Harry Houdini, left, approached both H.P. Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy
Jr. to ghostwrite “The Cancer of Superstition.” (Houdini, Lovecraft:
AP / Eddy: Fenham Publishing photo)
Jeremy Mikula - Contact Reporter
March 31, 2016
As part of its Houdiniana auction April 9, Chicago auction house Potter & Potter will be auctioning off an unfinished manuscript of "The Cancer of Superstition," a book project commissioned by Houdini that was canceled when the magician died in 1926.
The 31-page manuscript — which is expected by Potter & Potter to fetch $25,000 to $40,000 — explores the history of superstition and how superstitions persist through "mental indolence of those who reject modern science," even among academics.
Besides the Houdini connection, what generated media buzz from the likes of The Guardian, Fine Books & Collections and others is the manuscript's purported ghostwriter: H.P. Lovecraft, most famous for "The Call of Cthulhu."
"It's incredible, it's incredible," said Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. "I'm not a scholar, I'm an auctioneer, but how many times do these guys talk to us from beyond the grave?"
Fajuri's excitement was echoed by John Cox, a long-time Houdini historian who runs the Wild About Harry website.
"I got a peek at it a while back, and that was the eureka moment for me: 'Holy cats, this is it!'" Cox said. "For a Houdini person, any time something that's considered lost comes up for auction is very exciting."
When it comes to confirming the manuscript's authorship, however, "excitement" can be replaced by "confusion."
A manuscript of "The Cancer of Superstition," commissioned by Harry Houdini, is being auctioned April 9 in Chicago by Potter & Potter Auctions. The manuscript is said to have been ghostwritten by H.P. Lovecraft but have been also been written by C.M. Eddy Jr. (Potter & Potter Auctions)
But how much of "The Cancer of Superstition" was the work of Lovecraft vs. Eddy is up for debate.
Douglas A. Anderson, co-founder of Wormwoodiana, a blog dedicated to researching and discussing the work of Lovecraft and his peers, said one needs to look at "The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces," a 1966 Lovecraft anthology edited by August Derleth that published a detailed outline and the project's first chapter. Derleth, who had exchanged letters with Eddy prior to the book's publication, listed Lovecraft as the author of the outline but Eddy as the author of the chapter.
That chapter likely came with revisions from Lovecraft, Anderson said, something Lovecraft often did to varying degrees for contemporaries.
"Most of these manuscripts do not survive, only the published stories, so it's really unknown what happened in any individual case," he said.
Three stories written by Eddy — "The Ghost-Eater," "The Loved Dead" and "Deaf, Dumb, and Blind" — were revised by Lovecraft and included in a 1970 collection of Lovecraft's ghostwriting and revision work called "The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions."
"Depending on who you might ask, one critic might claim any one or all three for Lovecraft, and another might suggest that Lovecraft's involvement was minimal," Anderson said. "I feel it strays into silliness because there is very little evidence one way or another."
Jim Dyer, the grandson of Eddy and the owner of Fenham Publishing, which has published three collections of Eddy's writing, said evidence does exist when it comes to "The Cancer of Superstition": Eddy's handwritten manuscript contains revisions with Lovecraft's penmanship.
"(Eddy family members) have my grandfather's handwritten manuscript of 'The Cancer of Superstition,' along with accompanying correspondence regarding the work," Dyer said. "The first two chapters were approved by Houdini; the third was sent to him by my grandfather while (Houdini) was on tour. Unfortunately, Houdini became ill and died. Mrs. Houdini notified my grandfather that she did not want to proceed with any further work on the manuscript."
Despite his initial reservations over the manuscript's authorship, Joshi said that a "more careful reading" of the chapter published in "The Dark Brotherhood" leads him to suspect it may have been Lovecraft's prose.
Joshi's colleague Marcos Legaria pointed out that correspondence between collector John E. Vetter and Derleth, whose papers are held at the Wisconsin Historical Society, adds another complicating factor.
Vetter, a collector of all things Lovecraft, wrote Derleth in the early 1960s to say two manuscripts of "The Cancer of Superstition" existed — one by Lovecraft and one by Eddy.
"John Vetter at the time worked for a collection agency and started his own book-dealing business called Kadath Books," Legaria said. "For some reason, the correspondence after early 1963 doesn't mention 'The Cancer of Superstition' anymore, but this could be due to Derleth handling further matters with (Eddy). We do know for sure that there was another manuscript, that Clifford Eddy told both August Derleth and John Vetter about, and that this might be the chapter that was included in 'The Dark Brotherhood' or those chapters that just turned up."
The confusion over the manuscript's authorship has gotten back to Potter & Potter, Fajuri said, adding that "people have called in and said Eddy wrote the whole thing, while others have said Lovecraft wrote it."
"I'm sure Eddy was involved in some way, maybe even a major way," Fajuri said. "We know he was working for Houdini as an investigator and writer, so I'd leave that door wide open."
What Fajuri is certain of is that Houdini didn't write "The Cancer of Superstition" based on the complexity of the language in the manuscript.
"Houdini wasn't a natural-born writer, even if he 'wrote' and published books," Fajuri said. "All of his letters have misspellings or names are incorrect. Some of that is because he dashed it off in the dressing room and some of that is simply because he didn't know."
Despite his lack of writing skill, Houdini published a number of books, articles and even an entry in the 13th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica — thanks in large part to ghostwriters, Cox said.
"It's interesting to see how often Houdini employed a lot of ghostwriters because he was always putting forth material," Cox said. "He had an industry of ghostwriters."
That "industry of ghostwriters" included both Lovecraft and Eddy before "The Cancer of Superstition" was ever written by one or the other — or both. Lovecraft ghost-wrote the Houdini-bylined short story "Imprisoned With the Pharaohs" published in a 1924 issue of Chicago-based Weird Tales. As Fajuri noted, Houdini employed Eddy as a ghostwriter and investigator.
Houdini's death in 1926, followed by Lovecraft's death in 1937 and Eddy's in 1967, means confirming authorship of the manuscript might be difficult, Fajuri said, with one thing to keep in mind: Only Houdini's name appears on it.
"We're selling an object here, not the copyright, and while we want the best price possible, we also want to be responsible," Fajuri said. "The only name on the manuscript is Houdini. One way or another, it has these links to historical figures attached to it, and that's exciting."
When "The Cancer of Superstition" goes up for auction April 9, no one will be certain who the actual writer was. And it doesn't get any more Houdini than that, does it?
Jeremy Mikula is a Printers Row staffer.
10:00 a.m. April 9, Potter & Potter Auctions, 3759 N. Ravenswood Ave., Suite 121.
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