Lovecraft’s Beast in the Cave

Beast_S.J.Miller

The Beast in the Cave by S.J. Miller

Before we go back to discussing the ghouls, I wanted to discuss the “Beast in the Cave,” one of HPL’s earliest tales written in 1905.  It is essentially about a person getting lost in Mammoth Cave, which is located in Mammoth Cave National Park in south central Kentucky and is part of the Green Valley and River system.  In the tale the protagonist encounters some type of creature in the cave and ends up hitting it with a rock in defense.  When the protagonist is rescued the creature is examined and is revealed to be human.  However, like many of HPL’s biological / anthropological discoveries, this particular human appeared to deviate from the standard morphology and anatomy of Homo sapiens.

The creature was described as having snow-white hair, rat-like claws on its hands and feet with pale, white skin.  Its eyes were black, lacking irises and sunken into its skull.  Finally, it was very gaunt.  Again, at the end of the tale HPL revealed that while initially the creature was thought to be some type of missing link, it turns its anatomy not that of an ape but more of a human.  So, is the beast in the cave a man trapped in Mammoth Cave for years or was it indeed some offshoot or isolated community of humans like those described in “The Rats in the Walls” or “The Lurking Fear?”  In a letter to Reinhardt Kleiner, HPL described the Beast as a “…MAN, long ago lost in the cave, and mentally and physically metamorphosed by perpetual darkness, perpetual silence, and perpetual solitude!” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters 1911-1924; edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, 1965, Arkham House Publishers, Sauk City, WI).

beast_yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com_Michael_Bukowski

The Beast in the Cave by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogspot.com)

Based on S.T. Joshi, HPL did quite a bit of research on Mammoth Cave in Kentucky at the Providence Public Library before he wrote the tale (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2013).  In the story HPL mentions that a colony of consumptives lived in the cave in a gigantic grotto.  Consumptive is a term that has been used for people who suffered from tuberculosis (TB), a highly infectious disease associated with several strains of mycobacteria known to attack the lungs.  TB is easily spread through the air by coughing and sneezing.

Mycobacterium_tuberculosis_01_wiki

Mycobacterium tuberculosis (www.wikipedia.com)

In 1839 Dr. John Croghan purchased Mammoth Cave for $10,000.00.  Included in the purchase were several slaves including Stephan Bishop who was known as one of the greatest explorers of Mammoth Cave.  Bishop was considered the “professor” of the cave; he discovered many of the cave’s features, more than 20 miles of passageways and numerous endemic species, including blind albino fish (http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2009/10/mammoth-cave-national-park-harbors-more-few-ghost-stories4820).  Bishop would frequently serve as a guide to the cave during the 1840s and 1850s.  While Bishop was very knowledgeable of the cave and its geology / ecosystem, and there were talks about giving public tours, Dr. Croghan turned the cave into a hospital.

MACA-Bishop_www.nationalparkstraveler.com

Stephan Bishop, explorer and naturalist of the Mammoth Cave ecosystem (www.nationalparkstraveler.com)

Dr. Croghan believed that the dry, constant temperature of 54OF and the dark, quiet surroundings would provide the environment needed for the recuperation from TB.  Thus, in the mid-1840s wooden and stone huts were built in the cave and patients were located there for rest and recuperation.  Visitors at this time reported hearing the constant coughing from patients who appeared as pale, skeleton-like figures (www.wikipedia.com).  Unfortunately, the fires used for cooking and warmth, combined with the cool temperatures actually did more harm than good and while a lot was learned about TB through this experiment, it did not help the victims of this disease.  Dr. Croghan himself died of the disease in 1849.  Bishop was freed in 1856, seven years after the death of his owner Dr. Croghan.  There is some discrepancy over the death of Bishop but based on an examination of his tombstone, it sounds like he died on 15 June 1859 (www.wikipedia.com).  The cause of Bishop’s death has been identified as “unknown” or due to TB.  One thing is for sure, Stephan Bishop was one of the first explorers and naturalists of Mammoth Cave.

usa-kentucky-mammoth-cave-np-tb-huts_rememberingletters.wordpress.com

One of the remaining TB huts in Mammoth Cave (www.rememberingletters.wordpress.com)

In HPL’s time tours of Mammoth Cave were being conducted but the cave system did not become a National Park until 1941.  The accounts of the “pale, skeleton-like figures” huddled in the wooden or stone huts, with the constant sound of coughing in the dark, must have really stirred the imagination of HPL.  Obviously, the Beast in the Cave is a survivor of some sort of the patients who were housed in the huts or as HPL called it the grotto.  It is possible that one or several of the survivors wandered off into the dark passageways, survived the disease and lived off the endemic animals and fungi found in the cave?

While the Beast in the Cave was human, his general morphology and anatomy varied enough that a more detailed examination was required to confirm that fact.  If a colony of individuals are separated from the rest of human civilization it is possible that they  may eventually genetically deviate from the rest of humanity and eventually become a new species.  This is one of the primary mechanisms in speciation.  A sub-set of individuals are geographically separated from the rest of the population; this type of speciation is called allopatric.  Over time, genetic variation and environmental changes result in different selective pressures in the parent and colonial populations.  If parent and colonial populations are separated for a sufficient amount of time, enough variations can accumulate where mating between the two populations does not result in healthy offspring that can also produce viable offspring.  Thus, if offspring are produced but those offspring cannot reproduce then the parents are not considered the same species.  An example of this is a horse and donkey; while they can mate their offspring is the mule, which is sterile.  Thus, horses and donkeys are considered separate species.

the_beast_from_by_monsterkingofkarmen-d32p93v

The Beast from the Cave by Monsterkingofkarmen (www.deviantart.org)

Darwin documented the results of allopathic speciation on the Galapagos Islands; recording how various species of finches, tortoises and daisies were slightly different on each island, based on the existing environmental conditions on each island.  Thus, the separation of individuals of the same species, over long periods of time and under varying environmental conditions, can eventually lead to new species.  Homo sapiens are found throughout the world and essentially a male from any continent can successfully breed with any female from any other continent and produce children that are not themselves sterile.  While there is variation relative to skin color and various anatomical features, the fact that the global population of humanity is one genetic pool, is why the concept of species in defining humanity is far more important than the concept of race (which is genetic variation within a species).  Thus, if a sub-sample of humanity colonized Mars and was completely separated from Earth for thousands of years, there is a distinct possibility that a new species of humanity would be produced via evolution through allopathic speciation (Homo mars-sapiens?).

Darwin

Darwin’s Finches (www.wikipedia.org)

Getting back to the Beast in the Cave, if a colony of TB survivors continued to exist and reproduce, completely separate from the rest of humanity, the outcome may be the creatures in HPL’s “The Lurking Fear” or those the 2005 Neil Marshall film The Descent.  Is the Beast in the Cave an intermediary or link between humans and these underground dwellers?  Possibly.

Next time, we will discuss possible practical applications of the ghoul’s biology.

crawler

An underground crawler from the movie The Descent (2005; http://www.liveforfilms.files.wordpress.com)

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9 thoughts on “Lovecraft’s Beast in the Cave

  1. I’d not thought of the connection between “The Beast in the Cave” and the ghouls before, nor either one’s connection to the creatures in The Descent (note spelling). That’s a good observation.

    1. Thank you for the comment and thank you for identifying the spelling error – just corrected it. Thanks again! Fred.

  2. There definitely might be a connection between “The Beast in the Cave” (one of H.P.L.’s most horrifying stories, if you ask me) and the ghouls…though I personally like to think that the ghouls had to go a bit further and longer to get to the stage they are at now. Ghouls would have to do it purposely, and I feel that ritual involved the consumption of dead meat…still an excellent article.

    Your final photo, on an unrelated topic, reminded me very much of my favorite film (a fairly faithful-and-yet-unfaithful adaptation of “Dracula”), in particular a certain vampiric creature: http://cine.batanga.com/sites/cine.batanga.com/files/imagecache/completa/dracula-5-peliculas-para-conocer-la-historia-del-heroe-romantico.jpg

    1. I agree with you – I believe ghouls are more distantly related to humans relative to the “Beast” which more than likely is human himself. Also, you are right – that creatures from The Descent do look like the vampire creature from Coppola’s Dracula. Thanks again! Fred

    1. Thank you for the comment – yes, I was quite surprised when I uncovered some of the history of Mammoth Cave – thanks to HPL! Fred.

  3. I find this story quite interesting mainly because there’s a very similar story written by Arthur Conan Doyle. That story is almost the same but the creature in the cave is a bear instead of a human being.
    Could HPL read that previous tale from Doyle?

  4. Very interesting article. I am a guide at Mammoth Cave National Park and having led tours in that area of the cave, I find myself wanting to find the body of the creature. This some great information, and I hope to incorporate it into my tours.

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