“In the Vault“
- Short story (3,430 words); written on September 18, 1925. First published in Tryout(November 1925); rpt. WT(April 1932); first collected in O;corrected text in DHGeorge Birch is the careless and thick-skinned undertaker of Peck Valley, somewhere in New England. He finds himself trapped in the cemetery’s receiving tomb where eight coffins are being stored for the winter by the slamming of the door in the wind and the breaking of the neglected latch. Birch realizes that the only way to escape the tomb is to pile the coffins like a pyramid and squeeze through the transom. Although working in the dark, he is confident that he has stacked the coffins in the sturdiest manner possible; in particular, he believes that he has placed the well-made coffin of the diminutive Matthew Fenner on the very top, rather than the flimsy coffin initially built for Fenner but later used for the tall Asaph Sawyer, a vindictive man whom he had not liked in life. Ascending his “miniature Tower of Babel,” Birch finds that he has to knock out some of the bricks around the transom in order for his large body to escape. As he does so, his feet fall through the top coffin into the decaying contents within. He feels horrible pains in his ankles—as from splinters or loose nails—but manages to crawl out the window and drop to the ground. He cannot walk—his Achilles tendons have been cut—but drags himself to the cemetery lodge where he is rescued. Later Dr. Davis examines his wounds and finds them very unnerving. Going to the receiving-tomb, he learns the truth: Asaph Sawyer was too big to fit Fenner’s coffin, so Birch had phlegmatically cut off Sawyer’s feet at the ankles to make the body fit; but he had not reckoned on Sawyer’s inhuman vengeance. The top coffin was not Fenner’s but Sawyer’s, and the wounds in Birch’s ankles are teeth marks.The plot of the story was suggested to HPL sometime in August 1925 by C.W. Smith, editor of Tryout . It is spelled out in a letter: “…an undertaker imprisoned in a village vault where he was removing winter coffins for spring burial, & his escape by enlarging a transom reached by the pilingup of the coffins” ( SL2.26). HPL has, of course, added a supernatural element. But the story remains a commonplace tale of supernatural vengeance. As in “Pickman’s Model,” HPL attempts unsuccessfully to write in a more homespun, colloquial vein.HPL dedicated the story to C.W.Smith, “from whose suggestion the central situation is taken.” HPL submitted it to Farnsworth Wright of WT,but it was rejected in November 1925; Wright gave as a reason the fact that (in HPL’s words) “its extreme gruesomeness would not pass the Indiana censorship” (HPL to Lillian D.Clark, December 2, 1925; ms., JHL). The reference is to the banning of C.M. Eddy’s “The Loved Dead.” HPL then sent it to the Tryout,where it appeared in the issue for November 1925 (the issue was published in early December). Later, in August 1926, the story was submitted to Ghost Stories,a very crude pulp magazine that specialized in purportedly “true” confession-style stories involving the supernatural; possibly HPL felt that the plain style of the tale would pass muster with the editors, but it was rejected. Finally, in late 1931, after August Derleth prepared a new typescript to replace HPL’s tattered original, HPL resubmitted the story to WTat Derleth’s urging. It was accepted, and HPL was paid $55.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.
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