A review of the exhibition Houdini: Art and Magic (The Jewish Museum, New York, 2010), which has now transferred to the Skirball Center in Los Angeles until 4th September 2011. There’s an accompanying book, from Yale University Press.

Lovecraft and Houdini had connections, not least in the long story Imprisoned with the Pharaohs (1924). Lovecraft ghost-wrote this for $100 (paid in advance, for the only time in Lovecraft’s life), based on an after-dinner tale invented by Houdini but which he claimed as true. Lovecraft seems to have considered it improbable and badly formed, and was pleased to be told in confidence that it was actually a fabrication, since he could then let his imagination rip on the tale. Although often talked of as a minor story, and as having a little too much of the travelogue about it, Michel Houellebecq’s 1991 book on Lovecraft said Pharaohs contained some of Lovecraft’s… “most beautiful verbal extravagances”. This was, of course, also the story whose manuscript Lovecraft fatefully left and lost on a train, and which he then had to spend some of his honeymoon re-typing — possibly to the detriment of his marriage.

Lovecraft also admired Houdini for his tireless debunking of spiritualists and other faux-mystic charlatans. Houdini is known to have socialised with Lovecraft, occasionally dining with him after shows, and in one of his letters Lovecraft recalls being taken out by Houdini to the incongruous theatrical event of a Noel Coward play in 1924. Houdini personally arranged for Lovecraft to have a meeting with a newspaper publisher, with a view to some employment, but nothing came of it.

Lovecraft later had a further very healthy payment of $75 for a ghost-written Houdini article attacking and debunking astrology. Houdini’s sudden death due to a student prank, in 1926, put an end to the prospects of more collaborations and income — such as the planned The Cancer of Superstition, a book debunking superstitious beliefs. Lovecraft had apparently already drafted this in basic outline form, and started researching magic and witchcraft for it. Possibly some of this research found its way into his The Horror at Red Hook.