“Thing on the Doorstep, The“
- Novelette (10,830 words); written August 21–24, 1933. First published in WT(January 1937); first collected in O;corrected text in DH;annotated version in An2 and TD.The narrator, Daniel Upton, tells of his young friend Edward Derby, who since boyhood has displayed a remarkable aesthetic sensitivity toward the weird, in spite—or perhaps because—of the overprotective coddling of his parents. Derby attends Miskatonic University and becomes a moderately recognized fantaisisteand poet. He frequently visits Upton, using a characteristic knock— three raps followed by two more after an interval—to announce himself. When he is thirty-eight he meets Asenath Waite, a young woman at Miskatonic, about whom strange things are whispered: she has anomalous hypnotic powers, creating the momentary impression in her subjects that they are in her body looking across at themselves. Even stranger things are whispered of her father, Ephraim Waite, who died under very peculiar circumstances. Over his father’s opposition, Derby marries Asenath—who is one of the Innsmouth Waites—and settles in a home in Arkham. They seem to undertake very recondite and perhaps dangerous occult experiments. Moreover, people observe curious changes in both of them: whereas Asenath is extremely strong-willed and determined, Edward is flabby and weak-willed; but on occasion he is seen driving Asenath’s car (even though he did not previously know how to drive) with a resolute and almost demonic expression, and conversely Asenath is seen from a window looking unwontedly meek and defeated. One day Upton receives a call from Maine: Derby is there in a crazed state, and Upton has to fetch him because Derby has suddenly lost the ability to drive. On the trip back Derby tells Upton a wild tale of Asenath forcing his mind from his body and going on to suggest that Asenath is really Ephraim, who forced out the mind of his daughter and placed it in his own dying body. Abruptly Derby’s ramblings come to an end, as if “shut off with an almost mechanical click.” Derby takes the wheel from Upton and tells him to pay no attention to what he may just have said.Some months later Derby visits Upton again. He is in a tremendously excited state, claiming that Asenath has gone away and that he will seek a divorce. Around Christmas of that year Derby breaks down entirely. He cries out: “My brain! My brain! God, Dan—it’s tugging—from beyond—knocking— clawing—that she-devil—even now—Ephraim….” He is placed in a mental hospital and shows no signs of recovery until one day he suddenly seems to be better; but, to Upton’s disappointment and even latent horror, Derby is now in that curiously “energised” state such as he had been during the ride back from Maine. Upton is in an utter turmoil of confusion when one evening he receives a phone call. He cannot make out what the caller is saying—it sounds like “glub…glub”—but a little later someone knocks at his door, using Derby’s familiar three-and-two signal. This creature—a “foul, stunted parody” of a human being—is wearing one of Derby’s old coats, which is clearly too big for it. It hands Upton a sheet of paper that explains the whole story: Derby had killed Asenath to escape her influence and her plans to switch bodies with him permanently; but death did not extinguish Asenath/Ephraim’s mind, for it emerged from the body, thrust itself into the body of Derby, and hurled his mind into Asenath’s corpse, buried in the cellar of their home. Now, with a final burst of determination, Derby (in the body of Asenath) has climbed out of the shallow grave and is now delivering this message to Upton, since he was unable to communicate with him on the phone. Upton promptly goes to the madhouse and shoots the thing in Edward Derby’s body; this account is his confession and attempt at exculpation.The story was written as part of HPL’s campaign, in the summer and fall of 1933, to rejuvenate his writing (and his entire literary outlook) by a renewed reading of the classics of weird fiction. The autograph manuscript was typed by a “delinquent revision client” ( SL4.310). This might be Hazel Heald, although it cannot be the same person who typed “The Dreams in the Witch House” for HPL: firstly, the typewriter faces on the existing typescripts are very different; secondly, the typescript for this story is extremely inaccurate, to such a degree that HPL’s chapter divisions have been overlooked, resulting in only five chapters instead of seven. These errors were not corrected until DH (1984 ed.).The story appears to have two significant literary influences. One is H.B. Drake’s The Shadowy Thing (1928; first published in England in 1925 as The Remedy), a novel about a man who displays anomalous powers of hypnosis and mind-transference. An entry in HPL’s commonplace book (\#158) records the plot-germ: “Man has terrible wizard friend who gains influence over him. Kills him in defence of his soul—walls body up in ancient cellar—BUT—the dead wizard (who has said strange things about soul lingering in body) changes bodies with him…leaving him a conscious corpse in cellar.” This is not exactly a description of the plot of The Shadowy Thing,but rather an imaginative extrapolation based upon it. In Drake’s novel, Avery Booth exhibits powers that seem akin to hypnosis, to such a degree that he can oust the mind or personality from another person’s body and occupy it. He does so on several occasions, and in the final episode he appears to have come back from the dead (he had been killed in a battle in World War I) and occupied the body of a friend and soldier who had himself been horribly mangled in battle. HPL has amended this plot by introducing the notion of mind-exchange:whereas Drake does not clarify what happens to the ousted mind when it is taken over by the mind of Booth, HPL envisages an exact transference whereby the ousted mind occupies the body of its possessor. The notion of mind-exchange between persons of different genders may have been derived from the other presumed literary influence, Barry Pain’s An Exchange of Souls(1911), which HPL owned. Here a scientist persuades his wife to undergo an experiment whereby their “souls” or personalities are exchanged by means of a machine he has built; but in the course of the experiment the man’s body dies and the machine is damaged. The rest of the novel is involved in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the woman (now endowed with her husband’s personality but lacking much of his scientific knowledge) to repair the machine. “The Shadow out of Time” (1934–35) takes the notion a step further, describing the exchange of minds between a human being and an alien creature.Some features of Edward Derby’s life supply a twisted version of HPL’s own childhood. But there are some anomalies in the portrayal of the youthful Edward Derby that need to be addressed. Upton refers to Derby as “the most phenomenal child scholar I have ever known.” It is unlikely, given his characteristic modesty, that HPL would have made such a statement about a character modeled upon himself. Derby may be instead an amalgam of several of HPL’s associates. Consider this remark about Alfred Galpin: “He is intellectually exactly like mesave in degree. In degree he is immensely my superior” ( SL1.128); elsewhere he refers to Galpin—who was only seventeen when HPL first knew him in 1918—as “the most brilliant, accurate, steel-cold intellect I have ever encountered” ( SL1.256). Galpin never wrote “verse of a sombre, fantastic, almost morbid cast” as Derby did as a boy, nor published a volume of poetry when he was eighteen. But Clark Ashton Smith created a sensation as a boy prodigy when he published The StarTreader and Other Poemsin 1912, when he was nineteen. And Smith was a close colleague of George Sterling, who—like Justin Geoffrey in the tale—died in 1926 (Sterling by suicide, Geoffrey of unknown causes). HPL’s mention that Derby’s “attempts to grow a moustache were discernible only with difficulty” recalls his frequent censures of the thin moustache Frank Belknap Long attempted for years to cultivate in the 1920s.But if Derby’s youth and young manhood are an amalgam of HPL and some of his closest friends, his marriage to Asenath Waite clearly brings certain aspects of HPL’s marriage to Sonia Greene to mind. Sonia was clearly the more strong-willed member of the couple; it was certainly from her initiative that the marriage took place at all and that HPL uprooted himself from Providence to come to live in New York. The objections of Derby’s father to Asenath—and specifically to Derby’s wish to marry her —may dimly echo objections of HPL’s aunts to his marriage to Sonia. (Such objections can only be inferred from the tenor of some of HPL’s letters to his aunts.)In one sense the story is a reprise of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward:the attempt by Asenath (in Derby’s body) to pass herself off as Edward in the madhouse is precisely analogous to Joseph Curwen’s attempts to maintain that he is Charles Dexter Ward.One glancing note in the story that has caused considerable misunderstanding is Upton’s remark about Asenath: “Her crowning rage…was that she was not a man; since she believed a male brain had certain unique and far-reaching cosmic powers.” This sentiment is clearly expressed as Asenath’s (who, let us recall, is only Ephraim in another body), and need not be attributed to HPL. A decade earlier HPL had indeed uttered some silly remarks on women’s intelligence: “Females are in Truth much given to affected Baby Lisping…They are by Nature literal, prosaic, and commonplace, given to dull realistick Details and practical Things, and incapable alike of vigorous artistick Creation and genuine, first-hand appreciation” ( SL1.238). But by the 1930s he had come to a more sensible position: “I do not regard the rise of woman as a bad sign. Rather do I fancy that her traditional subordination was itself an artificial and undesirable condition based on Oriental influences…. The feminine mind does not cover the same territory as the masculine, but is probably little if any inferior in total quality” ( SL5.64).HPL was so dissatisfied with the story upon its completion that he refused to submit it anywhere. At last, in the summer of 1936, when Julius Schwartz proposed to HPL to market some of his tales in England, HPL reluctantly submitted the story, along with “The Haunter of the Dark,” to Farnsworth Wright of WT,who promptly accepted both.See S.T.Joshi, “Autobiography in Lovecraft,” LS No. 1 (Fall 1979): 7–19 (esp. 12–15); Donald R.Burleson, “The Thing: On the Doorstep,” LS No. 33 (Fall 1995): 14–18.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.
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