Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Thing on the Doorstep,” written in August 1933 and first published in the January 1937 issue of Weird Tales. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
Daniel Upton is giving this statement to explain why he killed his best friend. He describes the origins of his friendship with Edward Derby when Derby was a child prodigy: sickly, brilliant, and obsessed with the macabre.
Derby meets Asenath Waite when he’s 38 and she’s—ostensibly—23. She is from Innsmouth and has a reputation as a magician: At school she was able to look at people and give them a feeling of “exchanged personality,” as if they were looking at themselves from her perspective. This was generally attributed to her hypnotic skill. Her father Ephraim (now deceased) had a similar nasty reputation.
Edward and Asenath marry swiftly, and settle in Arkham. Upton sees little of them for 2 years. However, he hears that Derby has started to act… out of character… sometimes. For example, although he didn’t previously know how to drive, he is now sometimes seen racing out of town with an uncharacteristically determined look in his eyes. Driving skillfully is apparently kind of nefarious—although maybe we in the 21st century have just forgotten that driving is a fundamentally predatory act.
When Upton sees him again, Derby hints at dissatisfaction, even to the point of fearing for his own identity. Strange rumors abound. A friend sees Asenath peering miserably from an upstairs window when she’s supposedly out of town. Derby starts to speak more directly of the horrors he’s seen, and drops hints that old Ephraim may not really be dead. Sometimes he cuts off abruptly, as if Asenath may be using some form of mind control to limit his communications.
Derby staggers out of the Maine woods, delirious and raving, remembering only enough to send a telegram to Upton. Upton picks him up and is treated to a rant about everything in the Lovecraftian mythos. Shoggoths are involved. Derby also talks more bluntly about Asenath forcing him to switch bodies. Furthermore—he admits at last—he’s discovered that Asenath is really Ephraim, that Ephraim stole her body and then poisoned his old body with her in it. Upton believes Asenath has put Derby through some sort of hypnotic ordeal, and resolves to help him get a divorce.
Then the thing happened. Derby’s voice was rising to a thin treble scream as he raved, when suddenly it was shut off with an almost mechanical click. I thought of those other occasions at my home when his confidences had abruptly ceased—when I had half fancied that some obscure telepathic wave of Asenath’s mental force was intervening to keep him silent. This, though, was something altogether different—and, I felt, infinitely more horrible. The face beside me was twisted almost unrecognizably for a moment, while through the whole body there passed a shivering motion—as if all the bones, organs, muscles, nerves, and glands were readjusting themselves to a radically different posture, set of stresses, and general personality.
Just where the supreme horror lay, I could not for my life tell; yet there swept over me such a swamping wave of sickness and repulsion—such a freezing, petrifying sense of utter alienage and abnormality—that my grasp of the wheel grew feeble and uncertain. The figure beside me seemed less like a lifelong friend than like some monstrous intrusion from outer space—some damnable, utterly accursed focus of unknown and malign cosmic forces.
He forces Upton to switch places and takes the wheel. Eventually he apologizes for his outburst, attributes it to “overstudy,” and promises Upton that he’ll be fine after a few weeks of rest.
Derby indeed disappears for a few weeks while Upton dithers, then shows up again seeming once more like himself. He claims to have marshaled his own occult defenses and forced Asenath to go away without him. However, he delays leaving the house he shared with her, and his moods swing wildly. At last he has a breakdown, ranting that even death can’t stop “it.” Upton commits him to the Arkham Sanitarium.
After a few weeks, the sanitarium calls to say that Derby’s reason has returned, although his memory is spotty. He should be able to leave in a week. However, when Upton visits, Derby exhibits the disturbing personality from the car. Upton senses an “ineffable cosmic hideousness.” He returns home to pace and worry.
That night, Upton hears knocking at his door—in the pattern that Derby always used to announce himself. He opens the door and finds a “dwarfed, grotesque, malodorous thing” that seems barely alive. The thing (on the doorstep) hands him a letter from Derby in which he confesses that he didn’t send Asenath/Ephraim away, but killed her. Even in death, however, Ephraim’s soul survived, and his cultists carried out the final sacrifice that would enable him to take over Derby’s body permanently—leaving Derby in Asenath’s corpse. Derby begs Upton to kill the thing in his body. He begs him to ensure that the body is cremated so that Ephraim cannot steal another one, for the sake of the entire world.
The thing stops moving. In the morning, Upton goes to the sanitarium and shoots Derby’s body. And the corpse on the doorstep is identified as Asenath’s.
What’s Cyclopean: This is one of Lovecraft’s favorite words. It only shows up once in Thing, describing the ruins in the Maine woods
The Degenerate Dutch: Lovecraft was prone to dropping extremely unflattering ethnic descriptions into his stories. To him any ethnicity other than pure “Nordic” seemed to be just another element of cosmic horror.
“Thing” is better than many. The standard description of the Necronomicon’s author as “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” appears, and one of the servants from Innsmouth is “a swarthy young wench who had marked anomalies of feature and seemed to exude a perpetual odour of fish.” And that’s about it—this story is all about the misogyny.
Mythos Making: A significant portion of the Mythos shows up in Derby’s rants, but this story is particularly notable for being the second to make use of Innsmouth’s community of semi-amphibious cultists—although by necessity it takes place earlier.
Here, as elsewhere, it’s clear that mythos lore is well-known at Miskatonic, but not how many people believe it or have seen evidence. The “Bohemian crowd” at Miskatonic is rumored to perform black magic—custom drabble for the first person to come up with a “La Vie Boheme” parody.
The Hall School at Kingsport (Asenath’s alma mater) never gets mentioned elsewhere. I persist in believing it to be Miskatonic’s sister school.
Libronomicon: We get quite the library here, including Azathoth and Other Horrors by Edward Pickman Derby (poetry), The People of the Monolith by Justin Geoffrey, Book of Eibon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten by von Junzt, and the Necronomicon. The secret of body theft is in the Necronomicon, but Derby won’t say what page.
Madness Takes its Toll: Justin Geoffrey “died screaming in a madhouse in 1926 after a visit to a sinister, ill-regarded village in Hungary.” Abdul Alhazred was mad. Ephraim Waite ostensibly died mad, but one suspects that poor Asenath was all too sane at the end. Edward Derby winds up in Arkham Sanitarium, and Ephraim-as-Derby dies there (hopefully).
This is one of Lovecraft’s final stories, but it’s a perfect starting point for the reread because it so perfectly encapsulates his contradictions. It has passages that take my breath away with how perfectly they evoke a mood, and words he uses so frequently that they just make me giggle. It has genuine horror and horrifying glimpses of the author’s prejudices. The creepiness and the problematicity are inextricable.
I learned, this time around, that Lovecraft wrote this story just after his divorce from Sonia Greene. (I’ve often wondered why a Jewish woman would marry Lovecraft in the first place. Apparently he helped her revise a story for publication and reviewed her fanzine in flattering terms.)
This explains why Thing is one of the few Lovecraft stories with a major female-presenting character, and also why it’s so unreservedly misogynistic. Not only do we get Ephraim-as-Asenath’s rants about the inferiority of the female brain, but when one looks closer, women in this story are almost entirely effaced. Derby asks: “Asenath… is there such a person?” There was, and her story is even more horrific than Derby’s. But we never see her or hear her voice. (And wouldn’t Derby reading some hidden journal of hers have made a fine addition to the creepiness?)
Women in Thing are, in fact, an illusion. Derby tries to marry one, but she’s secretly a man—and the realization that the only person he’s ever been attracted to is male seems to be deliberately part of the horror, albeit a subtle part. Upton has a wife, but she never appears on screen. Male friendship is the only real, healthy relationship, and it can’t save you.
One of the things I find interesting here is that from the outside, Derby’s relationship with Waite would look quite abusive—but in the other direction. Their estranged college friends see her imprisoned in the house and looking utterly hopeless, hear her cries, see her aging rapidly. And these friends, Upton included, use the little inconsistencies in that apparent picture as excuses to do absolutely nothing. This is possibly the most realistic and depressing part of the story.
Lovecraft can’t resist tying all the levels of horror together, and I think the blurring of scale ultimately interferes with the effect a bit. What could be a very personal threat is vaguely tied into Shoggoths and Shub-Niggurath and cultists. Ephraim is described as a cosmically evil threat to the world, but the simple line of stolen lives that he leaves behind seems starkly horrifying on its own. Adding Shoggoths into the mix doesn’t make it significantly worse.
In my grade school days, even vanilla heteronormative sex was a mystery, never mind more exotic flavors. One day I snuck into the library’s reference room and dug up the dirt, but the other girls refused to believe it. I had physiological sense on my side—didn’t my scoop explain those intriguing “down-there” differences? The doubters had an unanswerable counterargument: Would our parents have DONE anything like that?
This being my state of enlightenment when I first read “The Thing on the Doorstep,” I focused on its nonsexual horrors: sorcery and shoggoths and rotting but ambulatory corpses. My latest reread, the psychosexual issues have exploded off the page.
Lovecraft’s one story with a prominent female character welters in anxiety about sex, gender, and identity itself. The conceit that males are psychically superior through sheer masculinity is blatant, surface, and perhaps the least interesting aspect of the anxiety and its defenses. Subsurface, there’s much more writhing around.
With transfer of souls at story center, the question of identity’s inevitable. Let’s focus on gender identity. Poor Ephraim Waite. He sired no sons, so when he jumped from his failing body into his child’s, it was a leap from male to female. That would’ve been a shock for anyone, let alone a misogynist whose manly tangle of a beard is a prominent feature. When Ephraim exchanges Asenath’s body for her husband’s, Edward Derby also undergoes abrupt gender switch. But does Lovecraft (more or less subconsciously) imply that the switch is more appropriate for Edward?
After all, Edward’s described as weak-willed, soft, childish, chubby, parent-dominated, dependent, shy, inert. In contrast to beardy Ephraim, he can barely raise a moustache. Lovecraft doesn’t call him effeminate, but he might as well. He doesn’t call him gay, but does he hint at homosexual tendencies in Edward’s general behavior and in his involvement with a wild college set whose “daring…Bohemian” activities and “dubious conduct” must be hidden from the Derby elders? Edward’s presence at a “certain affair” is so shocking Edward must pay off a blackmailer to keep the scandal from his father’s notice. Lovecraft mentions the wild set’s rumored involvement in black magic after the “affair,” which makes me think the “affair” was of a mundane if unconventional nature.
And Asenath is most “feminine” when she’s really wistful weepy Edward, locked in the couple’s library like Mrs. Rochester in the attic.
And wasn’t the woman to wow and win Edward actually a man?
No writer of erotica, Lovecraft leaves sex offstage, where the imaginative reader can thoroughly unnerve him or herself. After Ephraim steals his daughter’s body (talk about extreme incest), “Asenath” attends a girls’ school, where “she” mesmerizes students and indulges in “leers and winks of an inexplicable kind.” We may well share Asenath/Ephraim’s “obscene zestful irony” about her/his wolfish presence among the young ewes.
Then there’s Edward and Asenath’s marriage. They honeymoon in Ephraim’s native Innsmouth, and Edward returns a changed man. Lovecraft tells us Asenath has made her husband shave his “undeveloped” mustache but passes that off as insignificant. Is it? Or is it instead a symbolic emasculation, a further subordination of Edward’s “feminine” temperament to Asenath’s masculine one? Have they consummated their marriage, and how’s that coupling gone, under Ephraim’s roof, probably in Ephraim’s old marriage bed?
Scary stuff. It may be more than exposure to Innsmouth that leaves Edward saddened and sober. Things get worse when Asenath/Ephraim inflicts on him the violation of body-stealing. The climax of repeated soul-rape comes when Edward slips back into his body during a coven meeting Ephraim was leading. Edward stands before “the unholy pit where the black realm begins.” Freudian interpretation is facile. He sees “a shoggoth—it changed shape.” And changing shape—identity—has become for him a horror. In a “fury of hysteria,” he cries “I can’t stand it—I’ll kill her—I’ll kill that entity—her, him, it—I’ll kill it!”
A her that becomes a him must become an it, too confounding for toleration?
More scary stuff, and I feel as if I’ve only begun to peel back the skin of this story.
Join us next week as we explore more body-switching horror and the world’s best library in “The Shadow Out of Time.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com. Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She has strong opinions about Oxford commas, but then, doesn’t everyone?
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available June 24, 2014 from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.