It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer. At first I shall be called a madman—madder than the man I shot in his cell at the Arkham Sanitarium. Later some of my readers will weigh each statement, correlate it with the known facts, and ask themselves how I could have believed otherwise than as I did after facing the evidence of that horror—that thing on the doorstep.
That is the opening paragraph of what for me is on the face of it an underrated Lovecraft short story. That strange bunch of notable critic’s whoms opinions on Lovecraft’s stories are held in high esteem almost universally consider it among the poorest of his later stories. Though these are the same critics who consider Through the Gates of the Silver Key to be masterful so I would question the validity of their opinions, not least because it holds a personable charm to the characters that inhabit it. Interestingly its also one of the few Lovecraft stories, and certainly the only mythos story that has a strong female character with agency within he story.
Now I know what you may be thinking, a strong female character with agency in a Lovecraft story… finally, we only had to go through 63 other stories to finally get one… Put the bloody flags out, Lovecraft actually managed to get past his misogyny and write a female character at last… Well don’t get your hopes up too far. While Asenath Waite Derby is indeed a strong female character with agency in the story, she’s also, not… but we’ll get to that.
The story is told to us by Danial Upton, who has indeed unloaded a revolver into the face of best friend Edward Pickman Derby (Asenath’s husband), and done so while Edward was confined in Arkham’s asylum. A violent and uncharacteristic action by a quiet family man, who has borne witness to the strange and gradual procession of his friend by a dead magician Ephrain Waite, (Asenath’s father). While Ephrain died before Asenath and Edward met at university, he never the less leaves a long shadow over there relationship. Not least of which is the initial attraction between them been based up a mutual interest in the arcane.
Asenath and her father hail from a small fishing port off the new England coast called Innsmouth, yes that Innsmouth, and there is more than a hint or two that Asenaths mother was in fact a deep one hybrid. Asenath herself is described as ‘dark, smallish, and very good looking except for over-protuberant eyes’ that common trait among the old families of the Innmouth area… So there is more than a hint of deep one blood about her.
As time goes by however Danial notices odd behavior by his friend, whos personality will switch on occasion, leaving him with little memory of preceding events. It is only later that Edward confided in Danial he believed that he is being gradually processed by his wife, or rather by his wife’s deceased father, and that his wife is herself actually processed by her fathers soul, and he is using her body to as a convenient safe haven while he transfers his soul once more in to the body of ‘her’ husband a man of independent wealth… So, what can you say about that, save perhaps…
‘Oh for the love of Cthulhu, Howard Philip Lovecraft you utter utter shite, you finally write a decent female character. A female character that is narratively strong and has agency within the story, and it turns out she’s her own father using her/his body as a pit stop while she/he tries to become a man again… You utter fucking arsehole…’
It’s possible you consider the opinion expressed above a little strong… Which it is, I will admit, in the context of a single story. The central narrative idea is interesting, unique and different in terms of Lovecraft’s work. It’s a well written story, and as an idea its well executed. I have no objections about the actual story at all, I really quite like it, more than most of Lovecraft’s critics it would seem. So as a story ‘the Thing on the Doorstep’ is a good read, it’s different enough from his others to stand out, it certainly has memorable well written characters in it, characters who feel more alive and real than some of Lovecraft’s more stifled characterizations. It also has to be said Asenath is a well written character…. So taken as a single story this has a lot that is good about it.
But this story is the only story in Lovecraft’s entire cannon with an actually strong female characters with agency. The only one… And it turns out she is actual a shell inhabited by a man using that shell to try to process another man…. Her agency exists merely to give agency to her fathers spirit… If this was one female character out of many in his body of work then that’s not an issue, its is merely an element of the narrative, when however its the only female character of any weight you ever write, and her whole agency is as a puppet for a mans intentions and desires, it is unsettling to say the every least and says nothing good about Lovecraft.
To get back to the story itself a moment, Danial notices over the course of time the changes in personality Edward goes through. Edward himself, on the occasions he is himself, suspects he is being processed by his wife at first and it is only later he comes to believe it his actually the spirit of her father at work. As the story goes on the weight of evidence grows as Edwards sanity is slowly eroded. Once he is hospitalized things comes to a head when Danial hears a knock at the door, a knock which is familiar as the patterned knock used by Edward whenever he came to visit. When he opens the door…
Lovecraft’s misogyny is well known. It is one of those things you may believe you just have to accept when you read Lovecraft, like his racism and rightwing political outlook. When you read his work you have to be prepared to accept these things are there and decide if you are willing to see past it and enjoy the stories for what they are. To an extent I generally do that, while I never gloss over these issues I focus on the tales themselves. But on occasion, such as in the case of The Dreams of the Witch House or The Horror at Red Hook, its difficult to look past those issues. With the latter I managed to get past the issues the former I did not. The Thing on the Doorstep is more Witch House than Red Hook. ironic though it may be that the story with an actual female character in it is the one that screams loudest of Lovecraft’s misogyny, that’s what it does, for me at least.
Its not a bad story, certainly its not as bad as so many of his notable critics claim, but while their issues are with the story itself, my own are with the story in context to his wider body of work and frankly I find it abhorrent and hateful, the true horror of this tale is not the tale itself but the misogyny it encapsulates… As I said at the start of of this post, the story is on the face of it underrated by Lovecraft’s notable critics, but the thing is their reasons for disliking the story are the wrong reasons. Its the sheer indulgent misogyny that is the problem with the tale. Which ironically not the issue those critics have with it. The story in of itself warrants around four tentacles in my somewhat ecliptic rating system, but taking it in the wider context it gets a big minus from me for the utter shit storm it is…