Monday, February 28, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Under the Pyramids

By the time he wrote most of the foundational stories of the Cthulhu Mythos for which he is remembered today, H.P. Lovecraft had already established himself as an important writer within the genre of weird fiction. So well regarded was he that, in early 1924, he was asked by J.C. Henneberger, the owner of Weird Tales magazine, to work as a ghostwriter for the world famous escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini.

Houdini was a regular contributor in the first year of The Unique Magazine's existence, providing a column ("Ask Houdini"), along several works of short fiction (the latter ghostwritten, perhaps by Walter B. Gibson, creator of The Shadow). Despite this, Weird Tales was in bad financial shape and needed a blockbuster issue to get itself out of debt. Henneberger's plan was to release a special "anniversary issue" in May 1924 that sold for twice the usual cover price but contained "fifty distinct feature novels, short stories, and novelettes," including a lengthy one by Houdini.

So important was this story that Henneberger not only turned to Lovecraft to ghostwrite it – he was very regarded by the magazine's readership at the time – but he also paid him $100 in advance. This was a significant amount of money at the time and Lovecraft was perpetually in need of remuneration, all the more so now that he was about to be married and move to New York City. He called the story was commissioned to ghostwrite "Under the Pyramids," but it was retitled "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" upon its publication. The tale purports to be a first person account by Houdini of his experiences in Egypt in 1910, though the entirety of its content is fictitious and based on ideas proposed by Houdini and extensively expanded by Lovecraft.

"Under the Pyramids" is surprisingly compelling, drawing as it does on the mystique of ancient Egypt. If the story has a flaw that might explain its relative obscurity among readers today, it's that its first part is replete with historical, cultural, and geographical information, so much so that it sometimes reads more like an encyclopedia or travelogue rather than a work of fiction. Here's a relevant example of what I mean:

The Pyramids stand on a high rock plateau, this group forming next to the northernmost of the series of regal and aristocratic cemeteries built in the neighbourhood of the extinct capital Memphis, which lay on the same side of the Nile, somewhat south of Gizeh, and which flourished between 3400 and 2000 B.C. The greatest pyramid, which lies nearest the modern road, was built by King Cheops or Khufu about 2800 B.C., and stands more than 450 feet in perpendicular height.

And so on. 

In his defense, I suspect that Lovecraft's readers would have been fascinated by these details. One must remember that Howard Carter had discovered Tutankhamun's tomb only two years before the publication of "Under the Pyramids," creating a global sensation that reverberated throughout the 1920s. Furthermore, this enumeration of mundane details grounds the story in mundane reality, perhaps leading the unsuspecting reader to believe that the tale's second part will be similarly prosaic. 

Part two is where "Under the Pyramids" truly takes flight. Houdini is set upon by his local Egyptian guides, who bind him, hand and foot, and toss him into a "Stygian space" beneath the Temple of the Sphinx. One of these guides 

mocked and jeered delightedly in his hollow voice, and assured me that I was soon to have my "magic powers" put to a supreme test which would quickly remove any egotism I might have gained triumphing over all the tests offered by America and Europe. Egypt, he reminded me, is very old and full of inner mysteries and antique powers not even conceivable to the experts of today, whose devices had so uniformly failed to trap me.

Lovecraft is unrelenting in maintaining that the narrator is Harry Houdini and, as in the excerpt above, there are frequent references to his athleticism and skill at escapology. However, Houdini's abilities are of little avail in the face the increasingly fantastical things he witnesses in the darkness. 

I saw the horror and unwholesome antiquity of Egypt, and the grisly alliance it has always had with the tombs and temples of the dead. I saw phantom processions of priests with the heads of bulls, falcons, cats, and ibises; phantom processions marching interminably through subterraneous labyrinths and avenues of titanic propylaea beside which a man is as a fly, and offering unnamable sacrifice to indescribable gods. Stone colossi marched in endless night and drove herds of grinning androsphinxes down to the shores of illimitable stagnant rivers of pitch. And behind it all I saw the ineffable malignity of primordial necromancy, black and amorphous, and fumbling greedily after me in the darkness to choke out the spirit that had dared to mock it by emulation.

Lovecraft gives his imagination free rein in the second part of the tale, presenting a panoply of bizarre and suggestive imagery. The reader, like Houdini himself, is never sure whether what he is seeing is real or if it is in fact a waking dream brought on by the physical rigors of his current predicament. This possibility is buttressed by the fact that Houdini, after the fashion of a true Lovecraftian protagonist, faints not once but three times over the course of the story. I've seen some commentators, like S.T. Joshi, suggest that this was intended as a joke of some kind and I suppose it's possible, but, speaking for myself, I found it distracted from an otherwise captivating narrative.

Throughout "Under the Pyramids," Houdini is troubled by what he calls an "idle question," namely "what huge and loathsome abnormality was the Sphinx originally carven to represent?" I doubt anyone will be startled to learn that, before its conclusion, the tale presents an answer to this question and a satisfyingly lurid one at that. For me, though, it is the phantasmagoria of frightful sensations Houdini experiences that held my attention, such as this one:

From some still lower chasm in earth's bowels were proceeding certain sounds, measured and definite, and like nothing I had ever heard before. That they were very ancient and distinctly ceremonial I felt almost intuitively; and much reading in Egyptology led me to associate them with the flute, the sambuke, the sistrum, and the tympanum. In their rhythmic piping, droning, rattling and beating I felt an element of terror beyond all the known terrors of earth—a terror peculiarly dissociated from personal fear, and taking the form of a sort of objective pity for our planet, that it should hold within its depths such horrors as must lie beyond these aegipanic cacophonies. The sounds increased in volume, and I felt that they were approaching. Then—and may all the gods of all pantheons unite to keep the like from my ears again—I began to hear, faintly and afar off, the morbid and millennial tramping of the marching things.

If you're a fan of Lovecraft and his idiosyncratic style, "Under the Pyramids" is delightful. The story lacks some of the weightiness – and self-seriousness – of his Cthulhu Mythos efforts, but it nevertheless presents a clever weird tale that holds the reader's attention and contains a genuine surprise or two. Owing to the fact that I first encountered it early in my introduction to HPL, it's always been a favorite of mine; I hope others might find it as enjoyable.


  1. I also have a fondness for this story.

  2. I became aware of this story via the delightful audio adaption by Dark Adventure Radio Theatre

  3. It's been awhile, but I remember the story fondly. Did it inspire parts of Masks of Nyarlathotep? Probably.

  4. I am 600 pages into a "Complete Works..." and this was one of the early stories. I enjoyed it and had no idea this was the background of the story. This does give me an idea though. It would be great if they had included this kind of detail for all of the stories as I am sure a bunch of them would have back stories that would also be interesting.