Friday, March 18, 2016

Lovecraft's Lost "Cancer of Superstition" Typescript?

On April 9th, 2016, the Chicago auction house Potter & Potter will be selling a typescript which they claim is by H.P. Lovecraft, ghost-writing for Harry Houdini, entitled "The Cancer of Superstition."  The web has been flooded with news of a lost Lovecraft manuscript being found. Alas, on closer look, the claim of Lovecraft's authorship is certainly debatable, and is to some extent demonstrably dubious.  (See the news stories dated 3/9/2016 and 3/16/2016 at the Potter & Potter website here.)

It has long been known that Houdini employed Lovecraft to ghost-write a story for Weird Tales, published as "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" (May-June-July 1924), and that Lovecraft's friend C.M. Eddy, Jr., based like Lovecraft in Providence, also worked for Houdini as a scout as well as a ghost-writer.  And some of the story behind Houdini hiring Eddy, with assistance from Lovecraft, to ghost-write "The Cancer of Superstition" is known from The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces (1966) by H.P. Lovecraft & Divers Hands, edited by August Derleth, which also published the outline and first chapter of "The Cancer of Superstition." Derleth clearly had first-hand information from Eddy when putting this together, and more about that will be found below, but here is what Derleth says in his headnote to the publication:
[Houdini] enlisted the talents of C.M. Eddy, Jr., and in the course of their work together Houdini outlined sketchily a book he thought ought to be done on the origins, growth and fallacy of superstition. He suggested that Eddy might prepare the book, and furnished him with voluminous notes and ideas that he wanted incorporated in the book; he suggested also that perhaps H.P. Lovecraft could put the notes into shape so that Eddy could work from the outline Lovecraft prepared. Lovecraft was not averse to the idea and duly prepared the following outline under the title, The Cancer of Superstition.
There follows a 1,500 word outline for the book in twelve numbered sections.  And just before printing the first chapter, Derleth gives another headnote: 
With this outline in hand, Eddy went to work and began to write The Cancer of Superstition, showing his pages to Lovecraft as he went along. The manuscript, with Lovecraft's interlinear emendations and additions, began to evolve.
Next follows what is apparently the first chapter, labelled  I. "The Genesis of Superstition", comprising nearly 4,100 words.

At the end of this chapter, Derleth gives another note, saying Houdini had approved Lovecraft's outline and Eddy's initial work, but after he died on October 31, 1926:
his widow did not elect to go on with the book he had visualized. Eddy nevertheless pushed forward, and Lovecraft made slight interlinear corrections and additions, but the project, insofar as it had gone--through three chapters--basically lacked body and authority, and it was presently abandoned, though not before the three chapters were recast into an article--of which the above is the initial part, for which no publisher was ever found.
Now, turning to what Potter & Potter are auctioning, it is a typescript of some 31 leaves, numbered 1-10, [11-13 missing] and 14-34, the final two leaves being a bibliography.  The typescript is divided into three sections, "The Genesis of Superstition" [as above], "The Expansion of Superstition", and "The Fallacy of Superstition."  From the first page of the typescript, visible in the auction catalog and in the illustration below, the text appear to match closely that published in The Dark Brotherhood.  
The Cancer of Superstition typescript

Considering "The Cancer of Superstition" typescript as if the three missing pages were present, it should contain about 32 pages of text (not counting the bibliography), or, estimating 300 words a page, around 9,600 words.  Thus, it appears that over half of the typescript (5,500 words) is unpublished; and (huzzah!) the missing text from pages 11-13 should be present near the end of the version published in The Dark Brotherhood.

Apparently, what versions exist of "The Cancer of Superstition" comprise:

1) the outline, by H.P. Lovecraft, apparently handwritten, published in The Dark Brotherhood

2) the manuscript, apparently handwritten by Eddy, with (as Derleth noted) "Lovecraft's interlinear emendations and additions"--the first chapter of this is also published in The Dark Brotherhood

and 3) the typescript, as offered for sale by Potter & Potter.  This typescript was likely prepared by Eddy's wife. She is known to have prepared typescripts for her husband and for Lovecraft, as he hating typing.

What is currently unknown is the location of items one and two (above), including the manuscript continuation that is represented by the latter half of the Potter & Potter typescript.

It is clear that Derleth and Eddy were in touch in the 1960s, not only over the matter of "The Cancer of Superstition" manuscripts, but also concerning the use of Eddy's three stories that also appear in The Dark Brotherhood. And Derleth must have had access to the further two chapters of Eddy's manuscript (with "slight interlinear corrections and additions" by Lovecraft) but chose not to publish them. Unfortunately the surviving letters from Eddy to Derleth, held at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, are incomplete, but some facts can be gleaned from the surviving letters.

First, Eddy discussed "The Cancer of Superstition" with Derleth as early as 1944, and wrote on 23 October 1944:
Sorry that I wasn't absolutely clear. THE CANCER OF SUPERSTITION was mine. Completely revised, deleted and annotated by H.P.L."  
In April 1962, Eddy sold to a Lovecraft collector "for his own collection" the "4 1/2 page outline" made by Lovecraft "that I could use as a guide-post to base various chapters of the book on."  After he sold this outline, Eddy was digging through a hitherto buried box of old manuscripts and came across the "manuscript"--i.e., the "collaboration between H.P.L. and myself.  Except for the fact that the basic subject matter is the same, this has no connection whatsoever with the notes that I sold." Derleth was able to publish both the outline and the first chapter in The Dark Brotherhood, which appeared four years later in 1966.

So, what we have here for sale is more precisely a lost Eddy typescript, which includes some subsumed revisions by Lovecraft, from a previous manuscript. Thus, Eddy was the primary author, with Lovecraft in more of an advisorial role.

One hopes that the entire typescript can eventually be published.  Meanwhile, one wonders whether the typescript as it survives might have been the complete book--or rather, booklet, owing to its short size.  It covers, in its three sections, what Derleth notes as Houdini's remit of  "the origins, growth and fallacy of superstition." Perhaps the talk of a "book" referred only to a small book, of about ten thousand words, and the typescript recently discovered, including its bibliography in the final two pages, is actually complete. One hopes also that some further documentation might turn up that provides more context, one way or another. Meanwhile, it would be interesting to compare Lovecraft's outline with the content of the unpublished second and third chapters.


  1. Great work. I'm just surprised the necessary delving wasn't achieved in the first place by the auction house.

  2. You're right, of course. But cynically speaking, would the auction house entry for a lost C.M. Eddy typescript, with some Lovecraft association, have attracted as much media attention? Of course not.

  3. Nice article.
    The auction house has certainly generated a lot of publicity for themselves, but it will be interesting to see if this results in a sale at the level they are hoping for since I would have thought that a serious Lovecraft collector will know this stuff.
    See also

  4. This is excellent information. Thank you.

  5. Most interesting! I recall that Eddy claimed Lovecraft worked for Houdini as an investigator. Any details available?

    1. Not that I know of. Lovecraft seemed a bit reluctant to get too involved with Houdini, and seemed happy to let Eddy have the jobs.