Just Read: “The Thing on the Doorstep” by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


So this is the third Lovecraft story we’ve read for class and I will say it’s been my favorite so far. I suspect it has to do with the story being more about the characters than the setting.

We’ve ascertained that Lovecraft was a master of the “setting as character” skill. And while I have great respect for that, I find stories of that nature don’t hold my attention for very long. I have the same issue reading Tolkien, another master of this. When the story was about the characters (Fellowship of the Ring), I went along just fine. But in the later books, so much time was spent on the setting, I just put the books down. My own interest seems to always lie in the characters and their journey.

“The Thing on the Doorstep” is much more character-oriented than either “The Music of Erich Zann” or “Pickman’s Model.” Another story told in first person. Lovecraft seems fond of telling a story from a bystander’s point of view. Granted, in this case, the narrator has a direct hand in the end of the story, however, most of the frightening build-up of the story is left untold because we only get glimpses of it through a third person’s eyes.

This is an interesting way to build tension, I think. In life, it’s often what we don’t know which scares us the most. When we don’t know how badly we did on a test, we imagine failing the entire class. When we don’t know the details of an accident a loved one has been in, we think of the worst possible scenario. when we’re waiting for medical test results, we imagine the worst outcome. When we don’t know what to expect, we get anxious and freaked out.

Sometimes leaving the horrible thing to the imagination is the best way to completely squick the reader. The more I read of Lovecraft, the more I think that was his kink. Because he chooses not to write from the point of view of the character who is being haunted/hunted/corrupted, but rather a bystander, many details of the possibly horrific things done are lost, because this bystander isn’t on the inside. And so the reader begins imagining all these horrific things.

Our instructor recently engaged us in a discussion of our own fears and how we translate that into our stories in order to help engage our readers. I think this is what Lovecraft is doing. He is engaging the reader in the story – actually, he’s enlisting the reader to help tell the story. When the reader is left to imagine the horrors that Lovecraft leaves out, he’s going to imagine things that are much more personal to him than Lovecraft could ever have imagined. And using a bystander as the narrator is the perfect way to achieve it, I think. This is pretty brilliant.

As far as the story itself, I really enjoyed it so much more than the previous two. I did have an issue with all of the telling. I’d guess that 60% or more was simply told. I suspect that if the scenes were shown instead, we’d have a novella instead of a short story. But I still felt compelled to continue reading. I would have liked to have seen more detail at the end, though.

Overall, I did enjoy the story and I’m looking forward to reading more Lovecraft to see what other similarities and differences become apparent.

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  • Reply
    Dave J
    February 26, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    You give HPL more credit than I do. His era of horror lent itself to a much further back POV. Poe, Stevenson (Jekyll/Hyde) and others use this narration of past events or second-hand telling to almost shield the reader from the horror as it is too horrible to take in first hand. Your interpretation of this technique, that it leaves gaps the reader fills in, is much kinder than my take on it. You are correct, and I don’t want everything spelled out to the exact number of blood droplets dripping, but I do think this style bleeds tension out of these stories.

    That’s why "Doorstep" is so much better. It is a real-time narrative of events. Yes, HPL has Dan tell Edward’s story, but at least it is happening as the reader reads, not being recounted after-the-fact. For that I like this story a lot too.

  • Reply
    Carla E. Anderton
    February 26, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Venessa – I think you hit the nail on the head when you said this story was more enjoyable because it was more character based than setting oriented. I also found that to be true.

  • Reply
    February 26, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    I think as a move away from setting as character to plot orientation this works. I do agree that all of the telling should have been shown, but i think it would be shorter rather than longer. Although it could just as easily go the other way. I also like the "bystander" POV. I think it works to draw the reader into the story of the horror, but I also think it works to create a second story line the story of the narrator’s decent into a madness of his own.

  • Reply
    March 1, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    This one was also my favorite, although why is the woman always the evil one (okay, so woman-ish since it wasn’t entirely her). and I agree about the bystander thing. I’m glad you brought that up. I figured that he didn’t want to show us everything, and that was okay with me since I am a chicken, but it is very effective at adding tension and atmosphere. It always has me wondering, "Well, he said that but what DIDN’T he say?"

  • Reply
    Swea Nightingale
    March 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    I too liked the way Lovecraft portrayed the thing at the end – we all could kind of imagine our brand of melting thing on the doorstep. The only thing that threw me out a little was the "glub…glub" description of the noise it made. Seemed a little silly for something that was supposed to be horrible. -Swea

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    March 4, 2010 at 9:12 am

    I think out of all of them, Pickman’s Model was my favorite, but that’s only because I’m an art major and I’m horrifically biased, haha. But from a literature POV, I will agree that this is one of Lovecraft’s better ones. I, too, liked that this was more focused on the character(s) rather than the setting, because it’s hard to relate to some of his pieces where we don’t know as much about the character (objectively and subjectively).

    I also enjoyed your take on fears and how we had to say what personally made us go bump in the night in one of our discussions. This really made me think about what the intent was for this piece: "He is engaging the reader in the story – actually, he’s enlisting the reader to help tell the story."

  • Reply
    March 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    Dave, your comment got me thinking. I think that that technique that you were talking about is as much about "shielding" the reader as it is about creating verisilimitude. That was the device that they used to make the story "real"

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