Friday, July 5, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "Pickman's Model"

Spooky Synopsis: Thurber has finally had enough of Richard Upton Pickman. No, he hasn't changed his opinion about the man's artistic brilliance. Pickman possessed a brilliant technique, even though his diseased mind steered him to paint the most grotesque tableaus. Grue and gore, obscenity and abomination, his pencil traced them all, and his brush shaded their ghastly hues. Thurber never wondered that Reid and Minot and Bosworth dropped him. But they were lily-liver dabblers, dilettantes without the stomach to handle the hard facts of life, facts that art ought to commemorate. No, that wasn't why Thurber started avoiding the unsavory artist. It was for other reasons, and he's only willing to reveal them now that Pickman has mysteriously disappeared.

Lovecraftian Language: "No, I don't know what's become of Pickman, and I don't like to guess. You might have surmised I had some inside information when I dropped him -- and that's why I don't want to think where he's gone. Let the police find what they can -- it won't be much, judging from the fact that they don't know yet of the old North End place he hired under the name of Peters. I'm not sure that I could find it again myself -- not that I'd ever try, even in broad daylight! Yes, I do know, or am afraid I know, why he maintained it. I'm coming to that. And I think you'll understand before I'm through why I don't tell the police. They would ask me to guide them, but I couldn't go back there even if I knew the way. There was something there -- and now I can't use the subway or (and you may as well have your laugh about this, too) go down into cellars any more."

Eerie Evaluation: "Pickman's Model" distinguishes itself in three ways. First, the short radiates a sense of place. Lovecraft almost always includes some reference to New England in his stories, but here he includes more than the few scattered descriptions of the ancient forests and crumbling homesteads that he usually employs to add local color. No, "Pickman's Model" gets up to its elbows in vivid prose about grimy habitations with both public and private histories, secret tunnels older than America itself, and supernatural secrets glimpsed by Puritan figures such as Cotton Mather. It's grounded, specific, and striking. Second, the narrator sounds as though he has a life of his own. In other works, Lovecraft gave similar first-person-viewpoint characters their own backgrounds and professions, but too often they felt thinly spread, a poor coating over the crust of the author's own personality. Not so Thurber; he's his own man. You see it most clearly in his colloquial diction. Pleasantly chatty one moment, nervously garrulous the next, and always offering an excuse to have yet another drink, he speaks just like you'd expect a real person to and not like an authorial surrogate. Finally, "Pickman's Model" sets up a strong structure and sticks to it while liberally sprinkling clues about its surprise ending. If you're eagle-eyed enough, you can probably suss out the conclusion from the first or second paragraph -- or maybe even from the title itself. I did, yet the realization hardly dampened the horror for me, a fear founded upon the thought of dank catacombs and moldy tunnels and the things that might call them home.

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

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


dolorah said...

Are all these from a specific Lovecraft novel? They are interesting story teachings.


Scattercat said...

I think the most Lovecraft ever managed was a novella. (I mean, technically "Charles Dexter Ward" is, I think, a novel, but eh, it usually gets reprinted with a bunch of shorts anyway.)

Pickman has always been a particular favorite of mine.

Loren Eaton said...

Nathaniel's right, Donna: From what I can tell, pretty much everything Lovecraft wrote was novella-length or shorter.