Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; The Thing on the Doorstep
“What he did do was to become an almost fanatical devotee of subterranean magical lore, for which Miskatonic’s library was and is famous. Always a dweller on the surface of phantasy and strangeness, he now delved deep into the actual runes and riddles left by a fabulous past for the guidance or puzzlement of posterity. He read things like the frightful Book of Eibon, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, and the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Abdul Ahlhazred, though he did not tell his parents he had seen them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re sinking into a story which brings together much of Lovecraft and his themes, while simplifying the language to tell a straightforward horror tale…all while (potentially) creating yet another horror trope!
Lovecraft begins the story, like he does in so many of his stories, by immediately telling us how it will end: “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”
This leaves us as readers to ruminate on what the story is to be as we move forward. At the moment in time Lovecraft was writing this could have potentially been a tactic to heighten suspense, but to the modern reader who has seen so many of these themes over and again as authors re-use tropes, it falls a little flat. To start this way, we as readers know exactly how this story ends and unfortunately there aren’t any twists to surprise us.
Stephen King once wrote that (I’m paraphrasing) he goes for the creep out and if that doesn’t work he goes for the jump scare, and if that still doesn’t work he goes for the gross out. Lovecraft recognized that he wasn’t going to get the creep out, and he’s never been much for the surprise scare, so he went straight for the gross out.
Don’t let that detract from the story however because what Lovecraft does along the way is bring the history of his Lovecraft country all together and develop a disturbing little story.
The tale is mainly about Edward Pickman Derby. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Lovecraft does a strange things with names here. Pickman is the surname of the infamous artists Richard Upton Pickman from “Pickman’s Model.” A man who housed monsters to draw and create fantastical art. In addition to this, the narrator of this story (Daniel Upton) has a child and names him Edward Derby Upton. I thought and thought about this connection. Are these characters connected to Richard Upton Pickman? The more I think about it the less I think that’s the case. I think it’s Lovecraft’s way to show how connected everything in his world is. To show how everything seems to stem from Salem, Mass (many of these characters have family trees which date back to there), or to mysterious travelers from mysterious ships. There is a connectedness in the collective consciousness of the people of Lovecraft Country, which gives credence and horror to the small town trope (all those locals staring at you as you drive through).
Ruminating on this we move onto the second chapter and we learn about Edward’s wife Asenath Waite, “She was a dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for over-protuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people.” We find that she grew up in Innsmouth, the notorious village from “The Shadow over Innsmouth” which worshipped Dagon and bred with the fish-people. We find that she went to Kingsport high school (the slightly less nefarious town from such tales as “The Terrible Old Man” and “The Strange High House in the Mist.”) and had a “odd reputation” before moving on to Miskatonic University where she studied “mediaeval metaphysics” and had some “well-attested cases of her influence over other persons.” Students considered her a hypnotist because, “By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality – as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.”
Edward meets young Asenath (who at twenty-three already has crow’s feet at her eyes) and they begin to date. Soon after Edward brings her to meet Daniel who had reservations but, “…I saw at once that his interest was by no means one sided. She eyed him continually with an almost predatory air, and I perceived that their intimacy was beyond untangling.” A month later the couple was married.
They, as a couple, delved into the occult. Asenath had a history of it from her father, Ephraim Waite, who studied the occult before his death in Innsmouth. Everything seemed good for the first year of their marriage, but then “people began talking about the change in Edward Derby.”
“People said he looked too much like his wife, or like old Ephraim Waite himself...” and then after three years of marriage to Asenath, “Edward began to hint openly to me of a certain fear and dissatisfaction.” and “...would talk darkly about the need of ‘saving his identity.‘”
At this point in the story I knew exactly what was happening and if anyone has seen the Nexflix show “Behind Her Eyes” you’ll know the outcome as well. It’s about transposition, and if we know anything about Lovecraft it’s about a man who is looking for extended life to continue on with his power gathering…I.E. Ephraim.
At the beginning of chapter four Edward speaks with Daniel and spouts his entire fears:
Dan – for God’s sake! The pit of shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps…the abomination of abominations…I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there…Ia! Shub-Niggurath!…The shape rose up from the altar, and there were 500 that howled…The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ – that was old Ephraim’s secret name in the coven…I was there, where she promised she wouldn’t take me…A minute before I was locked in the library, and then I was there where she had gone with my body – in the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate…I saw a shoggoth – it changed shape…I can’t stand it…I wont stand it…I’ll kill her if she ever send me there again…I’ll kill that entity…her, him, it…I’ll kill it with my own hands!
And there we come to the horrible realization that Edward is actually married to Ephraim! Eww!
In all actuality he is probably married to some older creature who has since invaded Ephraim’s body, although there is a pretty hilarious moment with Ephraim: “Why did he curse that his daughter wasn’t a son?” Because he knew to transpose his mind it would have to be into his offspring, who would have a stronger hold on the otherworldly magics. Then in turn Asenath’s child would be that much stronger; but to have any of that happen, Ephraim would have to find someone to impregnate him while he was in Asenath’s body. I can imagine the curses coming from a crotchety old straight man!
Knowing Lovecraft, this could and should be the end for Edward, but suddenly he is able to somehow “convince” Asenath to go away and leave him alone. He spends a little time with Daniel, by now just a shell of a man, trying to get his life back together and eventually goes back to his home. He’s there for a while before he has a break down, calling Daniel:
“My brain! My brain! God, Dan – it’s tugging – from beyond – knocking – clawing – that she-devil – even now – Ephraim – Kamog! Kamog! – the pit of the shoggoths – Ia Shub Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!...”
He goes into the Arkham Sanitarium and Daniel goes to visit him when Daniel has a terrible realization. Edward is no longer Edward. Kamog has somehow come back to take over. Daniel shoots the form of his best friend…six times…hoping to kill the evil wizard which presides inside him.
The entire time reading this, I was entertained, but wondered where the title came from…that is until we get to the end of the story. A figure appears on Dan’s doorstep. It smells terrible and it’s diminutive. It’s wearing “one of Edward’s overcoats” with “a slouch hat pulled low” and “a black silk muffler concealed the face.” It makes a watery noise and hands Dan a letter from Edward.
In the epistle we find out Asenath “has been dead three months and a half.” Edward killed her by smashing her head in with a candlestick. Then when he was in the sanitarium she worked on “seizing my body and putting me in that corpse of her buried in the cellar.“
Dan faints, but when he comes to he calls the authorities. “What they finally found inside Edward’s oddly assorted clothes was mostly liquescent horror. There were bones, too – and a crushed-in skull. Some dental work positively identified the skull as Asenath’s.”
The thing on the doorstep was Edward, inside of the rotting corpse of Asenath. What makes it so horrible and so…Lovecraftian…is that Kamog has already lived through at least one murder, which means that he may be hovering somewhere above Arkham just waiting to find the next body to inhabit…
Lovecraft went full force into the gross out, but he tried to leave a little creep out at the end…
Join me next week as try to solve “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard” and understand “The Mysterious Ship!”