Harry Houdini Versus Cosmic Horror: “Under the Pyramids” | Tor.com

The Lovecraft Reread

Harry Houdini Versus Cosmic Horror: “Under the Pyramids”


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 “Under the Pyramids,” written in February 1924 and first published (as “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs” by Harry Houdini) in the May-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.

“It was the ecstasy of nightmare and the summation of the fiendish. The suddenness of it was apocalyptic and daemoniac—one moment I was plunging agonisingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was soaring on bat-wings in the gulfs of hell; swinging free and swoopingly through illimitable miles of boundless, musty space; rising dizzily to measureless pinnacles of chilling ether, then diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, nauseous lower vacua… Thank God for the mercy that shut out in oblivion those clawing Furies of consciousness which half unhinged my faculties, and tore Harpy-like at my spirit!”

Summary: Harry Houdini, magician and escape artist, relates an adventure from his 1910 tour of Egypt.  He cautions that Egyptological study may have combined with excitement to overstimulate his imagination — surely the ultimate horror of his ordeal couldn’t have been real.  In fact, it has to have been a dream.

Though he and his wife hoped for anonymity, another magician piqued him en route, and he blew his cover by performing superior tricks.  No doubt the chatter of fellow passengers heralded his arrival throughout the Nile Valley.

With its European trappings, Cairo initially disappoints Houdini.  He engages a guide, Abdul Reis el Drogman, who impresses with his hollow voice and Pharaoh-like aspect.  After glorying in the splendors of the medieval Saracens, our tourists yield to the allure of “the deeper mysteries of primal Egypt” and head for the pyramids and the enigmatic Sphinx.  Houdini speculates about Khephren, who had his own face carved onto the Sphinx.  But what were its original features?  What about legends of caverns deep below the hybrid colossus?  And let’s not forget Queen Nitokris, who drowned her enemies in a temple below the Nile and may still haunt the Third Pyramid.

That night Abdul Reis takes Houdini into the Arab quarter.  The guide gets into a fight with a young Bedouin.  When Houdini breaks up their scuffle, they decide to settle their differences atop the Great Pyramid, in the pallid small hours when only the moon overlooks the ancient plateau.  Thrilled by the idea of such a spectacle, Houdini volunteers to second Abdul Reis.

The fight seems almost feigned.  The combatants reconcile swiftly, and in the drinking that follows, Houdini becomes the center of attention.  He wonders if certain Egyptians might resent a foreign magician, and sure enough, the Bedouins suddenly seize and bind him.  Abdul Reis taunts him: Houdini’s magical gifts will soon be tested, by devices much older than those of America and Europe.

Blindfolded, Houdini isn’t sure where his captors carry him, but they can’t have gone far before they lower him into a deep burial shaft—the rope seems to descend miles into the earth before he swings free in the very “gulfs of hell.”  Naturally he faints.

He comes to in blackness, on a damp rock floor, hoping he’s really in the Temple of the Sphinx, near the surface.  As he starts to free himself, his captors release the rope.  It falls in a crushing avalanche that confirms the hideous length of Houdini’s descent.  Of course he faints again and dreams about such pleasant Egyptian lore as composite man-beast mummies and the ka, a life-principle separate from body and soul which is said to persist in the tomb and to sometimes stalk “noxiously abroad on errands peculiarly repellent.”

Houdini wakens again to find the mountain of rope gone and his body wounded as if by the pecking of a giant ibis.  Huh?  This time his escape from bondage goes unhindered.  In the otherwise featureless dark, he follows a fetid stream of air he hopes will guide him to some exit.  He tumbles down a flight of huge stone steps.  Third bout of unconsciousness ensues.

He comes around in a hall with cyclopean columns. The enormous scale of the place troubles him, but he can only crawl on.  Soon he begins to hear music played on ancient instruments—and, worse, the sound of marching feet.  He hides behind a column from the light of their torches.  He wonders at how dissimilar pedal extremities – feet, hooves, paws, pads, talons – can tramp in perfect unison, and avoids looking at the approaching procession.  Too bad the torches cast shadows: hippopotami with human hands, humans with crocodile heads, even one thing that stalks solemnly without any body at all above its waist.

The hybrid blasphemies gather at a vast, stench-blasting aperture flanked by two giant staircases – one of which Houdini must have fallen down earlier.  Pharaoh Khephren – or is it Abdul Reis? – leads them in unholy worship.  Beautiful Queen Nitokris kneels beside him.  Well, beautiful except for the side of her face eaten away by rats.  The crowd throws unmentionable offerings into the aperture.  Does it conceal Osiris or Isis, or is it some God of the Dead older than all known gods?

The nightmare throng is absorbed in raptures.  Houdini creeps up the staircase, to a landing directly over the aperture, when a great corpse-gurgle from the worshippers makes him look down.

Something emerges from the aperture to feed on the offerings.  The size of a hippo, it seems to sport five hairy heads with which it seizes morsels before momentarily retreating into its den.  Houdini watches until more of the beast appears, a sight that drives him in mindless terror up higher staircases, ladders, inclines, who knows what, for he doesn’t come back to his senses until he finds himself on the sands of Gizeh, dawn flushing the Sphinx whose face smiles sardonically above him.

Houdini thinks he knows now what the sphinx’s original features might have been. The five-headed monster was the merest forepaw of the God of the Dead, which licks its chops in the abyss!

What’s Cyclopean:  The masonry of the pyramids.  Which, actually… yes. That is legitimately cyclopean.  Also an unnavigable hall deep below the Libyan desert. It’s hard to tell whether this is as appropriate; it’s very dark.  In addition, we get a “cyclopic” column and a “Polyphemus-door.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Poor sad tourists, Egypt isn’t picturesque enough to meet your expectations.  It’s all too European.  Yes, dear, we call that colonialism.  Can you spell ‘colonialism’?  Eventually, one might find the delightful Arabian Nights atmosphere that any visit to the “mysterious east” is all about.  We call that orientalism.  Can you spell…  Let’s not even get into the “crowding, yelling, and offensive Bedouins who inhabited a squalid mud village some distance away and pestiferously assailed every traveler.”

Mythos Making: Nitokris, Lovecraft’s favorite foe-drowning pharaoh, appears in person here.  So our friend from “The Outsider” must be around here somewhere, too, right?

Libronomicon: No books. Maybe there are books in the tombs?

Madness Takes Its Toll: Houdini is very sensible in his reactions to the whole thing—particularly so if he’s wrong about it being a dream.  Though there is all that fainting…

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I have mixed feelings about this story.  On the one hand, it’s just plain fun.  Houdini was a consummate showman, and having Lovecraft turn his voice up to 11 doesn’t hurt.  And he makes a fun change from Lovecraft’s usual narrative voice, if only because how calmly he explains that it all must have been a dream.  He doesn’t act nearly as desperate to disbelieve as most of our protagonists, and is more persuasive as a result—though not so persuasive as to ruin the story.

Plus, there’s the point where I dropped the computer yelling: “There bloody well is not any tradition of resolving disputes on top of the Great Pyramid!  That is the stupidest plot device ever!”  And then it turns out to be a scam that makes Houdini look like an idiot.  Apparently real-life Houdini thought this was pretty funny, too.

Speaking of tattered cover stories, this was originally published under Houdini’s own name.  Did anyone pick up this story and not catch the ghost writer on his second “cyclopean?”

And but so.  “Pyramids” is also orientalist enough to cause intense eye-rolling in a modern reader.  Lovecraft doesn’t dive particularly far below his contemporaries—the tropes here were common for decades afterwards, and you can still find them in modern work without looking too hard—but that doesn’t make them less annoying.  Oh, the poor Europeans, in search of the fabulous Arabian Nights, getting caught up in exotic dangers.  Oh, the predictable delights of the Mysterious East.  Oh, the stereotyped tropes of the bazaar.

A couple of things mitigate the effect, though, at least a little:

  1. The fabulous pleasures of the east do not include exoticized women.  Unless you count Nitokris, who remains awesome as ever.
  2. Lovecraft waxes similarly rhapsodic about New England architecture, if you catch him in the right mood, and supposedly familiar territory certainly isn’t short on exotic dangers.
  3. Khephren-as-villain is, in fact, Herodotus’s fault.  In fact, a fair portion of this story is Herodotus’s fault.

And fourth—as in any number of Lovecraft’s other stories—it’s not too hard to flip the narrative of the insecure imperialist and sympathize with those on the other side.  That narrative is pretty overt here.  Houdini, great modern secular magician, goes to Egypt preceded by rumors of his prowess.  And the most ancient inhabitants of that land, long overrun by Houdini’s people, decide to show him that their power is not entirely lost.  Scary stuff, from the conqueror’s point of view.

Kind of appealing, from the other direction.  Khephren and Nitokris and their followers can’t be any more thrilled by Cairo’s Europeanization than our tourists.  Lev Mirov, on Twitter, recently talked about how so much “horror” is the horror of the broken status quo: “I can’t ever forget early spec horror is based on externalizing fear of people like me… In my stories, when the gods & ghosts come back roaring, they come for the sick, the wounded, the hungry, & give them gifts to play fair.”  There’s definitely some of that going on here—though the old pharaohs may not be all that interested in stopping at “fair.”  Then again, they don’t make it all that difficult for Houdini to get away and report on their power—and however much he denies its reality, that report should make listeners at the top of the modern hierarchy just a little nervous.

Finally, on an unrelated note, I’m left wondering: When did it stop being okay for protagonists to faint?  I feel like there’s some point mid-century when you can no longer have your narrator, especially an overt “man of action,” fall unconscious without good medical cause.  And also: Did people—people not wearing too-tight corsets—actually used to swoon whenever startled?  Or is it just a leftover trope from romantic poetry?

Anne’s Commentary

Although his name isn’t mentioned in the text of the story, today’s narrator is far from anonymous – in fact, he’s quite the celebrity, no less than escape master Harry Houdini!  In 1924, Weird Tales founder J. C. Henneberger commissioned Lovecraft to ghost-write a story for Houdini, paying the princely sum of $100, the biggest advance Lovecraft had received to date.  Lovecraft felt Houdini’s tale of Egyptian adventure was a fabrication, but he took on the task when given permission to alter it.  Alas, his own researches into Egyptology appear to have brought a curse down on the work.  En route to his wedding, Lovecraft lost the manuscript in Union Station, Providence; much of his Philadelphia honeymoon was spent retyping it.

Writers will feel his pain in retrospect.

No one answered Lovecraft’s lost-and-found ad in the Journal, which is apparently the way we know the original title of this story, published as “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.”  I like to think that manuscript still resides in a Providence attic, tied round with black ribbon and rubbing pages with an unknown copy of the Necronomicon, or at least De Vermis Mysteriis.

Curse aside, Houdini liked Lovecraft’s story enough to hire him for other projects, including a book left unfinished at the magician’s death, The Cancer of Superstition.  Robert Bloch expanded on Lovecraft’s weird Egyptology in stories like “The Fane of the Black Pharaoh.”  He speculated that the god in the aperture wasn’t the Sphinx but Nyarlathotep.  I can deal with that.  I think just about anything horrible and awesome is an avatar of Nyarlathotep, He of a Billion Zillion Faces.

The travelogue opening of Pyramid reminds me of the Dreamlands tales, especially “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” also heavy on exotic description.  Houdini makes a good Lovecraft character of the bolder and more active subclass: the later Randolph Carter, for example, or the unnamed horror-seeker of “The Lurking Fear.”  Curiosity drives him, and a taste for the extraordinary.  He’s also prone to lapses of consciousness, fainting so frequently that the character himself remarks on it with humor – perhaps to beat us readers to the laugh.

As often in Lovecraft, the lapses are as much structural convenience as psychological verisimilitude.  Faints save time and space.  We don’t have to make the whole rope-dangled descent with Houdini – after we’ve gotten to the good part where he swings in cavernous space, we can skip ahead to him waking on a damp rock floor somewhere.  He has to stay awake long enough to doubt the length of descent and then to have the doubt removed by the fall of the monstrously long rope.  Then he has to faint again, so doubt can be re-established by the rope’s removal.  Also we need him able to think Abdul and Company responsible for his fresh wounds, even though they seem to have been made by a gigantic ibis.  Or, we’ll eventually suppose, something with the head of an ibis.

Faints are also useful as excuses to dream and/or feverishly speculate by way of info-dumping.  Houdini’s dreams are actually prophetic.  He sees Abdul Reis in the guise of Khephren, a pharaoh Herodotus painted as particularly cruel and tyrannical.  He envisions processions of the hybrid dead.  He even imagines himself engulfed in an enormous, hairy, five-clawed paw, which is the soul of Egypt itself.  During the second faint, his dreams run on the tripartite division of man into body and soul and ka, and on how decadent priests made composite mummies.  The third faint gives Houdini a chance to speculate that, hey, maybe he never fainted at all – the faints were all part of a long dreaming coma that started with his descent into the earth and ended with his awakening under the Sphinx.  Yeah, yeah, it was all a dream, that most execrable of fictional endings!

Except that the reader must suspect it wasn’t a dream, any more than was Peaslee’s descent into the Yithian ruins, or Randolph Carter’s adventure in the Florida swamp.

Houdini’s fourth lapse is the sort of kinetic delirium Lovecraft employs again and again.  How many of his heroes find themselves removed from point B back to point A without remembering how they managed the journey?  Which, of course, strengthens any option of thinking “oops, must have been a dream or hallucination.”  Peaslee falls into this category.  So does the Carter of “Statement.”  Continue the list in the comments for frequent-cosmic-flyer points!

Anyhow, an effective story once we get underground, where truths lie and where, even partially glimpsed, they’re more than terrible enough.  So terrible, in fact, that they can make us, like Houdini, feel “terror beyond all the known terrors of earth – a terror peculiarly dissociated with personal fear, and taking the form of a sort of objective pity for our planet, that it should hold within its depths such horrors.”

Now that’s Lovecraftian angst for you!

Next week, we finally tackle “The Horror at Red Hook.” Gods protect us. Trigger warning for Lovecraft’s nastiest phobias and prejudices on full display.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

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 from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.


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