Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Imprisoned with the Pharaohs by H.P. Lovecraft

Imprisoned with the Pharaohs
by H.P. Lovecraft
(written as Harry Houdini)

Notorious Anglophile and anti-Semite H.P. Lovecraft, never afraid to contradict himself, was both a fan and a friend of the Jewish Harry Houdini.  I imagine he was drawn to the illusionist's aura of mystery and dark mastery, like a character who had stepped out of the pages of one of his short stories.  So when the opportunity arose to ghostwrite a supposedly true story for Houdini, Lovecraft jumped at the chance and threw himself into his work.

"Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" is a tall-tale that Houdini crafted during one of his tours of Egypt.  Lovecraft took Houdini's story, and having realized that it never actually happened, turned it into a wild fantasy that fits somewhat comfortably in the author's larger body of work. Casting Houdini into a role of pulp adventurer (imagine Indiana Jones in Lovecraft Country), Lovecraft describes the magicians supposed Egyptian adventure--in which he is assaulted and bound by angry natives and dropped into the secret bowels of the pyramids--as if he were there to witness it first hand.  It is extremely detailed and informative, so much so that at first you wonder if you're being entertained or educated.  Which is both distracting (I did not come here looking for a history lesson) and impressive (Lovecraft had never actually been to Egypt, but he obviously did a ton of research).

There are, of course, the usual Lovecraft elements on display here: crazy visions, angry gods, and otherworldy creatures.  In a subtle way, what he has managed to do is weave Egyptian mythology into his own Cthulu mythos, making it seem even more expansive than it ever had before.

On a strictly technical level, this may be some of Lovecraft's best work to date.  But from an entertainment standpoint, this isn't my favorite of his work.  Maybe that's because it was Lovecraft speaking, but he was doing so with Houdini's voice.  Or maybe it's because the story is a hoax on top of a hoax.  Whatever the reason, it just didn't seem as authentic as maybe it could have.

It did, however, contain one of the greatest, strangest lines that I have ever read:
"Hippopotami should not have human hands and carry torches… men should not have the heads of crocodiles…"
Very true, HPL.  Very true...

1 comment:

  1. Wasn't Lovecraft married to a Jewish woman? If he was an anti-Semite, that might have led to some interesting conversations at the dinner table.


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