Friday, February 15, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Picture in the House"

Spooky Synopsis: Seekers of eerie locales might travel to time-eaten crypts or distant charnel houses in search of nameless terrors, but blood-curdling fear can be found near at home, even here in New England. So thinks the unnamed narrator of "The Picture in the House." See, one day while travelling through Massachusetts, he found himself driven by a terrible thunderstorm into one of those ramshackle houses one finds in the country. Inside, he met an old man who possessed a miraculous collection of books, including a 16th century copy of an account of Pigafetta's African expedition. The man spoke (in an oddly archaic dialect) as though he'd received it half a century ago. A near impossibility. The man was old, but not that old. Yet as the narrator translated bits of the book from Latin at his host's request, he found himself alarmed by the man's interest in a grotesque picture that shows an individual being dismembered in a butcher shop.

Lovecraftian Language: "Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp, grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock. Two hundred years and more they have leaned or squatted there, while the vines have crawled and the trees have swelled and spread. They are almost hidden now in lawless luxuriances of green and guardian shrouds of shadow; but the small-paned windows still stare shockingly, as if blinking through a lethal stupor which wards off madness by dulling the memory of unutterable things."

Eerie Evaluation: "The Picture in the House" is a mere step away from stumbling into fatally dull territory. It shouldn't be given the subject matter, but Lovecraft's intro stretches on so long that it feels as though he's encased the story in not one but two framing devices. Matters hardly improve once you get into the meat of the narrative. He directs a couple of pointless jabs at the Puritans before plunging into a long section told mostly through dialect. (I agree with Anne Lamott when it comes to dialect: Do it really well or don't do it at all. Sadly, Lovecraft's attempts here left me squinting at the page.) But what really cripples "The Picture" is a deus ex machina ending that rivals almost any other I've read for sheer awfulness. Even with all these flaws, I still found myself snared by four sentences describing the narrator's shocked realization about what has gone on in for years in that dingy little house. Those bits of description are just effectively enough to make you mourn for the tale's lost potential.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):


To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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