Genre: Fantasy Adventure, Horror
Premise: Harry Houdini teams up with the legendary author, H.P. Lovecraft, to track down a supernatural serial killer in 1920s New York City.
About: This script won first prize in the 2003 ManiaFest Screenplay Competition and landed Sheldon Woodbury a writing assignment for Jeff Sagansky, a producer who used to be the president of Sony Pictures.
Writer: Sheldon Woodbury
Surely, as deep calls to deep, mystery attracts mystery. Which is an idea explored in "The Book of Magic" (not to be confused with Neil Gaiman's The Books of Magic), a tale where the infamous escape artist Harry Houdini teams up with the grandfather of horror fiction to catch a supernatural serial killer in 1920s New York City. That logline appeared in my inbox a few weeks ago and all I could do was stare at it and exclaim, "Seriously?" As a reader of this blog, it doesn't take a lot of homework to know that I love two things:
Magic and monsters.
On one side of this fantastic coin, we have arguably the most popular magician that ever lived, and on the other, we have a writer who probably influenced every horror and fantasy writer living today. The concept of these two men teaming up hit so many geek buttons I just couldn't say 'No' to the sender of the email.
But, wait. Both men come from the opposite ends of the psychic spectrum. Houdini spent a lot of his time debunking the supernatural, why would he team up with someone like Lovecraft?
In real life, Lovecraft historian S.T. Joshi writes that the editor of Weird Tales (the cool pulp mag that Lovecraft published most of his stories in, which is still around today thanks to the awesome Vandermeers) wanted Lovecraft to ghost-write a supposedly real adventure Houdini had in Egypt at Campbell's Tomb.
And that's the starting point for our fabulous team up in "The Book of Magic". Houdini, a media whore and exhibitionist, enjoys monopolizing the headlines with his death-defying stunts. He doesn't like it when people throw the word 'impossible' around, and when we meet him he's shaming the warden of the New York City jail system by escaping out of a strait jacket and maximum security cell.
He wants to team-up with a writer to tell The Amazing Adventures of Harry Houdini. And after reading some of Lovecraft's stories, you could say he becomes a fan. A meeting is set up for the two men by the editor of Weird Tales (which also had an "Ask Houdini" column), Chester R. Greeley. Side note: Oddly, no mention of J.C. Henneberger?
What's the depiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft like?
I've yet to be satisfied with any story that attempts to use the writer as a character, and this includes Rodionoff, Giffen and Breccia's graphic novel Lovecraft to John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, where the character of Sutter Cane is a sort of narrative analog for the love child of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft.
In this script, the depiction doesn't fall into caricature, and my only complaint is that I wanted more of him. He's sickly, frail, dresses all in black. He's experiencing vivid nightmares that afford him no rest when he sleeps, and he starts to wonder if his ghastly visions have something to do with the grisly murders that are vying with Houdini for the newspaper headlines.
He believes he may be going insane, and he arrives at the offices of his publisher to let him know that he'll be leaving the city soon. Why? It's that classic nihilist's dilemma of feeling like he doesn't belong, but he never mentions that his dream cycles may be responsible for all the mysterious violence taking place within the shadow of his presence.
He snubs Houdini, makes a quick exit, but Houdini jumps out a window and descends the face of the building to save the writer from being trampled by a horse-drawn carriage. Coincidentally, Houdini also tells a reporter that he can solve these serial killer murders before the police can, becoming the unofficial detective for the case.
We learn that all of Lovecraft's stories come from his dreams, and when Houdini learns that Lovecraft can communicate with his dead mother in this dream world, he refuses to let the writer leave the city. Because Houdini saved his life, Lovecraft opts to stick around and becomes intrigued by the murder investigation, especially when Houdini discovers some symbols that point towards the mythical Old Ones.
Lovecraft is more of an advisor to Houdini, who is the hero of the story, and the Cthulhu Mythos is the setting that is bleeding into our reality. Sure, there's a sequence in the 3rd act when Lovecraft has to journey into his dream world to save Houdini, but I think we ought to be emotionally moved by Lovecraft's story as much as we are by Houdini's.
What's The Cthulhu Mythos, Rog?
Houdini and the police find a lair and dumping ground for bodies in the sewers underneath the city, and after the sewers are flooded and Houdini almost kills himself while saving a cop named Quinn, he shows Lovecraft, ever the scholar, some of the drawings he saw in the cave.
It's an oddly shaped head with globe-like eyes. A fishy visage. Sure, this may be a description of our supernatural serial killer, but it's also a nod to the weird hybrid inhabitants of the town in the Lovecraft story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The natural appearance of a race of people that not only worship Mother Hydra, but Cthulhu.
You see, Cthulhu is one of many creatures Lovecraft would reference as background detail in his stories. I'll let him explain them here:
"...They're beings, fantastic creatures...and they lived on this planet long before us. Their history is the history before ours...They were grand in size, maybe even Gods, but hideous to look at it. They lived in great cities that touched the sky, and they walked this world like kings...It was a time of miracles beyond description...But their world vanished, and ours began..."
It's a bit different than what we really find in the tales, which is usually a character who suffers fatal consequences when the veil is removed from their perception of reality and their minds shatter as they come to the realization that humanity is not the center of the universe, but the spirit is the same.
Our heroes discover that the secrets of these Old Ones are contained in a real book of magic, which is something that sparks Houdini's imagination and obsession. Of course, whoever finds the book will find themselves in control of a dangerous power, and as more and more clues concerning the identity of the killer point towards the awakening of these creatures, we begin to realize that the fate of the world and humanity is at stake.
Does it work?
Yeah, it's weird though, but in a good way. It reads like a pulpy, Detective Comics procedural with a famed magician as the hero trying to stop a Lovecraftian horror from invading our reality. I'd imagine if Weird Tales published screenplays, this would be the type of script they would herald.
What I like "The Book of Magic" is that it never falls into the trap that most of August Derleth's (and others) Cthulhu Mythos fiction falls in, which is creating a dualism within the structure of The Old Ones, a good and evil bifurcation that Lovecraft never intended.
The horror of the Lovecraftian world is that there absolutely is something bigger than us in the universe, and to it we are as inconsequential as a grain of sand. There's a nihilism to it, a realization of an encroaching despair, something that snuffs out our light of significance and hope. And what's scarier than that?
"The Book of Magic" is about stopping The Unbeheld from returning to our world and destroying us. And while Lovecraft is someone who may have suffered from his own sense of despair, Houdini is someone that fought the impossible. It's a nice combo that mixes together well, and I suppose there's something about this draft that makes it read like a great graphic novel, if not a cool, little movie.
The heart of the story is the relationship between Houdini and his wife, Bess. Bess' is concerned about Houdini's well-being, as she worries herself into a frenzy that her husband is going to kill himself one day and become a victim to one of his own adventures. This is used to great effect during the final scene of the story, and it moved me when I wasn't expecting to be moved.
I suppose my only criticism is that the writer should have made Lovecraft more of a three-dimensional character, and I would have liked to see the concept exploited even more than it was, i.e. Why not have Houdini pull more from his bag of tricks during his quest?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Even if you have a concept that is a comic-book (or in this case, literature geek) geek's wet dream, it still has to be emotionally moving. A fanboy concept may make a great logline, but it won't make a great script unless the execution of the story moves you in some way. One of the ways this script did this was by focusing on Houdini's ambition. It's a flaw that his wife believed would lead him to his death. It's a flaw that caused conflict between him and his wife. Because she worried about his well-being, I worried about his well-being. If each obstacle is a challenge bigger than the last, I kept wondering, what obstacle is going to kill him? When Houdini goes missing into the 3rd of this story, I found that my heart was invested in Lovecraft's quest to locate him. Comic-books may have plenty of external conflict, but it's the internal conflict that ultimately moves you.