CD Review: Imprisoned with the Pharaohs

Harry Houdini and Charlie TowerImprisoned with the Pharaohs (a.k.a. Under the Pyramids) was H.P. Lovecraft’s first collaboration with Harry Houdini; the serialized story was ghost-written for Weird Tales magazine in 1924 as a first-person account of an experience the great escape artist is supposed to have had one night while touring Egypt.

The story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/up.aspx 

The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version is fairly faithful to Houdini’s adventure, but adds some elements that seem to me to improve the story. First, a reason is given for the events that take place. Second, additional characters are introduced to give Houdini someone to interact with.

In the original story, Houdini often refers to “we” and “us” as he describes his travels in  Egypt, but it often isn’t clear who is with him on his tour. Is it his wife? Other tourists in their party? Some Egyptian guys? Here, “we” is primarily Bess Houdini, Harry’s wife, voiced by Leslie Baldwin and given a distinct voice of her own. The Houdini’s relationship and interactions are some of the best parts at the beginning of this audio play–Bess’s practicality balances Harry’s impetuous and thrill-seeking nature, yet they are both at heart show-biz people.

The other new character is an HPLHS creation who shows up in a lot of these Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptations, and whom I’m always happy to see more of: Miskatonic University professor of archaeology, Nathaniel Ward (Andrew Leman).

The audio drama begins at the American Cosmograph Theater in Cairo. We’re presented with brief snippets that give us a medley of the kind of thing you’d get in pre-WWI Vaudeville: song and dance acts, trained dogs, jugglers, comedians, a ventriloquist, a hypnotist, and finally the big draw of the night–The Great Houdini!

Imprisoned with the Pharoahs propsHarry Houdini (Sean Branney), Bess, and Nate Ward meet up after the show; they have a mutual friend, another HPLHS-created character, millionaire adventurer Charlie Tower (who doesn’t feature in this episode).

The Houdinis are interested in creating a new stunt for Harry to perform, something with an Egyptian theme such as being wrapped up like a mummy and escaping from an actual sarcophagus. The stunt will be called “Under the Pyramids.” When the couple visit the Cairo Museum with Ward, they try to buy one.

The museum curator Dupuis (Matt Foyer) is reluctant to hand over any antiquities, but when Harry offers him ten thousand dollars–no, make that fifteen thousand–as a “donation” it’s hard to resist.  Dupuis shows them a few sarcophagi that are in storage but not on display. One in particular draws their attention.

Bess: “The black one would look better on stage.”

The black sarcophagus still has its original mummy inside. This was Nitokris, an Egyptian queen of doubtful historicity, but whose name has developed a legendary reputation over the millennia.

Ward, who once again gives the impression of being a man who knows a lot of stuff he doesn’t like to talk about, gently tries to dissuade the Houdinis from their choice and attempts to redirect their interest to another sarcophagus. Unwisely, he also tells them some of the legends about this tyrannical queen.

Nathaniel WardAccording to Herodotus, Nitokris invited her enemies to a banquet in a subterranean chamber, which she then had flooded with the waters of the Nile to drown them all. After she was overthrown, she was mummified and entombed alive in this very same sarcophagus. She and the Pharaoh Kephren, who in this version of the story was her husband, are called “ghoul monarchs” that rule over an army of mummies “neither man or beast.”

As one might expect, this story does nothing to change their minds. The Houdinis are thrilled. “We’ll take it!” Harry also wants to put the mummy on display in the theater lobby.

News of their purchase gets around quickly, for the ancient cult of Nitokris is still active in Cairo. “Such sacrilege must be paid for.” It’s not only Harry who must pay, but the hapless Dupuis who sold him the sarcophagus, and Ward too. Why Ward? He overheard a museum employee placing a curse upon Houdini and understands enough Arabic to realize what was said.  He knows too much. Ward: “Story of my life.”

The cultists grab Dupuis first, then Ward. The two are carried off… somewhere.

The Houdinis are for the moment unaware of the danger they’re in. While they sight-see around Cairo, a man introduces himself as Abdul Reis al Drogman (Barry Lynch) and offers to show them “the real Egypt” beneath the modern city. As Harry will learn later on, this name basically means “Abdul the Tour-guide”; it isn’t so much the man’s real name as it is a job description–and it isn’t this man’s usual job, as we’ll soon discover.

Abdul shows the Houdinis around old Cairo, its “labyrinths of narrow alleys redolent of aromatic secrets; Arabesque balconies and oriels nearly meeting above the cobbled streets; maelstroms of Oriental traffic with strange cries, cracking whips, rattling carts, jingling money, and braying donkeys; kaleidoscopes of polychrome robes, veils, turbans, and tarbushes; water-carriers and dervishes, dogs and cats, soothsayers and Postcard from Cairobarbers…”

Eventually, they end up at the Pyramids. It’s getting late in the day, but Harry is keen to have a closer look. They get on camels to ride over.

First, there’s a side-trip to see the Sphinx. German archeologists are at work around its base, trying to enter the temple that’s said to lie beneath it.

The international situation is tense–this is the summer of 1914 and the Great War is just a few weeks away–but Harry speaks a little German and introduces himself. “Ich bin Houdini.” Of course, the Germans know who he is and Herr Borchardt, the head of the archeological team, is happy to show Harry and Bess around the site and give them a quick history of the Sphinx.

The Sphinx, he says, is old, really old, created before the earliest Pyramids by who-knows-who and carved directly from the bedrock of the Giza plateau where it sits. Thutmose IV dug it out of the sand drifts, where it had long lay buried. It had another face before the one that’s there now, a face “ancient and terrible”; Kephren had his own put on the figure during his reign.

Harry observes that the face on the Sphinx looks kind of like Abdul (who retreated when the Houdinis went to speak to the archeologists).

The archeologists have found passages beneath the Sphinx and believe that these lead down into the plateau. They put up gates and guards to “keep our discoveries from getting out” Oops! What Borchardt meant to say was “keep people out of our discoveries.”

An emergency then calls Borchardt away.  From what Harry can understand of the German spoken, a floor somewhere in the dig has given way and opened up a vault beneath.

Harry and Bess return to the Pyramids and their tour guide, and climb up the Great Pyramid to enjoy a spectacular view.

This section of the story is nicely done, considering it’s a sightseeing tour in an audio drama. I especially like how it conveys the near-speechless awe the Houdinis experience at the vista of Egypt all around them.

When the Houdinis marvel that these enormous monuments were originally built as tombs, Abdul emphasizes the importance of death and the afterlife to the ancient Egyptians. “When the body lies eternally, one could say that even death may die”… which sounds strangely familiar.

After the party descends, Abdul gets into a quarrel with a Bedouin named Ali Ziz; they speak in untranslated Arabic so the Houdinis and the listener (unless he knows the language) don’t know what’s going on. There’s a tussle, which Harry tries to break up, and the Abdul and Ali Ziz end up agreeing to meet at midnight atop the Great Pyramid for a formal duel. It’s to be a boxing match with each man bringing five “seconds” to see that it’s a fair fight.

Harry thinks this sounds like “a lark” and asks to be one of Abdul’s seconds. Bess, tired after climbing up and down the Pyramid, just wants to go back to the hotel. Abdul employs some passive-aggressive “Oh, it may become dangerous and no one will blame you if you decide not to join us” tactics which only make Harry all the more determined to go in spite of his wife’s objections, not to mention her growing suspicions about Abdul. Bess feels certain that something terrible will happen.

At midnight, the concerned parties meet at the Pyramid’s top, where there is a flat platform large enough to hold a dozen or more men and conduct a fight. The boxing match is over quickly. Abdul wins and to Harry’s amazement, everybody sits down and brews up some tea. Abdul offers Harry a cup and they discuss his plans for his new stunt. The Egyptians don’t think much of “Under the Pyramids” and Houdini comes up with a better name, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” which goes over better.

Everything seems quite friendly, until they all suddenly attack and overpower Harry, truss him up, blindfold and gag him, then carry him down inside the ancient tomb, where Ward and Dupuis have been similarly tied up and waiting for some time.

In the original story, this event begins Houdini’s dangerous adventure at the Pyramids; no reason is given for it beyond the Egyptians’ desire to give his talents as an escape artist a truly difficult test and humble his ego. I don’t believe they intended to kill him. He faces his trial entirely alone. The added scenes about the purchase of the black sarcophagus and the desecration of Nitokris’s mummy give them a stronger impetus to act, and put Harry and his companions in a much more dire situation. In this version, there is meant to be “no escape.”

The addition of Ward and Dupuis provides other witnesses to what happens that night so that Houdini’s story can’t be attributed to a nightmare or an hallucination from a drug that was put in his tea. It also means that the one who isn’t an actual historical famous person or a recurring character is expendable.

The cultists have a good laugh over their prisoners. They address their leader, the tour guide formerly known as Abdul, by the name of “Kephren”–same as Nitokris’s husband, the Pharaoh who put his face on the Sphinx and who’s supposed to have been dead a few thousand years.

The three trussed-up prisoners then are lowered down, down, down into a well or shaft of impossible depth by incredibly long ropes, which then coil down into a pile on top of them to nearly bury them once they reach the bottom. There, they lie in utter darkness to await their fate.

Well, it’s a good thing that Harry Houdini is in fact a world-famous escape artist. He’s  quickly out of his own bonds, and has some helpful advice for his companions about how to get the gags off their mouths. (Actually, his escape is delayed when he faints–as so many of Lovecraft’s heroes do when faced with unimaginable horrors–but he tries to pretend to Ward that he didn’t.)

Before the trio can do much about their situation, however, they realize that something else is there in the darkness with them, something big and growly with claws that scrape on the stone floor. It carries Dupuis off.

Once Houdini and Ward get free, they use a cigarette lighter to make torches from pieces of the rope, and have a look at their surroundings. They’re in a chamber carved out of the bedrock. The walls are covered with hieroglyphics, which of course Ward can read and translate; he notes that there’s a reference to the “book of the deathless dead,” which doesn’t make sense even to him.

Nate Ward explains to Harry about the ancient Egyptians’ obsession with death and the beliefs behind their burial customs. They carefully preserved the bodies and vital organs of those who had died in anticipation that the ka, the spirit or life-force, would return to it. The hieroglyphics tell of an abyss where “wingless” kas are joined with soulless bodies. There are also images of human mummies with cat, jackal, ibis, and other animal heads sewn on–hybrids created in imitation of the gods, although Ward notes that no such mummies have ever been discovered by modern archeologists. This is the army of man-nor-beast things that Kephren and Nitokris ruled over.

Houdini wonders what monstrosity the Sphinx was originally meant to represent.

They’ve pretty much forgotten about Dupuis having been carried off, but a scream soon reminds them. When they try to determine where the sound is coming from and follow it, they tumble down some stairs in the darkness. Harry faints again. When he wakes, he and Ward can see a flicker of light ahead and hear music being played  on ancient instruments. A ceremony is about to begin in a vast subterranean chamber, and our heroes hide and observe a part of it.

That hybrid army of the deathless dead? Right here and carrying food and other offerings including the unfortunate Dupuis to whatever’s beyond. The ghoulish Kephren and Nitokris? Also present to preside over the sacrifice that’s about to take place. And the  model for the Sphinx in its original form? Ward and Houdini only glimpse the giant paw of something huge, yellowish, and hairy before they run like hell.

Back at the hotel the next morning, they learn that there’s been a break-in at the museum, and the sarcophagus and mummy have been stolen. Ward advises Harry not to tell his wife or anyone else about the things they’ve seen. Secrets should not be given away and magic is best left unexplained. But the true lesson here for Harry Houdini is Next time, listen to Bess.

Props enclosed with the CD include:
Imprisoned with the Pharoahs props

  • An Egyptian postcard; on the back is a message from Harry Houdini to his buddy Charlie Tower. “You said Cairo would be fun, but some secrets ought not be looked into. Give your friend Ward my thanks.”
  • The programme from the Vaudeville show in Cairo where Houdini is performing; since it’s for an international audience, the list of acts is printed in English, French, and Greek as well as Arabic.
  • A letter dated 1906 from Nathaniel Ward to the Cairo Museum about the discovery and doubtful provenance of the black sarcophagus of Nitokris. So he did know quite a lot about it years before the Houdinis set eyes on it.
  • A newspaper clipping from the Egyptian Gazette dated August 1914–mere days before the beginning of World War I. There’s a lot about the build-up to the war, as well as  a map of Gizeh and the Pyramids, and an article about the mysterious disappearance of poor Mr. Dupuis.

About Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats. As well as being the author of numerous short stories, novellas, and essays, she is the author of "Maiden in Light," "The Wizard's Son," and "Sonnedragon," novels set on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period. All three are part of an intended series of fantasy novels that mostly take place in a dukedom called the Northlands, a part of the Norman Empire that roughly covers the north-eastern U.S.
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