This is a tale that is terrifying and disturbing on various levels. It has insanity, cannibalism, inbreeding, and psychological terror, all cast against a dire setting that includes a decrepit mansion in the Catskill Mountains. There is also some dark symbolism woven into the story that adds another level to the horror evoked by this piece. Rather than summarizing the story, though, I am just going to point out some of the symbolism.
Shadows appear frequently throughout this tale, and my interpretation is Jungian, that the shadows which the protagonist sees are the dark, shadow aspect of his own psyche.
As I shivered and brooded on the casting of that brain-blasting shadow, I knew that I had at last pried out one of earth’s supreme horrors—one of those nameless blights of outer voids whose faint daemon scratching we sometimes hear on the farthest rim of space, yet from which our own finite vision has given us merciful immunity. The shadow I had seen, I hardly dared to analyse or identify.
As I mentioned, inbreeding is a theme in this story. The inbreeding is symbolized by tree roots, particularly in the graveyard, where the roots connect the present to the dead ancestors.
The scene of my excavations would alone have been enough to unnerve any ordinary man. Baleful primal trees of unholy size, age, and grotesqueness leered above me like the pillars of some hellish Druidic temple; muffling the thunder, hushing the clawing wind, and admitting but little rain. Beyond the scarred trunks in the background, illumined by faint flashes of filtered lightning, rose the damp ivied stones of the deserted mansion, while somewhat nearer was the abandoned Dutch garden whose walks and beds were polluted by a white, fungous, foetid, over-nourished vegetation that never saw full daylight. And nearest of all was the graveyard, where deformed trees tossed insane branches as their roots displaced unhallowed slabs and sucked venom from what lay below. Now and then, beneath the brown pall of leaves that rotted and festered in the antediluvian forest darkness, I could trace the sinister outlines of some of those low mounds which characterized the lightning-pierced region.
The mansion also figures prominently in this story and is the scene of much of what occurs. The house represents psychological decay, where reason gives way to insanity, the result of inbreeding among the previous inhabitants of the house.
Meanwhile there grew up about the mansion and the mountain a body of diabolic legendry. The place was avoided with doubled assiduousness, and invested with every whispered myth tradition could supply. It remained unvisited till 1816, when the continued absence of lights was noticed by the squatters. At that time a party made investigations, finding the house deserted and partly in ruins.
There were no skeletons about, so that departure rather than death was inferred. The clan seemed to have left several years before, and improvised penthouses showed how numerous it had grown prior to its migration. Its cultural level had fallen very low, as proved by decaying furniture and scattered silverware which must have been long abandoned when its owners left. But though the dreaded Martenses were gone, the fear of the haunted house continued; and grew very acute when new and strange stories arose among the mountain decadents. There it stood; deserted, feared, and linked with the vengeful ghost of Jan Martense. There it still stood on the night I dug in Jan Martense’s grave.
Finally, there is a great scene where the protagonist discovers tunnels beneath a grave, into which he enters and crawls, in search of the daemon. This is symbolic of the protagonist entering into the subconscious mind, burrowing deep into his primordial psyche to the place of his most base animal instincts.
What language can describe the spectacle of a man lost in infinitely abysmal earth; pawing, twisting, wheezing; scrambling madly through sunken -convolutions of immemorial blackness without an idea of time, safety, direction, or definite object? There is something hideous in it, but that is what I did. I did it for so long that life faded to a far memory, and I became one with the moles and grubs of nighted depths. Indeed, it was only by accident that after interminable writhings I jarred my forgotten electric lamp alight, so that it shone eerily along the burrow of caked loam that stretched and curved ahead.
Lovecraft’s genius is that he was able to craft truly scary stories and weave in complex psychological symbolism. This is a great example of his literary prowess and definitely worthy of reading on a dark, October night.