Potter & Potter to Auction Newly Discovered Manuscript on Debunking Superstition Allegedly by H. P. Lovecraft
The New Yorker has an interesting meditation on what it means to live in a post-fact world, including a thoughtful discussion of the breakdown of Enlightenment epistemology in favor a medieval worldview of divine judgment and might making right. How, Jill Lepore asks, can we have rational discussions, political or otherwise, if we can’t agree on how to establish whether something is true?
This ties in to a surprising discovery that was announced March 9 by the Potter & Potter auction house in Chicago. According to reports, the lost 1926 typewritten manuscript of H. P. Lovecraft’s draft of Harry Houdini’s proposed book The Cancer of Superstition was discovered in the effects of a defunct magic shop and will be auctioned off on April 9 with an opening bid of $13,000. This is not the first time a manuscript passing under that name was uncovered; in 2013 the owner of Arkham Antiquities said he had 34 handwritten pages of a manuscript called “The Cancer of Superstition: Astrology” and would auction them off one by one because no one would buy the whole thing.
Presumably the newly discovered manuscript has been authenticated in some way (I have not seen any such authentication), but it’s a little confusing what exactly the text is. The story is a little complicated, so it’s probably best to provide a touch of background. In 1924, Lovecraft ghostwrote “Under the Pyramids” (a.k.a. “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”) for Harry Houdini, and it was published in Weird Tales under Houdini’s name. The magician was impressed with Lovecraft’s writing (which Lovecraft redid in a flurry of activity over his honeymoon on his hated typewriter because he had lost the original manuscript), and Houdini asked Lovecraft to pay him a visit at his New York address, ostensibly to help the struggling author to find employment. They met on October 14, but nothing came of their meeting until 1926, when Houdini asked Lovecraft to ghostwrite an article on astrology, paying $75 for it. I believe that this article is what the eBay manuscript might well be, and others agree.
Presumably impressed by the draft article, Houdini then asked Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy to turn it into a full-scale book. Up until now, scholars believed that all the remained of this effort was an outline and a few introductory pages amounting to a chapter, as S. T. Joshi described in his various books down to An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (2001). The outline was Lovecraft’s work, but the actual writing was by Eddy, in Joshi’s opinion. This material was published in 1966 in The Dark Brotherhood (Arkham House) and again in 2005 in Collected Essays: Science (Hippocampus), both unread by me. The project ended when Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The trouble is that while the auction catalog suggests that Lovecraft is the author of the typewritten pages, the text itself is more likely from Eddy’s draft than Lovecraft himself.
From a photograph supplied by Potter & Potter, here are the opening lines of the 31-page manuscript, which do not seem to me to be wholly in the style of Lovecraft:
The influence of superstition is far more powerful and widespread than the majority are willing to believe. Its roots planted before history in the mind of mankind, superstition has become a malignant growth which persists with a tenacity little understood. From before the cradle to beyond the grave; sleeping or waking, in sickness or in health, every phase of human existence has its accompanying set of superstitions. The bed on which we lie, the table at which we sit, the food we eat, the work we do, the games we play, the skies above us and the earth beneath --- nothing is free from its contaminating touch. It seems almost incredible in this age of general intellectual advancement that mankind should still be fettered by such a type of prehistoric ignorance. Yet after a century of unprecedentedly rapid scientific progress and nearly five hundred years of modern civilization the vast majority of us are heathens in the innermost recesses of our hearts, and minds, doggedly maintaining a grim hold on our faith in ghosts, magic numbers, witchcraft, incantations, mews and signs, the validity of which has long since been indisputably refuted.
Interestingly, the manuscript is divided into three sections, which correspond to the three chapters that practitioner of magic Donald Tyson alleges Robert Barlow (the author’s error for Eddy) completed of the book before Houdini’s death. Sadly, Tyson provided no source for his claim in 13 Gates of the Necronomicon (it was, as we shall see, S. T. Joshi, uncredited). Earlier, in The Necronomicon Files Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III alleged that “a few chapters” of the book were completed, though again without a specific source. Digging into it more, it seems that in 2005 S. T. Joshi wrote in Collected Essays that a “detailed synopsis prepared by Lovecraft for The Cancer of Superstition does survive, as do three chapters of the treatise written by Eddy…” So, somewhere between Joshi’s and David E. Schultz’s An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (2001) and Joshi’s Collected Essays (2005), the number of chapters multiplied from one to three.
Not having read the published versions of Cancer, I’m not sure why the counting changed, or whether something in Eddy’s letters revealed more chapters than have previously been published, but the number agrees well with the text up for sale. Given that, it sounds like the “Lovecraft” manuscript, assuming it is genuine, is actually Eddy’s work.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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