The Thing on the Doorstep
|"The Thing on The Doorstep"|
|Author||H. P. Lovecraft|
|Genre(s)||Horror short story|
|Published in||Weird Tales|
|Media type||Print (Magazine)|
|Publication date||January, 1937|
"The Thing on the Doorstep" is a short story written by H. P. Lovecraft, part of the Cthulhu Mythos universe of horror fiction. It was written in August 1933, and first published in the January 1937 issue of Weird Tales.
Two novels suggested as inspirations for "The Thing on the Doorstep" are Barry Pain's An Exchange of Souls (1911), about a scientist's invention that allows him to switch personalities with his wife, and H. B. Drake's The Remedy (1925; published in the U.S. as The Shadowy Thing), in which a character with the power of mind-transference comes back from the dead by possessing the body of an injured friend.
Daniel Upton, the story's narrator, explains that he has killed his best friend, Edward Derby, and that he hopes his account will prove that he is not a murderer. He begins by describing Derby's life and career. He then tells of Asenath Waite, and how Derby and she wed. Asenath brings with her three unpleasant servants from her home in Innsmouth.
A few years later, people start to notice a change in Derby's abilities. He confides in Upton, telling him strange stories of Asenath, and how he believes her father, Ephraim Waite, may not actually be dead.
Upton is called to pick up Derby who has been found in Chesuncook, Maine, rambling incoherently. On the trip back, Derby tells of Asenath using his body, and suggests that it is in fact Ephraim who resides in the body of Asenath. Before finishing, he has a small seizure and rapidly changes personality, asking Upton to ignore what he might have just said.
A few months later, Derby shows up at Upton's door and says he has found a way to keep Asenath away; to stop her from using his body. Derby finishes renovations on his old family house, yet seems strangely reluctant to leave Asenath's old place. Upton receives a visit from Derby, who begins raving about his wife and father-in-law. Upton gets him to sleep, but has Derby taken to Arkham Sanitarium. The Sanitarium calls Upton to tell him that Derby's "reason has suddenly come back", though upon visiting, Upton can see it is not the true personality of Edward Derby.
Upton is roused from his sleep by a knocking at his door, using "Edward's old signal of three-and-two strokes". Upton believes it may be Derby, but opens his door to find a "dwarfed, humped" messenger, carrying a letter from Derby. The letter explains that Derby had in fact killed Asenath and buried her body in their cellar. Despite this, Asenath had managed to take control of his body while he was in the Sanitarium, meaning that "the thing on the doorstep" was actually Derby inhabiting Asenath's putrefying corpse. The note implores Upton to go to the sanitarium to kill Derby, who has been permanently possessed by Asenath-Ephraim's soul. Upton does so, thus hopefully banishing Asenath-Ephraim's soul to the hereafter, though he reveals that he is afraid of having his soul transferred as well.
Edward Pickman Derby
The protagonist of the story, a poet and husband of Asenath Waite. Lovecraft's depiction of Derby's childhood is considered to be in large part autobiographical:
- Perhaps his private education and coddled seclusion had something to do with his premature flowering. An only child, he had organic weaknesses which startled his doting parents and caused them to keep him closely chained to their side. He was never allowed out without his nurse, and seldom had a chance to play unconstrainedly with other children. All this doubtless fostered a strange secretive life in the boy, with imagination as his one avenue of freedom....
- In self-reliance and practical affairs, however, Derby was greatly retarded because of his coddled existence. His health had improved, but his habits of childish dependence were fostered by over-careful parents, so that he never travelled alone, made independent decisions, or assumed responsibilities.
It is considered unlikely, however, that the typically self-deprecating Lovecraft was thinking of himself when he described Derby as a child prodigy and young literary sensation:
- He was the most phenomenal child scholar I have ever known, and at seven was writing verse of a sombre, fantastic, almost morbid cast which astonished the tutors surrounding him... Young Derby's odd genius developed remarkably, and in his eighteenth year his collected nightmare-lyrics made a real sensation when issued under the title Azathoth and Other Horrors.
The title of Derby's book suggests that Lovecraft had Clark Ashton Smith in mind, who won acclaim at the age of nineteen when he published a book of poetry called The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912). Another possible model is Alfred Galpin, a friend of Lovecraft's who was eleven years his junior, whom he described as being "immensely my superior" in intellect.
Like Upton, Pickman and Derby are both old Salem names. There is a suggestion in Lovecraft's fiction that the three families are closely allied; Richard Upton Pickman is the title character of "Pickman's Model", while the Nathaniel Derby Pickman Foundation underwrites the Antarctic expedition in At the Mountains of Madness.
Peter Cannon notes that the protagonist's character drives the plot of "The Thing on the Doorstep" more than in most Lovecraft stories. "Where cosmic forces usually overtake the typical Lovecraft hero such as Peaslee by chance, here Derby has only his own weak personality to blame for his falling victim to his wife's nefarious designs."
The story's narrator and the best friend of its protagonist, Edward Derby. After attending Harvard University and apprenticing with a Boston architect, he sets up his own practice in Arkham. He is married and, at about the age of 28, has a son, Edward Derby Upton.
Upton is an old Salem, Massachusetts name, reflecting the fact that Arkham is largely a fictionalized version of Salem. Lovecraft described Winslow Upton, a Brown University professor, as a "friend of the family".
In Fritz Leiber's story "To Arkham and the Stars" (1966), Upton is credited with designing Miskatonic University's new Administration Building and the Pickman Nuclear Lab, described as "magnificent structures wholly compatible with the old quadrangle." Albert Wilmarth remarks in the story that Upton "has had a distinguished career ever since he was given a clean bill of mental health and discharged with a verdict of 'justified homicide'".
Asenath Waite Derby
The wife of Edward Derby and the daughter of Ephraim Waite. She is described as "dark, smallish, and very good looking except for over-protuberant eyes"--a look common to people from Asenath's hometown of Innsmouth. Combined with the fact that her mother was Ephraim's "unknown wife who always went veiled", there is a strong suggestion that Asenath is a Deep One hybrid of the sort described in Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth. The story suggests "Asenath" may not actually be in the story at all, but that her body is in fact being possessed by her father (or possibly Kamog) the entire time, who is now attempting to transfer into Derby's body.
In the Bible, Asenath is the wife of Joseph and the mother of Ephraim. S. T. Joshi claims that her name translates as "she belongs to her father", and that "in the tale Asenath is literally 'possessed' by her father."
Peter Cannon writes that Asenath Derby makes "The Thing on the Doorstep", "the only Lovecraft story with a strong or important female character"--although the question is complicated by the tale's "gender-swapping situation".
The aged father of Asenath Waite. He is said "to have been a prodigious magical student in his day", and is described as having a "wolfish, saturnine face" with a "tangle of iron-grey beard." He "died insane" at about the time that Asenath entered the Hall School. Despite being an Innsmouth native, Ephraim appears to be entirely human as he had not transformed into a Deep One in his old age.
The name that Ephraim Waite used in the coven and possibly is the name of the entity that possessed him and his family.
Connections to Other Stories
The story makes frequent references to elements from other Lovecraft stories, including places (Arkham, Miskatonic University, Innsmouth, Kingsport), books (the Necronomicon, Book of Eibon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten - Edward Derby says that the books should be burned towards the tale's end), and entities (Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Shoggoths).
Lovecraft returned to the theme of mind-transference in The Shadow Out of Time (1935).
Peter Cannon wrote two sequels to "The Thing on the Doorstep": “The Revenge of Azathoth” (1994) and “The House of Azathoth” (1996).
Dark Adventure Radio Theatre: The Shadow over Innsmouth makes an oblique reference to "The Thing on the Doorstep" by referring to the Waites as a prominent Innsmouth family.
Alan Moore's Lovecraft-retelling graphic novel Providence, part 6, features a character based on Asenath/Ephraim.
According to Peter Cannon, "Most critics agree that 'The Thing on the Doorstep'" ranks among "the poorest of Lovecraft's later tales." He criticizes it for its "obvious and melodramatic plot, punctuated by patches of histrionic monologue," as well as its "rather formulaic" Arkham background. Robert Weinberg deprecates "The Thing on the Doorstop" as "not one of his [Lovecraft's] best stories" and S.T. Joshi in H. P. Lovecraft: A Life refers to it as "one of Lovecraft's poorest stories."
Lin Carter likewise dismisses the tale as "curiously minor and somehow unsatisfying...a sordid little domestic tragedy...wholly lacking in the sort of cosmic vision that makes Lovecraft's best stories so memorable."
These criticisms are curious given that many of Lovecraft's tales did not pretend or aspire to being "tales of cosmic vision" - the early Dunsanian fantasies, "The Terrible Old Man," "The Picture in the House" and "In the Vault" to name but a few. L. Sprague de Camp offers a more balanced view, describing the tale as "in the middle rank of Lovecraft's stories: below his best but far above the Weird Tales average," adding that "Lovecraft paid more heed than usual to character in this story"
This section requires expansion. (May 2015)
- Joshi and Schultz, p. 264.
- Joshi and Cannon, p. 243
- Joshi and Schultz, pp. 264-265.
- Joshi and Schulz, p. 265.
- Joshi and Cannon, p. 219, 241.
- Cannon, p. 9.
- S. T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 219.
- Fritz Leiber, "To Arkham and the Stars", Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos, pp. 319-320.
- Joshi, p. 247.
- Peter Cannon, "Introduction", More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 9.
- Robert M. Price, The Azathoth Cycle, p. vi.
- Peter Cannon, "Introduction", More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 9.
- Weinberg, p. 42.
- Carter, p. 102.
- Sprague de Camp, p. 383.
- Lovecraft, Howard P. (1999) . "The Thing on the Doorstep". In S. T. Joshi and Peter Cannon (eds.). More Annotated Lovecraft (1st ed.). New York City, NY: Dell. ISBN 0-440-50875-4. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> With explanatory footnotes.
- Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, Ballantine Books.
- S. T. Joshi and David Schultz, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, Hippocampus Press, 2004.
- Robert M. Price, ed., The Azathoth Cycle, Chaosium.
- L. Sprague de Camp, Lovecraft: A Biography, New York: Barnes & Nobles Books, 1996.
- Robert Weinberg, The Weird Tales Story. FAX Collector’s Editions. ISBN 0913960160
- Works related to The Thing on the Doorstep at Wikisource