Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Caitlín Kiernan’s “Pickman’s Other Model (1929),” first published in March 2008 in Sirenia Digest. Spoilers ahead.
“Thurber and I used to argue about the validity of first-person narration as an effective literary device, him defending it and me calling into question the believability of such stories, doubting both the motivation of their fictional authors and the ability of those character narrators to accurately recall with such perfect clarity and detail specific conversations and the order of events during times of great stress and even personal danger.”
Our narrator goes nameless until late in “Pickman’s Other Model,” when he’s called “Mr. Blackman.” Okay, let’s call him that, though he’s almost certainly the “Eliot” to whom Lovecraft’s Thurber described the secret North End studio of Richard Upton Pickman. You remember, the one with the unspeakable canvases and the rat-haunted well in the basement.
The year’s 1929, and William Thurber’s blown out his brains in a seedy Providence apartment. Long-time friend Blackman arrives to sort through his papers. He knows that Thurber’s nerves were severely shaken during service in WWI, and then there was his “psychoneurotic fixation” with Pickman and his blasphemous art. He even knows what Thurber thought he experienced in that secret studio. Still, he’s shocked by his friend’s suicide.
Among Thurber’s effects are several Pickman sketches, including two remarkable female nudes. Blackman’s also found a file on Thurber’s latest obsession, the film actress Vera Endecott, and he recognizes her as Pickman’s model. His first impression of the woman is that her “loveliness might merely be a glamour concealing some truer, feral face.” He’s no movie-goer himself, but he’s intrigued enough to look into Endecott’s career.
She was born to a peculiar family, hailing from Essex County in Massachusetts. The Snows were prominent in local business, but rumors of witchcraft, incest and even cannibalism dogged them. No wonder Lillian Margaret Snow changed her name once she’d escaped to pursue film acting. Vera Endecott soon earned notoriety of her own, however, for her supposed drug use and her involvement with occult societies. In 1927, she was among those arrested at a speakeasy raid. Or so some newspapers called it. Others claimed it was more like “a decadent, sacrilegious, orgiastic rite of witchcraft and homosexuality.” For sure it left one woman dead from stab wounds and a young screenwriter immured in a psychiatric ward. Also for sure, police seized a green soapstone image of a “crouching dog-like beast” which baffled consulting archaeologists. Though her movie career was effectively over, Endecott managed to squirm out of charges. The screenwriter later killed himself.
Blackman discovers a private screening room in Harvard Square that caters to fans of weird film. There he sees a movie starring Endecott. Afterwards he dreams of the stuffy theater, with dead Thurber sitting beside him. Together they watch a phantasmagoric movie in which a nude Endecott performs some sort of summoning ritual before a black lake. There she kneels under willow trees with trunks twisted from tortured human forms. But the real movie was nothing so poetically complex. Titled The Necrophile or The Hound’s Daughter, it was a twelve-minute scrap of pornography featuring Endecott having autoerotic sex with a human skeleton. Sort of human – the skull had been replaced by a semi-canine skull, no doubt a plaster prop. Most intriguing is a shadow that slouches in front of the camera seconds before the film ends: the hulking figure of a man somewhere down the evolutionary ladder from Homo sapiens, topped by a doglike head.
Blackman’s apparently inherited Thurber’s obsession with Endecott. He tracks down the actress and lures her to his apartment with the promise of returning Pickman’s sketches. She looks much older than her twenty-seven years, yet her eyes are still striking, the same sea-gray the Greeks ascribed to Athena.
Endecott cadges a cigarette, and Blackman hurries into his interrogation. So she knew Richard Pickman? Her smile is “oddly bestial.” That was a long time ago, and besides, Pickman’s dead now. Or if he isn’t, well, “we should all be fortunate enough to find our heart’s desire, whatever it might be.” How they met was simple enough: Pickman needed a model, she needed money.
Blackman shows her the two nude sketches. He asks if Pickman took artistic license in drawing a crooked, malformed tail protruding from her coccyx. No, but she had that removed in 1921. She couldn’t do it sooner, her father was so proud of her “heritage.” And that will be enough questions for one day. She asks if Blackman has more sketches of her, for there were many. He says no, and she leaves with the two.
Soon afterward, Vera Endecott (nee Lillian Margaret Snow) is found hanging from a tree in King’s Chapel Burial Ground. Someone’s cut her throat, cut out her tongue, disemboweled her, sewed up her lips, and hung a sign around her neck. On it, scrawled with her blood, is the word apostate.
Blackman considers burning Thurber’s file on Endecott, but why? If they want him, destroying the papers won’t save his life. He puts his story and all the supporting material in his safety deposit box. He can never forget what he’s learned or escape from foul dreams, but at least he can hope to have seen the last of “the waking horrors that [his] foolish, prying mind has called forth.”
What’s Cyclopean: Eliot’s dream movie is a “silent, grisaille scene.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Endicott/Snow accuses Eliot of being gay, or Jewish, or maybe gay and Jewish. Not in those terms.
Mythos Making: The notorious family from Massachusetts are, for once, not Deep Ones. But the creepy dog-skulled people lurking around the story’s edges are definitely ghouls.
Libronomicon: In print this week are Kidder’s Weekly Art News and Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned. We also have a shelf of movies to go along with the books, including The Phantom of the Opera, Nosferatu, London After Midnight, and Salomé.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Eliot has all sorts of ideas about Thurber’s sanity but thinks that he, personally, hasn’t lost his mental faculties—yet. Though he can’t sleep in dark rooms and has developed a number of unspecified phobias.
“Pickman’s Other Model” makes an interesting contrast with last week’s story. “The Salem Horror” wasn’t so much a sequel to “Dreams in the Witch House” as a second verse, same as the first, minus the cool stuff. And for all that, it never made direct reference to its predecessor—not so much as a location or character in common, unless Deific Baby Shoggoth really was Nyarlathotep in one of Their less prepossessing aspects. This week’s story is a direct sequel to “Pickman’s Model,” Kiernan’s narrator the confidant of Lovecraft’s. Following so closely on Howard’s heels is a fraught undertaking—I should know—and it can fail as easily by wandering too far from the original as by being too derivative.
Walking this narrow tightrope, “Pickman’s Other Model” works—mostly. Vera Endicott, sorceress, actress, and probably half-ghoul, seems like the sort of person who might legitimately have been lurking in the background of the Lovecraft story, if Lovecraft had remembered girls existed while he was writing it. Pickman, drawn to the horror under everyday veneers, might have found her glamour amusing. And for Thurber, still reeling from the PTSD that Lovecraft made obvious and Kiernan makes explicit, she might well have been a final straw. She suggests that not only Boston’s reassuring gambrel roofs, but feminine beauty, are mere masks of innocence over bloodshed. No safety anywhere, and no way for a soldier to come home.
I won’t delve too deep into the crunchy psychosexual stuff today—but my, there’s a lot of crunchy psychosexual stuff here. It’s not as blatant as “Furies From Boras” or “The Low, Dark Edge of Life,” but there’s definitely some of that in the background. Enough to know, at the very least, that Endicott/Snow’s career-ending ritual wasn’t much fun for any of the participants. And to consider why Eliot and Thurber both find a sexy female ghoul to be so much more disturbing than the other kind. This isn’t Moore’s reflexive assumption that sex = death—it feels more self-aware, following those tropes deliberately rather than by default.
So Kiernan builds on both theme and plot from the original story, while adding intriguing new twists. I especially like Endicott’s erotically creepy short film, and Eliot’s dream version of it. They have almost nothing in common, except for a naked woman and the implication of real horror underlying Hollywood illusion. Even more, I like Eliot’s awareness of that illusion. An unreliable narrator carefully explaining unreliable narrators could easily turn twee. But it fits the Pickmanish theme of tissue-thin reassurance lying atop chaos. Films are mere still frames, short stories ink on paper, human memory a constant effort to reconstruct and rewrite reality into a semblance of pattern—and, of course, to avoid correlating its contents.
With all that in place, maybe it shouldn’t frustrate me that the story cuts off before forming a coherent picture. After all, isn’t that the point? We live in a world of illusion, and if we think we’ve seen the whole story we’re deluding ourselves. And yet I want one more scene, one more revelation. I want one more explanatory thread tying together ancient families of degenerate sorcerers and ghoulish relatives and Eliot’s neuroses. I want to know why Endicott/Snow went apostate and had her tail removed. If I had a tail, I’d keep it.
I may already have mentioned that I would dearly love to own a couple Richard Upton Pickmans. Specifically the painting of a pious Puritan family infiltrated by a ghoulish changeling and the one mentioned in this week’s reread, “The Lesson,” which depicts the fate of the changeling’s opposite, the stolen human child. Okay, kid, you don’t have efficient ghoul dentition yet, so you need to go for the nice soft well-rotted bits, mmmmm. Those canvases could flank my reclaimed Curwen mantelpiece, elegantly complementing the soapstone Cthulhus and Nyarlathoteps that shadow-dance with the wan yellow flames on the hearth.
Yes, it’s true. I should have been an interior designer.
I don’t know that I’d want Pickman to paint my portrait, though. His realism is too precise, too clinical, to flatter anyone less comely than Vera Endecott, aka Lillian Margaret Snow. And note: He didn’t even straighten out that crooked tail of hers. A more merciful artist would have done so, then given the appendage an insouciant little sidelong curl and tip-flip. Pickman’s too great to be kind, however.
Now, Lovecraft had me thinking our Richard was far too immersed in his Art to party. Kiernan allows him lots of restorative leisure time in which to bed women, men and everything in between. Also to dabble in the young motion picture business, if we’re to believe the rumor of his screenwriting/directorial aspirations. Narrator Blackman’s not sure, but I am—Pickman had a hand in The Necrophile/The Hound’s Daughter, of which only that tantalizing, shocking twelve-minute reel remains.
‘Fess up. Who here looked up the Theda Bara/Skeleton publicity shots to which Blackman compares Endecott’s star turn with the bones? Do I detect blushes? Who’s that trying to sneak out the emergency exit? No need to be coy, those photos were relatively tame. Now, who has already started searching film archives and Boston basements for the never-released director’s cut of Necrophile? I bet the dinner party scene was sublime.
It’s inspired, Kiernan’s notion of taking one step farther back from Pickman, from William Thurber to Thurber’s “confessor” Eliot Blackman. Lovecraft leaves us with a sense that simply telling his tale won’t be enough to save Thurber from his own obsessions, even though he insists he’s given Pickman up—cut him, in the colorful social vernacular of the time. Kiernan lets Thurber fall into madness as he switches his fixation from Pickman to Vera Endecott. I imagine Thurber saw some devilish resemblance between the artist and the actress and so began his cutting-service quest to confirm their kinship. According to Kiernan, Thurber burned the reference photograph he’d convulsively plucked from Pickman’s unfinished masterpiece, “Ghoul Feeding.” Yet that pyre didn’t free him from memory, from the compulsion to pick at his own psychic scars until they bled and the truth of his nightmares drove him to self-murder.
Will Blackman one day follow his friend’s lead? He comes across as mentally sturdier than Thurber, and his act of turning from the eldritch underpinnings of life is considered and drama-free. He doesn’t burn the Endecott-Snow file, because he knows that won’t cauterize his memories or smoke out his dreams. Nor, if they are after him, will destroying that flimsy evidence deter them. The rational thing to do is to lock away the file in his safety deposit box, out of immediate reach but available to investigators, should any foul play befall him. He’s putting his faith in keeping away from physical manifestations of the darkness, like Vera, and hoping he can harden himself to the psychological echoes. Still, they do echo, and amplify, and echo, and amplify, as in his dreams of Vera on screen, which are so much worse than the actual film he viewed.
Except for the hulking shadow that lurched across the scene at its close. Way the scariest part, as shadows often are.
Vera herself fascinates rather than scares me. She seems caught between her family’s cult and culture and the pseudo-freedom of stardom that twentieth century humanity’s begun to worship. She can cut off her tail, but she can’t change her blood and upbringing. Even before her glitzy ambitions pall—in fact as she’s poised to fulfil them—Vera’s drawn to the black tarn of Blackman’s dream movie, which takes but doesn’t take her blood. And being drawn back to her origins, without being able to truly go home, destroys her.
Cynical and profane as the show biz life and addiction have left her, Vera can still feel, still long, for some return to self, some return to the truth she’s perhaps unwittingly named herself for. She muses about the vanished (transformed?) Pickman, “We should all be fortunate enough to find our heart’s desire, whatever it might be.” Whatever it might be! Including ghouldom.
In the end, apparently, Vera does pursue a lost-soul heart’s desire, which is return to her past and her people. A Snow knows of course where ghouls congregate, and that’s where she goes. Did she expect forgiveness? Did she just hope for it, as the last salvation without which she might as well be dead? There’s a desperate, pathetic gallantry there.
But it seems that ghouls [RE: Or just New England Old Money/Magic families?] don’t forgive apostates. That makes them much harder than Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, who absolve “Innsmouth’s” narrator of his crimes against his brethren and accept him into submarine glory.
No subterrane glory for Vera, for Lillian Margaret, only brutal execution.
Makes me sad, that.
Next week, S.P Miskowski’s “Strange is the Night” explores the sordid and decadent world of… theater reviews. (Given that it’s in Cassilda’s Song, an anthology of King in Yellow stories, we imagine that could get pretty sordid and decadent pretty quickly.)
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.