Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Thing on the Doorstep

"The Thing on the Doorstep", first published in Weird Tales, January 1937.

This is the the thirty-first entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

This is how I'd like the main run of HPL's stories to be. It's a chewy story of a man brought down by his passions, it's well structured and takes its more obvious schtick (in this case the whole Ephraim Waite mind-swap deal) and trumps it with a terrific shock ending. It's not HPL at full tilt; he doesn't pull off that delirious amazing writing that characterises his best work, and passages in some of his not-best work, but it's an effective story that makes good use of his by-now familar elements – Arkham, Innsmouth and various bits of Yog Sothothery.

Unfortunately, that's not how the main run of his stories are, and this volume is clogged with hard to pass matter like Cool Air, The Unameable, From Beyond and The Shadow Out of Time, and that's even ignoring border-line juvenalia like The Nameless City and The Lurking Fear and forgiving him the utter turds like Through the Gate of the Silver Key or The Cats of Ulthar. As I come to the end of this read-through I can't help thinking that HPL's reputation rests on a relatively small number of stories, that he got it wrong more often than he got it right.

I guess I'll return to this in the coming months when I come to sum all this up. For the meantime, though, this story lifts the lid on on a matter rarely addressed by HPL, the fairer sex.

In earlier stories we've considered HPL's attitudes to race, which are a huge part of the narrative of who he is. If I had a British pound for the number of times I've seen amateur internet morality cops declare that HPL's racism puts him beyond the pale I'd certainly not be facing a life time of debt slavery just to buy house with an extra bedroom. Less often remarked on, though, are HPL's opinions on sex and women, probably because he largely avoids the topic. While he was happy to make sweeping jaw-droppingly racist declarations in his letters and amateur journalism, and to mine the topic in his fiction for good and ill, he rarely discussed women.

Significant female characters are few and far between. I guess there's Lavinia Whately in The Dunwich Horror, who acts is a kind of anti-mother. If we are to see Wilbur Whately as a perverse self-portrait, then she is the mother who declared her son had a “hideous face” and reportedly saw “weird fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark”. In this reading, I suppose that Yog Sothoth represents the absent father that one can sometimes sense in the background of HPL's stories.

An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia suggests that The Thing on the Doorstep portrays some of HPL's feelings about his mother in the descriptions of Edward Derby's childhood, but that's not the most compelling thing about this story. “If Derby's youth and manhood are an amlgam of HPL and some of his closest friends, his marriage to Asenath Waite clearly brings clearly brings certain aspects of HPL's marriage to Sonia Greene to mind.” The Encyclopedia notes that like Asenath “Sonia was clearly the more strong-willed member of the couple,” but seems happy to leave the matter there. There's so much more going here, though.

Perhaps we see HPL's resentment of Sonia Greene, always encouraging him to get a job or spend time with her, when all he wanted to do during the time they lived together in New York was rub along with the other misfits in the Kalem Club, and spend the nights wandering the New York streets looking for colonial architecture.

Asenath is the ultimate “changer”, grabbing hold of Darby and re-shaping him into her own image of a suitable husband. She's places herself as an obstacle to the typically Lovecraftian homosocial relationship that Darby and the story's narrator Daniel Upton have established. Theirs is a world where women are otherwise entirely absent – Upton's wife remains entirely off-screen even while his son makes a few appearances.
But of course there's more to Asenath than just the old ball and chain. In fact, Aesnath Waite is a most extraordinary figure that dominates this story. Needless to say, her portrayal displays extraordinary levels of misogyny and gynophobia: as with HPL's racism it goes beyond mere bigotry to the level of almost psychedelic horribleness that only horror and HPL can take us.

And of course, she's not really a woman at all, but a shell unhabited by the body-hopping spirit of her father Ephraim Waite. This provides one of the stories better chills. Darby asks Upton, “what devilish exchange was perpetrated in the house of horror where that blasphemous monster had his trusting, weak-willed, half-human child at his mercy?” It's a peculiarly nasty image, with all sorts of creepy incestuous and abusive overtones.

The entry on this story in An H P Lovecraft Encycolpedia Joshi mentions “considerable misunderstaning” arising from Upton's remark about Asenath that “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.” As the Encyclopedia notes this is clearly uttered in character, and the editors further take pains to excerpt some somewhat conciliatory remarks that HPL had for the female of the species in the thirties.

HPL may well have had unkind ideas about the intellectual capacities of women at various times in his life, perhaps his entire life, but I don't think that's what's happening here. Instead, it's hard to avoid seeing a sexual element to Asenath's domination of the apparently naïve Derby.

By all accounts (well, A Life and The Encyclopedia) HPL was, at best, indifferent to sex. Sonia Greene states that he was a virgin when they married (HPL was 33) and was, to say the least, physically undemonstrative, although an “adequately excellent” lover which sound like faint praise at best.

Sonia and HPL's relationship has been subjected to plenty of prying by dirty minded critics like me, and it's clear that HPL was less inclined to express affection in any form than Sonia would have liked. Joshi quotes a letter HPL wrote to Sonia before their marriage (published by August Derleth as “Lovecraft On Love” which seems a rather cold act, in my mind, given that Sonia was still alive at this point) where HPL says of the sexual aspect of marriage:

“By forty or perhaps fifty, a wholesome replacement process begins to operate, and love attains calm, cool depths based on tender association beside which the erotic infatuation of youth takes on a certain shade of cheapness and degradation. Mature tranquilised love produces an idyllic fidelity which is testimonial to its sincerity, purity and intensity.”
This is where Upton finds himself with his invisible woman of a wife and long-ago conceived child and seems to be what HPL dreamed of from a liaison – think of Delapore in The Rats in the Walls, whose wife is long dead, or the sexless procreation of his master races the Old Ones and the Great Race.

Derby, on the other hand, finds himself being drawn into a world of mysterious new experiences: “Some of the experiments she proposed were very daring and radical—he did not feel at liberty to describe them—but he had confidence in her powers and intentions.” What starts as a bit of laugh, though, becomes more and more worrisome: “He talked about terrible meetings in lonely places, of Cyclopean ruins in the heart of the Maine woods beneath which vast staircases lead down to abysses of nighted secrets.” Finally, all hell breaks loose:
“The pit 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.... Iä! 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.... A minute before I was locked in the library, and then I was there where she had gone with my body—in the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where the black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate.... I saw a shoggoth—it changed shape.... I can’t stand it.... I won’t stand it.... I’ll kill her if she ever sends me there again.... I’ll kill that entity... her, him, it... I’ll kill it! I’ll kill it with my own hands.”
The fact that the story ends with Darby clubbing his bride to death seems to hint at difficult relations with the opposite sex, but it's always hard to tell, of course, and horror stories, in particular, require a writer to bring up the worst excesses of their imaginations. I don't think HPL's racism, for example, blights his fiction because for him it's the stepping stone to something more profound than mere race prejudice to an expression of elemental xenophobia that we all, to an extent, share regardless of race or creed.

What's more interesting, I think, than speculating that HPL might have been Jack the Ripper or the Grand Wizard of the KKK, is looking at the way that HPL's numerous neuroses fueled his writing. There's precious little in The Encyclopedia and A Life about his working methods, and the extent to which he was conscious of this stuff spilling out of him. I'd love to know if he ever looked into the mirror he made and saw himself staring back, mad, frightened and filled with self-loathing.

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