20 June 2009

H. P. Lovecraft is “Under the Pyramids”

I was recently reading a book that had a chapter about the myth of “Mystical Egypt”; that is, the fictional vision of ancient Egypt that European writers and scholars developed during the centuries before the decipherment of hieroglyphics allowed a more realistic view of the time period. But even if Egyptology is far ahead of where it was in the 18th century, the mystical—and often dark fantasy—view of the land of the Pharaohs still has incredible potency in Western culture.

With these thoughts rollicking through my head, I picked up an H. P. Lovecraft short story I hadn’t read since the Old Kingdom: “Under the Pyramids” (currently available in the Penguin Classics anthology The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories). It was one of the first Lovecraft stories I read when I first discovered the author, reading it under its alternate title of “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.” Written in early 1924, when the author’s stories were starting to find a regular outlet in the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, “Under the Pyramids” is arguably the best fiction piece that Lovecraft had written up to that time. Appropriately enough, this was the first story of his that really impressed me as a young reader. At the time I first read it, I had yet to experience any of the classic “Mythos” tales—the DelRey collection I owned mostly had early stories, not the best way to get an introduction to HPL—so “Under the Pyramids” came as a minor revelation. Lovecraft pours on a verbose nightmare-scape of ancient horrors in a deluge, showing hints of what was to come in his mature tales.

“Under the Pyramids” wasn’t initially published under Lovecraft’s name. He ghostwrote the story for magician Harry Houdini, who had suggested to Weird Tales a story about an experience he had in Egypt where Arabs tied him up and left him in one of the temples. The story wasn’t true, but that meant Lovecraft, who got the assignment for $100 to craft the the story into something publishable, could do whatever he wanted with the “Egyptian horror” concept. And he did. While moving to New York and getting married, he found time to hash out an intense subterranean journey through the Mystical Myth of the Land of the Nile.

There’s plenty that’s actually wrong with the story, principally the dull tourism around Egypt circa 1910 before the horrors start. Lovecraft depended on travel guidebooks to write this part of the story… and it feels like it. The pseudo-Houdini of the story putters around Cairo and takes in the sights. The ghostwriter drops a few hints of a sinister secret history of Egypt centered around the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid-builder Khaf-Ra, which Lovecraft spells “Khephren” in the Hellenistic style. But it still seems to take a full cycle of the Nile before the travelogue ceases and Houdini gets plunged into a Lovecraftian adjective nightmare.

Choosing to watch a fist-fight at night atop the Great Pyramid (seriously!), Houdini ends up ambushed and bound by the Bedouins who wish to see if this magician can really measure up to their local magic. They dump him down a burial shaft, and at this point the story shifts in a dream-state where the narrator no longer feels sure of reality. Lovecraft finds solid ground in the terrors Houdini finds in the impossibly deep chambers beneath the pyramids where he witnesses the terrifying origins of the Egyptian religion.

Europe and America were Egypt-crazed at this time: the finding of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb happened only two years earlier. “Under the Pyramids” is a very heady brew of the Western amazement at Ancient Egypt, as well as its misconceptions of Egypt’s culture. This is a Gothic Egypt that never was, impossibly “other” and ancient beyond anything that a European could understand. Despite its flaws, the story remains quite wonderful both as a stylistic exercise (you do need to have a taste for Lovecraft’s ornamental style, however) and as a cultural footprint showing how the Western world of 1924 saw the Pharoahs and their history. For example, the story mentions Nitokris a few times, murderous queen of the sixth dynasty, as an historical figure connected to the pyramids. Nitokris almost certainly never existed—but she was an important part of the myths gathered around the pyramids.

“Under the Pyraminds” would lead to more Egyptian elements peeking into Lovecraft’s later work, such as his references to “the Black Pharaoh” Nephren-Ka in the 1935 short story “The Haunter of the Dark.” Robert Bloch, future author of Psycho, would make Lovecraft’s view of Egypt specifically his own in some of his early short stories, such as “The Faceless God,” “The Brood of Bubastis,” “The Secret of Sebek,” and “Fane of the Black Pharaoh.” The latter is one of my favorite Bloch stories, and had an influence on my novel The Realm of the Raven.