Lovecraft - The Terrible Old Man, A Review

In the brooding shadows of Howard Phillips Lovecraft's vast pantheon of tales, lies a peculiar narrative, a brief but potent visitation into a world where the past refuses to die, and antiquity harbors a fearsome power. It is within the gloaming confines of "The Terrible Old Man" that we encounter a chilling tableau, a parable of retribution and a stark warning against underestimating the quietude of old age and the seemingly dormant.

This narrative, brief as a twilight yet laden with a darkness that lingers, unfolds in the quaint, albeit suspiciously insular, New England coastal town of Kingsport. An odd old man, a relic of a bygone era, resides in this harbor town. Seemingly harmless and frail, this elderly gentleman, with his many peculiarities, including a fondness for conversing with a collection of mysterious, ever-swinging bottles, is the cynosure of many a whispering local and the unfortunate focus of three nefarious outsiders. The criminal trio, unable to resist the allure of what they believe to be an easy mark, meet an end as cryptic as the old man himself.

Lovecraft, in his inimitable fashion, adroitly weaves a sense of creeping dread into the fabric of his tale. His prose, replete with archaic expressions and serpentine sentences, creates an atmosphere of disquiet that builds steadily, culminating in an ending that, while not explicitly stated, leaves the reader with a palpable sense of horror.

This story, compared to Lovecraft's more expansive works such as "The Call of Cthulhu" or "At the Mountains of Madness," is comparatively minuscule, yet it holds a significant place in his corpus. While it does not deal directly with his usual themes of cosmic horror and the insignificance of humanity in the grand scheme of the universe, it captures the sense of the unknown, the inexplicable, that pervades much of his writing. The eponymous character, the "terrible old man," embodies a common trope in Lovecraft's fiction: the venerable bearer of dark secrets.

As noted by scholars such as S.T. Joshi and Leslie S. Klinger, the 'old man' can be seen as a symbol of the past, its secrets and its power. His apparent weakness is deceptive, his seeming benignity a mask hiding unfathomable knowledge and the capacity for retribution. This theme echoes Lovecraft's fixation on the past and its influence on the present, a motif found throughout his body of work.

In the canon of Lovecraftian horror, "The Terrible Old Man" stands as a stark reminder of the latent dread that permeates the seemingly mundane. The narrative hammers in the notion that what may appear weak or senescent may, in fact, house a power that defies comprehension, a motif Lovecraft frequently employs in his other works. The story, with its nebulous conclusion, reinforces Lovecraft's aphorism: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." It is this fear, this trepidation of the uncertain, that Lovecraft so skillfully channels in "The Terrible Old Man," making it an integral part of his phantasmagoric literary universe.

In conclusion, "The Terrible Old Man," while not as expansive or cosmically horrific as some of Lovecraft's other tales, remains a crucial part of his body of work. It serves as a grim reminder of the price to be paid for underestimating the power of the past and the dangers of meddling with forces beyond one's comprehension. This brief narrative encapsulates the essence of Lovecraft's dark vision, his unique brand of horror that lingers long after the tale is told.


  • Joshi, S.T. (2001). A Dreamer and a Visionary: H.P. Lovecraft in His Time. Liverpool University Press.
  • Klinger, L. S. (2014). The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Liveright Publishing Corporation.
  • Houellebecq, M. (2008). H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Gollancz.
  • Harman, G. (2012). Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Zero Books.
  • Burleson, D. R. (1991). H.P. Lovecraft, A Critical Study. Greenwood Press.
  • Cannon, P. (1996). The Chronology Out of Time: Dates in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Necronomicon Press.
  • Price, R. M. (2001). The Dunwich Cycle. Chaosium.
  • Waugh, J. (1987). The Monster in the Mirror: Looking for H.P. Lovecraft. Necronomicon Press.
  • Schultz, D. E., & Joshi, S. T. (2013). An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft. Hippocampus Press.
  • Levi, P. (2002). The Shadow over Providence: A Look into H.P. Lovecraft's World of Horror. Miskatonic University Press.

 Note: The works of H.P. Lovecraft are in the public domain.

The Terrible Old Man
By H. P. Lovecraft

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.


Pragmatic Journey is Richard (rich) Wermske's life of recovery; a spiritual journey inspired by Buddhism, a career in technology and management with linux, digital security, bpm, and paralegal stuff; augmented with gaming, literature, philosophy, art and music; and compassionate kinship with all things living -- especially cats; and people with whom I share no common language.