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Saturday
Feb132010

Under the Pyramids

When I first encountered the name of this author in the context of this film, I quite logically assumed it to be a pseudonym; I would marvel at one of literature's finest aptronyms only much later.  And while Re-animator horrified me as a child, I did not approach Lovecraft for many years for the simple reason that he was always recommended to me by the oddest among my classmates.  His creations appeared to inhabit the same escapist realm as the machinations of endless role-playing games and works of high fantasy, epitomized by the writings of this famous author.  Now I never played Dungeons and Dragons and other such time-gobblers, nor could I really read much Tolkien without drifting off in inattention.  But Lovecraft has gained in appeal, as in the terrible weirdness of this story

Our narrator is alleged to be none other than this renowned illusionist, which will explain presently the odd course of events.  Seeking a respite from his fame, Houdini and his wife travel to Egypt before the discovery of this tomb, with the mystery surrounding its ancient secrets at its hoopla's height.  Equally secret and equally publicized was Houdini's identity, which he takes pains to conceal until at length a mediocre magician evokes the perfectionist in the master and prods him to reveal his skills.  This proves to be a fateful error of pride.  Houdini finds a tour guide in "a shaven, peculiarly hollow-voiced, and relatively cleanly fellow who looked like a Pharaoh, called himself 'Adbul Reis el Drogman,' [and] appeared to have much power over others of his kind."  Abdul Reis takes the foreigners on a broad tour of Egypt's sacred sites, and the descriptions regale themselves on lush details apparently only gleaned from academic and travel books – a most incredible feat of literary imagination.  He glimpses the Libyan desert, thinks himself again in "the extinct capital Memphis," and contemplates what had been erased from the countenance of the most famous of all monoliths and replaced four thousand five hundred years ago by King Khephren.  And it is in this last monument that Houdini senses an implacable power:

Presently we descended toward the Sphinx, and sat silent beneath the spell of those terrible unseeing eyes.  On the vast stone breast we faintly discerned the emblem of Re-Harakhte, for whose image the Sphinx was mistaken in a late dynasty; and though sand covered the tablet between the great paws, we recalled what Thutmosis IV inscribed thereon, and the dream he had when a prince.  It was then that the smile of the Sphinx vaguely displeased us, and made us wonder about the legends of subterranean passages beneath the monstrous creature, leading down, down, to depths none might dare hint at depths connected with mysteries older than the dynastic Egypt we excavate, and having a sinister relation to the persistence of abnormal, animal-headed gods in the ancient Nilotic pantheon.  Then, too, it was I who asked myself an idle question whose hideous significance was not to appear for many an hour.

Combine these observations with Houdini's anxiety regarding what a German team of archaeologists might be hiding from public consumption, "a certain well in a transverse gallery where statues of the Pharaoh were found in curious juxtaposition to the statues of baboons," and you have what is plainly known as a conundrum, and what others may view as a conspiracy.  A conspiracy of what, precisely?  Conspiracy is hardly the right term; rather, it is the perception which has crossed far greater minds than Houdini's that the original civilizations may have worshipped things not altogether benevolent to the affairs of man.  These thoughts are safely stowed away by nightfall as the Houdinis retreat to their hotel.  At which point, of course, the illusionist begins another adventure.

A militant anti-spiritualist and among the least susceptible to the wiles of mediums and necromancers, Houdini the historical figure might never have been affected by the arcana of Ancient Egypt in the way his ghostwritten counterpart suffers and muses.  So when Lovecraft's Houdini decides to reenter the night in the company of the unscrupulous Abdul Reis – Arabic for "slave of the leader" – the latter gets into a scuffle whose only resolution turns out to be a fistfight on the raised mesa of the Great Pyramid.  From there we proceed to an inevitability that someone like Houdini would surely have foreseen, and what happens could be deemed a nightmare, although it is depicted in colors and sounds unlike what we might encounter in the peaceful darkness of sleep:

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 likes from my ears again I began to hear, faintly and far off, the morbid and millennial tramping of the marching things.

Passages like these challenge the claims – buttressed by statements from Lovecraft himself, a notorious obfuscator – that our author did not believe in anything beyond himself, but let us not digress.  The fictional Houdini by dint of his reputation suddenly endures a test that the historical Houdini might not have survived, and we gain an impression of an ending that will not satisfy the reader (I must admit I guessed that we would wake up on a stage in one of Houdini's European parlors).  Lovecraft's prose is worthy of Houdini's legerdemain, and we would do well to accept that some tricks are not available for mass explanation.  Nor should we forget just how far the Sphinx's feet extend.        

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