March 17, 2016
Is there a Cthulhu commissioned by Houdini in your magic trunk?
by Chad Felix
The Hungarian-American Erik Weisz—better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini—was a man of many talents. We know him best, of course, as one of the world’s foremost illusionists and escape artists, a venerable pioneer in the entertainment genres of “Wait, where’d he go? Oh, look there he is!” and “Oh no, how will he get out of this crazy predicament?” But Houdini also dabbled in acting, aviation, writing, and fraud-spiritualist outing, and today, as reported by Alison Flood of the Guardian, we can add patron of the arts to the performer’s CV.
As Flood reports, “A long-lost manuscript by H.P. Lovecraft, an investigation of superstition through the ages that the author was commissioned to write by Harry Houdini, has been found in a collection of magic memorabilia.” Flood goes on to explain:
The Cancer of Superstition was previously known only in outline and through its first chapter. Houdini had asked Lovecraft in 1926 to ghostwrite the treatise exploring superstition, but the magician’s death later that year halted the project, as his wife did not wish to pursue it.
There’s already a lot to love about this. A long-lost manuscript found in “a collection of magic memorabilia” [italics mine]? And it’s by H.P. Lovecraft, horror fiction pioneer and monster of monsters? That’s pretty damn great.
Flood also notes that, while knowledge of the manuscript’s existence is not exactly new, it’s only now, under the collection’s new ownership, that the magic memorabilia is being closely examined. As it turns out, the manuscript, which runs thirty-one pages in total, was actually nearly finished.
Realizing the significance of this particular piece of his acquisition, the new owner offered the work to the Potter & Porter auction house, where it received a pre-auction estimation of $25,000-$40,000.
Bearing that in mind, it’s worth mentioning that there is still some notable speculation about the degree of H.P. Lovecraft’s involvement in the text. According to one scholar, ST Joshi, The Cancer of Superstition was commissioned for H.P. Lovecraft and writer C.M. Eddy, the latter of which, explains Joshi, did most of the actual writing. Further, portions of the commissioned text, Joshi argues, have already appeared elsewhere—in Lovecraft’s The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces (2003):
[I]t is stated there [in The Dark Brotherhood] that, while the synopsis was written by Lovecraft, the chapters themselves were written by Eddy, with “Lovecraft’s interlinear emendations and additions.” August Derleth, who assembled the volume, was in touch with Eddy, so presumably he derived this information directly from Eddy.
Joshi does grant that not all of The Cancer of Superstition appeared in Brotherhood, but the sections that did not were surely penned by Eddy, not Lovecraft. Well, so much for magic.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.