Under the Pyramids (or Imprisoned by the Pharaohs)
After a period of lessened sales, Weird Tales was struggling. Magazine owner, J. C. Henneberger, thought that famous escape artist, Harry Houdini, could bring more attention to the short story magazine. Houdini had seen some mild success in print with a column "Ask Houdini" (most likely ghost-written).
In 1924, Weird Tales commissioned the writing of a story of the amazing adventures of Harry Houdini. Supposedly based around the unbelievable account of Harry Houdini, Lovecraft accepted the commission merely because the money was offered in advance of writing. In its original publication, and not until a 1939 reprint, the story was credited as written by Houdini himself. This was mostly due to an editorial decision that thought a second byline on a first-person account would seem confusing.
Not believing Houdini's account of the actual events, HPL took many liberties in the telling of this tale. Houdini still quite enjoyed the finished story and the pair collaborated on a few other works before the escape artist's death in 1926. These works included many articles and essays of scientific skepticism in regards to the rampant growth of mysticism and superstition (a favorite topic of both men).
Taking place in Egypt a decade into the twentieth century, this story embodies many of the classical traits of Lovecraft's cosmic horror. Told from the first-person perspective of Houdini, about his mysterious encounter while on vacation in Egypt, the story is quite an entertaining novellete.
Lovecraft received one-hundred dollars to write the story and he quickly threw it together in February as he made preparations for his marriage to Sonia Greene. The typed story was then accidentally lost in a train station, and despite numerous ads and requests to anyone who might have found the story, HPL and his new bride instead had to spend part of their honeymoon retyping the story from Lovecraft's original handwritten manuscript.
The story begins as Houdini finds himself captured by a group of men after a boxing match atop the Great Pyramid. After being bound and tossed in a hole, Houdini manages to escape his bounds as only he could. Finding himself lost within the deep darkness of ancient Egyptian ruins, he sets out to see what all the fuss about the Sphinx really is. Mostly, he relates, he is curious about what the Sphinx is actually supposed to be.
Deep under the tombs of long forgotten Pharaohs. Houdini discovers a cavern of immense proportion, with support columns taller than human sight. Within the great cavern, he witnesses all manner of strange creatures. Mummified atrocities of hybrid humans made to look like the half-beast gods of old. Even more amazingly, he is shocked to find living forms of these beings as they shuffle about bringing great offerings to a recessed area. This is where Houdini witnesses the truth of the Sphinx as a hideously strange creature emerges from an opening in the darkness.
I have to admit, despite being overwritten in the greatest sense of Lovecraft, I rather adore this story. It has the intrigue and adventure of a classic H. Rider Haggard novel with all the strange other-worldly beasties that Lovecraft could possibly fit in. I love the connection of the ancient religions of Egypt to a reality far darker and less understood. This is one of the best early examples of Lovecraft's grand cosmic horror that would make him so distinct. It is this essential part of Lovecraft's world building that would become so imitated by his followers.
Find out the shocking conclusion to this story by reading the full text here: HPL's Under the PyramidsNext time: TheUnnamable