Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading Lisa Mannetti’s “Houdini: The Egyptian Paradigm,” first published in Ashes and Entropy in 2018. Spoilers ahead.
“Houdini is doomed.”
Harry Houdini, escapologist extraordinaire, legitimate magician and debunker of all those fake magicians and mystics who prey on the credulous, finds himself at age fifty-two stuck uneasily on the intersection of reason and—what? Not superstition, of which he’s the loudly declared foe, but aren’t there such things as signs? Portents of “a knowledge born deep inside one’s soul”?
These days he mulls—obsesses—over six things: his superstitious wife Bess; fake fakir Rahman Bey, whose stunts Harry’s often debunked and topped; his sometime collaborator H. P. Lovecraft; the Shelton Hotel swimming pool, site of one of his most celebrated escapes; Leona Derwatt, former assistant and lover, current informant; and the new escape he’s named the Pyramid Mystery.
Pyramid as in the enigmatic structure that capped Pharaonic tombs. Harry remembers “a peculiar and terrible feeling of dread, [a] frisson [that] had come over him” when he first practiced his Buried Alive stunt. Interred six feet under, he remembers his beloved mother’s recent death (of which he had a premonition), and he hears the word “sphinx” repeated “as if some ancient mystery were on the verge of being revealed.” Panicking, he claws his way back to the surface. However, physical safety can’t banish a “sinking feeling he was being pursued to his doom… stalked by… someone… something… nameless—yet powerful beyond reckoning.” Whatever the something is, he associates it with “the arcane exotica of Cairo’s hidden, twisting back alleys.”
Later, submerged in the Shelton Hotel pool, he again thinks of Egypt, of the “wind-borne sands [that] drifted slowly… eternal and cyclic… covering, uncovering… slyly revealing hints of age-old burial sites with the cunning of a skilled magician.” Now any mention of Egypt sparks anxiety, which is unfortunate given how the country’s gone Egypt-mad following the opening of King Tut’s tomb. Conan Doyle, spiritualist fool he’s become, even insists its discoverer died of a mummy’s curse!
Then there was the Egyptian tale Lovecraft ghostwrote for him, and the book he wants them to collaborate on, The Cancer of Superstition. Harry’s had dinner with Lovecraft in Providence, along with Bess and Harry’s colleague in fighting fraud, Clifford Eddy, Jr. Harry talks about the dangers of superstition, how it can drive believers to insanity and even suicide; when Lovecraft offers no comment, Harry rails on. He believes a man creates his own destiny. Lovecraft opines that fate may control us more than we admit, as the admission would terrify us. Sure, one must face down fears, but there are deeper fears than those Harry faces professionally: injury or the humiliation of failure. There’s also “fear of the unknown, of the unknowable.”
Eddy backs Harry in the debate, pointing out that in Poe’s “Ligeia,” the Lady says we don’t yield to death unless our will is too feeble. And Harry agrees: Will is everything!
Later, walking Harry back to his hotel, Eddy reports that Conan Doyle’s coterie is once again predicting Harry’s imminent death. Harry scoffs at this lunacy, but up in his room he worries. Signs, again. Portents. Leona Derwatt phones him to discuss her current debunking research. Mid-call, her voice fades into screeches, then guttural growls like a wolf’s or killer-dog’s. A low taunt follows: Harry’s mind is divided between exposing fake mystics and his own longing to believe in life after death. Why else would Harry have assigned secret codes to family and confidants, so if a medium claimed to contact one of them after death, they’d know whether the contact was true or false?
The phone goes cold in Harry’s hand; his breath fogs. Was that an actual supernatural communication, or is he hallucinating?
In his Pyramid Mystery stunt, his biggest production number to date, the casket-bound Harry’s lowered into an enormous glass box and covered with sand. He tells his crew he’ll only do the stunt during extended runs, it’s so hard to set up. In reality, performing it plunges him back into visions of ancient Egypt, of black shadows waiting to drag him into “some terrible half-life that was neither the quiet dark of death nor the sunlit peace of a heaven.”
Harry will not quit. He carries on with his performances, in spite of a broken ankle and the sequelae of taking gut punches from a backstage visitor. Only when fever drives him to collapse does he check into a hospital. For six days he fights for life while vivid dreams of Egypt torture him. Egypt’s old religion is gone except for its “towering monuments and tombs half-immured under shifting, wind-borne sands.” Yet the Egyptians had believed in a gateway to eternity. What waited there?
The answer comes—he sees “an amorphous cold, monstrous being, huge beyond reckoning. Both as vague and gray-white definite as heavy mist, as shapeless and all-encompassing as rolling sea fog.” Somehow he knows this being has no connection to humanity, that all religions have meant nothing, that “mind and will were everything because in the end there was nothing.”
On Hallowe’en, 1926, he says, “I guess I can’t fight anymore.” His eyes dim and Houdini is no more.
What’s Cyclopean: The word of the day, at least according to Eddy, isn’t “cyclopean” but “doom!”
The Degenerate Dutch: Houdini imagines his mother objecting to his non-Jewish lovers and wife. Speaking for Jewish mamas everywhere, she should maybe complain more about him hanging out with Lovecraft. Houdini also suffers from a serious strain of orientalism about Egypt (an extremely common affliction at the time).
Mythos Making: Literally Mythos-making, the story includes Houdini’s work with Lovecraft on “Under the Pyramids”/“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.” (Both titles were used for the same story at various points.) Poe’s “Ligeia” also gets a shout-out.
Libronomicon: Houdini, Lovecraft, and Eddy are working on The Cancer of Superstition, which they will unfortunately never complete.
Madness Takes Its Toll: “People go insane,” Houdini says of superstition and spiritualism, “actually die from these beliefs.”
Paradigm is one of those words I always have to look up, since my grasp of its meaning is in the kinda-sorta category. It can denote a typical example of a thing, a model, an archetype, a pattern. Or some grammar technicalities I don’t think we need to worry about here. Or the philosophical framework of a discipline. In the context of this week’s title, the first definition makes the most sense to me. What’s the “Egyptian paradigm” to Mannetti’s Houdini but an archetype of spiritual faith, specifically faith in an afterlife?
Wait a minute, isn’t Houdini the guy hellbent on exposing paranormal frauds and quashing superstition? Doesn’t he run a small army of debunkers? Aren’t his “fighting words,” in response to Lovecraft’s “fate,” that a man creates his own destiny for his will is everything?
For that matter, why is Lovecraft going on about capital-letter Fate? (Doubtless I just missed the quote?)
Well, people are complicated. Confounding. Contrary. Houdini himself is a paradigm of that human failing, or glory. He can out all the mediums on the table-turning circuit, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t semi-subconsciously want to find a genuine medium, one who’ll link him up with the loved ones gone before. One who will conclusively demonstrate that there is a life after life, a persistence of personality, of the self. Because what could gall a sturdy egoist like Houdini more than the idea of ceasing to be?
He’s this far correct in supposing Lovecraft’s world-view to differ from his. Lovecraft writes in “Nietzscheism and Realism” that “It is good to be a cynic—it is better to be a contented cat—and it is best not to exist at all.” Not to exist would be a greater hell to Houdini than Hell itself, for at least a Hell posits the existence of a Heaven; moreover, the existence of Heaven and Hell would mean humanity’s existence and the individual’s will to good or evil matter to the universe. Moreover more, if good or evil matter to the universe, then the universe has a Mind, which is God.
In a 1932 letter to Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft wrote:
“All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe… In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence, I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.”
He also wrote, to Reinhardt Kleiner in 1920, that:
“I should describe mine own nature as tripartite, my interests consisting of three parallel and dissociated groups—(a) Love of the strange and fantastic. (b) Love of the abstract truth and of scientific logic. (c) Love of the ancient and permanent. Sundry combinations of these three strains will probably account for all my odd tastes and eccentricities.”
Mannetti’s Houdini and the in-story Houdini of “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” would seem to share Lovecraft’s tripartite nature. If that means they contradict themselves, well, as Walt Whitman put it, “Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Better self-multitudinous than boring, right? In fictional characters, at least, I contend YES. (It’s on a case-by-case basis with nonfictional people, I also contend.)
Gotta admit, I was hoping for more Egypt in this story, a continuation of Houdini’s adventures in the vast underworld he “explored” with Lovecraft’s assistance. Harry, come on, you know you want to go back below the Pyramids. Or part of you does—the part that imperfectly remembers how the events described in “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” weren’t fictional. At all. Including the dizzying descent into strange-scented nether regions, and the hybrid walking dead, and the ultimate horror of the PAW. How better to explain your waking visions of the sand-shrouded ruins and your dreams of Egyptian arcana?
Unless it’s that you obsess about ancient Egypt because you want so much to believe in its religion, in any religion where there’s a gateway to eternity, no, really. Is the killer-dog voice that addresses you from the icy phone jackal-headed Anubis, god of the afterlife, or is it merely your wishful-hallucination of such a god?
Here’s the scariest part of Mannetti’s story, and its nicest allusion to Lovecraft’s work. Houdini’s plagued by the thought of some immense entity stalking him. Being stalked isn’t fun, but it does mean you matter enough to Something for It to dog your mortal footsteps. Sadly for Harry, his dying insight is of an immense entity without the relatively comforting visage of an Anubis because it’s amorphous. All-encompassing. With absolutely no connection to men and women and children. Sounds like the idiot-god Azathoth to me, seething eternally at the heart of ALL to the maddening piping of only moderately less shapeless minions.
The truly will-shattering thing, Harry? You won’t get even the consolation prize of being driven mad by the pipers, because you have to exist to be driven mad; to exist after death you need an afterlife. And—
No afterlife for you. Unless there has been and you just haven’t had time yet to code-communicate your continued existence through a genuine medium. If there are such things.
Let me close now while the irony’s hot.
I’m not sure I mentioned, when we read “Under the Pyramids,” that I spent much of my childhood wanting to be a stage magician—and therefore, of necessity, much of my childhood idolizing Harry Houdini. The combination of extraordinary skill at stage magic and its companion escape artistry, and determination that those arts shouldn’t be used, remains endlessly compelling—as does the suspicion that he secretly wanted to find magic he couldn’t unmask.
I was eager, therefore, to read this week’s story, following Houdini well after his initial collaboration with Lovecraft. But it felt to me like a rough sketch for something longer and deeper—an idea that might need a novel to pack in the emotional and thematic complexity it hints at. But it’s a hell of an idea, and one I want to see more of: Where does Houdini really fit into the constellation of belief and skepticism that marked the late 19th and early 20th centuries? And who else shines in that constellation?
The story gives us, too briefly, a triumvirate. Houdini first: a determined skeptic who wants desperately to believe in an afterlife, and who does believe desperately in the power of his will to overcome all obstacles that can be overcome. Then Doyle: Houdini’s antagonist who offers belief all too easily, despite being chronicler of the ultimate rational man. Finally, Lovecraft: here a mocker and trickster who can plan books of skepticism with one hand while writing undeniable supernatural horrors with the other. He frames his own suspicions about the power of human will in supernatural terms—though maybe only to jab at his friend. Lovecraft doesn’t want to believe, because he’s convinced that whatever could prove itself would do no one any good.
The relationships described here are real, and there’s a great deal of historical material to build on—not to mention open questions. Houdini carried out escapes that people still argue about: Did he really manage them, did he make arrangements with casket- and handcuff-makers in advance, did Bess slip him keys? He really did start work with Lovecraft and Eddy on a book of skepticism; it really never got completed. There really is missing material. Hell, there’s that first draft of “Pyramids” that Sonia had to retype on her honeymoon.
We’ve encountered the triumvirate before in another form. Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” pits Holmesian logic against Lovecraftian chaos, and finds that the chaos shapes the logic. More recently I’ve read (and highly recommend) Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, which (among other glories) shows us what a Holmes type might become in a thoroughly Mythosian universe. Considering the illogic of the man behind Holmes only makes the whole thing more fascinating.
I want to see more, not just of Houdini pondering his relationship with these two, but full conversations and confrontations. I want to see more hints and twists of the thing he glimpses at the end of the story—not merely the giant monster of “Pyramids,” but a living void, something that both proves the uncanny and disproves immortality. Existential dread made not flesh, but fog.
Speaking of Eddy, next week we’ll cover “Ashes,” one of his collaborations with Lovecraft. You can find it in The Horror in the Museum and Other Collaborations.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.