In 1924, as Weird Tales struggled to increase sales, the magazine recruited the well known conjuror and escape artist Harry Houdini to write a regular column called “Ask Houdini”. The column appeared in several issues that year, but was subsequently discontinued. The magazine also published two earlier stories that had been ghostwritten for Houdini.
A little later, H.P. Lovecraft was asked to collaborate on a story with Houdini, originally called Under the Pyramids. Though Houdini contributed some of the ideas, most of the work was Lovecraft’s. It was published in the May 1924 issue of Weird Tales as Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, with Houdini receiving the by line. L. Sprague De Camp reports that Lovecraft received $100.00 for the story, which he used to purchase Sonia Green a wedding ring.
The story starts out slowly. The narrator, presumably Houdini, describes in detail a vacation trip he and his wife took to Egypt to see the pyramids. The first few pages are essentially a travelogue. Lovecraft must have done considerable research about a locale he never visited, but did not integrate so much as regurgitate this material into the story. Nothing much happens until Houdini is separated from his wife and the rest of the tourists, and visits the pyramids at night.
He is lured there by some suspicious Bedouins, thinking he is to be a spectator at a staged fight on top of one of the pyramids. In fact, the opposing parties are in cahoots to capture the famous escape artist and put him to a grueling test. The implication is that his presence is a provocation to the local and much older traditions of magic and sorcery. He is bound and gagged, and then lowered down a rocky shaft into an immense underground room. He suspects he may be somewhere inside Khephren’s Temple of the Sphinx, but later realizes by the length of the rope used that he is far deeper underground.
There is a lot of purple prose here, even for Lovecraft: “…one moment I was plunging agonizingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was souring on bat-wings in the gulfs of hell; swinging free and swoopingly through illimitable…” and so on. He blacks out, but experiences vividly detailed dreams that resemble the travelogue that began the story, though now with a nightmarish perspective. “And behind it all I saw the ineffable malignity of primordial necromancy, black and amorphous, and fumbling greedily after me in the darkness…”
He eventually uses his skill as an escape artist to free himself from the rope. In complete darkness he follows a draft of air, hoping it will lead to an entrance. He stumbles down some stone stairs, and when he recovers he hears sounds that resemble footfalls and ceremonial marching. In a dim orange light he sees and then hides from a procession of composite mummies, hybrid mixtures of human and animal forms, some not entirely complete. They are worshipping beside an enormous pit, out of which emerges…well, the answer to a question Houdini posed to himself earlier in the story: “…what huge and loathsome abnormality was the Sphinx originally carven to represent?”
Under the Pyramids is entertaining, but does suffer from excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. This tends to slow the movement of the narrative down to a molasses-like trickle in some places. On the other hand, the verbose style is appropriately over the top, with a carny side-show hype that seems to match Houdini as the narrator as well as the outrageous predicament he is in.
Lovecraft’s collaborations are very interesting to read. As in The Mound and In the Walls of Eryx, one can see the influence of the other contributor on Lovecraft’s style and content, as well as the elements that make a story typically Lovecraftian. In Under the Pyramids, the monster is obviously mammalian with feline attributes, yet Lovecraft endows the forepaw of the creature with “curious rigid tentacles”. There is a tension here, because Lovecraft’s monsters are typically from a different phylum entirely: they tend to be giant mollusks or echinoderms, (“crinoid things”).
Under the Pyramids shares interesting similarities with other stories published by Lovecraft in the mid to late 1920s. The climactic emergence of only a small part of a much more enormous horror underneath is reminiscent of The Shunned House (1928): “..upon this titan elbow I had seen.” The device of creating whole or incomplete composite creatures made of the parts of others was used effectively in The Mound (1929). Finally, Under the Pyramids shares the same general location and an archaeological vibe with such stories and prose poems as Nyarlathotep (1920), The Doom that Came to Sarnath (1920) and The Nameless City (1921).