Monday, July 25, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Pickman's Model

Though I'd read some of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft before the release of Call of Cthulhu in 1981, it was the publication of that roleplaying game that greatly accelerated my knowledge and appreciation for the works of HPL, as I suspect it was for others as well. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I believe the first edition of CoC includes an introduction or an essay by Sandy Petersen, in which he talks about his first encounter with Lovecraft at a tender age. As I recall it, Petersen states that the first Lovecraft tale he read was "Pickman's Model" and that it left a lasting impression on him (just as my first HPL story, "The Tomb," did for me). 

Seeing that in the pages of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook was recommendation enough for me and I quickly sought out the story. I found it in a paperback collection called The Dunwich Horror and Others. The story was every bit as memorable as Petersen had implied it would be. Like "The Tomb," it remains a favorite of mine, despite the fact that, by many measures, it's not one of Lovecraft's most well crafted stories. On the other hand, its central ideas are powerful ones and there are passages in the tale that I continue to find moving.

"Pickman's Model" first appeared in the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales. Like so many Lovecraft stories, it's told in the first person, in this case from the perspective of a man named Thurber, who tells his tale to yet another man, Eliot. Thurber begins by saying, "You needn't think I'm crazy, Eliot," which is rarely an auspicious beginning, particularly in a H.P. Lovecraft story. Thurber goes on to say that he had recently "begun to cut the Art Club" in order to "keep away from Pickman."

"Boston had never had a greater artist than Richard Upton Pickman," Thurber declares. 
 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. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.

If that sounds a bit like Lovecraft himself speaking, you're probably correct in your assessment. Much of what Thurber says about art in "Pickman's Model" echoes Lovecraft's own sentiments at the time. These passages are fascinating if you're interested in the evolution of HPL's own thought, but they sometimes get in the way of the narrative. 

Pickman, we learn, is an artist of the "morbid" and the "weird," whose works had "repelled" the upstanding members of the Boston arts scene. Thurber, at least initially, was more open-minded in his assessment. Indeed, he begins to spend a great deal of time with Pickman.

Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum. My hero-worship, coupled with the fact that people generally were commencing to have less and less to do with him, made him get very confidential with me; and one evening he hinted that if I were fairly close-mouthed and none too squeamish, he might shew me something rather unusual—something a bit stronger than anything he had in the house.

Remember that, at the beginning of the story, Thurber confessed to Eliot that he had started to "keep away from Pickman." At this point in his tale, though, he was instead the painter's friend and confidante. What, then, could have effected this change in his attitudes?

Pickman lives in the dilapidated North End of Boston, since any "sincere" artist would "put up with the slums for the sake of the massed traditions." 

God, man! Don’t you realise that places like that weren’t merely made, but actually grew? Generation after generation lived and felt and died there, and in days when people weren’t afraid to live and feel and die.

Again, this is clearly Lovecraft speaking through the mouth of Thurber, but I've long had sympathy for his preference for organic growth over rational planning when it comes to many human endeavors, so I'll let it pass. Regardless, Pickman eventually reveals to Thurber that he has "another studio" elsewhere "where I can catch the night-spirit of antique horror and paint things that I couldn't even think of in Newbury Street." This studio is located in a cellar near Copp's Hill Burying-Ground and it's here that he keeps his most shocking paintings, which Thurber sees for the first time.

There’s no use in my trying to tell you what they were like, because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathsomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify. 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. The backgrounds were mostly old churchyards, deep woods, cliffs by the sea, brick tunnels, ancient panelled rooms, or simple vaults of masonry. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, which could not be many blocks away from this very house, was a favourite scene.

The madness and monstrosity lay in the figures in the foreground—for Pickman’s morbid art was preëminently one of daemoniac portraiture. These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness. Ugh! I can see them now! Their occupations—well, don’t ask me to be too precise. They were usually feeding—I won’t say on what. They were sometimes shewn in groups in cemeteries or underground passages, and often appeared to be in battle over their prey—or rather, their treasure-trove. And what damnable expressiveness Pickman sometimes gave the sightless faces of this charnel booty! Occasionally the things were shewn leaping through open windows at night, or squatting on the chests of sleepers, worrying at their throats. One canvas shewed a ring of them baying about a hanged witch on Gallows Hill, whose dead face held a close kinship to theirs.

Thurber is most impressed by how realistic these paintings are, as if Pickman had not conjured them from his imagination but rather had painted them from life. That is, of course, the "surprise" twist of "Pickman's Model" and I hope no one will be aggrieved at my having revealed it here. The story is nearly a century old at this point and, besides, Lovecraft telegraphs the tale's ultimate revelation several times before explicitly presenting it. 

At any rate, it's not the conclusion of the story that matters so much as the ideas it presents and the manner in which Lovecraft does so. Lovecraft is deeply concerned with realism in art, which he considers to be essential to its power. This is why he spends so much time in his stories set the scene, enumerating seemingly insignificant details, and grounding his whole narrative in elaborate histories. One might justifiably quibble with his execution of this approach in some instance, but his reasons for doing so are quite sound, given his interest in literary realism. "Pickman's Model" is by no means a flawless masterpiece, yet it points the way forward for Lovecraft's later career and, for that reason alone, deserves one's attention.


  1. This was a great one, made even better by Randolph Carter's memorable encounter with Pickman in another story...

  2. With me it was the Rats in the Walls, but this story made an impression on me as well.

  3. The idea of modern-day ghouls is a perfectly self-contained concept, not really developed (apart from the Dream-quest) so much as echoed by Lovecraft in his other stories of degeneration and underground warrens.

    Of course, hugely influential on gaming, more so than on literature. I tried reading Caitlyn Kiernan's novel about the modern-day ghouls of Boston, Daughter of Hounds, but found it almost too cozy, a kind of Monster Mash scene where they're rubbing elbows with ghosts, vampires, and such.