The Terrible Old Man
by H.P. Lovecraft
This very short story by Lovecraft feels almost like a Poe tale, only slightly more ambiguous. Three criminals--Angelo Ricci, Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva--intend to rob the New England home of the nameless Terrible Old Man (Maybe we should call him Tom). He's such a Terrible Old Man, in fact, that the locals pretty much avoid him at all costs, choosing instead to spread a barrage of rumors in hushed tones behind his back. One such rumor is overtly important to this tale, another perhaps less obviously so.
RUMOR THE FIRST: Tom is hiding a vast treasure somewhere within the confines of his old home.
RUMOR THE SECOND: Tom has a strange collection of bottles, each one containing a chunk of lead dangling from a string like a pendulum. And he holds conversations with these bottles, referring to each one by its own unique name: Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, etc. Not exactly the poster child for normalcy.
The criminals are, of course, more interested in Rumor the First, but as the casual and curious observor, we're naturally more drawn to Rumor the Second. Talking to bottles? What the hell is up with that?
I wish I could tell you. The criminals get their just desserts by story's end, and you get the vague idea that Tom's Amazing Bottles are somehow connected. It has a subtle supernatural feel to it, but it's only hinted at and never even remotely explained. Just a little more information would have made this story much better than it was.
Speaking of subtle, Lovecraft takes another racial jab at immigrants here--notice the surnames of the thieves: all three belonging to different racial backgrounds. Were they our heroes here (anti- or otherwise) this would be a symbol of racial harmony, but sadly this is not the case. And just to make sure that we got the point, Lovecraft makes mention of their "alien stock". Not quite as blatant as in his earlier story "The Street", but it's still there.
This story, short as it is, is notable in the Cthulu Mythos for being the first story to take place in Lovecraft's fictional town of Kingsport. The Terrible Old Man, Tom himself, even makes a return engagement in the later "The Strange High House in the Mist".
"The Terrible Old Man" was originally published in the July 1921 issue of The Tryout.