Stuart Gordon finds a “Thing on the Doorstep”

Esplatter recycles some information gleaned from Fangoria: Stuart Gordon  is planning to film H. P. Lovecraft’s classic tale, “A Thing on the Doorstep,” which will be produced by Amicus, the company that financed his recent art-house release STUCK.

Gordon told Fangoria that he hopes to begin filming in the fall. “It follows the short story pretty closely, and what’s great about it is that, as far as I know, it’s the only Lovecraft tale that has a strong female character. Normally we have to invent one, but for the first time, we didn’t have to do that. We’re also working with Amicus again, because we had so much fun the first time around.”

Lovecraft’s story (which, running 27 pages and divided into seven chapters, might best be termed a novelette) takes the form of a first-person confession by a narrator named Dan Upton, who has just killed his best friend Edward Pickman Derby by putting six bullets in his brain. Dan’s justification is that he did not kill Edward but an evil intelligence that had possessed Edward’s body. Edward had been married to Asenath, who apparently had the power to transfer her consciousness from one body to another (the twist is that Asenath is not really Asenath; her body has previously been snatched by her evil father Ephraim, the story’s true culprit).

First published in 1937, “The Thing on the Doorstep” is one of Lovecraft’s stronger tales, written while at the height of his creative powers, during his mature period when he was crafting what came to be known, after his death, as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” The story is set in Arkham, a fictional town created by Lovecraft, inspired by Salem, which appears in many of his other stories. The character names are also familiar, implying that Upton and Derby belong to families with long histories in the town. (For instance, the decadent painter in “Pickman’s Model” is named Richard Upton Pickman.)

The narrative conforms to Lovecraft’s usual structure, depicting a character who has seen a glimpse of dark and dangerous things that lurk just beyond normal human awareness, hiding in shadows or other worldly dimensions and eager to intrude upon our space and time. Typically, it is told in the first-person, so that, technically, one could read it simply as the ravings of a deranged mind and conclude that nothing supernatural had occurred at all. The first-person narrative also allows a certain leeway for Lovecraft to indulge his penchant for over-written prose – which can be charitably read not as stylistic excess on the author’s part but as evidence of the narrator’s disturbed state of mind. To be fair, Lovecraft is relatively restrained this time out. He doesn’t play at stringing together as many multi-syllabic adjectives as his thesaurus will reveal; instead, his references to “unknown and malign cosmic forces” are used as a dramatic flourish to top off paragraphs.

Of course, these flourishes are what make Lovecraft Lovecraft. They are the literally equivalent of Bela Lugosi’s melodramatic line readings – which is to say, they are hammy and over-done, but also extremely entertaining. Also, they help set Lovecraft apart from other horror fiction. A life-long fan of the genre (and of Poe in particular), Lovecraft spent much of his career arranging his own version of familiar tropes. This took the form of recasting traditional horror themes in the guise of science fiction. “Thing on the Doorstep,” like many Lovecraft stories, is filled with references to Sabbat, black magic, and evil cults, but underneath it all is the suggestion that what we experiencing is not supernatural at all but some “elusive cosmic horror.”

Writing at a time when Einstein’s Theory of Relativity had recently changed our conception of the cosmos, Lovecraft sought to portray an indifferent universe filled with forces beyond human understanding, forces that could warp the space-time continuum with results that appeared like magic to hapless humans – a point developed more fully in “Dreams in the Witch-House.” In “Thing on the Doorstep,” this element is limited to a few hints, mostly vague references to previous Lovecraft tales featuring Elder Gods that are ultimately revealed to be aliens and/or inter-dimensional beings.

“Thing on the Doorstep” is mostly a good horror yarn – well-structured and atmospheric, with a good and gruesome pay-off at the end. Although characterization was not Lovecraft’s strong suit (he considered human personality to be trivial when viewed on a cosmic scale), he does a serviceable job with both Derby and Upton (you feel sorry for their predicament), and even Asenath (mostly off-screen) manages to convey a suitably weird sense of menace.

Also, “Thing on the Doorstep” is one of the few Lovecraft stories that might be described as “character-driven.” Like a tragic character, Derby falls prey to Asenath because of his own weakness, which he is unable to overcome. Most Lovecraft stories tend to feature characters who stumble upon evil forces by chance or out of intellectual curiosity; Derby is one who more or less brings it upon himself.

The story’s science fiction element is minimal – more something interpreted in light of his other stories than existing within this specific text – but the sense that the tale is part of a mythology is what sets is apart from fiction by other writers. It is this distinction that makes Lovecraft’s work uniquely memorable – and unfortunately, it is this distinction that is too often mitigated in translation to film. Remove it, and you tend to be left with a fairly conventional horror tale (a weak-willed person possessed by an evil spirit). Hopefully, Stuart Gordon’s adaptation, which will be co-scripted by long-time collaborator Dennis Paoli, will find a way to translate the ineffable Lovecraft magic to the screen.

My high opinion of “Thing on the Doorstep” (based partly on nostaglic fondness for having read it at a young age) is not universally shared. Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon states, “Most critics agree that ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’” ranks among”the poorest of Lovecraft’s later tales. Author Lin Carter called the story a “Sordid little domestic tragedy…wholly lacking in the sort of cosmic vision that makes Lovecraft’s best stories so memorable.”

Nevertheless, Lovecraft fan Auguest Derleth, who founded Arkham House publishing in order to anthologize Lovecraft’s tales in book form, included “The Thing on the Doorstep” in The Dunwich Horor and Others, a collection of what he deemed to be 16 of Lovecraft’s strongest tales. Also worth noting, Anne Rice references the story favorably in her novel The Tale of the Body Thief, in which a character who wants to switch bodies with Lestat first catches the vampire’s interest by slipping him a copy of “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Lestat recognizes the tale and the author, and he says he likes it, although he obviously does not take it very seriously.

Regardless of the tale’s literary merits, S.T. Joshi (the ultimate expert on all things Lovecraft) believes that, perhaps more than any other Lovecraft story, “The Thing on the Doorstep” has good potential for cinematic treatment:

I believe a highly effective film could be made of “The Thing on the Doorstep,” given that it is chiefly a human story involving the interaction of a few characters, something the film medium can handle a lot better than the kind of “cosmic horror” that Lovecraft is known for.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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