Food For Thought by John C Adams
Updated: Jun 11
Food for Thought: Eating and Drinking in the Horror Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft
Food and drink feature prominently in the stories of two of our best-loved horror writers, Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft. Both utilised the ingestion process to showcase how what we consume determines both our physical and mental state, leading to some terrifying narratives and tense short stories.
We all know what it is like to be tempted by the choicest morsels or the finest wines, but greed is the downfall of the villain who lets it blind him to the ruse being perpetrated against him. The Italian proverb that 'revenge is a dish best served cold' was the inspiration for Poe's short story 'The Cask of Amontillado'. Fortunato has earned the undying hatred of the narrator via not merely a thousand injuries but also a further insult, which is the tipping point. Montresor plots to lure his adversary down into the crypts beneath his home, which also function as his wine cellar. The bon viveur is instantly attracted by the possibility of tasting the Amontillado, and he insists on going down there with the narrator to fetch the bottle. Part of the joy of this story is the evident temptation that Amontillado embodies for Fortunato, and how gleefully and with what skill Montresor is able to draw him towards danger. Montresor appears to take every opportunity to discourage Fortunato from breaking his dinner engagement, coming home with him and going down into his crypt. This absolutely puts Fortunato off guard. Once there, terrible revenge is extracted when Montresor bricks up his enemy and leaves him to die.
Here, the consumption is not excessive, but the focus on the high quality of the liquor has made the villain a willing victim without even knowing it in his rush to gain access to the luxury being held out to him.
In Poe's short story 'The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether', the link is made between what we eat and our mental health. Here, a foul choice of food does not cause mental health issues; rather it is instead an external manifestation of existing clinical symptoms. The dinner served to the visitor to the asylum just outside Paris elucidates to the reader that the diners, who initially appear to be people 'of rank - certainly of high breeding', are in fact insane. Having rejected a small calf roasted whole and set upon its knees with an apple in its mouth, the narrator is offered something that superficially appears to be rabbit, only to see that it is something very different and wholly unpalatable.
'There is no knowing what one eats, thought I to myself, at the tables of these people of the province. I will have none of their rabbit-au-chat - and, for the matter of that, none of their cat-au-rabbit either.'
In an extension of the notion that 'we are what we eat' taken so far as to represent clinical morbidity, the diners then regale their visitor with amusing and entertaining descriptions of how one of their patients thought he was a cheese, another asserted that he was a bottle of champagne and a third believed himself to be a pumpkin
The threat of greed luring us into danger is frightening, and the proud display of bizarre edibles can be used with other factors to indicate mental instability in a good horror story. However, both sources of unpleasantness are predicated on our knowing what we are eating: it is our deliberate choice to consume it. It is far worse when we inadvertently eat food and drink we have grown ourselves only for our diet to attack us in ways we do not understand, or for it to prove inedible as a result of bizarre diseases with supernatural or cosmic origins.
In the Lovecraft story 'The Colour Out of Space', a farming family called the Gardners finds that their crops and livestock have been nurtured on soil tainted by the arrival of a meteorite that blasts a nearby heath with fire. Initially, Nahum Gardner's crops do very well. They are all growing to phenomenal size and are ripe and shiny. The crops are abundant like never before, but 'for all of that gorgeous array of specious lusciousness not one single jot was fit to eat'. Next spring, the skunk cabbages are huge and they have monstrous shapes and are an odd colour that no one can describe. Cows' milk turns bad, and even the well water is tainted with 'an evil taste that was not exactly foetid nor exactly salty'. Hogs, cattle and poultry turn to grey ashes before the Gardners' eyes. Later, the same affliction destroys the family.
The greatest fear of all is reserved for situations where humans are not the consumer, but instead become the consumed. Mankind's love of good food and drink becomes painfully ironic when the source of terror in a story is that we ourselves are on the menu.
Many of Poe's stories are set in Paris, and the French love of cuisine and good wine is well known. His short story 'Bon Bon' draws out the link between good food and intellectual taste and rigour. Bon Bon runs a tiny bookshop which doubles as a restaurant, and the cooking and display of books go on cheek by jowl.
"It was impossible to say in which branch of his profession he took the greater pride. In his opinion, the powers of the intellect held intimate connection with the capabilities of the stomach."
The devil visits late one stormy night and goes on to tell his host about how he has captured the souls of many great philosophers. His sustenance is very different from that of the restaurateur. In this story, abstinence represents the exercise of power rather than consumption. Bon Bon, who had considered himself the most superior of men, is made vulnerable by his drunkenness as the devil declines to partake. He is also exposed as arrogant for his focus on mere pleasures of the body. The devil mockingly compares the superior taste of human soul to the meat Bon Bon has enjoyed.
Soul eating is a well-established feature of horror and dark fantasy, but mankind can also fall prey in body as well as in soul. In Lovecraft's 'The Cats of Ulthar', an old cotter and his wife live in a dark hovel set apart from the village. Cats regularly disappear in their vicinity and the villagers turn a blind eye, but one day a strange caravan rumbles into town. The black kitten owned by one of the travellers goes missing, and the lad offers up a dark prayer. The cats of Ulthar then take revenge on the cotter and his wife that night and consume their flesh, each returning to their own hearths the next morning, too fat to move and not hungry for another two days.
The fear of being eaten by a predator is well grounded, though few would begrudge the cats of Ulthar their revenge after so many of their number have been tortured and killed. Still, the thought of being eaten alive is terrifying.
If there is anything worse than being eaten by a predator, then it must surely be being eaten by one of our own. Cannibalism has deservedly found a way deep into the horror pantheon, and the loathing and disgust inspired by its existence make for a powerful story.
In Lovecraft's tale 'The Picture In The House', the narrator is driving through New England to Arkham when he gets caught in a storm. Taking refuge in a small wooden house that he assumes to be abandoned, he snoops around the place and is horrified to discover an illustrated account of the Congo complete with a picture of a cannibal butcher's shop. The homeowner returns, excited to see that the narrator has taken an interest in this particular illustration. The narrator is so horrified by the old man's enthusiastic interest in cannibalism that he sees blood dripping through the ceiling, and his sanity is saved only by a blast of lightning that destroys the house.
Food and drink feature widely in the fiction of Poe and Lovecraft, and in the very worst of tales we become the meal rather than being the ones to partake of it.
Thank you so much for reading my 'Monday Musings' article. This article is part of a special themed week on food and drink here at John C Adams Reviews! See you on Wednesday for a review as part of 'Way Back Whensday'. In the meantime, please share your thoughts on horror fiction you've enjoyed in the comments section below.
Thanks to photographers Lotus Head, marcos palena and gabriel dima for providing the cover image for this blog via freeimages.com