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The Terrible Old Man' by H. P. Lovecraft

Introduced by Jekwu Anyaegbuna


The first reaction that comes with being asked to recommend a classic short story is befuddlement because there are many excellent classics, and choosing only one becomes immensely difficult and nerve-wracking. But I was looking for a story that comes packed with what I call the rail-track effect or the jiggle-wiggle syndrome, which is that constant shaking and tugging at both the heart and the brain when a story holds one spellbound. It is the kind of impact that could compel the reader to ignore the presence of a python underneath the desk because the story is so good that looking away for a second might be considered a big risk.

I wanted a story that is an effortless inquiry into the cagey-shifty nature of humans. I didn’t want perfect characters anyway, given their arrant dishonesty that refuses to admit their human flaws. I wanted characters with both good and bad traits. In fact, I wanted characters with foibles – truthful badness – who let us experience the dynamism and unpredictability of humans. Be sacred, be scary, be secretive, you are still human nonetheless, and fiction is here to explore your complexities and your simplicities with no dilutions. In addition, I wanted subtle humour induced by the interplay of absurdity and sagacity.

‘The Terrible Old Man’ by H. P. Lovecraft offers these narrative satisfactions adequately. It is a brilliant story that manipulates the tropes of curiosity and suspense to provide the reader with a mix of thrill and scare. One of the most frequently ignored tools of fiction is vividness, but this story triumphs in the way the various elements of craft are highlighted early in the story. From the very first paragraph, we are introduced to the ominous setting, the quirky characters, and the underlying theme of reclusiveness straightaway, raising our inquisitiveness to the peak. The clarity of its fictive vision speaks volumes. Being a picturesque story, it sweeps you along with its strong gavel of show-don’t-tell, which keeps hammering one image after another into your consciousness. The protagonist is an old man, whose long life has been in contact with upheavals and successes, turning him into an enigma who delights and terrifies his neighbours in equal measure. The title itself with the word ‘terrible’ is already a huge trap for every curious reader. This is a story that wears the garments of fantasy, realism, and surrealism comfortably. It is a delightful horror, in fact. Read it, and you might laugh just a little.




The Terrible Old Man


It was the design of Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva to call on the Terrible Old Man. This old man dwells all alone in a very ancient house on Water Street near the sea, and is reputed to be both exceedingly rich and exceedingly feeble; which forms a situation very attractive to men of the profession of Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva, for that profession was nothing less dignified than robbery.

The inhabitants of Kingsport say and think many things about the Terrible Old Man which generally keep him safe from the attention of gentlemen like Mr. Ricci and his colleagues, despite the almost certain fact that he hides a fortune of indefinite magnitude somewhere about his musty and venerable abode. He is, in truth, a very strange person, believed to have been a captain of East India clipper ships in his day; so old that no one can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few know his real name. Among the gnarled trees in the front yard of his aged and neglected place he maintains a strange collection of large stones, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern temple. This collection frightens away most of the small boys who love to taunt the Terrible Old Man about his long white hair and beard, or to break the small-paned windows of his dwelling with wicked missiles; but there are other things which frighten the older and more curious folk who sometimes steal up to the house to peer in through the dusty panes. These folk say that on a table in a bare room on the ground floor are many peculiar bottles, in each a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string. And they say that the Terrible Old Man talks to these bottles, addressing them by such names as Jack, Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, Peters, and Mate Ellis, and that whenever he speaks to a bottle the little lead pendulum within makes certain definite vibrations as if in answer. Those who have watched the tall, lean, Terrible Old Man in these peculiar conversations, do not watch him again. But Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions, and they saw in the Terrible Old Man merely a tottering, almost helpless greybeard, who could not walk without the aid of his knotted cane, and whose thin, weak hands shook pitifully. They were really quite sorry in their way for the lonely, unpopular old fellow, whom everybody shunned, and at whom all the dogs barked singularly. But business is business, and to a robber whose soul is in his profession, there is a lure and a challenge about a very old and very feeble man who has no account at the bank, and who pays for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.

Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva selected the night of April 11th for their call. Mr. Ricci and Mr. Silva were to interview the poor old gentleman, whilst Mr. Czanek waited for them and their presumable metallic burden with a covered motor-car in Ship Street, by the gate in the tall rear wall of their host’s grounds. Desire to avoid needless explanations in case of unexpected police intrusions prompted these plans for a quiet and unostentatious departure.

As prearranged, the three adventurers started out separately in order to prevent any evil-minded suspicions afterward. Messrs. Ricci and Silva met in Water Street by the old man’s front gate, and although they did not like the way the moon shone down upon the painted stones through the budding branches of the gnarled trees, they had more important things to think about than mere idle superstition. They feared it might be unpleasant work making the Terrible Old Man loquacious concerning his hoarded gold and silver, for aged sea-captains are notably stubborn and perverse. Still, he was very old and very feeble, and there were two visitors. Messrs. Ricci and Silva were experienced in the art of making unwilling persons voluble, and the screams of a weak and exceptionally venerable man can be easily muffled. So they moved up to the one lighted window and heard the Terrible Old Man talking childishly to his bottles with pendulums. Then they donned masks and knocked politely at the weather-stained oaken door.

Waiting seemed very long to Mr. Czanek as he fidgeted restlessly in the covered motor-car by the Terrible Old Man’s back gate in Ship Street. He was more than ordinarily tender-hearted, and he did not like the hideous screams he had heard in the ancient house just after the hour appointed for the deed. Had he not told his colleagues to be as gentle as possible with the pathetic old sea-captain? Very nervously he watched that narrow oaken gate in the high and ivy-clad stone wall. Frequently he consulted his watch, and wondered at the delay. Had the old man died before revealing where his treasure was hidden, and had a thorough search become necessary? Mr. Czanek did not like to wait so long in the dark in such a place. Then he sensed a soft tread or tapping on the walk inside the gate, heard a gentle fumbling at the rusty latch, and saw the narrow, heavy door swing inward. And in the pallid glow of the single dim street-lamp he strained his eyes to see what his colleagues had brought out of that sinister house which loomed so close behind. But when he looked, he did not see what he had expected; for his colleagues were not there at all, but only the Terrible Old Man leaning quietly on his knotted cane and smiling hideously. Mr. Czanek had never before noticed the colour of that man’s eyes; now he saw that they were yellow.

Little things make considerable excitement in little towns, which is the reason that Kingsport people talked all that spring and summer about the three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels, which the tide washed in. And some people even spoke of things as trivial as the deserted motor-car found in Ship Street, or certain especially inhuman cries, probably of a stray animal or migratory bird, heard in the night by wakeful citizens. But in this idle village gossip the Terrible Old Man took no interest at all. He was by nature reserved, and when one is aged and feeble one’s reserve is doubly strong. Besides, so ancient a sea-captain must have witnessed scores of things much more stirring in the far-off days of his unremembered youth.


Jekwu Anyaegbuna graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where he has been a researcher and an Associate Tutor in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing. He won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. A fiction fellow at the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing, he was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize. His writing has been published in Granta, Ambit, Magma, The Massachusetts Review, Transition, Prairie Schooner, among other publications. He lives in England.

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