02 June 2009

Archaeology in Fiction: H.P. Lovecraft, “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs”

"Far over the city towered the great Roman dome of the new museum; and beyond it - across the cryptic yellow Nile that is the mother of eons and dynasties - lurked the menacing sands of the Libyan Desert, undulant and iridescent and evil with older arcana.
The red sun sank low, bringing the relentless chill of Egyptian dusk; and as it stood poised on the world's rim like that ancient god of Heliopolis - Re-Harakhte, the Horizon-Sun - we saw silhouetted against its vermeil holocaust the black outlines of the Pyramids of Gizeh - the palaeogean tombs that were hoary with a thousand years when Tut-Ankh-Amen mounted his golden throne in distant Thebes. Then we knew that we were done with Saracen Cairo, and that we must taste the deeper mysteries of primal Egypt - the black Kem of Re and Amen, Isis and Osiris.
‘Imprisoned With the Pharaohs’ is a Egyptological horror yarn starring Harry Houdini, and loosely based on one of his tall tales from his tour of Egypt. Ghostwritten by H.P. Lovecraft, it was first published under Houdini’s byline in the summer 1924 number of Weird Tales.

In the story (Lovecraft's only one with an archaeological setting) Houdini gets the sense that archaeologists might be hiding something about the Giza plateau:
Such fascinating things were whispered about lower pyramid passages not in the guide books; passages whose entrances had been hastily blocked up and concealed by certain uncommunicative archaeologists who had found and begun to explore them.

Of course, this whispering was largely baseless on the face of it; but it was curious to reflect how persistently visitors were forbidden to enter the Pyramids at night...
Houdini hires a dragoman, Abdul, as his guide to Giza, and duly makes the rounds of the monuments. But atop the great pyramid, the escape artist is set upon:
Without warning, and doubtless in answer to some subtle sign from Abdul, the entire band of Bedouins precipitated itself upon me; and having produced heavy ropes, soon had me bound as securly as I was ever bound in the course of my life, either on stage or off...

Setting me down on a surface which I recognized as sand rather than rock, my captors passed a rope around my chest and dragged me a few feet to a ragged opening in the ground, into which they presently lowered me with much rough handling. For apparent eons I bumped against the stony irregular sides of a narrow hewn well which I took to be one of the numerous burial-shafts of the plateau until the prodigious, almost incredible depth of it robbed me of all bases of conjecture.
Houdini, of course, escapes from his bonds. But I’m not going to ruin the story by telling you all the creepiness that happens next. (Read the story here online, or pick up the paperback for cheap.)

'Imprisoned With the Pharaohs' is a mix of sound 1920s-vintage archaeological data and pure fantasy. Lovecraft never went to Egypt; the story is wholly based on books from the public library, visits to New England museums, and Houdini’s own yarn-spinning. The story trades in antiquated stereotypes - the untrustworthy Arab, the fantastic origin of the Sphinx, Egypt as degenerate from its Pharaonic golden age - yet has a surprisingly modern air, since all of these stereotypes are still quite current in popular culture. (At times, it seems like you're reading an early script for The Mummy.

Lovecraft... Smiling? (h/t Accelerating Future)

Lovecraft’s fiction is all about the past and its secrets. Though he was a deep lover of antiquity, he was also afraid of it: in his stories, aberrant things lurk in dark attics and ancient texts. Looking too closely into the past leads to terror, madness, and death.

The man himself is still a towering figure in horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was the epitomy of the crusty Yankee: cynical, reserved, and suspicious. He detested foreigners, technology, and modernity - and famously dated his letters 200 years in the past. At the same time, he was a starry romantic, a crafter of science fiction, and a mentor and friend to dozens of pulp fiction writers including Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. An avowed anti-Semite, he was nonetheless a big fan of Houdini (the son of a rabbi), and married a Ukranian Jew, Sonia Greene (thereby incurring the deep displeasure of his aristocratic maiden aunts). I have a great affection for the man: his bizarre and contradictory personality is totally all-American, and his hallucinatory evocations of the cosmic horrors lurking behind the veils of history have shaped me as a writer and a reader more than I care to contemplate. This site has much more about him.


  1. Glad to see the reverence of Lovecraft continue. He's definitely not for everyone, which is good, he is one of my personal heroes. I don't know that much about alot of the other sci-fi pulp writers of the time, but Robert Howard & HPL strike me as very complicated & interesting people with big philosophies, the likes of which are quite rare today.

  2. Well said Sean. I keep meaning to read more Robert Howard, but have never gotten around to it.

    As I think about it, I'm amazed how Lovecraft ties into pretty much every interest I've ever had. (Aliens, American history, conspiracy theories, antarctica, witchcraft, dusty old texts, cheesy fantasy, etc, etc). Or, it could be that Lovecraft is the CAUSE of these interests, I never can tell. A great American, no doubt.

  3. A series of amateur -read audiobooks includes this story, available in two parts here: http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?i=55822598&id=258214995

  4. this men is totally insane.