Review: “The Lurking Fear”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1922.
Usually, for these posts, I put up the edition’s cover in which I read the work.
Since I’ve already looked at this story, briefly, before, I thought I’d put up the cover under which the world first saw this story.
Home Brew was a humor magazine. Editor George Julian Houtain, for some reason, wanted horror pieces for it, and commissioned Lovecraft to write some.
You could argue that Lovecraft’s earlier work for the magazine, “Herbert West – Reanimator” is sort of humorous in its over the top narration.
Like that story, “The Lurking Fear” was a serial piece which explains it’s four parts.
Like many Lovecraft stories, it’s narrated in the first person and opens with its hero going to the environs around Tempest Mountains in rural New York. In that area, surrounded by
“poor mongrels who sometimes leave their valleys to trade hand-woven baskets for such primitive necessities as they cannot shoot, raise, or make”
several people have died during thunderstorms.
In one incident, 75 of those natives died or disappeared.
Lovecraft’s hero is, like his Randolph Carter, something of an aesthete of the weird and has a
love of the grotesque and the terrible which has made my career a series of quests for strange horrors in literature and in life.
He’s also probably the closest Lovecraft came to an “occult detective” or the investigator figure in Lovecraft based role-playing games. He’s not exactly an action hero (or “ackshun hero” as Lovecraft might have said), but he seeks out the weird as well as haunting libraries, and he goes to Tempest Mountain and the ruins of the Martense mansion with two pistol-packing men.
Local lore has much to say about
the Martense family itself, its queer hereditary dissimilarity of eyes, its long, unnatural annals, and the murder which had cursed it.
There are also tales of
tales of a daemon which seized lone wayfarers after dark, either carrying them off or leaving them in a frightful state of gnawed dismemberment; while sometimes they whispered of blood-trails toward the distant mansion. Some said the thunder called the lurking fear out of its habitation, while others said the thunder was its voice.
There are hints of cryptozoology at the beginning of the story when the narrator entertains, briefly, the existence of some strange beast before deciding the stories are of a “death-daemon” stalking the hills around Tempest Mountain.
The first installment of the story ends with death during a thunderstorm. The armed colleagues simply disappear from the same room as the narrator who sees only a shadow on the chimney that can’t be cast by any human.
For the second installment, we meet a local reporter, Arthur Munroe. The cryptozoology theme gets stronger. We learn Munroe has a “marvellously illuminating ancestral diary” and that the horror stalking the mountains has many interpretations by the locals.
In the same breath they called it a snake and a giant, a thunder-devil and a bat, a vulture and a walking tree.
Those locals themselves are something of a degenerate lot but unthreatening.
Munroe and the narrator visit a camp of local squatters. (This, remember, is a pre-Great Depression story so this is poverty at a time of general prosperity in America.) It’s where those 75 natives have disappeared.
The disordered earth was covered with blood and human debris bespeaking too vividly the ravages of daemon teeth and talons; yet no visible trail led away from the carnage.
The two men take refuge in a cabin there during a thunderstorm. During the night, Munroe is killed, his body “chewed and gouged”.
What’s interesting about this section is that, while the two men conduct historical and geographical investigations, Lovecraft doesn’t provide a lot of the details he does in other stories. Whether the restrictions of the serial format prevented it or it was just his stage of artistic development, Lovecraft doesn’t use the power of specificity that he does in later stories.
More detail does show up in the third section when the hero goes to dig up the grave of Jan Martense. He was murdered, after leaving the Martense mansion and going out into the world in 1754, incapable of sharing “the peculiarities and prejudices” of his family and returning home after six years. His family claimed he was struck by lightning.
The earth opens up under the grave, and the hero finds himself in a burrow. In the dark of yet another “tempest-racked night”, he sees “two daemoniac reflections” of eyes and something with a claw.
Elsewhere that night,
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 frenzy before it could escape.
In the concluding section of the story, the narrator returns to the “terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense”. He has made the horrible discovery that it is at the center of a network of mounds. There the narrator sees what the Martense family has degenerated into.
I don’t happen to subscribe to the notion that Lovecraft’s style was lurid and overblown with adjectives. T. E. D. Klein says Lovecraft took “delight in stretching language to exaggerated lengths”.
However, you could make the argument for Lovecraft’s deficient style with some lines from the conclusion of this story. The ellipses, incidentally, are Lovecraft’s.
Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky … formless phantasms and kaleidoscopic mutations of a ghoulish, remembered scene; forests of monstrous overnourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnamable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils; mound-like tentacles groping from underground nuclei of polypous perversion … insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and daemon arcades choked with fungous vegetation. … Heaven be thanked for the instinct which led me unconscious to places where men dwell; to the peaceful village that slept under the calm stars of clearing skies.
You’ll note that it’s another Lovecraft fainting hero. (I have a theory that Lovecraft, with his nervous breakdowns, which I suspect included fainting, and migraines, suffered from vasovagal syncope and thus was familiar with passing out under stress.)
Motifs of later Lovecraft stories are here: underground horrors, a degenerate and isolated group of “humans”. But the later cosmicism of Lovecraft is greatly restricted here in the vistas of space and time. The Martenese clan is of the relatively near past and the horror just in New York State.