This has taken a long time to develop. I started reading H.P. Lovecraft when I was a teenager and found a copy of this bad boy: The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. I was so young I had no idea how to even pronounce “macabre” at the time (for the record it’s not mah-cay-bree). It was a pretty amazing introduction to Lovecraft and I read it feverishly. Then I tried to read one of his dream-stories and got bogged down and never really picked up Lovecraft again.

Now I find myself wanting to read through his stories again, including ones I hadn’t read before so I downloaded Cthulhu Chick’s fantastic and free Lovecraft compilation. I’m going to work my way through them chronologically. First up is The Tomb from 1917, which was Lovecraft’s first story written as an adult.

In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative.

This is a great opening line. It immediately starts us out with uncertainty about the story we will be reading and also about our narrator, the unfortunately named Jervas Dudley.  Some stories present us with an unreliable narrator but we often do not realize this until partway through the story when things do not add up as they should. Lovecraft comes right out and tells us at the beginning that Jervas is unreliable. Or is he?  Is there more going on?

A young child, Jervas discovers a burial vault in a wooded area outside his home, belonging to the Hyde family. He wants to enter the vault but the door is held in place by a chain and a padlock. Unable to open the door, he decides to spend his time waiting until he is able to enter the tomb.

I began to feel that the tomb was mine, and to look forward with hot eagerness to the time when I might pass within that stone door and down those slimy stone steps in the dark.

While waiting outside the tomb one day he thinks he sees a light inside the tomb. When he goes home he finds himself compelled to go to his attic and opens up a rotting chest that surprisingly contains the key to the tomb.  He finally enters the tomb and once inside, discovers that he knows his way around.

In a conspicuous alcove was one fairly well-preserved and untenanted casket, adorned with a single name which brought to me both a smile and a shudder.  An odd impulse caused me to climb upon the broad slab, extinguish my candle, and lie down within the vacant box.

This image of a teenager or young man lying in an empty coffin in the dark is quit creepy. From that point forward Jervas “haunts” the tomb each night and becomes transformed by the experience. He begins speaking differently, has information that he shouldn’t know, and quotes odd poetry at breakfast. He also develops a fear of fire and thunderstorms.

Jervas’ parents, understandably worried, have somebody follow him to see what he is doing. After spending a night in the tomb Jervas notices the watcher spying on him.

Imagine my delighted astonishment on hearing the spy inform my parent in a cautious whisper that I had spent the night in the bower outside the tomb; my sleep-filmed eyes fixed upon the crevice where the padlocked portal stood ajar!

Now we understand what is going on.  He just thinks he was inside the tomb. Jervas is obviously delusional and unwilling to accept this. Fully embracing his madness, Jervas sees the Hyde mansion appear and he imagines himself inside where there was “music, laughter, and wine on every hand.” Then lightning strikes and the mansion is ablaze. Jervas faces being “burnt alive to ashes, my body dispersed by the four winds.”

He is found by his father raving madly in the rain.  Jervas is taken to an insane asylum as hinted in the opening sentence. The story ends with Jervas’ telling us that he instructed his loyal servant to break into the tomb.

On a slab in an alcove he found an old but empty coffin whose tarnished plate bears the single word “Jervas“. In that coffin and in that vault they have promised me I shall be buried.

And the story ends.  We are left with a certainty that Jervas is insane, even though he insists that his servant found his name inside the tomb.

Lovecraft begins the story by essentially stating “You are going to hear the ravings of a crazy person.” It becomes easy to forget this momentarily as we get caught up in Jervas’ tale but by the end there is no question that we have been listening to the ravings of a crazy person. I would have liked the story a bit more if there had been a clear twist on the unreliable narrator: the man you thought was crazy through the story turns out to have been right after all. I don’t know if that is what Lovecraft intended by the ending where the servant finds his name but it is presented so quickly and sparsely that it isn’t effective in raising doubts about Jervas’ insanity.

So is this a horror story? I’d have to say no. It is certainly unsettling to read the account of a young man’s struggle with mental illness. It is easy to place ourselves into the narrative and think “Jesus, I’m glad that’s not happening to me.” But there is no supernatural element to this story, no outside threat to Jervas other than his family’s attempt to get him help.

For his first story though, it definitely leaves a good impression.

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