Friday, January 29, 2010

Pickman's Model by H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft begins “Pickman’s Model,” with urgency and immediacy by having his narrator tell the story to a third party in such a way that we see his rising nervousness and unease. We don’t hear the other side of the conversation, just the voice of the narrator. Lovecraft sets up the “dis-ease” of the story by letting us know that Pickman has disappeared under odd circumstances. He goes on to talk about how Pickman is able to take his artwork beyond the ordinary into the realm of torment formerly seen only in Goya paintings, and as a result grew more strange and repellant by the day.

We know that the friend who is listening to the story is named Eliot, but we never know the narrator’s name. It could be that Lovecraft did this to enable the reader to more easily put himself into that person’s place. In general he is faceless; we don’t ever know his age or physical characteristics.

The narrator establishes his own normalcy, how he tried to be a true friend to Pickman. This identifies him as a reliable narrator. We don’t question what he tells us. He then goes into a flashback using the actual dialogue Pickman used when trying to bring him to the house he had recently purchased. The house was old and forbidding and had an open well in the basement that dated back to the 1700’s, a perfect place for Pickman to tune out the world and work on his horrific artwork. Pickman talks about “…something queer in the cellar,” about the ghosts of the witches, smugglers and pirates who used to live in the area. At first Pickman speaks very lucidly.

The narrator is eager to see the strange house and, when invited, rushes to the dicey section of town with Pickman as his guide. At first it is all fun-spooky, but gradually he sees Pickman’s actual mental state as reflected in his ghastly paintings. Dog creatures who seem to have developed from mortals bear an uncanny resemblance to Pickman.

One of “those frightful pictures which turned colonial New England into a kind of annex to hell” gets the better of our narrator and he screams. The canvasses grow more and more vile and disgusting until they are at the actual well. “…these things repelled because of the utter humanity and callout cruelty they showed in Pickman.” The artwork was so completely convincing he feels that Pickman has some kind of inside scoop on demons.

I hadn’t read this story before, but when the narrator went to pull the photo from the side of the easel and Pickman is struck with fright, I immediately knew that there was a picture of an actual monster on the photo. Pickman goes off to battle (the so-called) rats, but we know it is something much more sinister. The artist goes to deal with his demon or whatever it is then ushers his friend home and that is the end of the evening.

We return to the narrator telling the story to his friend. He burns the photo, apparently because some things are too ghastly to exist in the world, even in photographs. Lovecraft goes in for the big finish to tell his friend it was an actual photo.

Maybe it’s because we’re so used to twist endings, I could see it coming for a mile. Probably when this story was written in the early 1900’s it would have been a shocker. Still, Lovecraft does an expert job of setting the eerie mood of the story, and their descent into the various levels of the basement echoes Dante’s travel to the various circles of hell. Their journey into the basement also mirrors Pickman’s descent into madness. In On Writing Horror, “The Madness of Art,” Joyce Carol Oates suggests that Lovecraft was always primarily concerned with the story; characters were always secondary to him. I can see that in one way, because we don’t know anything about the background of the narrator; we don’t even know his name. We see really well into the present state of the artist, but we know nothing about his background or how he came to see these demons, other than a vague reference to his being descended from a relative who was killed as a witch during the Salem witch trials.

I think this story falls flat for me because the narrator is never in any actual danger. No ghoul follows him home; there is no risk of his losing his sanity over the incident. The main thing I take from this as a writer is Lovecraft’s brilliant descriptions first of going into the decrepit and evil house then of the depraved paintings and Pickman’s apparent descent into madness.

I’ve not read a lot of Lovecraft because his writing hasn’t appealed to me that much, so I look forward to getting a better sense of him through the rest of the readings in this course.

Artwork is by Dan Harding.