Spooky Synopsis: Most nowadays don't know it, but old George Birch once served as undertaker of Peck Valley Cemetery. That was years ago, and when he was alive, he preferred to stay in his cups rather than talk about it. But at least one person knows the true story behind why he changed professions and bore mysterious scars upon his body. It had to do with the time when he accidentally locked himself into a vault with a number of dead bodies.
Lovecraftian Language: "Just where to begin Birch's story I can hardly decide, since I am no practiced teller of tales. I suppose one should start in the cold December of 1880, when the ground froze and the cemetery delvers found they could dig no more graves till spring. Fortunately the village was small and the death rate low, so that it was possible to give all of Birch's inanimate charges a temporary haven in the single antiquated receiving tomb. The undertaker grew doubly lethargic in the bitter weather, and seemed to outdo even himself in carelessness. Never did he knock together flimsier and ungainlier caskets, or disregard more flagrantly the needs of the rusty lock on the tomb door which he slammed open and shut with such nonchalant abandon."
Eerie Evaluation: You wouldn't call "In the Vault" wildly imaginative or brilliantly composed. If anything, it reads like an homage to M.R. James' simple story "There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard," which is itself undergirded by a structure horror aficionados will find quite familiar: An unpleasant person commits some sort of wrong and gets punished for it by vengeful supernatural forces. What makes "In the Vault" work -- nay, excel -- is the way in which Lovecraft fortifies its oh-so-conventional outline with canny details. Those looking for examples of Arendt's famed "banality of evil" could do worse than George Birch. He's not pure-bred evil, just a boorish guy who drinks too much, treats his animals poorly, and cuts corners in a grisly job. You might avoid him at the office party, but you wouldn't expect stomach-churning horrors from the pit to make him their personal target. The way Lovecraft explains why one of them is also contributes to the story's success. When Lovecraftian protagonists come to unfortunate ends, they typically fall to madness brought on by encountering creatures whose very vastness forces them to confront the meaninglessness of a mechanistic universe or some such similarly high-minded horror. Not here. "In the Vault" is classically gruesome, and when you learn what stupidly awful thing Birch did, you understand while the final moments are so nasty. Some of the dearly departed have very personal axes to grind.
Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):
To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.