Sunday, 24 April 2011

Pickman's Model

Pickman's Model”, first published in Weird Tales, October 1927.

This is the the seventeenth entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

1927 is a pretty good year for old HPL, and this is the third story he sold. I think it's fair to say that he's absolutely on fire in the period he's writing these. And there's more to come, with a run of stories in 1928 and 1929 that are among HPL's most admired.

Clark Ashton Smith
Most of the stories up until now have been explicitly or implicitly written narratives, but HPL goes the opposite way completely with Pickman's Model and has the the narrator -Thurber – addressing an old friend – Eliot – whose role that reader takes, however passively. Occasionally we're addressed by Thurber as “you”, but we have no agency or influence, no internal life is hinted at in the text. It's more of a dramatic monologue than a story, and Eliot's not a character, he's just the audience for Thurber's long anecdote.

HPL dwells on the contrast between modern Boston and the ancient horror of the ghouls beneath the city, the elevated railways and the dingy tunnels beneath the even the modern buildings that are slowly paving over the old town. The state of ghouldom seems to have much in common with the degradation of the Martense clan in The Lurking Fear or the mulattos in “The Horror At Red Hook”. This thing that's always there beneath the surface waiting to break through as soon as individuals drop their guard and give in to their most base desires.

Also nestled within the story is HPL's theory of uncanny and weird art, and at times the monologue dips into lecture:

Gustave Doré
“I don't have to tell you why Fuselli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost story story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There's something those fellows catch – beyond life – that they're able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola in Chicago has it and Pickman has it as no man had it before or – I hope to heaven - ever will again.”

It gets faint praise in from Joshi in A Life “From the cosmicism of The Call of Cthulhu [written before this, but published after] to the apparent mundaneness of Pickman's Model, seems a long step backward, and while this tale cannot by any means be deemed one of Lovecraft's best, it contains some features of interest.”

It is all somewhat undermined by the narrator's pompous tone. Thurber sounds like some old club duffer rather than an aesthete with a taste for the bizarre. He sounds like a hang over from the decadent era of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. The art he relishes as the purest cutting edge of horror also seems kind of quaint, even bearing the times in mind.

Henry Fuselli
When I think of the art of the 1920s, I think of cubists and futurists and dada getting started in France. These are inheritors of Doré and Goya and the horror artists of the 18th and nineteenth centuries. In terms of revealing the real world that lurks beneath reality I think these guys got deeper and eventually to more disturbing places than Sidney Sime or Clark Ashton Smith.

This story does seem like a throwback after The Colour Out of Space and The Outsider and even The Horror At Red hook. Those stories had a genuine, convincing and , urgent voice, where this one sounds too much like pastiche of an older style like Poe, Wilde, Machen or James, and thus stuck in an earlier era.
Sidney Sime

Coming up next, “The Call of Cthulhu”.


  1. Reviving an old post here, but... Nice little read about Pickman's Model. I've just published a comic-book adaption of the story, and your thoughts mirror mine almost exactly when I started the project. I chose it because it seemed like a "low-risk" Lovecraft story to adapt, and that I wanted to be faithful yet argue against Lovecrafts conservartive art-view with my brush.
    In the 3 and a half year process of making the comic, I've come to have a lot more respect for the story. I think the language has is probably as close as Lovecraft ever got to capturing his the way he himself spoke, being almost realistic without loosing the poetry of the descriptions, and I think that the building of tension is pretty sublime.
    A lot of people have called the "twist"-ending easy and too foreshadowed, but I think they miss the point. It is not a twist. It is foreshadowed heavilly because the story only makes sense, makes horror, if you know it's coming. It is the bit at the end of a nightmare that wakes you up. The scary part of the nightmare is everything that came before, the bit that wakes you up is just the realisation that there is no escape from the horror. In Pickman's Model, you are supposed to know, or have guessed, that when Thurber is alone in the cellar there are cannibalistic monsters in the tunnels below and oustide. The photography is just an exclamation mark after the true climax. Which is why the story and language settles down after the cellar sequence, and for a little while regains a sense of normality. A little breather before the reality of all that's hinted is finally unquestionable.
    Due to the lack of cosmicism, I originally thought it was in a sense a minor Lovecraft story. But upon closer examination the threat of this hidden and superior "devolution" of all-encompassing and apocalyptic as Lovecraft's more extravagant conceptions.

    So... to end this commment... I thought this story was one of Lovecraft's more obvious ones. Now I think it is actually one of his most subtle, and masterfully understated in it's own screaming way.

    Anyhow... go to to read, download for free use, or buy my book. Woul love to hear what you think of it.


  2. Hi Kim,

    Your comic looks fantastic! I've never been keen on adaptations of HPL stories in various media, but you absolutely nailed it.

    I'd definitely be interested in posting about this, but could you take another look at the kindle file? I downloaded it but there's something up with the file. Let me know when it's sorted and I'll download it again.

  3. Thanks for noticing the kindle file. I haven't got any native kindle or ePub reader, so I didn't check the files that created. Now I have, and they are not working, but I'm having a bit of trouble finding out how I'm supposed to remove and replace them. The .PDF works, however.


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