Thursday, February 25, 2010

"The Thing on the Doorstep"

Lovecraft not leaning heavily on his setting chops. This is a nice twist and it does give the reader a decent plot driven story. Sure the characterization is thin, the dialogue almost nonexistent, but “The Thing on the Doorstep” for once isn’t an over indulgence in eerie backdrop and moody set descriptions.

Edward Pickman Derby (any relation to the Pickman who was taking photos of monsters from beneath the North End?) is unique for Lovecraft in that the reader gets to witness pretty close to first hand what happens to him. Normally Lovecraft’s narrator (Dan in this case) would be retelling the harrowing tale of his good friend, the loyal but odd and in some ways genius (Edward Pickman Derby in this case) to another acquaintance and much of the tension would be lost due to the reader’s knowledge that all the supernatural events are past tense and pose no present threat (usually).

“The Thing on the Doorstep” is much more real-time and the story is better for it. Edward and Dan’s relationship is questionable. Lovecraft’s choice to describe Edward as childlike and soft all the while maintaining a close relationship with an older man had gay overtones to it. “His voice was soft and light, and his pampered, unexercised life gave him a juvenile chubbiness rather than the paunchiness of premature middle age.”

Add to this some of Lovecraft’s less than flattering comments towards women. “Her crowning rage, however, was that she was not a man; since she believed a male brain had certain unique and far-reaching cosmic powers.” Later in explaining why Asenath Waite sought out Edward: “She wanted to be a man – to be fully human – that was why she got hold of him.”

As the story goes the anti-female and possibly gay overtones are mitigated by the fact that Asenath may in fact actually be her father just inhabiting her body, and since he started life as a man he would probably be more comfortable back in the trappings of a male brain and body, even a weak and childlike one such as Edward offered. However, if Edward was so weak and easily controlled, how did he get the chance to kill Asenath as he claims in his note at the end of the story?

Up to that point Edward has been everyone’s patsy. He is utterly over-parented throughout his existence, his friend Dan is more a second home and confidant than an equal. Dan the narrator never speaks of the two of them going out, most of their time together is in Dan’s home which may indicate Edward is being guided/influenced by Dan. Finally Asenath marries him, takes him to the home she wants to live in, drives off his family servants, brings in her own (one who smells like fish, eww), and periodically steals Edward’s body to go driving up and down the back roads only to leave Edward wherever he wakes up.

Edward, poor sweet Edward, should not have been able to take Asenath out. “I lied when I said she had gone away. I killed her. I had to. It was sudden, but we were alone and I was in my right body. I saw a candlestick and smashed her head in.”

No, Lovecraft’s opinion of women wasn’t a very high one. Asenath herself is only half-female. The other half is some other-worldly thing from the deep bowels of the earth, down six thousand steps or some such. She isn’t even allowed to be a character. She is but a vessel for her crazed wizard father. If that is truly the case, then Edward’s striking the body of Asenath down is that much more impressive.

I like this story. It does suffer from one pretty big plot flaw though. The reader guesses what is happening, that Edward is being possessed, and the reader is given clues that the old man, Ephraim Waite, is actually possessing Edward. All of this plays well, is creepy and wonderful.

My favorite fright in this story is vintage Lovecraft. Lovecraft provided a unique language and vocabulary to his just off the beaten path world of dark things and shady places. When Dan goes to Chesuncook to retrieve Edward and Edward is found raving, the delirious rant is just excellent:

““Dan – for God’s sake! The pith of the shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps … the abomination of abominations … I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there … Ia! Shub-Niggurath! … The shape rose up from the altar, and there were 500 that howled…. The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ – that was old Ephraim’s secret name in the coven … I was there, where she promised she wouldn’t take me….””

Nobody before or since has provided such colorful language and flavor to stories such as this. Lovecraft had a very real sense of another world just below the surface of this one, or just a thin dimension over. Even more than his flair for settings in his writing, I believe it was this dark-vocabulary that gave Lovecraft a place in the canon.

So, what was the plot problem? Once Dan puts six bullets through the body/head of Edward the possession of that body should have ended. Up to this point in the story the reader has seen how difficult this process is. Edward, even weak willed Edward, has been able to fight it. The possession process has taken more than three years, and even then Asenath can only hold Edward for short bursts.

Yes, they performed a Hallowmass ceremony which was to make the process permanent. However, Edward’s note at the end made all the effort to take his body seem false. “A soul like hers – or Ephraim’s – is half detached, and keeps right on after death as long as the body lasts.” And if this quote is accurate, and Ephraim is in possession of Asenath, and has been all along, and Asenath’s soul was “half detached and keep right on after death” then where did her soul go when the old man took her? Another anti-female point against Mr. Lovecraft.

This kind of reasoning leads to the reader thinking there is nothing mere mortals like Dan or Edward (or me the reader) could do in this situation. Once they target your body for possession you are just screwed. Pack it in. You can hit them with candlestick holders. You can empty revolvers into them. They take a licking, but they just keep on ticking.

It takes a great deal of urgency out of the story, and it negates the actions of the characters we are pulling for. Plus, prior to this twist statement there is no clue of it.

Overall, this is a solid short story of “the weird” as Lovecraft said. It draws the reader in from the first sentence: “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”

In it’s time this story had to really strike a cord. Today body possession, voodoo, zombies, witchcraft, all of these are well accepted character traits one can utilize to scare the reader. Lovecraft, once again, was ahead of his time and for that we who write horror owe him a tip of our hat.


  1. Lovecraft's stories almost always contain two men, one of whom is a stronger personality guiding the narrator, who is a weaker personality. It smacks of homosexuality. Though Lovecraft maintains that the idea of homosexuality never occurred to him until he was in his twenties, and there is the possibility that he was VERY repressed. Another reading is that while HLP had lots of correspondences, as a kid and as an adult he didn't have a lot of friends. These "bromances" in his stories may be the result of his never grasping how adult friendships work, of never moving past the "BEST FRIENDS!" of childhood.

    My comment is mostly parroted from the HP Podcast literary podcast episode about The Hound where they spent a long time talking about this very topic.

  2. Wow. I never considered the homosexuality angle until I read your post. Interesting hypothesis, indeed.

  3. oh, wow Dave! Now that you mention it, remember our discussion of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

    Kristin, I think it was both. He was very socially awkward and I think he just didn't know how to deal with "Girls!"