H.P. Lovecraft’s The Tomb Review

SonicSouls

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H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Tomb” was one of his earlier works, written in June 1917 and then published in March 1922. Since it was written four years before “The Call of Cthulhu”, arguably his most famous work, it’s interesting to analyze it. I discovered this story via “The H.P. Lovecraft Collection” published by Sirius. On a brief tangent. I would recommend this collection. It contains six books containing several stories. Not only are famous tales such as “At the Mountains of Madness” included, but a variety of more obscure short stories. I still have to work through them. With that out of the way, here is the review:

The first sentence demonstrates ideas that would be developed later, alongside one of the pitfalls of his writing:

“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.”

The idea of the unreliable, presumably insane narrator would be revisited in several of his most famous stories. However, the pitfall of run-on sentences and awkward prose is highlighted especially in his earlier works. Not only is this sentence cumbersome to read, it also sounds unnatural. No human being would speak like this, which is a reoccurring trait of his works. This trait is further highlighted by the ensuing sentences.

They discuss humanity’s limited “mental vision”. It also states that madness is caused by learning of things outside this narrow scope. This is interesting not just because it foreshadows future work, but because the piece doesn’t tackle cosmic horror. The limited “mental vision” is more grounded with vague allusions of reincarnation and divine retribution. Because of this, we have a standard horror tale of a man, Jeras Dudley, being obsessed with a mausoleum near his tomb.

Said man is likely a stand in for Lovecraft himself. He’s described as a “dreamer and visionary” alongside being “temperamentally unfitted for the formal studies and social recreations of my acquaintances.” Additionally, he finds solace in older books. From what I’ve heard of Lovecraft’s life, this bears similarities to it. Lovecraft was shy, socially awkward, and found greater comfort in books than people. Jeras’ disconnect from his surroundings mirrors Lovecraft’s feelings. Those feelings are part of the reason for his attitude that would eventually shape cosmic horror. It also foreshadows the lone man knowing what others do not, and going mad because of it. Such is the tale of Jeras Dudley.

He becomes obsessed with a mausoleum of the Hyde family. That family’s mansion burned down several years ago. The locals say that it was because of lightning-induced fire via divine wrath, but only in hushed voices. This reminded me of the locals’ feelings of the Delapoer family in “The Rats in the Walls”. Jeras becomes focused on the padlock of the mausoleum and wants to get inside. He claims he was persuaded by a voice that must’ve come from the forest. However, he was unable to break the padlock. So, he takes to sleeping next to the tomb.

Jeras becomes convinced that within the mausoleum is the answers to what caused the Hyde family to be struck down by divine wrath. There are vague allusions to “godless rites” amongst other cultish activities. Once again, I was reminded of “The Rats in the Walls”. The difference though is that the activities are made explicit in that story. Additionally, that protagonist had a better justified reason for becoming obsessed, unlike Jeras. Jeras seems to be motivated by inexplicable curiosity, and vague supernatural occurrences. Because of this, he seems less believable because of his ambiguous motivation. That’s not to say that the supernatural has to be explained. That was part of the point of most of his later stories. However, too little explanation makes the characters seemingly bumble from plot point to plot point.

Continuing with the story, Jeras falls asleep next to the mausoleum several years later. He awakes, and claims that he swore a light was extinguished inside the tomb. Excited by this he rushes to his home, opens a chest, and conveniently finds a key to the mausoleum.

I’m torn between that plot point. Jeras is clearly insane, so it can come across as unreliable narration. However, I would have personally liked hints to the truth. That said, Lovecraft typically likes more open-ended tales, so this plot point works for that purpose.

Jeras uses the key and enters the mausoleum. He finds an empty coffin with his name inscribed on it. He claims he slept in it every night, but others claimed he was sleeping outside the mausoleum. When in the mausoleum, he claims to hear voices that he cannot explain. As this continues, he eventually becomes more confident and starts talking in a different dialect. He develops a fear of fire and lightning, the very things that destroyed the Hyde’s manor.

Jeras’ changes because of supernatural events/insanity reminded me of “The Shadow over Innsmouth”. In that story, a character also suffers changes, though its more explicit about what’s causing them. But both stories have clear ties to hereditary degeneration, and a major theme in Lovecraft’s works.

Jeras eventually sees the Hyde mansion restored to its former state. A party is taking place and he engages in hedonism. Lightning strikes the mansion and ignites. Jervas believes he was burnt to ashes in the blaze. This causes him to awaken screaming. He is held by two men and talks to his father. They found a bust labeled “J.H.” that to Jeras, resembles him. This may imply that Jeras is the reincarnation of Jervas Hyde. It reminded me of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” which features an ancestor that looks uncannily similar to their descendent.

However, in that story, the descendent, Charles Dexter Ward, isn’t a reincarnation. Rather he resurrects his ancestor, Joseph Curwen through his ashes. Similar to the theme of the Hyde family being burnt alive. Joseph Curwen was also an evil man responsible for several godless rites. Additionally, once Joseph Curwen is defeated, he disintegrates into dust, similar to Jeras Hyde being burned into ashes.

The story ends with Jeras being incarcerated for insanity. His father claims that the padlock was never opened and has just rusted with age. However, Jeras’ loyal servant, Hiram, is tasked with exploring the tomb. Hiram claims that they did see a coffin that read “Jervas”. The story ends with Jervas declaring that he was promised to be buried there, so that he may have died with the rest of the Hyde family.

Overall, it’s a bog-standard horror story. It showcases several of Lovecraft’s worst writing traits. Namely, the run-on-sentences and cumbersome prose. However, it’s interesting to see how many stories may have originated from it. This is conjecture on my part, but some of the similarities don’t seem coincidental. Perhaps “The Rats in the Walls” in particular was a reimaging of the story. Both feature somebody returning to their old family’s grounds through one means or another. There are supernatural elements, divine wrath, and an unreliable protagonist that goes insane. In conclusion, this story has greater worth for what it foreshadowed in his later work. On its own however, it’s a standard story that would’ve been forgotten had it not been written by H.P. Lovecraft.
 

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