What little characterization exists in a Lovecraft story is almost always autobiographical, which makes even his most tedious stories interesting in that respect. There are some exceptions—In The Vault comes to mind, as does The Picture in the House, and The Very Old Folk—that are qualitatively different in tone, number of characters, and theme. But most of his stories involve a reclusive, scholarly narrator who faces some horrible entity alone; these are really about Lovecraft himself facing some horror or tragedy, and all by himself.
The first few pages of The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), where the narrator Dan Upton is describing his childhood friend Edward Pickman Derby, are almost purely autobiographical. We learn that Derby was a precocious child scholar, “coddled” by over-protective, wealthy parents, well educated in most subjects (with the exception of math and science), suffered health problems, and was socially isolated from his peers. “All this doubtless fostered a strange secretive inner life in the boy, with imagination as his one avenue of freedom.”
Dan Upton befriends the younger Derby when he is 16 and the latter is just 8 years old—“…I found in this younger child a rare kindred spirit.” There is some weirdness here. Why would a 16 year old have a close relationship with an 8 year old, unless they were siblings? The relationship between a young man and a child is also found in The Quest of Iranon—one of the worst stories Lovecraft ever wrote, but possibly one of his most genuine.
Upton describes the further course of his friend’s life, which also closely resembles that of Lovecraft’s. He remarks on the latter’s inability to succeed in practical affairs, make decisions for himself, or obtain employment. There is reference to Derby’s incapacitation by “some odd psychological malady” at the death of his mother. Upton also comments on Derby’s physique, in particular about his inability to grow a convincing mustache. “His voice was soft and light, and his unexercised life gave him a juvenile chubbiness rather than the paunchiness of premature middle age.”
This is a remarkable self-assessment. Because The Thing on the Doorstep is one of the last stories published in his lifetime—he died the year it was published—one senses that this is a culmination of Lovecraft’s reflections on the struggles in his life.
The autobiographical portion of the story culminates with Derby’s unhappy marriage to Asenath Waite, “of the Innsmouth Waites”. Psychologically and emotionally, things go downhill from here for Derby, for his strange wife exerts an unnatural control over his will and perceptions. On many levels they exchange traditional male and female roles, temperaments and expectations. In some sense this must be an echo of Lovecraft’s troubled marriage to Sonia Greene, who became the primary breadwinner and was by far the more industrious and gregarious of the two.
But strictly speaking, there are no women at all in The Thing on the Doorstep. The narrator, Dan Upton, mentions early on that he has a wife and a child, but they are never named or described, and are almost completely invisible in the story. Upton’s spouse and child are practically algebraic variables, elements of a formula that enumerate the narrator’s supposed heterosexuality. Dan Upton’s primary interest is in his friend, Edward Derby.
Derby also has a wife, the evil Asenath, but she is not really female. She is in fact a shell inhabited by the spirit of her still more evil father, Ephraim, “a prodigious magical student in his day”. At times throughout the story the physical form of Asenath contains the entrapped soul of Derby. It is not exactly clear what Ephraim is up to when he switches places with Derby, but it involves the Necronomicon, ancient subterranean ruins in Maine, and a pit full of shaggoths. In desperation, Derby—while released momentarily to the freedom of being in his own body—murders Asenath and stows her body in the cellar. But the power and will of the old wizard are too strong for him, and his psyche is forced back into the woman’s now much less useful body.
The theme of the transfer or exchange of personalities occurs in numerous Lovecraft stories, among them, The Evil Clergyman, The Shadow Out of Time, The Challenge from Beyond, The Whisperer in Darkness, and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Did Lovecraft ever feel that his own personality was trapped inside the wrong body? Did this “switch” occur very early in his childhood?
L. Sprague De Camp comments on how Lovecraft’s mother often told him and others that he was very ugly, which contributed to his social isolation, shyness and low self-esteem. He was prone to psychosomatic illness, and early in his childhood he experienced symptoms of a neurological condition called chorea minor—these included uncontrollable facial tics and grimaces. These factors undoubtedly increased his likelihood of being ostracized.
Even more suggestively, S.T. Joshi remarks that early in the author’s childhood, his mother, who had wanted her first child to be a girl, allowed him to keep his hair long and dressed him in frocks until he was four years old. (As Freud might say, ‘If it’s not one thing it’s a mother.’) His aunt Annie Gamwell had remarked that for awhile the young Lovecraft insisted that he was a girl. Finally, in an 1894 letter from his grandfather, the boy is strongly admonished to wear trousers—he would have been four years old at the time.
Too much can be made of this, and Joshi is quick to show that Lovecraft soon adapted the trappings of a more normal boyhood appearance. Yet hints of the family’s concern about gender identity are present early on. In my view, the psychological issue for Lovecraft was not so much gender identity per se as establishing any strong sense of identity in the face of repeated failures in his adult life.
The Thing on the Doorstep contains familiar elements that mark it as a Cthulhu Mythos story: the Necronomicon, secret cults, invocation of the Old Ones, shaggoths, and so on. But these elements seem more circumstantial than central to the core of the horror: the intense struggles of a sensitive, unassertive, intelligent man to establish a stable sense of self. At one point Lovecraft has the hysterical and terrified Derby say: “My brain! My brain! God, Dan—it’s tugging—from beyond—knocking—clawing—that she devil—even now—Ephraim—Kamog! Kamog!—the pit of the shaggoths—Iä! Shub-Niggurath!...”
Translated, this is Lovecraft asking: ‘Who am I?’