Reading Group #32 ('Under the Pyramids')
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This is one of my all-time favorites. Ghost-written for Harry Houdini. If you're looking for an etext, Lovecraft had this styled as 'Imprisoned with the Pharaohs' and several other titles in its day...
I'll re-read this soon. I'm actually in the middle of a bit of a Weird Tales binge at the moment. I read Seabury Quinn's The Devil's Bride last week, and I'm currently reading the stories by Lovecraft's contemporaries in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (the Del Rey paperback rather than the Arkham House hardback, sadly).
I tried to be a bit more highbrow, but Frances Yates's Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition proved too heavy to read comfortably in the bath.
Hi, Jourdain & Andrew,
Long time no see.
Well, I've just read your recommended story. As with any Lovecraft stories I've read the words of his text trigger myriad images in my mind's eye.
Firstly, I was there with Houdini introducing his tale and preparing his listeners for a story of great horror and desparate deads. While I love the style of the introduction, and indeed the whole story, I suspect it would be lost on many modern audiences. It is very much of its time and for that I love it.
The things playing in my mind while reading this piece included the enjoyment of the reading, the fact that I had the character of Houdini telling the story and that this work was written purely as a piece of propoganda to build up the mysticism of Houdini in his world of professional performance. (I do not know the origins of this story but it does appear to be for this purpose. Correct my thinking if you know better.)
While, as I mentioned, Houdini was telling the tale in my mind, I could recognise many of the Lovecraftian traits I have noticed in the few works of his I have read. Primary amongst these were the separation of the protagonist from his companions and any familiar surroundings. Then the sojourn through a real or imaginary terrain which contains unknown terrors and is of immeasurable scale. Next the witnessing of horrors too grotesque to describe in detail. We then have a dash to safety which inevitably involves unconsciousness before awakening in a place of relative safety.
The fact that Houdini was recounting the story kept if from becoming totally terrifying as the reader knows all along that Houdini has survived to tell the tale.
Good story. Thanks for the recommendation.
You noticed that I bravely give my real name on my profile page now!
I still haven't re-read this story but I remember it well enough to agree with the points you've made. I don't know whether Weird Tales or Houdini benefited most from their association through this story, but it's striking (to me, at any rate) that even as late as my childhood in the '70s, "Houdini" would be the name that sprang to mind in connection with any mention of escapology. The publicity drive clearly worked.
(By the way, there is a recent biography of Houdini that my brother recommended. I'm afraid I can't recall the author's name, though).
I dunno if I'm just hopelessly behind the times, but Houdini is still the name that leaps to my mind if someone mentions escape artists, and I wasn't even born in the '70s.
Seeing as it's time for confessions, my earliest memories of Houdini and his feats are from the '60s.
Like AndreasJ, Houdini is still the first person I would think of when escapology is mentioned.
I holiday in France near the town of Blois on the Loire river. There is a building there call "La Maison de la Magie" (the house of the magician). It is a museum of magic with a magic show performed each day. It is the house of Robert-Houdin, the illusionist whose name Harry Houdini amended when developing his own stage identity.
That biography of Houdini sounds interesting. I remember watching a film of Houdini's life with my family in the 1960s. I think it was in black and white (I'm not sure if that is because it was filmed in black and white or because we only had a black and white television at the time.)
When I first read this story (about 10 years ago in the Penguin collection The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories) there was a definite frisson about the connection with Harry Houdini, even though I was aware that his actual involvement was likely to have been non-existent.
It apparently originates in a claim of Houdini’s that he really was set upon, bound, gagged, and dropped down a pyramid shaft. Lovecraft obtained permission from Weird Tales publisher to elaborate on this story after he had established to his satisfaction that it could not be true (I've got all this all from S. T. Joshi’s notes in the Penguin edition, which also reveal that Weird Tales was trying to associate itself with Houdini because it was struggling financially).
Although originally published as by Houdini, this story does not sound like anyone other than Lovecraft, from characteristic turns of phrase (“a session of grilling persuasion”) to the familiar obsessions with underground tunnels, cyclopean masonry, ancient powers and so on. (as Peter noted in 3) above). I wonder how many Weird Tales readers recognised who the true author was?
I have a slightly embarrassed confession.
I first read this decades ago and it's always stuck in my mind - for me, one Lovecraft's most memorable short stories - and I've read it again since I recently bought The Necronomicon : The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft; and, until I read veil's OP, it never once crossed my mind that the narrative voice was anything but a fictional creation! I don't think it even occurred to me to think that Lovecraft was purposely creating a Houdini-like character. Ouch!
#8 So, alaudacorax, what you're saying is that Houdini escaped your mind for a while?
No shame in that. He's very good at escaping, or was very good at it.
I thought the first three or four pages were a little 'overweight' in places, with stuff that didn't really enhance the mood or move the plot-line, and would have benefited from a bit of judicious cutting on Lovecraft's part. For example, the bit on the ship on the way over: I can see the point of it - to provide an explanation of why the locals knew all about Houdini - presumably Lovecraft was afraid that just accepting the fame as a given would make the narrator/Houdini come across as big-headed. It does nothing for the story, though.
I could see what Lovecraft was trying to do in the opening pages, trying to move the mood and the reader gradually from the 'modern' through the more and more remote, exotic and long ago (I think that was his intention, anyway), but I didn't think he did it very well and I didn't think the story really got into its stride until somewhere during the first visit to the pyramids. Before that, I several times got the impression of Lovecraft getting into his stride and then losing it a bit.
#1 - ... Lovecraft had this styled as 'Imprisoned with the Pharaohs' and several other titles in its day ...
Does that mean Lovecraft made more than one version of this tale, perhaps revising for different publications?
I assumed that the travelogue aspects of the first part of the story would have been enjoyed for their own sake by the original audience (bearing in mind the popularity of explorers, big-game hunters, and the like in magazine fiction, cinema newsreels, etc.).
It's noticeable that Lovecraft (as Houdini) has good things to say about Medieval "Saracen Cairo". I might have expected everything post Pharaonic Egypt to strike him as a vulgar modern accretion. I'm sure I've read other writers making that sort of judgement.
Another thought - Lovecraft has to suggest that the supernatural events of the second part of the story are probably just an hallucination, not just because of their intrinsic unlikelihood, but also because Houdini was famous for being a skeptic and a rationalist.
I think it was just for tittilation's sake, if that makes sense; I don't think he revised the actual content. Then again, I'm only supposing... I have nothing to back this up... Haha
Regarding your second point: I think Lovecraft's own obsession with Arabian Nights theatricality played into this. If the story took place in, say, London or Paris, I think he would have certainly portrayed the modern city as subject to 'vulgar accretion.' But with Cairo, I suppose the glitter was more important than what it represented; besides, both Pharaonic and Muslim Egypt were capable of inspiring Lovecraft's rococo excess, and that man was prone to exoticism in a way that is almost ironic, given his world-view... As somebody with the, er, 'blood of Egypt' in her veins (now who's prone to exoticism? haha), I find his treatment of the Arab quarters of Cairo to be one of the least orientalistic I've seen in Gothic/Weird/Decadent literature of the period. Which is novel, given the otherwise dizzy imaginings that pepper this story...
I hadn't considered that...good point.
#8 - ... it never once crossed my mind that the narrative voice was anything but a fictional creation!
#13 - ... but also because Houdini was famous for being a skeptic and a rationalist.
#14 - I hadn't considered that...good point.
Yes. The idea that the narrator is Houdini, as opposed to a Houdini-like character, must, for contemporaries, have significantly changed the reading of the piece. My earlier reading having been wrong-footed, as it were, by not realising the Houdini connection, at the moment I'm still struggling, I think, for an approximation of the original, `20s reading experience.
When I got to the 'meat' of the story, it briefly crossed my mind to wonder whether this actually qualified as a 'Gothic' tale. Then I realised that all the Gothic conventions are there, but writ so large! So Egypt and it's millennia-long history and prehistory stands in for the old family; his 'castle' is there, but orders of magnitude bigger and older and more rambling than anyone else's; the 'family' secret is equivalently so much older and darker.
It's almost as if Lovecraft said, "Any old writer can do Gothic; I'm going to do ... SUPERGOTHIC!!!"
Having put that into words has led me to think what an achievement it was of Lovecraft's to be so often so over-the-top, and yet make it work. It would have been so easy to tip over into being ridiculous.
But, since we're talking about Lovecraft, it would probably be 'PYTHONIC BEHEMOTH CYCLOPEAN LEVIATHAN SUPERGOTHIC!!'
#15 - The idea that the narrator is Houdini, as opposed to a Houdini-like character, must, for contemporaries, have significantly changed the reading of the piece.
I've been reading-up a little on Houdini.
Given that the story was written and published with Houdini's full cooperation (there seems to have been at least a professional relationship between the two men), and given that this was towards the end of Houdini's life when he was heavily involved in debunking fake mediums and such, I really can't understand how they intended the story to square with Houdini's public persona.
Completely off-topic, but ...
The story - 'The Unnamable' - immediately following this one in my anthology has got to have one of the finest short-story opening lines I've ever seen:
'We were sitting on a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb in the late afternoon of an autumn day at the old burying-ground in Arkham, and speculating about the unnamable.'
"As you do, H.P. - as you do."
Seriously, though, that's an absolute cracker of a first line - you're instantly hooked.
> 21 It was, of all things, a review of Starsky and Hutch in the Daily Express that introduced me to this corker of a (spoof) opening line from S J Perelman:
"Bang!BANG!bang!BANG! bang!BANG! Six bullets thudded into my chest and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life!"
#22 - Well, I even though I hate the acronym, the only possible response to that is - LOL!
Let's move on. Next up is a story I've never read, so no guarantees that it's an excellent one (but the bad is as much fun as the good when we're talking Gothic, I think): 'The Judge's House' by Bram Stoker.
New thread is up.
Okay, I have to ask something - and I can't believe I haven't asked this before, as it's continually playing on my mind.
In the familiar picture we see of Lovecraft, is he trying to hide a weak chin by sticking out his bottom jaw as far as possible and opening his jaws as far as he's able to whilst still keeping his lips together?
No, he had a big lantern jaw. There's been some speculation about an inherited condition, I think.
#27 - On his Wikipedia page there's a picture of him aged nine. While he hasn't got what you'd precisely call a weak chin, it's not at all prominent and bears little resemblance to his adult appearance - just an ordinary chin. The bottom lip is noticeably fuller, too.
These prompted the post above. However, I suppose the thin lips and purse mouth could equally result from abnormal growth of the bottom jaw which left him having to put a bit of stretch and effort into closing his lips properly.
#29 - Haha! My brain always seems to be wandering off on odd tangents, these days.
By the way, I don't think I'd realised that Lovecraft's work was out of copyright. Or have we discussed that previously and I've forgotten?
There are a number of very cheap or free 'complete' ebooks floating round the web. One I looked at claimed to contain everything bar collaborations. I can't speak for the proof-reading, of course.
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