Lovecraft, however, leaves it to his readers to figure out the mystery of the horror that his protagonist, as narrator, has described, and, although Lovecraft has provided all the necessary clues, he has done so not only in a piecemeal fashion, but also in a manner that seems to be ambiguous and even contradictory, multiplying possible alternatives and explanations instead of eliminating them, which complicates and enriches the elements of horror and terror while, at the same time, making it more difficult for the reader to solve the mystery. When his protagonist suggests a resolution, it accounts for the many bizarre incidents, and, in that sense, satisfies the logic but, at the same time, does not alleviate the story’s horror and, in fact, may elevate it. In the hands of a lesser writer, a narrative of this sort, might have proved overwhelming, but Lovecraft is one of the great names in the genre, and, in “The Lurking Fear” (despite the inferior art on the cover of the anthology that contains this narrative “and other stories”), he has written another tour de force.