In his short career, H.P. Lovecraft wrote several stories that take place in locations quite distant from Arkham, Innsmouth, Kingsport, or Dunwich. A few are set in ancient times, among Greeks or Romans, and are distinctive for their author’s cleverness and prodigious command of history and linguistics. A couple are gems. One of these is The Very Old Folk, published posthumously in 1940.
Even the framework of the story is complex and multi-layered: it is a story inside a dream conveyed in a letter. “Dear Melmoth,” it begins, “I have myself been carried back to Roman times…” Melmoth? Is this Melmoth, as in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a gothic novel published in 1820? But why is this here? The end of the letter, which contains the dream narrative, closes with “Yrs for Gothick Supremacy--C∙IVLIVS∙VERVUS∙MAXIMINVS.” So there is some playfulness here.
S.T. Joshi provides some interesting history about the origins of The Very Old Folk in his important biography of the author, I Am Providence, The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, (2013, the unabridged version). Lovecraft described the underlying dream—which he felt was generated by a reading of a 1921 version of the Aeneid—in several letters to his colleagues, among them Donald Wandrei and Frank Belknap Long.
They encouraged him to elaborate on the dream material and make it a fully fledged, publishable story. It is uncertain whether Lovecraft’s remarkably detailed renditions came from direct recall of the dream material or his later fashioning of it into a more coherent fictional narrative. The very process of recording a dream often imposes narrative and chronological structures on what is often undifferentiated imagery. In any event, Lovecraft’s powerful imagination produced the core of an interesting, multi-faceted tale. It is unfortunate that he did live enough to develop it further.
(Interestingly, Joshi mentions that Lovecraft allowed Frank Belknap Long to use the content of his dream narrative in a short novel Long wrote, called The Horror from the Hills, published in 1931.)
In The Very Old Folk, the narrator becomes a Roman military officer on an expedition to what is now Spain. ‘Hispania Citerior’ is at the outer edge of the Empire, an unruly frontier ruled over by a Romanized minority. The local population is being terrorized by hill people, who kidnap townspeople and sacrifice them in their infamous rites—these occur on the nights before the Kalends of Maius and the Kalends of November. (We would recognize these days as May Day and Halloween—faint echoes of their original significance as pagan agricultural holidays.)
As ‘L. Cælius Rufus’, the dreaming narrator represents the face of Roman law and order, and is perhaps too eager to restore it, especially since it is the night of the autumn Sabbath. The hill people are already beginning their wild celebrations as he leads a force of 300 men up the mountain to disrupt the worship service. It does not go well for the Romans, who are vanquished by an amorphous entity that has been called down by the celebrants. A dying elder officer says these words: ‘Malitia vetus—malitia vetus est…venit..tandem venit…’, that is “Wickedness of old—it is wickedness of old...happened...happened at last…” The dreamer awakes at this point.
Though not developed much beyond a dream narrative, The Very Old Folk is interesting and clever, and certainly had potential as a longer work. There is reference to Cthulhu Mythos notions of a pantheon of ‘Old Ones’ along with their secret societies of worshippers. There is the familiar trope of nameless rites on mountain tops. But unlike typical Lovecraft stories, what is different in this fragment is that it contains a differentiated set of characters—not just the single narrator who represents an avatar of the author. There is also action and struggle and not merely resigned acceptance of a grim cosmic fate.
Given that this story appeared relatively late in the author’s career, one wonders to what extent it shows evidence of the further evolution of his talent. What if Lovecraft had applied his knowledge and enthusiasm about history and linguistics to the creation of more historical horror stories? Often, they seem more unique and less imitative than other things he wrote.