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Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; Pickman’s Model

FUSELI: NIGHTMARE, 1781.

Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true.

Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we’re diving into Pickman’s Model; a singularly unique Lovecraft story. We get not only the classic Lovecraft tropes; Witchcraft, summons, and people going beyond their ken to gain power or knowledge, but we get some insight into the man himself and his personal tastes (hint, they’re just as weird as his writing is).

We know exactly how the story will end within the first few paragraphs, and yet, this is one of Lovecraft’s finest works (at least in my opinion). The previously mentioned themes of Lovecraft are in the background (though obviously present), and two facets of Lovecraft’s personality come through, the love of New England (specifically Boston) and his love of art. His prose transcends much of his normal exposition because he’s describing, what is in his opinion, high art. He isn’t only trying to create horrors, but he’s lifting up some of his favorite artists and some of his contemporaries. It reads as though he was having a blast writing, which some of the stories he wrote (I’m looking at you Herbert West – Reanimator) feel contrived.

The story is simple. We follow an art curator who had Richard Upton Pickman as a resident in his Art Club, to a gruesome conclusion. He begins the story by telling us “…I cant use the subway or go down into cellars anymore.” and that “Morbid art doesn’t shock me…” We know all of Pickman’s art is morbid because the narrator tells us that the only piece that wasn’t wholly grotesque, the one that people could actually palate, was the piece entitled “Ghoul Feeding” which was hung in the narrators Art Club.

The narrator goes to great pains to explain that “Pickman’s forte was faces.” and how he had “latent instincts” for “the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.

To give example the narrator says “…Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh.” because “There’s something those fellows catch – beyond life – that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Dore had it.

Gustave Dore “Satan in Council”

Indeed Dore was lauded as the most iconic realist artists of in his time. His black and white drawings had more depth of character of anything I’ve had ever seen either (I have “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Coleridge, illustrated by Dore and it is everything). His mostly religious vistas brought humanity to his angels and devils. Dore endeavored to show his audience that humanity could be all of these things. We were the angels. We were the devils. We were everything in between. We came to realize, through his art, that WE were better or worse than anything we could actually dream up.

Sidney Sime “Slid”

Then our narrator mentions Sime. Sidney Sime was a fantasist and a satirist who relied on his outrageous concepts to elicit emotion. Famously he partnered up with Lord Dunsany (is it any wonder that Lovecraft liked Sime?) to illustrate Dunsany’s “The Gods of Paegana.” Dunsany famously quoted “I tried to account for the Ocean and the Moon. I don’t know whether anyone has ever tried that before.” Dunsany is Lovecraft’s inspiration for stories like Dagon, and with images like “Slid” is it really any wonder?

Art is the centerpiece of this masterful story, but either because Lovecraft is channeling the art or because of it’s inspiration; we get some of the best, most atmospheric writing he’s done. While explaining that Pickman’s relatives were cast out of Salem in 1692 (we’ve heard that one before!), the narrator describes how they treaded through the North End:

When we did turn, it was to climb through the deserted length of the oldest and dirtiest alley I ever saw in my life, with crumbling – looking gables, broken small – paned windows, and archaic chimneys that stood out half-disintegrated against the moonlit sky. I don’t believe there were three houses in sight that hadn’t been standing in Cotton Mathers time – certainly I glimpsed at least two with an overhang, and once I thought I saw a peaked roof-line of the almost forgotten pre-gambrel type, though antiquarians tell us there are none left in Boston.”

This is a classic Lovecraft technique. We go from some normal vista to an area that is just a little off. Something that shouldn’t be possible. There’s nothing outwardly menacing about the neighborhood the narrator suddenly experiences, but the mention that “antiquarians tell us there are none left…” indicates that we have passed into another world, or we have transcended into an underworld where normal people don’t pass.

The narrator tells us again and again that he is not weak of heart, that he has seen horrible paintings, but “It was the faces…those horrible faces, that leered and slavered out of the canvas with the very breath of life!” He sets us up for the denouement when we finally reach Pickman’s vault.

Clark Ashton Smith “The Forbidden Barrier”

The vault is filled with paintings; “…the ones he couldn’t paint or even shew in Newbury Street…” The narrator tells us “There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood.” No, these were more hyper realistic than his public “Ghoul Feeding” painting that turned everyone’s blood. It seems that most of these paintings had a backdrop of Copp’s Hill burying ground, which had a number of figures who “…were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree.” and “They were usually feeding.”

Our narrator is disgusted, but he allows Pickman to take him into the next area where things get even more atmospheric. We get depictions of art with creatures coming up from cracks and holes in the ground, and strange angles and spaces that should not be possible. Here again, Lovecraft is making an effort to seep into our subconscious without us ever knowing it. There is a very real fear called Trypophobia which states that people are scared of honeycombs or groups of regular holes (I wont scar anyone with pictures…but if you’re curious click here) . To envision hellish creatures coming from these holes is just one more way to make the reader feel ill at ease. It’s an atmospheric addition in which Lovecraft uses to perfection. Likewise his “strange geometry” which we’ve seen before as well. Remember back in “Dream in the Witch House” where the “sorcerer” used the strange geometry of the house to better conjure up horrors? Lovecraft is setting the scene for the climax. Building the tension, making the reader feel… off. The first step is setting the stage that Pickman is somehow odd and descended from witches. The next is heading into a place that even historians say doesn’t exist. The final step is giving the audience a glimpse of strange and off-putting artwork – artwork that’s hard to look at because it shouldn’t be possible. Art work that is too horrible to look at without screaming.

As we digest this, the narrator sees a camera. When asked, Pickman “…told me that he used it in taking scenes for backgrounds...” and our narrator sees a paper crumbled up next to a painting. He makes an effort to unravel it, when he is distracted by Pickman taking him deeper into his studio, so the narrator puts the crumpled paper into his pocket.

When they get into a bricked up room Pickman shows the narrator a work in progress so terrifying that it makes our narrator scream. This, right here, is what’s so wonderful of Lovecraft’s work. He’s painstakingly told us that Pickman had a horrible realism to his work. Then we get possible examples that are close, but not quite as terror inducing as anything Pickman had the ability to exude. We get a few examples of his lesser works as well, just to give the reader some dread as to what is coming – “The Lesson” about dog-like things that are teaching stolen children how to eat like them…”Subway Accident” which portrayed “a flock of vile things…clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.” – also an unnamed drawing that depicted “a vast cross-section of Beacon Hill, with ant-like armies of the mephitic monsters squeezing themselves through burrows that honeycombed the ground.

All of this anticipation and then Lovecraft purposely keeps the description of the painting which finally puts the narrator over the edge because Lovecraft knows that whatever we’ve been building in our minds is far more terrifying than anything he could possibly put to page. Lovecraft does this time and again in his work, where he describes just enough to make the psyche of his reader take off and make of what they are reading that much worse.

The scream causes Pickman to start. He produces a revolver and ushers our narrator out of the room. He makes up an excuse that there’s a rat nest in the walls, but when he’s hidden from sight something more devious happens. Our narrator heard, “a sharp grating noise, a shouted gibberish from Pickman, and the deafening discharge of all six chambers of a revolver...”

That ends the narrators adventures with Pickman. He leaves to go home and is terribly off put by the realism of the paintings, the detail Pickman is able to get from the photos he takes for the backgrounds, the realistic faces Pickman is able to create out of nothing. But then, when he gets home, he feels the paper in his pocket. It isn’t a paper at all. It’s a photograph. A photograph of “the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas.”

And oh reader, “It was the model he was using – and it’s background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail…It was a photograph from life.

Join me next week as we tackle the infamous “History of the Necronomicon!”

Post Script:

There is another painting in Pickman’s vault which gives us and interesting peek into Lovecraft’s social landscape.

A scene in an unknown vault, where scores of beasts crowded about one who held a well-known Boston guide-book and was evidently reading aloud. All were pointing to a certain passage, and every face seemed so distorted with epileptic and reverberant laughter that I almost thought I heard the fiendish echoes. The title of the picture was “Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow Lie Buried in Mount Auburn.”

This is a seeminly deviant view at first. It’s just demons looking at a…guidebook? But then we get answers when we get the title. Mount Auburn is a well known cemetery in Boston and it’s the main resting place for the Boston Brahmins (nomenclature penned by the doctor and writer Oliver Wendall Holmes…yes the same Holmes).

So why are the demons laughing at the guidebook? Well the Boston Brahmins are heavily associated with the Boston Aristocracy and Anglicism. Two things that Lovecraft railed against.

So what is Lovecraft saying here? The demons have a guidebook. The demons are looking for this place, because they are going to collect the Boston elite and religious, because, to Lovecraft, those two things are worse than being a murderer. The demons, using the guidebook, have finally found their way to the elite to procure thier pound of flesh. Death and the cemetery wont save them.

That right there is what’s so wonderful about Lovecraft. These little gems that you can extract, only if you look close enough, to the overall narrative.

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