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Literature / The Terrible Old Man

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"The Terrible Old Man" is a Short Story written by H. P. Lovecraft in 1920, though it wasn't published until a year and a half later. The plot concerns a reclusive old man who lives by himself in the town of Kingsport. A strange, quiet fellow, the man has been the source of a great deal of rumors and speculation among the townsfolk, and is believed to be obscenely wealthy. One night, a trio of robbers hatch a plan to break into his home and make off with his fortune. Things don't go quite according to plan as it becomes apparent all is not right with the old man...

The town of Kingsport would go on to be recurring location throughout the works of Lovecraft, and the titular old man would reappear in "The Strange High House in the Mist".

Tropes present in this story:

  • Ambiguously Evil: The Old Man himself. Besides the fact that his only known victims are thieves trying to rob him, he reappears in a later short story titled "The Strange High House in the Mist" and is much friendlier to the protagonist of that story.
  • Ambiguously Human: While the old man is clearly unusual and into some strange and mysterious stuff, he nonetheless appears to be nothing more than a feeble old man. This is thrown into doubt at the end, when his eyes are revealed to be yellow.
  • Animate Inanimate Object: The old man keeps several bottles on his table, each one containing a bit of lead hanging from the top of the bottle by a string. Several people have peered through his kitchen window to see him talking to the bottles, with the bottles making "certain definite vibrations as if in answer".
  • Jar of the Bizarre: A somewhat baffling example in the titular old man's house. He keeps jars and bottles containing suspended leaden pendulums that he names and speaks to, and which answer through vibrations. Apparently, he can even invoke some lethal protection from them, as a trio of would-be robbers discover, though we never learn what exactly he does to them.
  • Killed Offscreen: The second half of the story is told from the perspective of Czanek, who waits in the car while Silva and Ricci go inside to get the money. We never see what he does to them, but their screams can be heard. This also applies to Czanek, as his part ends right when he sees the old man smiling at him. The next morning the robbers' bodies are found on the beach, horribly slashed and mangled.
  • Mugging the Monster: Three robbers think it will be a cinch to overpower and rob a feeble old man. Their corpses are unidentifiable.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: One of the most prominent examples in the Cthulhu Mythos. Absolutely nothing is elaborated on. Who is the old man? What are the bottles of lead for and are they actually alive? Is the old man even human? Just what did he do to the robbers?
  • Retired Monster: Pieced together from the meager hints of the story, the titular character is implied to be a former pirate captain who through black magic keeps the souls of his former crew captive in jars on his desk. Unlucky burglars discover the hard way how a feeble, old man with no bank account, who pays for his meager purchases with old gold coins, can live quietly without fear of being robbed.
  • Slasher Smile: Just before he kills Czanek, the old man is said to be "smiling hideously" at him.
  • Supernatural Gold Eyes: The man's eyes are revealed to be yellow just before he attacks Czanek. His exact abilities are left unseen, but he's capable of doing something to three assailants that leaves their corpses looking like they were brutalized by an entire pirate crew, and might have the spirits of such a crew in glass jars on his desk...
  • Time Abyss: The Old Man is said to be so old that no one remembers him being young, taken up to eleven with the house, it was ancient when he was young.