Saturday, June 29, 2013
Friday, June 21, 2013
There were creatures, so it was supposed, that lived in its caves, things human in shape, and covered, except for the face and hands, with long black hair. They were dwarfs in size, four feet high or thereabouts, but of prodigious strength and agility, remnants of some wild primeval race. It seemed that they were still in an upward stage of evolution, or so I guessed, for the story ran that sometimes girls had been carried off by them, not as prey, and not for any such fate as for those captured by cannibals, but to be bred from. Young men also had been raped by them (2), to be mated with the females of their tribe. All this looked as if the creatures, as I said, were tending towards humanity (3). But naturally I did not believe a word of it, as applied to the conditions of the present day. Centuries ago, conceivably, there may have been such beings (4), and, with the extraordinary tenacity of tradition, the news of this had been handed down and was still current round the hearths of the peasants. As for their numbers, Chanton told me that three had been once seen together by a man who owing to his swiftness on skis had escaped to tell the tale. This man, he averred, was no other than his grand-father, who had been benighted one winter evening as he passed through the dense woods below the Ungeheuerhorn, and Chanton supposed that they had been driven down to these lower altitudes in search of food during severe winter weather, for otherwise the recorded sights of them had always taken place among the rocks of the peak itself. They had pursued his grandfather, then a young man, at an extraordinarily swift canter, running sometimes upright as men run, sometimes on all-fours in the manner of beasts, and their howls were just such as that we had heard that night in the Blumen hut. Such at any rate was the story Chanton told me, and, I like you, I regarded it as the very moonshine of superstition. But the very next day I had reason to reconsider my judgment about it.
"Not twenty yards in front of me lay one of the beings of which he had spoken. There it sprawled naked and basking on its back with face turned up to the sun, which its narrow eyes regarded unwinking. In form it was completely human, but the growth of hair that covered limbs and trunk alike almost completely hid the sun-tanned skin beneath. But its face, save for the down on its cheeks and chin, was hairless, and I looked on a countenance the sensual and malevolent bestiality of which froze me with horror. Had the creature been an animal, one would have felt scarcely a shudder at the gross animalism of it; the horror lay in the fact that it was a man. There lay by it a couple of gnawed bones, and, its meal finished, it was lazily licking its protuberant lips, from which came a purring murmur of content. With one hand it scratched the thick hair on its belly, in the other it held one of these bones, which presently split in half beneath the pressure of its finger and thumb. But my horror was not based on the information of what happened to those men whom these creatures caught, it was due only to my proximity to a thing so human and so infernal. The peak, of which the ascent had a moment ago filled us with such elated satisfaction, because to me to me an Ungeheuerhorn indeed, for it was the home of beings more awful than the delirium of nightmare could ever have conceived.
"Luck favoured us, for we made our way among the boulders and shifting stones, the rattle of which might at any moment have betrayed us, without a repetition of my experience, and once among the trees we ran as if the Furies themselves were in pursuit. Well now did I understand, though I dare say I cannot convey, the qualms of Chanton's mind when he spoke to me of these creatures. Their very humanity was what made them so terrible, the fact that they were of the same race as ourselves, but of a type so abysmally degraded that the most brutal and inhuman of men would have seemed angelic in comparison."
"There was a horror of the spirit," he said, "which I experienced then, from which, I verily believe, I have never entirely recovered. I saw then how terrible a living thing could be, and how terrible, in consequence, was life itself. In us all I suppose lurks some inherited germ of that ineffable bestiality, and who knows whether, sterile as it has apparently become in the course of centuries, it might no fructify again (6). When I saw that creature sun itself, I looked into the abyss out of which we have crawled. And these creatures are trying to crawl out of it now, if they exist any longer. Certainly for the last twenty years there has been no record of their being seen, until we come to this story of the footprint seen by the climbers on Everest. If that is authentic, if the party did no mistake the footprint of some bear, or what not, for a human tread, it seems as if still this bestranded remnant of mankind is in existence."
He shook his head.
"No: I only wanted to get away," said he. "It was not, as I have told you, the terror of what according to Chanton's story, might await us if we were captured; it was sheer horror at the creature itself. I quaked at it."
The snowstorm and the gale increased in violence that night, and I slept uneasily, plucked again and again from slumber by the fierce battling of the wind that shook my windows as if with an imperious demand for admittance. It came in billowy gusts, with strange noises intermingled with it as for a moment it abated, with flutings and moanings that rose to shrieks as the fury of it returned. These noises, no doubt, mingled themselves with my drowsed and sleepy consciousness, and once I tore myself out of nightmare, imagining that the creatures of the Horror-horn had gained footing on my balcony and were rattling at the window-bolts. But before morning the gale had died away, and I awoke to see the snow falling dense and fast in a windless air. For three days it continued, without intermission, and with its cessation there came a frost such as I have never felt before. Fifty degrees were registered one night, and more the next, and what the cold must have been on the cliffs of the Ungeheuerhorn I cannot imagine. Sufficient, so I thought, to have made an end altogether of its secret inhabitants: my cousin, on that day twenty years ago, had missed an opportunity for study which would probably never fall again either to him or another.
I received one morning a letter from a friend saying that he had arrived at the neighbouring winter resort of St. Luigi, and proposing that I should come over for a morning's skating and lunch afterwards. The place was not more than a couple of miles off, if one took the path over the low, pine-clad foot-hills above which lay the steep woods below the first rocky slopes of the Ungeheuerhorn; and accordingly, with a knapsack containing skates on my back, I went on skis over the wooded slopes and down by an easy descent again on to St. Luigi. The day was overcast, clouds entirely obscured the higher peaks though the sun was visible, pale and unluminous, through the mists. But as the morning went on, it gained the upper hand, and I slid down into St. Luigi beneath a sparkling firmament. We skated and lunched, and then, since it looked as if thick weather was coming up again, I set out early about three o'clock for my return journey.
Hardly had I got into the woods when the clouds gathered thick above, and streamers and skeins of them began to descend among the pines through which my path threaded its way. In ten minutes more their opacity had so increased that I could hardly see a couple of yards in front of me. Very soon I became aware that I must have got off the path, for snow-cowled shrubs lay directly in my way, and, casting back to find it again, I got altogether confused as to direction. But, though progress was difficult, I knew I had only to keep on the ascent, and presently I should come to the brow of these low foot-hills, and descend into the open valley where Alhubel stood. So on I went, stumbling and sliding over obstacles, and unable, owing to the thickness of the snow, to take off my skis, for I should have sunk over the knees at each step. Still the ascent continued, and looking at my watch I saw that I had already been near an hour on my way from St. Luigi, a period more than sufficient to complete my whole journey. But still I stuck to my idea that though I had certainly strayed far from my proper route a few minutes more must surely see me over the top of the upward way, and I should find the ground declining into the next valley. About now, too, I noticed that the mists were growing suffused with rose-colour, and, though the inference was that it must be dose on sunset, there was consolation in the fact that they were there and might lift at any moment and disclose to me my whereabouts. But the fact that night would soon be on me made it needful to bar my mind against that despair of loneliness which so eats out the heart of a man who is lost in woods or on mountain-side, that, though still there is plenty of vigour in his limbs, his nervous force is sapped, and he can do no more than lie down and abandon himself to whatever fate may await him . . . And then I heard that which made the thought of loneliness seem bliss indeed, for there was a worse fate than loneliness. What I heard resembled the howl of a wolf, and it came from not far in front of me where the ridge—was it a ridge?—still rose higher in vestment of pines.
From behind me came a sudden puff of wind, which shook the frozen snow from the drooping pine-branches, and swept away the mists as a broom sweeps the dust from the floor. Radiant above me were the unclouded skies, already charged with the red of the sunset, and in front I saw that I had come to the very edge of the wood through which I had wandered so long. But it was no valley into which I had penetrated, for there right ahead of me rose the steep slope of boulders and rocks soaring upwards to the foot of the Ungeheuerhorn. What, then, was that cry of a wolf which had made my heart stand still? I saw.
Not twenty yards from me was a fallen tree, and leaning against the trunk of it was one of the denizens of the Horror-Horn, and it was a woman. She was enveloped in a thick growth of hair grey and tufted, and from her head it streamed down over her shoulders and her bosom, from which hung withered and pendulous breasts. And looking on her face I comprehended not with my mind alone, but with a shudder of my spirit, what Ingram had felt. Never had nightmare fashioned so terrible a countenance; the beauty of sun and stars and of the beasts of the field and the kindly race of men could not atone for so hellish an incarnation of the spirit of life. A fathomless bestiality modelled the slavering mouth and the narrow eyes; I looked into the abyss itself and knew that out of that abyss on the edge of which I leaned the generations of men had climbed. What if that ledge crumbled in front of me and pitched me headlong into its nethermost depths? . . . (7)
In one hand she held by the horns a chamois that kicked and struggled. A blow from its hindleg caught her withered thigh, and with a grunt of anger she seized the leg in her other hand, and, as a man may pull from its sheath a stem of meadow-grass, she plucked it off the body, leaving the torn skin hanging round the gaping wound. Then putting the red, bleeding member to her mouth she sucked at it as a child sucks a stick of sweetmeat. Through flesh and gristle her short, brown teeth penetrated, and she licked her lips with a sound of purring. Then dropping the leg by her side, she looked again at the body of the prey now quivering in its death-convulsion, and with finger and thumb gouged out one of its eyes. She snapped her teeth on it, and it cracked like a soft-shelled nut.
Sliding and slipping, with the toes of my skis tripping in the obstacles below the snow, I plunged forward down the hill between the pine-trunks. The low sun already sinking behind some rampart of mountain in the west reddened the snow and the pines with its ultimate rays. My knapsack with the skates in it swung to and fro on my back, one ski-stick had already been twitched out of my hand by a fallen branch of pine, but not a second's pause could I allow myself to recover it. I gave no glance behind, and I knew not at what pace my pursuer was on my track, or indeed whether any pursued at all, for my whole mind and energy, now working at full power again under the stress of my panic, was devoted to getting away down the hill and out of the wood as swiftly as my limbs could bear me. For a little while I heard nothing but the hissing snow of my headlong passage, and the rustle of the covered undergrowth beneath my feet, and then, from dose at hand behind me, once more the wolf-howl sounded and I heard the plunging of footsteps other than my own.
But the path was now at hand, and the nearness of it I suppose made me incautious. A hump of snow-covered bush lay in my path, and, thinking I could jump over it, I tripped and fell, smothering myself in snow. I heard a maniac noise, half scream, half laugh, from close behind, and before I could recover myself the grabbing fingers were at my neck, as if a steel vice had closed there. But my right hand in which I held my knapsack of skates was free, and with a blind back-handed movement I whirled it behind me at the full length of its strap, and knew that my desperate blow had found its billet somewhere. Even before I could look round I felt the grip on my neck relax, and something subsided into the very bush which had entangled me. I recovered my feet and turned.
There she lay, twitching and quivering. The heel of one of my skates piercing the thin alpaca of the knapsack had hit her full on the temple, from which the blood was pouring, but a hundred yards away I could see another such figure coming downwards on my tracks, leaping and bounding. At that panic rose again within me, and I sped off down the white smooth path that led to the lights of the village already beckoning. Never once did I pause in my headlong going: there was no safety until I was back among the haunts of men. I flung myself against the door of the hotel, and screamed for admittance, though I had but to turn the handle and enter; and once more as when Ingram had told his tale, there was the sound of the band, and the chatter of voices, and there, too, was he himself, who looked up and then rose swiftly to his feet as I made my clattering entrance.
"I have seen them too," I cried. "Look at my knapsack. Is there not blood on it? It is the blood of one of them, a woman, a hag, who tore off the leg of a chamois as I looked, and pursued me through the accursed wood. I—"
Whether it was I who spun round, or the room which seemed to spin round me, I knew not, but I heard myself falling, collapsed on the floor, and the next time that I was conscious at all I was in bed. There was Ingram there, who told me that I was quite safe, and another man, a stranger, who pricked my arm with the nozzle of a syringe, and reassured me . . .
A day or two later I gave a coherent account of my adventure, and three or four men, armed with guns, went over my traces. They found the bush in which I had stumbled, with a pool of blood which had soaked into the snow, and, still following my ski-tracks, they came on the body of a chamois, from which had been torn one of its hindlegs and one eye-socket was empty. That is all the corroboration of my story that I can give the reader, and for myself I imagine that the creature which pursued me was either not killed by my blow or that her fellows removed her body . . . Anyhow, it is open to the incredulous to prowl about the caves of the Ungeheuerhorn, and see if anything occurs that may convince them.
(1) - Mt. Everest's summit was not successfully reached until 1953. During the Interwar Era and immediate Postwar Era, therefore, speculation as to just what lay at its top excited science-fiction writers. One of the giants of the Golden Age, Isaac Asimov, in his story "Everest," postulated a Martian base as the reason why expeditions kept failing to reach the height:unfortunately, the story was not published until after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay attained the summit.
(2) - "Rape" is here being used in the old sense of "steal" -- the mountain-creatures kidnap humans -- though since the purpose is forced mating, it ultimately also leads to "rape" in the modern sense as well.
(3) - Strongly directional theories of evolution, under which some mysterious force beyond mere natural selection pushed species to evolve, were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What's more, it was assumed that species could advance to higher forms, or degenerate to lower forms, by the appropriate choices of hybridization: hence the mountain-hominids in this story are driven by an obscure compulsion to mate with humans in order to attain a higher type.
(4) - The extremely-short timescale presumed for prehistory is also characteristic of earlier science-fiction. Benson's narrator believes that it is ridiculous to imagine mountain-beasts existing today (in the early 20th century) but allows they might have existed "centuries" ago. Even if he means "tens of centuries," he is still putting the time frame within that of civilization in the area (specifically, Celtic, Roman and Medieval civilization), and long after the extinction of (for example) the Neanderthals. This is because, until the development and application of radioisotopic dating in the 1950's through 1970's, prehistoric dates were only known in vague and relative terms: when E. F. Benson (born in 1867) was educated (the 1870's to 1880's) the Earth was generally assumed to be mere millions of years old, and hence the Pleistocene would have started mere tens of thousands of years ago.
(5) - Benson's formative years were the Late Victorian Era, in which it was held that women were supposed to be elevated and refined creatures: seeing something bestial with a resemblance to a human woman would have been profoundly disgusting from Benson's point of view: even worse than seeing a male of the species.
(6) - The revulsion Professor Ingram feels at seeing the mountain-hominid stems from the fact that the sentiments of the era had not yet caught up to the reality of evolutionary biology: it was still seen as profoundly shocking, even to the well-educated to reflect that humans were descended from nonhuman great apes. Some of this horror came from the echoes of the earlier belief that humans had been specially created by God; some came from the prevalent assumptions regarding the strict heritability of all traits, including moral ones. Given the assumption that one was doomed to recapitulate the vices of one's ancestors, the horror at realizing that those ancestors included nonhuman great apes is understandable. This is what also drives Lovecraft's "Arthur Jermyn" (which I also recommend).
There was a tremendous fear that atavistic bestial traits might re-emerge, Mankind would regress to ape-like savagery. Given what had happened to Europe in 1914-18, and would happen again in 1939-45, I can well understand the trepidation of the Interwar Era writers.
(7) - This passage strongly highlights that the narrator's fear at viewing the mountain-hominid woman is at least partly sexual in nature. This is not unreasonable, as he has been told that her kind sometimes kidnap men as mates. Note that he worries about a ledge crumbling and causing him to fall into an abyss -- he is afraid of literally "falling for her."
It only makes things worse that, both in appearance and action, she is described as utterly-repulsive (though, mind you, such is the nature of survival as a wild woman on an Alpine slope). But then the worst sort of attraction is when one is drawn subconsciously toward something which one consciously finds disgusting.
This is an effective tale of terror: I felt my own pulse race as the hero fought and fled for his freedom. It's of course based on numerous tales of shaggy wild folk living in the remote hill countries of at least three continents: the Woods-Wosen of Europe (from which, incidentally, J. R.R. Tolkien got his "woses" and Grimm gets its "wesen"); the Yeti and other hill-apes of Asian legend; and the Bigfoots or Sasquatches of North America. It's also quite plausible: there's no particular reason why a small, secretive, normally-shy and very-cunning remnant of some earlier human subspecies or species couldn't survive in some remote area, with humans unable to confirm their existence.
We never actually learn why the wild-woman wanted him. One obvious possiblity is predation: she must be pretty hungry if she's not even bothering to kill a chamois before starting to consume it. The other and darker possibility is that she wanted to rape him: this is more than hinted at in Ingram's earlier description of the legend. The description of her is repulsive and quite realistically-so: quite aside from the fact that her kind has probably evolved to meet different standards of beauty, she's been living rough on the mountain with her people her whole life.
For a very different take on the same basic concept, try R. Crumb's Whiteman Meets Bigfoot, which has much the same sequence of events with a very different outcome.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
"The Picture in the House"
H. P. Lovecraft
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous (1).
(1) - As I will discuss at length in the Comments, this was then an unusual setting for horror fiction.
(2) - Since Lovecraft is writing in 1919 about an incident which happens in 1896, "two hundred years and more" means roughly "1700 and earlier," meaning that some of these houses were built during the creepy Puritan late 17th century of witch-hunts and other religious manias which Lovecraft was to mine so effectively in his later work.
(3) - To translate from the Lovecraftian, these houses were badly-maintained, practically falling down. Lovecraft was pointing out that the rural life was also one of decay, once one got off the main roads.
(4) - In the time when Lovecraft was writing, the New England Puritans were mostly also seen as the epitome of good rock-ribbed American wholesomeness (even though Hawthorne had discussed the dark side of this as early as the 1830's). Lovecraft (an atheist brought up by two highly-religious aunts of dubious sanity) is pointing out that religious manias can go in some very strange directions, and foreshadowing the very strange man whom the narrator will encounter in the tale.
(5) - This is the first mention of the Miskatonic Valley in any of Lovecraft's fiction.
(6) - This hint is left completely open: we never find out just what fearful family legends he discovered.
(7) - Why is the narrator willing to approach this strange and possibly-abandoned house? He's caught in a downpour, he wants shelter from the storm, and people in 1896 were both less afraid of getting injured in abandoned houses and more willing to ask for or give shelter in these sort of situations than most Americans are today.
(8) - Given what is later implied to be in the upper storey, this might be a "hateful odor" indeed.
(9) - He did knock, and it was raining hard, but searching the premises may be imposing more than a bit on even c. 1900 rural New England presumptions of hospitality. On the other hand, this is a Lovecraft antiquarian character, and he's just entered a room out of one of his wildest fantasies. When he says that there's nothing in the room of definitely post-Revolutionary origin, he's saying that he's in a room full of artifacts all of which are over a hundred years old.
(10) - Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 - c. 1531) was real: he was Magellan's assistant and chronicler on the first circumnavigation of the Earth. The book's full title is (in English) A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, and the Surrounding Countries, Drawn Out of the Writings and Discourses of the Portuguese, Duarte Lopez, according to the Miskatonic Museum website.
(11) - Books do tend to fall open on the favorite pages of the readers.
(12) - Both real books: Pilgrim's Progress (John Bunyan, 1678) and Magnalia Christi Americana (Cotton Mather, 1702). The first is easy to find in reprints, and the second is available online here. These books are ironic, given the nature of their owner, who is certainly no true Christian any more, and has made a personal pilgrimage into utter depravity.
(13) - In other words, he looks both disgustingly-decrepit and terrifyingly-healthy, which makes perfect sense given that he's an immortal sustained by dark culinary alchemy.
(14) - This is a clue as to the man's true age: he's speaking the dialect common at the time of his youth. This is obvious in hindsight, but of course you wouldn't think it if you didn't know the truth about him.
(15) - I guess the old man invited him over for dinner. (*cue Cryptkeeper chuckling*)
(16) - Lovecraft deliberately if briefly misleads his audience here. Anyone saying that a year was "sixty-eight" in 1896 or reading this in 1921 would, naturally, think that the old man was talking about 1868, in which case "the war" couldn't be the Civil War (because Holt is alive in "68" and the Civil War ended in 1865); nor could it be the Spanish-American War nor the Great War, because neither had yet started by 1896 -- so the "war" would have to be some Indian War. But then why would the old man say "the war?"
(17) - ... is that the old man means 1768, and "the war" in question is the American Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783), which means that the old man has to be something like a century and a half old to be saying this in 1896. But of course if you haven't read this story before, and aren't all that familiar with the Really Seven Hundred Years Old trope (as Lovecraft's initial readers wouldn't have been) it's not so obvious. The effect is one of chronological disorientation, which is exactly at what Lovecraft was aiming.
(18) - Visiting the old man would seem to be a high-risk occupation. Note that the old man isn't directly lying -- his exact words are "... him they say got draownded in the pond ..." (emphasis mine). Nice to know that even depraved immortal cannibals appreciate the virtue of honesty!
(19) - This might be due to ignorance on the part of the artist, or something more. When Lovecraft wrote this, it was common to assume that only "higher" races (those that looked "white," or at worst "yellow") could possibly have cultures advanced in any way. So if there were African cannibals who had learned a culinary spell which granted immortal life, by this logic they ought to be some lost white race who happened to live in Sub-Saharan Africa, rather than actual black Africans. There is not enough information in the story to determine if this is what Lovecraft meant to imply.
(20) - This being Lovecraft, one suspects that the "fabulous" creature might have been drawn from a living model.
(21) - This is a pretty clear depiction of the more violent aspects of the Old Testament inspiring a sociopathic sadist to pseudo-sexual excitement at the thought of bloodshed, and hence religious mania feeding homicidal mania, and thus turning the religious sentiment in darker directions. This follows the theme of the work as expressed in the story's initial paragraphs.
(22) - Another clue that the old man met Ebenezer Holt in the 18th rather than 19th centuries -- clergymen still wore "big wigs" in the late 18th century, but certainly not in the late 19th.
(23) - When a man tells you that killing sheep is fun, you know that it's time to leave his house. The problem is that by that point he may not let you leave.
(24) - Mmm, delish.
(25) - A scene which has been much-copied in later horror fiction.
(26) - Saved by the deus ex machina. There may have been something which saved the narrator beyond incredibly well-timed and well-aimed dumb luck: but if so, there is no textual clue as to the reason.
This story is significant because it is the story which introduced "Lovecraft Country" to the world. Indeed, it introduced not merely Lovecraft Country but the whole idea of a writer setting stories in a fictionalized version of his home region, complete with Houses and Towns with Dark Secrets.
In the very first paragraph, Lovecraft's narrator argues that true horror need not be found in exotic European locales, but can be found in the countryside right at home in New England. This is an important statement, because Lovecraft was writing in the Gothic tradition of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, and in that tradition true romantic horror is supposed to be found in Europe, preferably in some ancient ancestral castle with dark secrets in the vaults below. Later stories in that tradition, by such writers as Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker and Lord Dunsany, located the realms of mystery in the deep wilderness, Eastern Europe, or the Orient. Lovecraft grew up loving these stories set in strange lands, and he wrote some of them, but here he is trying something different.
Lovecraft is staking the claim that you can find true horror anywhere, and he's going to show you a tale of true horror in as mundane (to Lovecraft) a place as the Massachusetts back country. Indeed, to the popular fiction of the 1900's and 1910's, rural America was not merely not supposed to be a horrific place, but even a wholesome one, full of good, "salt-of-the-earth" people who at worst might occasionally figure in a murder or other scandal. Ambrose Bierce had played around with the notion of rural horror in some of his sarcastic tales: Lovecraft would take the idea and run with it. And it started with this story.
The story makes some valid points. It really is easy for someone living along a seldom-frequented stretch of rural road to be utterly-mad; even to waylay and kill strangers, provided that he is careful about it. It's probably easier to do this and get away with it in the country than in the city, because the crimes are less likely to be witnessed. This was even more true a century or more ago, when rural life was far more isolated: no cars, no cell phones, in fact normally no phones or electricity outside of town. Isolated, sometimes inbred country folk can become quite strange.
In this story, the resident of the house, who was even more isolated in the mid to late 18th century than he would have been in the mid to late 19th century, and who was obviously more than a bit insane to begin with, was driven completely mad by the revelations of the cannibal cult described in Regnum Congo, which had an unwholesome synergy with his previous religious mania. The effect was to turn him into a compulsive cannibal, and what's worse: the ritual actually worked, making him effectively emmortal as long as he regularly maintained his cannibal feasts.
And nobody noticed. Is this plausible, for over a century? Yes, if the old man was very isolated (and who would want to know him?) and was very careful about whom, where and how he killed. It would be hard for him to get away with a similar string of murders today, but in the 19th century, village constabularies and state troopers were not equipped either technologically or mentally to detect and catch serial killers. In fact the general concept of a "serial killer" was not widely grasped until the murders of Jack the Ripper -- which took place only eight years before the story's setting.
This leads to a moment of Fridge Horror. The old man has been carrying out his cannibal feasts for a period stretching from sometime after 1768 to the narrator's encounter with him in 1896. This is a period of roughly a century. Even if the old man only kills one person a year to (literally) feed his unholy appetites, that means he's murdered around 100 human beings. And given that when the narrator encounters the old man, he is obviously preparing one such feast (and thinking about picking up some extra meat in the form of the narrator), there is no reason to think that he limits himself to just 1 victim a year.
Somewhere near that old house, there are buried a lot of human bones. Assuming, that is, that the old man doesn't somehow render those down too, to make other victuals (one can boil bones down into a sort of edible paste -- takes a while, but the old man has nothing but time on his hands -- he probably doesn't need to work for a living, if you consider just how long he's had to draw interest on his savings).
Which leads to another moment of Fridge Horror, picked up on and run with by Sandy Peterson of Chaosium Games in one of the Call of Cthulhu Lovecraft Country supplements. There's absolutely no reason to assume that the old man is dead: there is no mention of any corpse having been found, and we know that he has preternatural vitality. He may be holing up somewhere, rebuilding his equipment, and preparing more cannibal feasts. For all we know, he may have decided to train an apprentice ...
Lovecraft was to repeatedly re-use this basic background: both the geographical one of the Miskatonic Valley and Arkham; and the plot background of Horror From Abroad Infects American Home (or Community) leading to it possessing a Dark Secret (note that the old man learned of the cannibal feasts from a book describing the Congo). He did this most famously in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," where Obed Marsh learns of the Deep Ones and the cult of Dagon from Polynesian half-human hybrids, and uses them to take over a Massachusetts seaport for some eighty years (interestingly, a full Strauss-Howe Cycle).
Other writers, too, would adopt the basic idea of creating a fictional version of one's own home region and using it as a horror setting. The big advantage of doing this is that one is writing what one knows, and so the fictional towns, counties and so forth can seem very real, greatly aiding verisimilitude when the fantastic elements are introduced. Most famously, Ramsey Campbell set many of his Cuthlhu Mythos stories in a fictional Severn Valley, modeled after the vinicity of his native Liverpool; and Stephen King (many of whose stories are loosely tied to the Mythos) in a fictional version of Western Maine.
Another interesting thing is that this may be one of the first Cthulhu Mythos stories, since it takes place in the Miskatonic Valley setting, but there's no actual reference to any Mythos beings. Even the cannibal cuisine which confers long life may simply be some sort of alchemical or shamanic secret. The only religion mentioned in the tale is Puritan Protestant Christianity: the cult of the Congo cannibals remains undefined.
This may be quite deliberate: Lovecraft was only 20 when he wrote this story, and this may have been a way for the young atheist to express rebellion against his religious aunts, who had raised him since the age of three. There are at least two points in which the cannibal directly refers to (a warped version of) Puritan Christianity as fueling or excusing his actions, which certainly seems like a Take That to me.
This was not quite Lovecraft's first story, but it was his first story to really succeed both as prose poetry and straight narrative. It clearly showed the talent which would make him the early 20th-century American master of horror fiction.