The Thing on the Doorstep, by H.P. Lovecraft

Chapter 4

Derby had been married more than three years on that August day when I got that telegram from Maine. I had not seen him for two months, but had heard he was away “on business.” Asenath was supposed to be with him, though watchful gossip declared there was someone upstairs in the house behind the doubly curtained windows. They had watched the purchases made by the servants. And now the town marshal of Chesuncook had wired of the draggled madman who stumbled out of the woods with delirious ravings and screamed to me for protection. It was Edward — and he had been just able to recall his own name and address.

Chesuncook is close to the wildest, deepest, and least explored forest belt in Maine, and it took a whole day of feverish jolting through fantastic and forbidding scenery to get there in a car. I found Derby in a cell at the town farm, vacillating between frenzy and apathy. He knew me at once, and began pouring out a meaningless, half-incoherent torrent of words in my direction.

“Dan, for God’s sake! The pit of the shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps . . . the abomination of abominations . . . I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there — Ia! Shub–Niggurath! — The shape rose up from the altar, and there were five hundred that howled — The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’— that was old Ephraim’s secret name in the coven — I was there, where she promised she wouldn’t take me — A minute before I was locked in the library, and then I was there where she had gone with my body — in the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where the black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate — I saw a shoggoth — it changed shape — I can’t stand it — I’ll kill her if she ever sends me there again — I’ll kill that entity — her, him, it — I’ll kill it! I’ll kill it with my own hands!”

It took me an hour to quiet him, but he subsided at last. The next day I got him decent clothes in the village, and set out with him for Arkham. His fury of hysteria was spent, and he was inclined to be silent, though he began muttering darkly to himself when the car passed through Augusta — as if the sight of a city aroused unpleasant memories. It was clear that he did not wish to go home; and considering the fantastic delusions he seemed to have about his wife — delusions undoubtedly springing from some actual hypnotic ordeal to which he had been subjected — I thought it would be better if he did not. I would, I resolved, put him up myself for a time; no matter what unpleasantness it would make with Asenath. Later I would help him get a divorce, for most assuredly there were mental factors which made this marriage suicidal for him. When we struck open country again Derby’s muttering faded away, and I let him nod and drowse on the seat beside me as I drove.

During our sunset dash through Portland the muttering commenced again, more distinctly than before, and as I listened I caught a stream of utterly insane drivel about Asenath. The extent to which she had preyed on Edward’s nerves was plain, for he had woven a whole set of hallucinations around her. His present predicament, he mumbled furtively, was only one of a long series. She was getting hold of him, and he knew that some day she would never let go. Even now she probably let him go only when she had to, because she couldn’t hold on long at a time. She constantly took his body and went to nameless places for nameless rites, leaving him in her body and locking him upstairs — but sometimes she couldn’t hold on, and he would find himself suddenly in his own body again in some far-off, horrible, and perhaps unknown place. Sometimes she’d get hold of him again and sometimes she couldn’t. Often he was left stranded somewhere as I had found him — time and again he had to find his way home from frightful distances, getting somebody to drive the car after he found it.

The worst thing was that she was holding on to him longer and longer at a time. She wanted to be a man — to be fully human — that was why she got hold of him. She had sensed the mixture of fine-wrought brain and weak will in him. Some day she would crowd him out and disappear with his body — disappear to become a great magician like her father and leave him marooned in that female shell that wasn’t even quite human. Yes, he knew about the Innsmouth blood now. There had been traffick with things from the sea — it was horrible . . . And old Ephraim — he had known the secret, and when he grew old did a hideous thing to keep alive — he wanted to live forever — Asenath would succeed — one successful demonstration had taken place already.

As Derby muttered on I turned to look at him closely, verifying the impression of change which an earlier scrutiny had given me. Paradoxically, he seemed in better shape than usual — harder, more normally developed, and without the trace of sickly flabbiness caused by his indolent habits. It was as if he had been really active and properly exercised for the first time in his coddled life, and I judged that Asenath’s force must have pushed him into unwonted channels of motion and alertness. But just now his mind was in a pitiable state; for he was mumbling wild extravagances about his wife, about black magic, about old Ephraim, and about some revelation which would convince even me. He repeated names which I recognized from bygone browsings in forbidden volumes, and at times made me shudder with a certain thread of mythological consistency — or convincing coherence — which ran through his maundering. Again and again he would pause, as if to gather courage for some final and terrible disclosure.

“Dan, Dan, don’t you remember him — wild eyes and the unkempt beard that never turned white? He glared at me once, and I never forgot it. Now she glares that way. And I know why! He found it in the Necronomicon — the formula. I don’t dare tell you the page yet, but when I do you can read and understand. Then you will know what has engulfed me. On, on, on, on — body to body to body — he means never to die. The life-glow — he knows how to break the link . . . it can flicker on a while even when the body is dead. I’ll give you hints and maybe you’ll guess. Listen, Dan — do you know why my wife always takes such pains with that silly backhand writing? Have you ever seen a manuscript of old Ephraim’s? Do you want to know why I shivered when I saw some hasty notes Asenath had jotted down?

“Asenath — is there such a person? Why did they half-think there was poison in old Ephraim’s stomach? Why do the Gilmans whisper about the way he shrieked — like a frightened child — when he went mad and Asenath locked him up in the padded attic room where — the other — had been? Was it old Ephraim’s soul that was locked in? Who locked in whom? Why had he been looking for months for someone with a fine mind and a weak will? — Why did he curse that his daughter wasn’t a son? Tell me? Daniel Upton — what devilish exchange was perpetrated in the house of horror where that blasphemous monster had his trusting, weak-willed half-human child at his mercy? Didn’t he make it permanent — as she’ll do in the end with me? Tell me why that thing that calls itself Asenath writes differently off guard, so that you can’t tell its script from —”

Then the thing happened. Derby’s voice was rising to a thin treble scream as he raved, when suddenly it was shut off with an almost mechanical click. I thought of those other occasions at my home when his confidences had abruptly ceased — when I had half-fancied that some obscure telepathic wave of Asenath’s mental force was intervening to keep him silent. This, though, was something altogether different — and, I felt, infinitely more horrible. The face beside me was twisted almost unrecognizably for a moment, while through the whole body there passed a shivering motion — as if all the bones, organs, muscles, nerves, and glands were adjusting themselves to a radically different posture, set of stresses, and general personality.

Just where the supreme horror lay, I could not for my life tell; yet there swept over me such a swamping wave of sickness and repulsion — such a freezing, petrifying sense of utter alienage and abnormality — that my grasp of the wheel grew feeble and uncertain. The figure beside me seemed less like a lifelong friend than like some monstrous intrusion from outer space — some damnable, utterly accursed focus of unknown and malign cosmic forces.

I had faltered only a moment, but before another moment was over my companion had seized the wheel and forced me to change places with him. The dusk was now very thick, and the lights of Portland far behind, so I could not see much of his face. The blaze of his eyes, though, was phenomenal; and I knew that he must now be in that queerly energized state — so unlike his usual self — which so many people had noticed. It seemed odd and incredible that listless Edward Derby — he who could never assert himself, and who had never learned to drive — should be ordering me about and taking the wheel of my own car, yet that was precisely what had happened. He did not speak for some time, and in my inexplicable horror I was glad he did not.

In the lights of Biddeford and Saco I saw his firmly set mouth, and shivered at the blaze of his eyes. The people were right — he did look damnably like his wife and like old Ephraim when in these moods. I did not wonder that the moods were disliked — there was certainly something unnatural in them, and I felt the sinister element all the more because of the wild ravings I had been hearing. This man, for all my lifelong knowledge of Edward Pickman Derby, was a stranger — an intrusion of some sort from the black abyss.

He did not speak until we were on a dark stretch of road, and when he did his voice seemed utterly unfamiliar. It was deeper, firmer, and more decisive than I had ever known it to be; while its accent and pronunciation were altogether changed — though vaguely, remotely, and rather disturbingly recalling something I could not quite place. There was, I thought, a trace of very profound and very genuine irony in the timbre — not the flashy, meaninglessly jaunty pseudo-irony of the callow “sophisticate,” which Derby had habitually affected, but something grim, basic, pervasive, and potentially evil. I marvelled at the self-possession so soon following the spell of panic-struck muttering.

“I hope you’ll forget my attack back there, Upton,” he was saying. “You know what my nerves are, and I guess you can excuse such things. I’m enormously grateful, of course, for this lift home.

“And you must forget, too, any crazy things I may have been saying about my wife — and about things in general. That’s what comes from overstudy in a field like mine. My philosophy is full of bizarre concepts, and when the mind gets worn out it cooks up all sorts of imaginary concrete applications. I shall take a rest from now on — you probably won’t see me for some time, and you needn’t blame Asenath for it.

“This trip was a bit queer, but it’s really very simple. There are certain Indian relics in the north wood — standing stones, and all that — which mean a good deal in folklore, and Asenath and I are following that stuff up. It was a hard search, so I seem to have gone off my head. I must send somebody for the car when I get home. A month’s relaxation will put me on my feet.”

I do not recall just what my own part of the conversation was, for the baffling alienage of my seatmate filled all my consciousness. With every moment my feeling of elusive cosmic horror increased, till at length I was in a virtual delirium of longing for the end of the drive. Derby did not offer to relinquish the wheel, and I was glad of the speed with which Portsmouth and Newburyport flashed by.

At the junction where the main highway runs inland and avoids Innsmouth, I was half-afraid my driver would take the bleak shore road that goes through that damnable place. He did not, however, but darted rapidly past Rowley and Ipswich toward our destination. We reached Arkham before midnight, and found the lights still on at the old Crowninshield house. Derby left the car with a hasty repetition of his thanks, and I drove home alone with a curious feeling of relief. It had been a terrible drive — all the more terrible because I could not quite tell why — and I did not regret Derby’s forecast of a long absence from my company.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49