“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:
“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.
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.
Coming up next, “The Call of Cthulhu”.