Friday, June 28, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "Under the Pyramids"

Spooky Synopsis: Harry Houdini has found himself in some tough scrapes over the years, but he's never confronted anything as difficult as what awaits him in Cairo. He and his wife had intended to take a relaxing trip to the land of the pharaohs, losing themselves both in exotic sights and relative anonymity. But it's hard for a professional escape artist to shed his reputation even halfway around the world. See, a few unscrupulous locals have figured out just who Houdini is, and they take it upon themselves to see if he can make his way out from the unexplored caverns beneath the pyramids while bound and gagged. Yet the famous escape artist will face something far worse than tight knots and pitch-black darkness: He'll face an evil thousands of years old.

Lovecraftian Language: "It was very gradually that I regained my senses after that eldritch flight through Stygian space. The process was infinitely painful, and coloured by fantastic dreams in which my bound and gagged condition found singular embodiment. The precise nature of these dreams was very clear while I was experiencing them, but became blurred in my recollection almost immediately afterward, and was soon reduced to the merest outline by the terrible events -- real or imaginary -- which followed. I dreamed that I was in the grasp of a great and horrible paw; a yellow, hairy, five-clawed paw which had reached out of the earth to crush and engulf me. And when I stopped to reflect what the paw was, it seemed to me that it was Egypt."

Eerie Evaluation: As you might've surmised from the summary above, Lovecraft didn't come up with the whole Houdini-in-Egypt premise on his own. No, he was assigned to ghostwrite "Under the Pyramids." Weird Tales owner J.C. Henneberger believed that Houdini's name might help move magazines, and perhaps that pecuniary motive explains why the thing is so freaking long. Part travelogue, part history lesson, part horror story, "Under the Pyramids" keeps throwing exotic tidbits at you like an insecure zookeeper desperate to placate his wild charges. The structure's an absolute mess. It takes half of the tale's length for Houdini to even end up below the titular megaliths, and the way he gets there would make even the most credulous raise a skeptical eyebrow. The plot hiccups along, bouncing from overlong description to implausible development to Houdini boasting about his professional prowess -- until the ending. And oh my, what an ending. The distractions fall away, Lovecraft gathers to himself the myth of the sphinx along with certain unpleasant details about mummification, and then he twists the final scene like a knife. Only a truly masterful conclusion could save the story from ignominy, and Lovecraft manages it, but only just.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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