The escape artist Harry Houdini and the author H. P. Lovecraft collaborated on a “true” Egyptian horror story.
Unexpected collaborations delight me – like that time John Huston (American-Irish director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) attempted to collaborate with Jean-Paul Sartre (French existentialist philosopher) on a Sigmund Freud biopic. You don’t really think of those two as occupying the same world, you know?
But the collaboration I’m writing about today involves two larger-than-life figures of the early 20th century: Harry Houdini and H. P. Lovecraft. Houdini was an illusionist and escape artist. He was famous for escaping handcuffs, straightjackets, live burials, and sealed tanks of water. H. P. Lovecraft was a writer and a notorious racist (even by 20th century standards!). His horror fiction invoking the Cthulhu mythos inspires cosmic dread to this day. Together, in 1924, they wrote a short story.
Well, to be honest Lovecraft did most of the actual writing. Weird Tales magazine was keen to bathe in Houdini’s reflected fame, so they commissioned Lovecraft to ghost-write a short story about Houdini’s true escapades in Egypt. Houdini narrated a tall tale, Lovecraft embellished it and added his own touch of the ineffable.
The tale itself – “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” – is pretty wild. Lured by the prospect of a boxing match on top of the Great Pyramid of Giza (yep, you read that right), Houdini is kidnapped and dropped into a pit underneath the Sphinx. There, he stumbles across an arcane ceremony involving two long-dead pharaohs and a five-headed monster:
It was as large, perhaps, as a good-sized hippopotamus, but very curiously shaped. It seemed to have no neck, but five separate shaggy heads springing in a row from a roughly cylindrical trunk; the first very small, the second good-sized, the third and fourth equal and largest of all, and the fifth rather small, though not so small as the first.
Out of these heads darted curious rigid tentacles which seized ravenously on the excessively great quantities of unmentionable food placed before the aperture.“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”
Houdini flees the scene. He emerges from beneath the Sphinx. Then he has a sudden epiphany: the Sphinx must have been carved in the monster’s likeness. And those five heads?
the unknown God of the Dead, which licks its colossal chops in the unsuspected abyss, fed hideous morsels by soulless absurdities that should not exist. The five-headed monster that emerged… that five-headed monster as large as a hippopotamus… the five headed monster – and that of which it is the merest forepaw…“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”
Haha, what a twist! The hippopotamus monster is only the foot of something much larger and more terrifying still. It is so characteristically Lovecraft, and yet it was presented as a story directly from Harry Houdini. The author did not get a real credit until 1939, although he did earn the biggest advance of his career to date. The two continued to collaborate until Houdini’s death in 1926.