Monday, October 29, 2007

Handwritten Under the Pyramids

Lovecraft, H[oward] P[hillips]. "UNDER THE PYRAMIDS" [novelette]. AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT SIGNED (AMsS). 34 pages, handwritten on the rectos of 34 sheets of white 8 1/2 x 11-inch paper with typed and handwritten business and personal letters on the rectos. Undated, but written in late February 1924. Lovecraft was commissioned by WEIRD TALES owner J C Henneberger to ghost-write this story for Harry Houdini, part of a big push he was making to revive the magazine's sagging fortunes one year after its debut. He wrote it in a hurry during the last week of April, 1924, as he was preparing to marry Sonia Greene; lost the typescript in a train station; then had to spend the first two days of his honeymoon re-typing it from the manuscript which he had providentially brought with him. The story, retitled "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs," ran in three consecutive issues, May, June and July (sharing space with "The Loved Dead," a tale of necrophilia by C. M. Eddy which had been rewritten by Lovecraft; it alarmed some authorities and prompted editorial caution in WT which later hampered some of HPL's efforts. He was paid $100 for "Under the Pyramids," a high-water mark for a piece of fiction by him. Written in the same year (1924) as THE SHUNNED HOUSE, this is, beneath the veil of its Egyptian "color," another story, like THE SHUNNED HOUSE, about monsters in a graveyard. For that, after all, is what the pyramid is, what the surrounding district is, what the hero realizes the whole country is. "All these people thought of was death É." Just as THE SHUNNED HOUSE reduces the motif of burial down to its modest minimum (the tomb of one ancestor under the basement of a small run-down house in a small run-down city); so does "Under the Pyramids" inflate it to its grandiose maximum: a pyramid, symbol of the most venerable bloodline of Western culture. Undoubtedly, Lovecraft himself understood the difference between these two efforts, one a bit of hired hackwork to keep the pot boiling, the other an ambitious and thoughtful master work. In letters to Frank Belknap Long around this period (SL1, #163, 164, 166, 172), HPL explains that the idea for the story began with a yarn told to Henneberger by "this bimbo Houdini" (p. 312), which, after some research, HPL determined to be "all a fake" (p. 317). This probably encouraged him to embellish it without restraint -- once he got started writing the piece, which was due March 1. As of Feb. 25 he hadn't started. "I went the limit in descriptive realism in the first part, then when I buckled down to the under-the-pyramid stuff I let myself loose and coughed up some of the most nameless, slithering, unmentionable HORROR that ever stalked cloven-hooved through the tenebrous and necrophagous abysses of elder night." (p. 326) To retype the story, the honeymooners rented (for $1) a typewriter at the Hotel Vendig in New York and HPL typed while his bride dictated from the manuscript -- "a marvelous way of speeding up copying, and one which I shall frequently employ in future, since my spouse expresses a willingness amounting to eagerness so far as her share of the toil is concern'd. She has the absolutely unique gift of being able to decipher the careless scrawl of my rough manuscripts -- no matter how cryptically and involvedly interlined." (p. 332). (In truth, HPL's handwriting is not especially hard to decipher.) HPL must have been pleased at the setting for his assignment, returning him, as it did, to the scene of his childhood's first literary obsession, the Arabian Nights. Of course, that's only one section in the trackless wastes of Egypt's history, and the narrator's voyage up the Nile into its Canopically-preserved heart of darkness finds him penetrating down and down through the layers of that history: Anglo-American, Napoleonic, Saracenic, Greco-Roman, Pharaonic -- and Beyond. He finally reaches that ultimate layer, found in so many of his stories, of a primordial past of monstrous gods, hinted at by rumors of atavistic survivals and glimpsed in moments of agonizing revelation. We also see in the story an archaeology of Lovecraft's literary influences (the M. R. Jamesian voice of dry scholarship, establishing credibility; the fabled Eastern landscapes of Dunsany, establishing mood and expectation; and, in the climax, the secret atavistic rites of Machen, establishing psychological resonance). Looking beyond these we see those thematic and stylistic qualities which complete the mixture now commonly known as Lovecraftian. A tour of the various levels of meaning in the story, however casually its author may have approached its composition, takes us through important regions of personal, generic and archetypal significance. The looming prospect of marriage, an unexpected and ill-fated adventure, given Lovecraft's eternal boyhood, could well have inspired some of the nightmare imagery in the story, with its obvious sexual overtones: the bound and gagged hero must descend through a long shaft to an immense subterranean space at one end of which is glimpsed the opening of yet another ominous shaft ("the foul aperture," "the noxious aperture"), big enough to fit a house in, as the narrator notes. Old words for "house" form the etymological sources of both "husband" and "pharaoh." The one would represent to HPL a side of himself as the sacrificial victim being dragged to the altar. The other identifies the chief villain in the story, the evil pharaoh Khefren (bearing an uncanny resemblance to the guide who lured him to his doom) who, with his evil consort Queen Nitocris, presides over the unholy assemblage of monsters making sacrifice to the chief monster of them all. As a voluntary bridegroom, HPL would become both the sacrificial victim and the officiating priest. The loss of the typescript, with its resulting diversion of the author's attention away from his bride to a typewriter, would surely have prompted his analyst (if he'd had one) to label the accident a slip of the hand intended to mitigate this doom. On the level of literary genre, here again, in the shape of the pyramid, is the malignant castle or haunted house that resides at the center of the Gothic, blind guardian of "unwholesome antiquity," and framework for those subterranean passages, dank basements, hidden chambers, dungeons, oubliettes, hollow earths, fairy grottoes and ragged pits that form the setting for the hero's descent into the underworld, that climactic phase of his adventure, which we find so frequently in dark myth and weird tale. What the hero finds in that subterranean world reminds us of Lovecraft's inventiveness (allied no doubt to his learnedness) in the nitty-gritty phenomenology of supernatural horror. Building on accepted facts and popular traditions he gives us, in this case, three-dimensional hieroglyphs the size of skyscrapers; an army of soul-less zombie mummies whose souls have been weighed and found wanting; a shambling horde of reanimated composite animal/human mummies, three-dimensional counterparts of those painted chimeras in Egyptian frescoes; and the glimpse of a Thing that may have been the model for that life-size statue we know as the Sphinx. Ruling over them, as noted, are the necromantic pair, Khefren and Nitocris (one side of whose face has been eaten away by rats), coordinating their rites of worship to propitiate one of those buried Old Ones that under-gird the Lovecraftian mythos. The final payoff in "Under the Pyramid," as in THE SHUNNED HOUSE, is the glimpse of a buried something that only after the fact does the hero recognize as a part of the hole, a minor anatomical feature of the half-buried monster, whose overall shape is thus left for the reader's own half-buried fantasies to customize. Mindful of its upcoming serialization in Weird Tales, HPL has kept a running word count of the story and indicated the point where he thinks the story should be broken in two. WT editor Farnsworth Wright divided the story into three parts. Not a great piece of work, but noteworthy from a literary point of view, and of documentary value during this pivotal period of HPL's life, when he was about to get married, about to move to New York and form an in-the-flesh literary circle that would sustain him afterwards, and as he was putting down roots at the magazine that would be his most important market and of which he was about to be offered the editorship. Accompanied by an autograph letter unsigned, 5 1/2" x 8 1/2". Upper left hand corner has been scissored out, with resulting loss of salutation. No date but internal evidence puts this at the end of February 1924, as he writes, "Working like hell on the Houdini thing -- it's a fearful job but I know Cairo by heart now!" Inserted into the middle of this sentence, in margin, is written, "just finished it! SHOCKING climax! Now to type!" On the verso are two comical drawings of Egyptian scenes with accompanying poems, one a limerick ("There was an old geezer from GhizehÉ"), the other a more stately quatrain ("Frantick with rumours of eternal night É"), neither of them listed in the Joshi bibliography. A charming footnote to the saga of the "Pyramids". The letter is also missing a tiny section at bottom right hand corner and has a horizontal tear and old folding creases. The manuscript has some wear at edges, but overall is in excellent condition. Accompanied by a fragment of an undated two-page letter handwritten by Lovecraft on both sides of a single sheet, salutation and conclusion clipped away, but perhaps to Frank Belknap Long, in which Lovecraft says he is "working like hell on the Houdini thing -- it's a fearful job..." and, in postscript at top, "just finished it! SHOCKING climax! Now to type!" Verso has two small sketches (the Pyramids and on the Golden Road to Samarkand) which illustrate two short limericks, unpublished no doubt. (#108232) Price: $55,000.00

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