H.P. Lovecraft is now one of the most significant authors in the horror genre today but like most great authors he was greatly unappreciated in his own time. During his lifetime, he only submitted to a few pulp magazines and died in poverty, though he was a master of his craft. He became captivated by horror tales at an early age and by eight was already beginning to weave horror tales, with some of the inspirations coming from his common childhood night terrors. The following three short stories come from his collection At the Mountains of Madness and Other Weird Tales.
The Cats of Ulthar - The Cats of Ulthar is Lovecraft’s testament to the feline species. In the present time that the narrator is spinning this tale, Ulthar is a fictional community where cats are revered and no one in Ulthar will do any harm to those cats, but this has not always been the case. The narrator takes us on a fable-like journey back to a time in Ulthar where cats were not always under protection. There had once been an old couple that lived in a cottage and would draw the cats to their yard and kill them, regardless if they belonged to someone or not. No one speaks out against the couple because of how forbidding they seem. One day, a group of gypsy-like merchants comes through Ulthar and with them is a young boy and his kitten. The couple end up getting a hold of the kitten and kill it. The young boy is distraught and performs a ritual that no one understand the language of. Once the ritual is complete, the cats willingly go to the old couple's house but no one is exactly sure what happens, just that afterwards the cats have no interest in eating and the couple is not heard of again. Now the community of Ulthar does no harm to the cats because of their fear of the curse.
What can get someone about The Cats of Ulthar is that we’re on the side of the cats that eat people. There’s something obviously not okay about the boy who puts the curse on Ulthar; there’s a point to making sure the reader is aware the boy and other travelers are foreign and the curse is said in unfamiliar language (it’s helpful to remember that Lovecraft himself had a nativist outlook). The curse also has an immense power for being brought on by a young a child and even the sky becomes overcast and stormy from the effects of it. It’s also a curse that makes cats engorge themselves on human flesh. Regardless of the wrongness of the curse, the wrongness of the abuse of the elderly couple seems greater and therefore we align ourselves on the side of the boy and the cats. This is one of those tales that causes ourselves to become reflective and possible fear not the story but our own moral standings and, at times, moral
The Outsider - Easily Lovecraft’s most well-known short story, The Outsider is told personally by the unnamed protagonist. They live their life in complete isolation in a deteriorating castle with no real knowledge of how the got there or if there was ever anyone to actually raise; they just simply exist. When the isolation finally strains them, they go and seek a way out of the castle and to hopefully find some kind civilization. The escape route from the castle leads out into a churchyard where the narrator gets their first glimpse of light. It just so happens that there is some kind of festivities occurring in a nearby building and the narrator seeks out his first bit of human contact. The festivities quickly end, though, and everyone leaves in terror – some even fainting and needing to be carried out. The narrator finds a mirror and realizes that that they are the source of the terror; they’re humanoid but not fully human. After grappling with this knowledge, they accept their fate and spend their days going about at night and embracing their terrifying form.
The Outsider’s terror factor comes in two parts. The first is easily the setting. Visually, the home of the creature is creepy – it’s a falling apart castle full of bats and corpses. The visuals are limited, though because this creature’s world is mostly blind and deaf. There’s never any light except for out in the churchyard and there are no living forms except for the bats. The creature has never heard a human voice, not even their own, and even the bats fly silently. The creature live in a world without any primary senses, which means they receive little information from their experiences; the unknowable is always terrifying. The second part comes from the creature's
acceptance of its fate. We’re so used to stories of our characters persevering and becoming better individuals. The creature accepts that they are simply that: a creature. Once the acceptance of that occurs, they enter back into their silent, blind world – the creature never speaks again and only comes out on moonless nights. They return to the world that we cannot understand nor accept and they thrive for it – they thrive from being the outsider. We’re scared because the creature exists in a state that we do not understand and becomes stronger for it.
The Music of Erich Zann - The Music of Erich Zann was one of Lovecraft’s personal favorites of his stories. The narrator recalls a time when he lived in a fictional are of France the Rue d’Asueil, a hovel of older people and extremely tall buildings. He finds himself living there during a time of financial struggle and lives on the fifth floor of one of the buildings. The floor above him is occupied by Erich Zann, an older man who is mute, plays the viol, and has peculiar tendencies – like only emerging at a few times at night to play cheap shows. The narrator, though, is able to hear him practicing at night strangely composed music that he is unable to describe except that it is nothing like that he has ever heard. When he’s finally available to approach Zann about his playing, Zann only plays more traditional sounding pieces. When the narrator tries humming the tune he’s been hearing, Zann becomes fearful with darting looks to his curtains and urges the narrator out. He does offer a written explanation of his behavior, explaining that he’s basically neurotic about people hearing him practice and asks that the narrator move down a floor so he’s unable to hear the playing. The move doesn’t stop the narrator from trying to hear the playing though, as he sneaks up to Zann’s door to hear the extraordinarily deranged playing one night. The narrator fears that Zann may have fallen and gets entry to the apartment. Zann is mostly fine and just looks physically exhausted. Zann writes a long explanation of the secret of his odd behavior. He then plays the tune that the narrator hears as it increases in its intensity, all the while staring down the curtained window. The narrator approaches the window with the expectation of the seeing the lighted up city but is instead greeted by intense darkness that pushes its way into the apartment and extinguishes all the candles, leaving both men in complete darkness, and blows the explanation out the window. The narrator feels his way around until he reaches Zann but realizes that Zann is cold and dead even though the music continues. The narrator flees the apartment and says he has never been able to find Rue d’Asueil again.
Once again, the fear of the unknown is employed. We never find out the secret of the music or what the darkness actually is or what power of it has besides having something to with death. We don’t even know what happened to Rue d’Asuiel or how an entire neighborhood disappears. And with that, we will never know. All we know is that something otherworldly is out there and it can come into our lives when least expected. Some fear also comes from how close this story is to the real world. There’s a lot Erich Zann that can be seen in Lovecraft himself; a solitary man who only comes out at night, he is skilled at craft that he makes little money from and is intriguing because of the oddness of it, he experiences some kind of haunting force that cannot be seen by others. Is Erich Zann Lovecraft’s prediction of what he might be one day when is older? If it is then what do we make of the dark force that has some kind of relationship with
Zann’s craft? Again, we are left unknowing.