Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Thing on the Doorstep by H.P. Lovecraft

This story is about a man who has married a woman who in into the black arts and routinely steals his body. Kind of a cool concept, really. Lovecraft starts out with a great hook about “putting six bullets through the head of my best friend.” This draws you into the story and makes you wonder why and how this could possibly be.

Lovecraft shows a depth of characterization in this story, but does it through a lot of telling. We know everything about Edward Derby because the narrator (Dan) tells us everything about him down to the smallest detail in paragraph after paragraph of description. Obviously this telling wouldn’t go over very well today in a time when we are all very visual because we are so used to films. It would be a stronger story if Lovecraft has written some scenes at the beginning to show Edward’s character traits. He does so later in the story. Even with this shortcoming, the narrative definitely works as is. I found myself getting drawn into the story line of the strange woman who can steal people’s bodies.

The plot is very original for that time period or for any other. It took a few turns I didn’t expect. I knew that Edward has killed Aesnath when he said, “I had to do it—I had to do it…” when being held in the sanitarium. I hadn’t anticipated, that Aesnath had actually been possessed by the spirit of her father.

When Dan went to the door that night and “saw the dwarfed, humped figure on the steps,” I thought that Aesnath had put Edward’s spirit into the body of a dwarf. It’s a nice touch when Lovecraft reveals at the very end of the story that the mass of tissue Edward has been living in was indeed Aesnath’s corpse.

Lovecraft sets up a definite reason for Aesnath’s wanting to take over Edward’s body when she tells us she believes that only men can attain the heights of magical ability.

What’s odd and maybe inconsistent with human nature is that when Edward is trapped in Aesnath’s corpse, he wants Dan to kill his (Edward’s) body. Wouldn’t most people have wanted to find a way to get the offending entity out of his or her own body in order to be able to get back in?

The way Lovecraft has Dan kill Edward at the end could have been done differently to increase the suspense. Lovecraft throws this line into the middle of a paragraph: “I went to the madhouse and shot him dead for Edward’s sake…” Later he tells the details of the shooting. It would have been much more suspenseful if we had seen Dan sneaking into the sanitarium with a gun hidden in his waist coat. Then we’d wonder what he was going to do and if he would get away with it. (Of course, he had also told us at the beginning that he shot Edward.)

I like the title because at first it doesn’t seem to relate to anything and I found myself wondering how Lovecraft was going to connect it to the story. The meaning isn’t revealed until the end.

What I can take away from this for my own writing is that Lovecraft draws us into the reality of the story with all of the details. The characters and settings are all fully fleshed out, and we see definite reasons for all of the character’s actions. At first Dan thinks that Edward is mad and belongs in an asylum. Somehow when other people in the story question the veracity of the supernatural thing (whatever it is) that makes us as readers believe it all the more. Later on as Dan is drawn into believing the truth of Edward’s story so are we drawn into it.

Then there is the incredible richness an dark beauty of Lovecraft’s language that can chill you and enthrall you all at once.

This drawing is taken from the Penguin Classics version of "The Thing on the Doorstep." I like it because the specter of death looks so lonely huddled under a sheet.

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