What Made the Old Man Terrible in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man?”

57128-rpwpirhncloakanddaggergames                                               The Terrible Old Man (by Cloak and Dagger Games)

In one of Lovecraft’s shortest tales “The Terrible Old Man” three thieves decide to rob a very old and seemly feeble man who lives in Kingsport, Massachusetts. The old man appears to be very eccentric; he is observed talking to a set of bottles, each one  with a small piece of lead in it suspended from a string. As the old man speaks to the bottles, the pieces of lead appear to move or vibrate as if in communication with him. During the night of the attempted burglary, two of the three thieves go into the house, screams are heard but they don’t come out. The third man is afraid they had to kill the old man. When the third man, Mr. Czanek, heard someone leaving the house he assumed it was his partners. It turned out to be the terrible old man “leaning quietly on his knotted cane and smiling hideously.” Later, three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed, were washed in with the tide.

king1 Kingsport (www.mundotentacular.blogspot.com)

First, it should be noted that the story takes place in Kingsport, a place we discussed earlier with “The Festival.” It is hypothesized that Kingsport may be one of those placed in our Universe that is a portal or door to a parallel or alternate Universe. “The Terrible Old Man” noted that the three thieves were not of Kingsport blood – this may be a reference to the strange beings, possibly highly evolved, sentient forms of annelid worm (ringed or segmented worms such as earthworms or leeches). Those of Kingsport blood may be related to these extra-dimensional worm entities. Indeed, the unusually long-life and strength of such a “feeble” old man may be due to his unique genetic heritage.

In addition to the potential connection to “The Festival,” the fact that the Terrible Old Man talks to the lead fragments in the bottles and they seem to respond as if in conversation, as well as the names written on the bottles, indicates that the lead fragments may be a means either of storing the consciousness of the named victims and/or serve as a conduit for communication to wherever the victims exist. Is it possible that “Scar-Face,” “Long Tom,” “Spanish Joe,” and the others named, including the three new victims who attempted to rob the old man, are in the other universe referred to at the end of “The Festival?”

the_terrible_old_man_by_pixx_73 The Terrible Old Man by Pixx 73 (www.deivantart.com)

Finally, it is particularly interesting that the fragments suspended in the bottles are specifically noted to be lead. Lead is one of the first metals ever utilized by humans.  The oldest known use of lead is a lead figurine from Egypt that dates to 4,000 B.C. The ancient Romans used lead in the construction of water pipes and lining baths. In the environment lead is typically absorbed onto sediment particles and it generally not a toxic problem under most natural conditions.  However, like many heavy metals as the pH becomes acidic and there is an increase in hydrogen ions, this increases the mobilization of heavy metals including lead. It is when the lead is mobilized or in a dissolved state that it can be assimilated by organisms and result in physiological damage.

inside-flint-pipes-min-tang-and-kelsey-pieper Corrosion of pipes and the mobilization of lead has led to negative health impacts on the residents of Flint, Michigan, with a particularly strong impact on the children.

The mobilization of lead in water can have a devastating impact on aquatic life as well as that of humans. This last point was clearly demonstrated in Flint, Michigan, where river water (Flint River) was used instead of lake water (Lake Huron) as a source of potable water for the residents of Flint. The river water is 19 times more corrosive than the lake water and no anti-corrosive agent was being used to treat the water. Thus, the more corrosive river water mobilized the lead in the aging service lines to the homes of the community, where almost 42% of the residents live below the poverty line (www.cnn.com). Such negligence has a direct and negative impact on health of these residents.

how-lead-gets-injpg-1e9d798a1edee129

Lead can have devastating impacts on human health, particularly children. The metabolism of lead is similar to that of calcium so excess lead can be deposited in the bone, where it can remain for years. Inorganic lead poisoning can produce fatigue, sleep disturbance and anemia. Severe lead exposure by children, primarily through ingestion, can lead to encephalopathy and mental retardation. Finally, organic lead (lead attached onto a carbon molecule) has an affinity for the brain and can result in insomnia and restlessness and in higher levels of exposure result in delirium, hallucinations, convulsions, coma and even death (A Textbook of Modern Toxicology by Ernest Hodgson and Patricia E. Levi, 1987).the_terrible_old_man_by_monicagarciaart-d6kbodh The Terrible Old Man by Monica Garcia art (www.deivantart.com)

In addition to the documented toxicological impacts of lead, a study has recently come out from some researchers at Harvard University and U.C. Berkeley that rates of violent crime, in particular homicide, considerably increased between 1921 and 1936 in cities where lead service pipes were installed in the late 19th century (Feigenbaum and Muller, 2016; Lead Exposure and Violent Crime in the Early Twentieth Century). The study does admit that if lead exposure does increase crime, it is only one of several factors that include, but are not necessarily limited to, local crime as well as economic and sociological circumstances. However, the studies did use several different methodologies to arrive at the same conclusion.

Was the terrible old man’s violent nature at least partially attributed to his exposure to high amounts of lead, associated with him handling the lead fragments? Were his conversations with the lead fragments in the named bottles communications with his victims from another universe or was this behavior a result of a combination of delirium and hallucinations as result of his exposure to organic forms of lead? If people have actually witnessed the lead fragments vibrating in response to the old man’s discussions there may be more to this; however, some degree of lead poisoning may also account for the old man’s terrible and violent nature.

the_terrible_old_man_by_snoopymd-d9gppc1 The Terrible Old Man by Snoopymd (www.deviantart.com)

Next time we will initiate a series of discussions on “Through the Gate of the Silver Key” co-written by H.P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price. Thank you – Fred

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4 thoughts on “What Made the Old Man Terrible in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man?”

  1. The Terrible Old Man is also mentioned as such in “The Strange High House in the Mist” although he plays no role in the events of the story.

    1. Yes, thank you for the comment David. It is surprising how may “call backs” to characters and places one can find in Lovecraft’s tales as you read them through. Thanks again – Fred.

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