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Blogging With HPL: The Secret Cave or John Lees Adventure (1898)

Bad children get the Cave Adventure.

If there's one thing Lovecraft seems to be getting a taste for even at a young age, it's warning against curiosity. Granted, a lot of stories even for adults, let alone children, are bent around illustrating a moral; however, rarely are the morals and stories so obvious as this monkey's-paw tale (which isn't technically accurate, as "The Monkey's Paw" was published in 1902 according to Wikipedia).

We open upon the Lees (Mr. & Mrs.) leaving their children, John (10) and Alice (2) alone for the day, and telling them to "be good children". Like any self-respecting children, John and Alice immediately disobey this injunction and go play in miscellaneous junk in the cellar, at which point Alice gives a "piercing cry" as the bricks in an adjoining wall give way, revealing a passage. Exploring this passage, the children happen across a box which they open, revealing it to be empty, and a plastered room leading to a cave, containing another small box (which they don't open this time) and a boat that John drags along to an abrupt stop made by an "obstacle". At this point, things get hard to follow. John removes the obstacle, and water rushes into the cave. John, being a good swimmer, swims through the water carrying both his sister and the new mysterious box, and grabs the boat, putting them in. His sister drowns from the exertion, and John retreats after blocking the water up again with the "obstacle", paddling back down the passage and to their cellar. John's parents have now arrived home, and John tells the story. At the end, our narrator reveals that the mysterious box contained $10,000 (worth $365,497.59 in today's money, according to Inflation Calculator). (Side note: According to, gold in 1898 closed at $20.67, presumably per ounce, which would make $10,000 of gold at that time be about 484 ounces or 30 pounds. The average weight of a two-year-old is 26.5 pounds for girls according to This is probably a happy coincidence, but $10,000 of gold is actually a semi-realistic amount for a ten-year-old John Lee to schlep along with a two-year-old in a crisis situation. Huh!)

I have to confess, I don't like this story as much as "The Little Glass Bottle". Other than it being a maudlin story of a dead two-year-old, it's also more difficult to follow than the last one. Questions such as where the gold or the boat came from or why the passage is under the Lees' are ignored in favor of driving to the tragic resolution of the crisis. However, I also get that I am dunking on a seven- or eight-year-old child, so I'll list the thoughts I have regarding this story:

  1. Much like the last story, the 'moral' of this story seems to oppose undue curiosity.
  2. Two's a coincidence, especially considering the amount of nonextant work Lovecraft must have written as a notably prolific child, and it's possible that these stories were saved retrospectively, because of their similarity to later stories of Lovecraft's. However, it is still worth pointing out that Lovecraft was clearly compelled to some extent by warnings to the curious, which much of his work, in effect, is.

  3. While "The Little Glass Bottle" was written based off tropes from pulp adventure stories, this story seems to take more influence from traditional morality tales for children at that time.
  4. Both stories seem to draw influence from pulp tales of the period, such as finding gold from secret passages or glass-bottle treasure maps, but children's stories in specific often focus on cautionary tales. Whereas "The Little Glass Bottle" was a gentle chastising of greedy adults, "The Secret Cave" reminds me more of fairy tales or fables one gave a child at this time. Although I can't find anything Lovecraft was confirmed to have read at that age that precisely matches, it's a tone I recognize, and Grimm's fairy tales, which are confirmed as early reading material for Lovecraft, are the closest confirmed source for this sort of morality tale I can sniff out. That said, it's not exactly uncommon fare for children, so I feel comfortable making this leap. I see a closer connection to another book of folklore, "1001 Nights", which definitely inspired Lovecraft as a boy, pushing him even to take that moniker we all know well, Abdul Alhazred. Although set in a domestic American household of the day (presumably), the story contains both mysterious caves containing treasure and wishes granted at a price, which "1001 Nights" has (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin). Both of these inspirations are present, but relatively loose as well.

Overall, for the sake of a study of the development of Lovecraft's writing, I'd be most interested in tracing how the concept of wishes granted at a price resulted in both this work and "The Monkey's Paw", although I'm not sure how much meat is there for the discussion. Arguably, the concept of 'wishes granted at a price' continues through the story of Richard Upton Pickman, or perhaps Crawford Tillinghast or "Cool Air"'s Dr. Munoz (I can't type the correct accent mark on that in HTML yet, I'm sorry, pedants), but at this point I'm likely just trying to find some more mileage.

What do you think? Do you know about the literary predecessors to "The Monkey's Paw" or 1890s children's books? Do you like this story better than the last and want to defend John Lee's honor? Do you just want to share your thoughts? Let me know at I'd love to hear it!

Keep it weird,