The Terrible Old Man
"The Terrible Old Man" is a very short story (less than 1200 words) by H. P. Lovecraft, written on January 28, 1920, and first published in the Tryout, an amateur press publication, in July 1921. It's notable as the first story to make use of Lovecraft's imaginary New England setting, introducing the fictional town of Kingsport.
Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon dismissively describes the story as "little more than a polemic against the intrusion of people Lovecraft regarded as 'foreigners,' that is, the non-English immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century as cheap labor to fill the factories of an increasingly industrialized America."
The Terrible Old Man is a strange elderly man "so old that no one can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few know his real name". He lives alone in an ancient house on Water Street in the town of Kingsport. Even among the locals, few know the details of the Old Man's life, but it is believed that he captained East Indian clipper ships in his youth and had accumulated great jewels and riches throughout his life. Those who had visited the property had seen bizarre collections of stones in the front yard and observed the Old Man carrying on conversations with bottles on his table. Most locals take care to avoid the Old Man and his house.
The story focuses on three robbers, Angelo Ricci, Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva, who are "of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions". They take little heed of the locals' cautionary whisperings and disregard them completely when they hear that the Old Man possesses a treasure. They act immediately on their avarice according to their natures, and go to the Old Man's house to commit robbery. Ricci and Silva go inside to "interview" the Old Man about the treasure and its hiding place. Czanek waits outside in their vintage car. Czanek waits impatiently for a long while, startled at one point by an outburst of horrific screaming from the house. After a time, the gate of the house opens, but it is not his accomplices who emerge but the house's inhabitant.
The bodies of the three robbers are later found horribly mutilated down on the beach, "horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels". The people talk about them, as well as about the abandoned car and the screams heard in the night, but the Terrible Old Man professes to have no interest in these things.
The Terrible Old Man
The Terrible Old Man reappears in the story "The Strange High House in the Mist" in a more benevolent role.
He has a number of similarities with later characters created by Lovecraft, in particular Joseph Curwen, the villain of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: Both were improbably old, such that no one remembered when they were young; possessed vaguely defined but powerful abilities oriented around storing the dead in peculiar objects and calling them forth to serve them; and had access to ancient coinage of precious metals (as do the Whateleys in The Dunwich Horror).
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- More Annotated Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, p. 2.