In The Vault: The Complete Lovecraftian #44

Not for the first time, and not for the last, I find myself with little sympathy for the unfortunate main character of a Lovecraft short story. Let’s face it, Lovecraft’s characters often get what they deserve. Okay, that may seem harsh, after all, who actually deserves to be driven to the point of madness by the scurrying of rats through the walls, or by listening too closely to the music of the wrong violin, or just because they are led down into the depths of subterranean tunnels  below a crypt by their own morbid curiosity… Well in some cases no the characters don’t deserve their fates as such, even the hateful among them. But there are some who, when push comes to shove, get off lightly all things considered, and one such character is George Birch, erstwhile undertaker for a small New England town by the name of Peck Valley.

George is not a pleasant man, who does an admittedly unpleasant job, unpleasantly. He cuts corners in his trade, cheap coffins and has little or no respect or for those who are left in his care. A ham-fisted man with light fingers when it suits him. He steals from the dead of those little trinkets they were buried with, and if he has a spare coffin, he’ll make a body fit into it and save himself the expense of crafting one the right size. After all it not like its going to matter to anyone that the six-foot town clerk is in a five-foot-five coffin. Just loop off a foot or so literally, and he’ll fit in there nicely, what with it being a closed casket and all.

in the vault

So, as you can imagine, it hard to find yourself overflowing with sympathy at this point for George. That sympathy doesn’t increase an awful lot when his sloth and general workshy idleness leads him to find himself locked in a vault with seven coffins that he was due to get buried days before but had not quite gotten around to. If he had just oiled the lock and fixed the latch when he had first noticed weeks before it was starting to stick… Well, everything that happens to him afterwards could be entirely avoided.

This whole story could be seen as a morality tale against the evils of workshyness, laziness in general and callowness in general. Lovecraft puts a lot of work into establishing the character or more accurately the lack of character of George. Unlike some other Lovecraft characters, this is one you’re supposed to despise, and on one level the tale is entirely successful in that. As George tries to escape his self-made prison on the backs of those in his care, literally as he piles up their coffins, you’re left with a certain anticipation of the comeuppance he has coming to him.

There is much of the grotesque in this story, not least the main character himself. It’s grim, dark and nasty. Unfortunately, it is also a tad on the predictable side. Nothing about the ending is a shock, even though it was written with a shock ending in mind. Perhaps that is a reflection of my own jadedness. The twist at the end is just so, ‘this is the twist at the end‘… You can see it coming and I would be prepared to bet most people if asked, fifty words form the end to guess the final twist would, even if they did not get it exactly right, have a fairly good stab at it. It doesn’t bite you is all I am saying…

All that aside, if you reject the conventional wisdom that the reader must be able to identify with the main character and at the very least ‘like’ them, no matter how nasty they are, this is a fine example of how to write a character who no one will like and get away with it. Throughout reading this, I felt like a cheerleader to the story, I don’t mean in a short shirt and pompom way, trust me no one wants that… but in that I was cheering on the end, looking forward to George getting what he deserved, the spiteful, idle, thieving, sloth of unpleasantness that he is…

Its that cheerleading aspect that really kills this tale a little for me though in the end. there is no real horror, or shock, or indeed anything disturbing about the story. It doesn’t unsettle me, or make me wonder, or make me thoughtful of the possibilities it throws up. It just is.

When I really like a Lovecraft story it is because its unsettling, because it makes me think, and sends me off on strange tangents. Instead ‘In The Vault’ is just a creepy little horror story the like of which I have read a hundred times by a hundred different writers. For all its grotesque nature and its hateful main character, it’s just a bit too bland, a bit too run of the mill and there isn’t really anything much about it. Which is about as damning a thing as I can say of any Lovecraft story. Its well-written reads well, but in the end, it is just nothing much, it doesn’t even have something to be angry about, or disapprove of, or complain overly about… So a couple of tentacles seems fair, but I begrudge giving it that many for some reason, but then perhaps I am gravely wrong in this case…

2out 6

Next up Lovecraft takes us to my native Yorkshire in  ‘The Descendant’… Bye Eck…

Further Lovecraftian witterings as ever can be found here


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