Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.
Today we’re looking at “The Picture in the House,” written on December 12, 1920 and first published in the July 1919 issue of The National Amateur (published in 1921, just to make things complicated).
You can read it here. Spoilers ahead.
“Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from traveled 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.”
Summary: An unnamed narrator (but Randolph Carter, is that you?) is making a bicycle tour of the Miskatonic Valley in search of genealogical data. He notes that searchers after horror haunt strange, far places; he, however, finds the ancient farmhouses of backwoods New England much more terrifying. They combine strength and solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance, into the perfection of the hideous.
Why? Because: While seeking freedom in the wilderness, the Puritans remained slaves to their gloomy beliefs, and their morbid self-repression brought forth dark traits from their cold Northern heritage. When they sinned, they did not sin beautifully—their silent, staring houses should be torn down out of mercy, for must they not dream of what they’ve seen?
Sorry, where were we? Right—in November 1896, where our narrator gets caught in a rainstorm in the Arkham backcountry. He seeks shelter in a decrepit farmhouse at the base of a rocky hill. Though overgrown, it doesn’t look quite deserted, so he knocks. No one answers. The door proves unlocked. He wheels his bicycle into a vestibule where the walls shed plaster and a faint but hateful odor lurks. A door leads to a sitting room whose furnishings include nothing made later than the mid-18th century. An air of unhallowed age and crudeness oppresses him. It only grows when he peruses a book lying on the table: Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo, 1598. He pages through the Latin text, with its curious engravings of Africans misrepresented as white Caucasians. The book keeps falling open to a picture of a cannibal butcher shop.
Steps sound overhead—the house isn’t untenanted, after all. The steps, unnervingly heavy and stealthy, descend the stairs. The man who comes into the sitting room is white-bearded and ragged, tall and powerful-looking despite his evident age. His face is ruddy, his eyes blue and keen and burning. He could very much use a bath. For all his unprepossessing appearance, he greets his unexpected visitor with ingratiating hospitality and an antiquated Yankee dialect.
Our narrator did right to come in out of the rain, says the old man. And it’s good to see a new face. Narrator’s a town man, ain’t he, like that district schoolmaster who went missing in ’eighty-four. Unaccountable chuckle. After the old man rattles on for a while more, feverishly congenial, the narrator asks him about his copy of Regnum Congo. The old man becomes even more voluble. Why, he got that Afriky book off Cap’n Ebenezer Holt in ’sixty-eight. (Strange, thinks the narrator. In his genealogical research, he’s seen references to Holt, but not in any record since the Revolutionary War.)
The old man can’t read Latin, but he likes looking at the engravings—queer how pictures can set a body thinking. Parson Clark—who they say drowned in the pond—used to translate the book for him. Could his visitor? The narrator obliges, and the old man rewards him by showing off the best picture of all, that of the cannibal butcher’s shop. Narrator is less thrilled than ever by the macabre representation of human haunches and severed limbs and an ax-wielding butcher. The old man too obviously relishes it and says it makes his blood tickle, like accounts of slaying in the Bible. He confides that he used to look at the picture before killing sheep, which made the slaughter more fun somehow.
As narrator shivers, unseasonable thunder sounds outside.
The old man goes on about how the picture made him hungry for food he couldn’t raise or buy. Not that he did anything about his hunger. They do say, though, that meat makes blood and flesh, and might not meat more the same make a man live longer?
Before he can continue, a drop falls on the open book. Is the roof leaking? Rain is not red. The old man looks up at the ceiling, which must be the floor of the room he quitted earlier. An irregular spot of wet crimson seeps through the loose plaster!
The narrator doesn’t shriek or move. He shuts his eyes. A moment later, a thunderbolt blasts the accursed house, bringing him sanity-saving oblivion.
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing cyclopean here, only a brief description of the catacombs of Ptolemais, moonlit Rhine towers, and forgotten Asian cities—to contrast with the ultimate horror of old houses in New England.
The Degenerate Dutch: The rural poor constitute the perfection of hideousness. Because they’re the fallen descendants of a conquering race, flourishing free of civilization’s restrictions. Then they take up uncivilized practices that may or may not be practiced in the Congo.
Mythos Making: First appearance—or at least first mention—of both the Miskatonic Valley and Arkham!
Libronomicon: The picture in question is in an extremely rare book: Pigafetta’s 1598 Relatione delreame del Congo. The rest of the house’s literary contents are “meagre”—just a few 18th century antiques including a bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Houses. Houses ward off madness through a lethal stupor that dulls the memory of unutterable things. And the people who live in those houses are even worse.
Filippo Pigafetta’s Relatione delreame del Congo is a real book. Lovecraft evidently never saw it, but no matter. He uses his version of the tome to queasy effect in a story that’s not about Africa at all. Nor is it about any other exotic country that overly long-sighted seekers of the macabre may haunt, not understanding, like the true epicure, that the greatest horror is in one’s own backyard. Or backwoods, at least.
“Picture” opens with a mini-manifesto about homegrown horror, but I wonder whether its germ wasn’t a dream. The central incident has the eerily logical illogic of vivid nightmare, the kind where you remember details so psychically reverberant you have to do something with them. Here those details would be the house, the book, the book’s admirer, and the blood drop and splotch. What to do with these? Well, frame them with the manifesto and the genealogist’s journey, then get out as fast as possible. The thunderbolt, borrowed perhaps from Poe’s “Usher” and also from Lovecraft’s own “Tomb,” is an inelegant exit from a striking image. In fact, let’s admit it, it’s downright clumsy. Are we to suppose that the house and its monstrous owner are destroyed, while the narrator survives, physically intact and sanity saved? And what about his bicycle? Will he have to walk to Arkham now? Or was the whole incident dreamed? Imagined? Oh hush, you critical reader. It’s all about the house, and the book, and the old man, and the blood. That blood!
Personified nature and houses make appearances, as often in Lovecraft. Vines crawl, and trees swell, and windows blink through lethal stupor or stare slyly and hauntingly. The Puritans come in for another drubbing, all gloom and fanaticism and repression turned perversion. Lovecraft does not like our seventeenth-century forebears, even as he acknowledges his fantasist’s debt to them. He’s way too hard on the Puritans, I think. After all, Cotton Mather went out on a limb for smallpox inoculation, and Samuel Sewall would repent his part in the Salem trials, and Roger Williams would preach separation of church and state. Evidence suggests Puritans could occasionally have fun and live to tell about it, but there is something to the intensity of their experience, that baffling conception of grace as something not to be earned by rote religious observance yet somehow figured forth by that observance. Doubt is a keystone, and one that can hang heavily about the neck. Are you among those preordained for salvation? If so, you could go ahead and sin, grill up some manburgers. Except, see, that’s not behaving like someone who’s saved, which is how people who are saved behave, naturally. Or something like that. Pass the sackcloth and scourges. At least, don’t let anyone know about the manburgers. Say the schoolmaster disappeared. Say the parson drowned in the pond. Oh. Okay.
Back to the opening manifesto. I do think Lovecraft is right about how familiarity can add to the terror of a situation. I mean, you expect vampires to be skulking around ruined fanes in Transylvania. When they invade homey English villages, from within, like E. F. Benson’s Mrs. Amsworth, now that’s scary. Or when they float outside your suburban Maine window, as they do in King’s Jerusalem’s Lot. The uncanny in your own neighborhood is the uncanniest, the local evil the evilest. Hey, I live here! This should not be. Nope, not in my backyard.
A telling detail in “Picture” is what the narrator finds most “bizarre” and unsettling about the engraving of the cannibal butcher shop. The shop’s supposed to be in Africa, an exotic place with exotic dark people where awful things might happen of course. And yet the artist has drawn the cannibals (and their victims) as white men! Caucasians! People like the narrator! His terrible old host also notes this discrepancy, but just lumps it among the other questionable wonders of the tome, like the half-men half-monkeys (chimpanzees?) and the dragon with an alligator’s (crocodile’s?) head. He’s more open to new sensations, new experiences, than the narrator. Or more susceptible to suggestion from literature and art, which brings up the question of whether literature and art can lead the unstable astray, can be a moral or legal excuse for bad behavior, which is a big question with many ramifications.
If he hadn’t stumbled across Captain Holt’s copy of Regnum Congo, would this particular Yankee have become a cannibal? Would he have chosen another path of deviance or even remained a lawful citizen?
I’m thinking about it. At the same time, I’m mulling a couple of other things. First, is our narrator Randolph Carter? He’s pursuing genealogical research around Arkham, Carter’s birthplace, and he’s supposed by the old man to hail from Boston, Carter’s later abode. And the whole adventure seems like one Carter might have had, less harrowing than many, in fact.
Second, when Lovecraft expands his imperiled setting to include the whole of Earth, isn’t he still clinging to the power of local horror? After all, Earth is our neighborhood in that vast and chaotic cosmos which the Great Races traverse and the Outer Gods rule.
I’ll bet we’ve all been caught in this kind of conversation. You thought you were talking about something light and fun with someone who’s just a little off, but probably it’s not anything important. And all of a sudden you realize you’re stuck in a corner with Creepy Guy.
“Picture” plays pretty closely with Lovecraft’s racism—and the real fears behind it. The narrator sees the picture of cannibals in the Congo, and immediately labels them as “negros.” But “negros with white skin and caucasian features”—so what, exactly, makes them something other than anthropophagic caucasians? Maybe the caption? But more likely his own wishful thinking.
Cannibalism has always represented the ultimate in uncivilized behavior (except, of course, for Martians, and actual practitioners of funerary or post-battle anthropophagy). It’s why we need to fight Them Over There right now, with no questions asked, and it stands at the center of every xenophobic blood libel. It’s an overused trope of post-apocalyptic fiction, producing convenient stock bad guys who prove, short-hand, just how apocalyptic things have become. Picture’s narrator—and Lovecraft (and a few modern writers I could name)—would prefer cannibalism to be something savages practice in darkest Africa. But there’s zero evidence for that here. In the picture, it’s something that white people practice in books only ostensibly about Africa.
And in the Miskatonic Valley… it may be something practiced by the narrator’s own fallen ancestors. After all, he’s traveling for genealogical research. And gets a lead from his host before things start dripping red. The real fear, laid out explicitly at the story’s start, is that “civilized” people—one’s own conquering, upper-class family—will fall as far from civilization as one can imagine, as soon as they get away from its strictures.
The story’s set-up pretty standard: caught in a storm, nearest shelter turns out to hold your worst fears. Ax murderers, singing alien sex vampires, that kind of thing. Frequently (at least in the modern stuff), those shelters are upper class houses, or houses that were once upper class—crumbling gilded age mansions, formerly luxurious hotels. The rich will eat you. But here it’s a straight-out hovel. Of course, it’s a hovel in which lives a descendant of privilege, of people who traded actual luxury for the freedom to follow their worse impulses. Huh. Nothing to see here, move right along.
The ending is weird, and suggests that Lovecraft really, really did not know how to handle this particular fear. Is there an actual creepy dude and an actual fire? Is the whole thing some sort of weird vision brought on by too much genealogical research? Does the narrator only black out because otherwise he’d have to do something?
Getting a little less deep, or at least, into things that scare me rather than Lovecraft, his idea of what constitutes a meager book collection is entertaining. I could tell him horror stories about a house we sublet once—in rural Massachusetts, yet—that contained nothing but a copy of The Celestine Prophecy.
Next week, we take a step back and discuss our impressions from the reread so far. What’s with all the adjectives? Where’s the finicky border between Mythos and Dreamland? Speaking of the latter, if you want to get ahead on your reading, after we catch our breaths we’ll finally be tackling “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” Be there or be non-Euclidean.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.