“The Thing on the Doorstep”: Lovecraft at the Salem Theatre Company

The Thing on the Doorstep, H.P. Lovecraft - 1920's Halloween costume

I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Thing on the Doorstep.” It’s not one of Lovecraft’s most recognized stories, nor is it one of his most critically acclaimed. It doesn’t feature Cthulhu, or ghouls, or the far-reaching cosmic terror that marks more famous works like “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Dunwich Horror.” What it does have, though, is a prominent female character–the only one found in any of Lovecraft’s fiction, unless you count Keziah Mason. (Okay, “The Curse of Yig” has a female protagonist, and “Medusa’s Coil” features a female baddie–but those were ghostwritten for Zealia Bishop.)

I don’t know if old H.P. hated women so much as he didn’t know what to do with them. The guy wasn’t exactly getting laid on the regular. Whatever the reason, Asenath Waite was the only woman he wrote.

The Thing on the Doorstep, H.P. Lovecraft

And what a woman. Asenath is not only a certified genius, she’s also forceful, strong-willed, and relentlessly menacing. Having seduced the bright but naive Edward Pickman Derby, she lures him into a marriage that shocks Arkham society. Poor, besotted Edward soon realizes that his bride only wants him for his body–literally. Asenath has the ability to exchange her soul with that of another, and it isn’t long before she’s slipping into her husband’s skin for extended jaunts into cursed, subterranean vaults. Edward, meanwhile, is repeatedly locked inside his wife’s form, helpless to keep her from trafficking with nameless horrors. Eventually, he fears, Asenath will make the switch permanent.

There’s a slight misogynist undertone to the proceedings: Asenath laments having been born a woman, opining that a man’s brain is vastly superior to her own. A later development mitigates the sexism but doesn’t erase it entirely. Luckily, the Salem Theatre Company took steps to rectify this in their adaptation of “The Thing on the Doorstep,” which I saw on Friday night.

Salem Theatre Company, The Thing on the Doorstep, H.P. Lovecraft

The Salem Theatre Company is a small building tucked away on Lafayette Street. It has an indie vibe and a creative way of utilizing its small stage. “The Thing on the Doorstep” took place entirely in one room, and yet it never felt claustrophobic. I’m tempted to chalk that up to the acting–which was mesmerizing–but a lot of it has to do with the script written by director Isaiah Plovnick. Not only does he manage to sketch Arkham’s social milieu through interactions among just five characters, he also works in references to historical events like Women’s Suffrage and the Prohibition. Best of all, with the addition to the story of Sarah Upton, the narrator’s headstrong wife, Plovnick imbues the material with some welcome progressiveness.

So yeah. I really liked it.

What I liked slightly less–at least initially–was missing the 9:30 train back to Boston and having to wait for the 11:00. Then again, there are worst places for a morbid kid to get stranded than Salem at night.

Salem, Masschusetts: missed the train

Upon realizing I missed the train.

Salem, Masschusetts: Witch Dungeon Museum

Five minutes later, in front of the Witch Dungeon Museum.

I searched for Old Burying Point Cemetery–because I now spend half my life in historic cemeteries, apparently–but I couldn’t find it. I did, however, find these spooky structures crafted by artist Patrick Dougherty. They’re called Sticksworks, and they look absolutely pagan in the moonlight.

Patrick Dougherty, Sticksworks, Salem, Massachusetts

All in all, it was a hell of a Friday night. Grad school was rough this week, so it was nice to unwind with a little spookiness.

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