The Houdini Connection

“Under the Pyramids” was ghost-written by Lovecraft for Harry Houdini, the first of several small (but lucrative) jobs. They had even planned to collaborate on a book called “The Cancer of Superstition,” but Houdini died before it could be completed. Lovecraft’s continued association with Houdini could have changed the course of Lovecraft’s career, but we cannot know for sure. (And we covered speculation yesterday.)

Today’s story has elements both in and out of harmony with Lovecraft’s usual subject matter. It contains horrible revelations of an expected sort, but it’s also notable in that it allows the protagonist to survive with sanity intact. Lovecraft used a great deal of “artistic license” to punch up Houdini’s supposedly true adventure in Egypt, but as it was about Houdini himself, it would be difficult to structure the story differently.

Your assignment today is 200 words or less on any aspect of today’s reading – your choice. What do you think of Houdini’s tale?

Note: Assignments will be shorter this week to accommodate work on the final project.

Reading: Under the Pyramids
Task: 200 words or less on any aspect of today’s story

About Headmistress

Sarah L. Crowder, current headmistress of Vacation Necronomicon School, was once a pupil at the prestigious Miskatonic Academy for Girls -- though she did not graduate, as the school closed under mysterious circumstances shortly before her studies were completed. She spent many years contemplating both the arcane arts and hidden dimensions of commonplace life, and now lends her talents to our little online haven for workaday scholars.
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14 Responses to The Houdini Connection

  1. nina says:

    Forget that Neil Gaiman story- this is the true mash-up. I find it hard to believe that anyone could have believed Houdini wrote it. I always imagine him as a man who used few adjectives and clauses, so it’s difficult to imagine him saying ” the thought of the scene on that hoary pile overlooking the antediluvian plateau of Gizeh under the wan moon of the pallid small hours appealed to every fibre of imagination in me.” It’s pure Lovecraft plus a bit of travelogue.

    Houdini was famously an adversary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, refusing to credit mediums or fairies or an afterlife. Perhaps he enjoyed the sheer ridiculous of this story, as well as the flattering light it put on his feats of escape- and by all accounts Houdini was a nice person, rich enough to hire someone with whom he felt a (skeptical) bond and who needed the money. I admit I paused a long time on the sentence “My chest, too, seemed pierced by an hundred wounds, as though some malign, titanic ibis had been pecking at it”. I’d like to think they both found this story ridiculous but useful to their careers.

  2. Headmistress says:

    @Nina – I very nearly wrote that same thing in the introduction – that this story was the “true mash-up.” Very good to know that I’m not alone. I sincerely hope that I am never beset by a “malign, titanic ibis,” either…


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  4. Borrowind says:

    Oh no, a giant ibis stole my homework! :-) Oh, wrong – found it…

  5. Headmistress says:

    @Borrowind – Ah, those crafty ibises (or ibides, if you want to stay classical). One must always be on his or her guard around those. However, I’m relieved that you and your homework remain unscathed! I’m not sure how old the lion-head hypothesis is, but perhaps our Egyptology-loving lurker will unlurk to let us know? Houston is finally getting a glimpse of the traveling “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs” exhibit, so we’ll have a tiny touch of 1923′s Tut-mania around here in October. I also hope you don’t mind that I’ve appropriated your tentacle photo for my desktop wallpaper…


  6. Resa says:

    This is a story that astonishes me with the casualness of its racism. Casual racism is present throughout Lovecraft’s work; he often drops in little lines about swarthy foreigners and immigrants and degenerate South Seas cults and practices. Usually I shrug it off as the man being a product of his place and time and besides, he imagines his own Mayflower, Puritan and Quaker descended neighbors might be degenerate fish people. I usually think of him as a misanthrope and attribute most of his racist commentary to his general suspicion of the human race.

    Under the Pyramids is, however, on a whole other level. Not only is our hero Houdini captured by jealous and malignant Arabs, the whole of Ancient Egypt is simply a blind for horrifying monstrosities. It’s layers upon layers of Othering, culminating in a demonizing of an entire culture and its descendants.

    Unfortunately, this distracted me from everything else in the story.

  7. Nina says:

    Resa: I agree. Lovecraft could have stayed with the idea that the hostile Egyptians were rival magicians who were jealous and left it at that. Although I find it tiresome when people want to rewrite “Huckleberry Finn” leaving out the racial epithets and I was flabbergasted as an undergraduate to discover what had been left out of the juvenile versions of “Gulliver’s Travels” I had read (why wouldn’t kids enjoy Gulliver putting out a fire by urinating on it? I rather think they would), it’s tempting to Bowdlerize Lovecraft a tiny bit. Unfortunately, a lot of his horror depends on there being higher and lower types of humans, and I suspect it would say something about my prejudices if I removed the slurs against Muslims and kept the ones against New England townspeople. Perhaps his books should have prefaces where the editor says pretty much what you just said.

  8. Headmistress says:

    @Resa & @Nina – Very valid criticisms all around. I struggle with this aspect of Lovecraft’s work all the time, but I think it would be wrong to censor it. However, that doesn’t stop me from agreeing with both of you.


  9. Resa says:


    I think Lovecraft is wonderful and valuable despite the racism, and that like Huckleberry Finn and Gulliver’s Travels as Nina mentioned, his work shouldn’t be censored or Bowlderized. None of us are perfect creatures. I think the good in Lovecraft, both as a writer and a generous person to his friends, outweighed the bad. I hope that as much good can be said of me at the end of my days!

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  11. Paul says:

    This story always troubled me from my first reading of it, and it’s only taken until today for me to realise why I don’t like it. In contrast to our very own Headmistress, and one of my fellow pupils, I don’t see this as a mash-up, despite the presence of Houdini. I used to think I disliked it because it was “Houdini, not Lovecraft”, but it is very much Lovecraft.

    However, as with the Gaiman story, it falls down for me because everything becomes a little too neat and accepted as “just so” by the end. Where’s the creeping madness?

  12. Headmistress says:

    @Paul – I can’t disagree with you there. Dismissing everything as a dream is very unsatisfying.


  13. Kit says:

    While many of Lovecraft’s stories still hold up today, “Under the Pyramids,” ghost-written for Harry Houdini, fails that test.

    Part of the problem is that I know how much of his story is based on old theories and wild speculations. But certainly that isn’t enough to throw me out of the story; I’ve enjoyed stories set on green, verdant Venus or on Mars teeming with native life, or in which the humanity carries the Cold War to the stars.

    While most of Lovecraft’s work was based on locations he knew on a first-hand basis, when writing of Cairo, he was writing from imagination, and it shows. His portrait of Cairo is as thin as a Hollywood backdrop. All the lovely prose in the world can’t make it three-dimensional.

    Lovecraft never made it to Antarctica, but his descriptions of wind-scoured ice sheets perfectly evokes the feeling of desolation so vital to the story.

    Perhaps the explanation is simpler; “Under the Pyramid,” with its unmotivated and racist portrayal of the villains and its it-was-all-a-dream ending weaken the story so much that it was doomed to collapse under its own weight.

  14. Headmistress says:

    @Kit – This story definitely had too many strikes against it to be that good.


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