The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories

BOOK: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories
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Table of Contents
H. P. Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, where he lived most of his life. Frequent illnesses in his youth disrupted his schooling, but Lovecraft gained wide knowledge of many subjects through independent reading and study. He wrote many essays and poems early in his career, but gradually focused on the writing of horror stories, after the advent in 1923 of the pulp magazine
Weird Tales
, to which he contributed most of his fiction. His relatively small corpus of fiction—three short novels and about sixty short stories—has nevertheless exercised a wide influence on subsequent work in the field, and he is regarded as the leading twentieth-century American author of supernatural fiction. H. P. Lovecraft died in Providence in 1937.
S. T. Joshi is a freelance writer and editor. He has edited Lovecraft's collected fiction as well as some of Lovecraft's essays, letters, and miscellaneous writings. Among his critical and biographical studies are
The Weird Tale
Lord Dunsany: Master of the Anglo-Irish Imagination
(1995), and
H. P. Lovecraft: A Life
(1996). He has also edited
Atheism: A Reader
(2000) as well as H. P. Lovecraft's
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
and Algemon Blackwood's
Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories
for Penguin Classics. He lives in New York City.
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
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First published in Penguin Books 2001
Selection, introduction and notes copyright © S. T. Joshi, 2001
All rights reserved
The stories in this volume are
eISBN : 978-1-101-15721-3
CIP data available

I am grateful to Peter Cannon, Daniel Harms, Donovan Loucks, Robert M. Price, and especially David E. Schultz for assistance in the preparation of the texts and commentary.
Nietzsche said that all philosophy is veiled autobiography, and much the same could be said of literature. The biographical approach to literature is not currently in fashion, what with the postmodernists' gleeful proclamations of the “death of the author” and the New His toricists' contention that authors merely mirror the social and political tendencies of their epochs. But authors have proved a surprisingly difficult species to kill off, and their creations continue to embody indi vidualities of style and outlook, and to refute the notion that literary works emerge fully formed, as if out of a jack-in-the-box, without in some manner reflecting the physical, intellectual, and imaginative experiences of their creators.
The horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) is more amenable to the biographical approach than many other creative works because of a series of historical accidents: the fact that Lovecraft, finding few like-minded individuals in his native Providence, Rhode Island, established a wide-ranging circle of correspondents to whom he wrote tens of thousands of letters; the fact that these letters do more than recount the mundanities of his relatively sedate physical existence, but embody the widest range of his intellectual and personal predilections, from his preference in doughnuts to his understanding of the cosmos; and the fact that many of his associates, from an early stage, appeared to recognize the literary and biographical value of these documents and preserved them carefully, so that they are now available for scholarly examination. Lovecraft has therefore become one of the most exhaustively self-chronicled individuals of his century, and his letters are the equivalent of a Pepys diary in their exhibition of the fluctuations of his mind and heart.
It would seem, on the surface, that horror and fantasy literature are not fruitful for biographical analysis, since (as Lovecraft himself stated) the essence of these literary modes is to depict “something which
could not possibly happen.

But while the actual supernatural event is not likely to yield any simple or straightforward autobiographical connection, other aspects of a story may well do so. Naturally, care and judgment must always be exercised. When, in the early story “The Tomb” (1917), Lovecraft's narrator declares that he was “wealthy beyond the necessity of a commercial life, and temperamentally unfitted for the formal studies and social recreations of my acquaintances,” we see the expression of a wish rather than of the reality. Lovecraft was indeed born into a relatively well-to-do family that could boast one authentic business genius—his grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips, a bold and dynamic industrialist who made and lost several fortunes in his continent-spanning career—but by 1917 the family had already been reduced both in numbers (Lovecraft's father had died in 1898 of syphilis, his grandfather in 1904 of heart failure, probably brought on by his latest business collapse) and in economic wealth, so that Lovecraft, his mother, and his two aunts were compelled to struggle along largely on the ever-dwindling supply of money from Whipple's inheritance. As for “formal studies,” Lovecraft's early ill-health—very likely nervous or psychological in origin —caused his school attendance to be highly irregular: two separate years (1898-99 and 1902-3) at the Slater Avenue School, and four years (1904-8), with numerous absences, at the Hope Street High School, culminating in a nervous breakdown that resulted in his abrupt withdrawal without a diploma. For the next five years Lovecraft became as reclusive as any of his eccentric narrators, absorbing prodigious quantities of information out of books but doing little to make himself employable in the outside world.
Perhaps Lovecraft's turn to pure fantasy in 1919, under the influence of the great Irish novelist and playwright Lord Dunsany, was not so surprising. By this time his mother had suffered a nervous breakdown of her own and would never emerge from the sanitarium in which she was confined. Was Lovecraft merely seeking an “escape from life”?
That would perhaps be a too facile analysis. Anyone who has ever read the early work of Dunsany—especially
The Gods of Pegāna
(1905) and
A Dreamer's Tales
(1910)—will attest to the almost sensual experience of ideal beauty embodied in them, and it is no surprise that Lovecraft spent the better part of the next two years in earnest but ultimately futile attempts to duplicate the style and spirit of his mentor. And yet, his “Dunsanian” tales are “failures” only when gauged as simple pastiches; for a large part of their “failure” resides in the plain fact that Lovecraft's own temperament keeps obtruding itself in tales that he himself envisioned as nothing but humble imitations. When, in “The White Ship” (1919), the protagonist deserts the tranquil Land of Sona-Nyl, where “there is . . . neither suffering nor death,” for what proves to be the mythical realm of Cathuria, “the Land of Hope,” we see a direct reflection of the Epicurean moral philosophy that Lovecraft had absorbed as a result of his early classical studies: “Remember that the goal of the great Epicurus was not an earthly
(Hedonism), or pleasure, but a lofty
or freedom from cares and trivial thoughts.”
And when Iranon, in “The Quest of Iranon” (1921), becomes old overnight because he has suddenly lost the hope of ever finding the imaginary realm of Aira, we find a philosophical message for which we would search in vain in the work of Dunsany. “The flight of imagination,” wrote Lovecraft in 1920, “and the delineation of pastoral or natural beauty, can be accomplished as well in prose as in verse—often better. It is this lesson which the inimitable Dunsany hath taught me.”
But Lovecraft would not be much remembered if he had written nothing but the competent but ultimately insubstantial tales of the first five or six years of his literary career. Even so perfectly crafted a tale as “The Music of Erich Zann” (1921)—which Lovecraft ranked second among his own favorites, after “The Colour Out of Space”—does no more than hint at the cosmic horrors of his final decade. Lovecraft came to realize that he would need a broader palette with which to paint the wonders and terrors of the universe of which the earth and all upon it are the tiniest and most insignificant particles. It was not merely a matter of length, although that was important (most of his later tales are novelettes, novellas, or short novels, but even the longest of them retain all the unity of effect that Poe sought in the short story); he also needed to fuse the varied literary influences upon his work—Poe; Dunsany; the Welsh mystic Arthur Machen, whose novels and stories Lovecraft discovered in 1923; the cosmic tales of Algernon Blackwood, first read in 1924—so as to produce that new and unclassifiable amalgam we call the Lovecraftian tale. More, he required some further life experiences—including an uprooting from the placidity of his rather aimless life as a “professional amateur” in Providence.
“Under the Pyramids” provides a hint of some of these changes. Its autobiographical features relate not to the incidents it depicts but to its mode of composition. In early 1924 Lovecraft, having become the star writer for the new pulp magazine
Weird Tales
, was asked to ghostwrite a story for escape artist Harry Houdini, who had been persuaded to lend his name to the magazine in order to rescue it from flagging sales and an early demise. Lovecraft did not meet Houdini at this time (he would do so later, in New York), but was told of an adventure that Houdini had supposedly experienced in Egypt more than a decade earlier, and this was to serve as the basis for the narrative. Lovecraft quickly determined that Houdini's story was pure fiction, and he asked
Weird Tales
owner J. C. Henneberger for as much latitude as possible in fashioning his tale. Apparently Lovecraft was given that latitude, for the tale as we have it is certainly extravagant to a fault, although providing the kind of “guilty pleasure” that the best pulp fiction was meant to provide. Alas for the best-laid plans of mice and men! Lovecraft, delaying until the last minute, finished the story only a day or two before he departed for New York on March 2, 1924, on a voyage whose true purpose he revealed to no one, not even to his two aunts—his marriage to Sonia H. Greene, a Russian Jewish immigrant seven years his senior. The marriage took place the next day, Lovecraft casually informing his aunts a week later by letter; but in the rush of events, he left the typescript of the story in Union Station in Providence! (It is from the ad Lovecraft placed in the lost-and-found section of the
Providence Journal
that we know his preferred title to the story; it was published in
Weird Tales
as “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.”) The newlyweds were therefore obliged to spend much of the next two days retyping the manuscript, which Lovecraft had providentially brought along with him. Sonia remarks, with exquisite tact, that “when the [typing of the] manuscript was finished we were too tired and exhausted for honeymooning or anything else.”
BOOK: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories
11.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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