Sunday, October 6, 2013

1. The Horrors of Growing Old

My wife and I recently had our photos taken for the church directory.  I do not often have my photo taken—it hurts to smile for that long.  But in reviewing the pictures after the shoot it became clear:  I am getting old—er.  My hair is gray and my Floridian childhood has left my face rather spotted.  In the photo I resemble a calmer, less agitated Bill O’Reilly.  (This is all right, because he is one of my heroes.)  I remember that as a young man I was told that I should ‘never trust anyone over the age of 30.’  But now that I am nearly twice that age—how did that happen?—I am less comfortable trusting anyone under the age of 30.

Merely growing older is not as fearsome as the grim alternative we all must sooner—or preferably much later, face.  Horror writers can help us manage these anxieties, and the next several posts will explore this theme.

For example, H. P. Lovecraft’s The Terrible Old Man (1921) touches on the apparent fragility and vulnerability of old age, but also its secret resourcefulness and accumulated knowledge.  Three men with foreign names—“they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life”—presume to rob a feeble old gentleman on Water Street in Kingsport.  He is rumored to have a large treasure hidden in his house, the product of his days as a captain on an East India clipper ship.

The ‘terrible old man’ is considered an eccentric by his neighbors.  He may be harmless, but he is definitely to be avoided.  His front yard contains “a strange collection of large stones, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern temple.”  More importantly, he has a table full of unusual bottles, each with a piece of lead dangling from a string inside them.  He talks to these bottles at night, and each one of them he addresses by the name of some pirate.

The three robbers arrive, and while two of them occupy the old man in his house, the third waits in the getaway car just outside the back wall of the old man’s yard.  The two inside may have to rough up the old man a bit in order to find out where the treasure is hidden.  The driver, described as the most “tender hearted” of the trio, soon hears terrible screams and assumes it is the old man being tormented by his colleagues.  But the ‘terrible old man’ emerges unscathed from the door in the back wall and approaches the driver, “leaning on his knotted cane and smiling hideously.”

I want to be like this guy when I get old.

The ‘terrible old man’ is also a character in Lovecraft’s The Strange High House In The Mist (1931).  The main character, Thomas Olney, visits with him in Kingsport before he makes his fateful climb to the house in the mist.  The old man tells Olney a story about a time when lightning was seen to shoot up from the house into the clouds.  When Olney returns from visiting the strange house and tells the old man of his visit, he deduces that Olney is no longer the same man, that he has perhaps left his spirit behind in the ‘strange high house’. 

Not only is the ‘terrible old man’ well able to defend himself, he is also a mentor for spiritual and supernatural matters.  And he also knows more than he is willing to say.

In Lovecraft’s fiction the appearance of an older man is significant.  The figure of an old man appears in several of his stories, among them, The Festival, He, The Silver Key, The Strange High House In The Mist, and The Evil Clergyman. These were all written later in his career, from about 1925 forward.  The character typically acts in the traditional role of guide, counselor, and repository of important memories.  He also on occasion serves as a guide who initiates the main character into hazardous, unknown mysteries.

It seems likely that the character of the old man is a fictionalization of either the author’s grandfather, Whipple Phillips, or his Aunt Lillian’s husband, Dr. Franklin Chase Clark.  Both men provided a strong paternal influence on Lovecraft when he was younger.

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