EARLY FICTION: "THE BEAST IN THE CAVE"
[Author's Note: The page references within the essays all come from The Transition of H.P. Lovecraft: The Road To Madness, Del Rey Books, 1996. I chose this selection of 29 of Lovecraft's stories because it chronicles his growth as a writer very nicely, and in a somewhat chronological fashion.]
H.P. Lovecraft, one of horror fiction's most important writers ever, introduced in his pieces many new ideas. His fiction brings new elements to the genre which have affected readers and writers both. A particular kind of dark humor, a masterful use of suspense, an obsession with antique or archaic aesthetics -- these and other traits can be used to define Lovecraft's horror fiction. Some of his contributions, such as racist strains in horror fiction, we may wonder if we could do without. Other Lovecraftian contributions, such as a ghoulish sense of play and an adept, though often charmingly transparent, handling of suspense, once experienced, we feel that we cannot do without. Lovecraft's writing is definitely addictive, and even his earliest, adolescent pieces of fiction are suffused with a distinctive, Lovecraftian charm.
Lovecraft began writing fiction in his early teens. One of his early writings, "The Beast in the Cave," contains several original elements of Lovecraftian writing that would recur in his later pieces, and would help to change horror fiction at large. In particular, contrasts between expectation and realization (a suspense technique), italicized emphases, racism, and final line surprises are introduced in the excellent piece of juvenile horror fiction, "The Beast in the Cave."
One good way to create a sense of surprise in readers is to present expectations, and then to change or reverse these expectations as events occur. Early in "The Beast in the Cave," for example, the protagonist thinks he hears his guide approaching, and is horrified to discover, instead, that his footsteps are "not like those of any mortal man." (p. 2) Later, the protagonist has more vain hopes that exaggerate his plight. He quiets himself, "in the hope that the unknown beast would. . . thus pass me by. . . ", but, instead, "the strange footfalls steadily advanced. . ." (p. 3) As he begins to understand his situation, the protagonist imagines "what alteration cave life might have wrought in the physical structure of the beast", then, realizes, "I should never behold its form." (p. 3) The expectation versus occurrence technique is used in the piece's conclusion, as, having wounded the beast, he theorizes that the dead creature is a form of "anthropoid ape." (p. 5) The concluding line of the story reveals the truth; the "beast" is a man. These examples of an anticipation versus delivery technique, used to create suspense, are similar to subsequent instances in Lovecraftian fiction. They create an empathetic relationship between the reader and the protagonist, and a sense of surprise when his (and our) expectations are fulfilled in different ways than we expect them to be.
A technique Lovecraft uses frequently is the italicized emphasis. When especially terrible or great things happen to the protagonist, he often communicates his realizations in italics. The protagonist discovers that the footsteps he hears are "not like those of any mortal man." (p. 2) He is terrified to discover that the beast's footsteps are stranger still, moving with a "lack of unison." (p. 3) When the protagonist is discovered by his party, Lovecraft writes "It was the guide." (p. 4) These italicized discoveries pull the protagonist and the reader more closely together -- they create an intimate connection between the two, as though the revelations the protagonist experiences are being whispered directly into the reader's ear. These revelations are usually of the most shocking and grotesque nature imaginable. It's a little as though an ostensibly good friend of yours was to suddenly lean close to you and to whisper in your ear, "I have secretly hated you for years."
Lovecraft has been criticized for the racist themes in his fiction. Often, he depicts creatures that are humanoid, or partially human, as adversaries to his protagonists. Sometimes, as in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, the similarity between his descriptions of humanoid creatures and the actual traits of various races and types of humans is too close to be dismissed as coincidence. In "The Beast in the Cave," the protagonist's enemy is a mysteriously formed biped, which seems to walk on all fours, and is described as, "an anthropoid ape." (p. 5) Lovecraft's initial treatment of the "beast' prefigures one of the greatest, most prevalent misunderstandings in his world view-- that a form of "inverse Darwinism" is possible, where a homo sapien can acquire traits that render him more primitive, or, even, of a more primitive species, than his contemporaries. This is simply not correct -- no such "de-evolution" exists, and there are no traits so easily and quickly adopted that could make a man no longer human. The conclusion of "The Beast in the Cave" reveals, in fact, that the "beast" is human -- a man who had simply been trapped for years underground. Because this story contains a humanistic message -- that a man should not kill another man, even if he is terrified of him and thinks he is a beast, it is unusual for Lovecraft. Lovecraft later includes humanoid, impossibly "de-evolved," creatures in his pieces -- who are shown no mercy. Is it possible that a schoolteacher's influence, or the kindhearted flexibility of young age, may have inspired Lovecraft to sway in an anomalous direction? That his life as a shut-in, and the fears of difference that may then have arisen, were softened by his schoolhouse experiences? It is possible.
Lovecraft introduces a very effective device in "The Beast In The Cave"-- the surprise ending. The protagonist spends most of the story assuming that the creature he encounters in the cave is not human. Its footsteps, their sonic patterns, and even the view of the beast from behind, with its pale, hairy skin, suggest that the protagonist has killed a monster, not a human. The protagonist's realization at the story's conclusion is that, "The creature I had killed. . . was, or had at one time been a MAN!!!" (p. 6) Lovecraft's use of a surprise ending causes the reader to be shocked, and, in retrospect, to see the entire story differently. He uses this device frequently in his more mature works. This is, perhaps, his least transparent suspense technique -- Lovecraft's surprise endings are often quite effective, and really help to define his literary persona.
Expectation versus realization, italicized emphases, apparent racism, and surprise endings are all devices that Lovecraft pioneered in his early-teenage years. These devices appear quite frequently in his subsequent works. Lovecraft, it appears, grew into a creative individual at a very young age. His later pieces are better written and more enjoyable to read than "The Beast in the Cave," but it is hard not to be amazed by the well-developed presence of this literary persona in such an early piece of fiction.
Created: May 3, 2003; Updated: August 9, 2004