Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lovecraft 101 - The Picture in the House

The Picture in the House
The Picture in the House serves as an important turning point in the subject matter and setting of Lovecraft's fiction. The beginning of the story sets the stage for not only this, but almost all of his remaining works. It is here that he sets out to reveal the underlying terror at the heart of New England, choosing to leave behind the gothic elements that had become so stock for modern horror fiction. He further discussed this in an essay he wrote discussing Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood and even Hawthorne entitled SupernaturalHorror in Literature.
It is in this story that we are immersed in the fictional countryside of the mythos and other stories that make up the distinct works of HPL. It is also here that we are first introduced to two of the most important places in Lovecraft fiction: the Miskatonic Valley and the town of Arkham. Though neither location is explored in this story, it sets up the location for many of his later works.
I have not spent much time in New England, but with a lifetime spent reading the stories of King and Lovecraft, and the others listed above, it has always seemed like the type of place I would both love to explore and so easily want to get the hell out of. I think the start of this story really serves that point. It entices you into wondering about this place, and yet sets up all these horrors to further make you never want to set foot in rural New England. It is eventually because of these stories that I reluctantly still have a deep seeded fear of small towns at night.
These are the places of the religiously oppressed settlers, who have sought refuge in seclusion, but in doing so, generation after generation have slipped into madness and fanaticism unseen and unhindered by the modern world. This is the breeding ground of the backwoods cults that appear so much in Lovecraftian fiction, and apart from the monsters, is my favorite part of what makes something Lovecraftian.
In the story, a scholar is traveling through New England studying its people and making a log of their lineages, when he happens upon an old cabin. The place appears overgrown and abandoned and so the man ventures inside to get out of a rainstorm. Within the cabin, the scholar discovers and old book depicting the cannibal cultures of the Congo. Now this is actually a real book that Lovecraft is referring to, and while he himself had never seen it, he does know of it. In fact the image he is referring to from the book can be seen here.
Illustration by Jeff Powers © 2013

While peering at the book, the scholar meets the old inhabitant of the house, a strange New Englander. It doesn't take much before the two are discussing the strange tome of cannibalistic engravings. Because Lovecraft had not actually seen the book in person, many of the images they discuss are not actually in the book. But it is not those that the old man is interested in. It is the depiction of the cannibal butchershop that so often catches his eye. The man is obsessed, "compelled" to look over the image constantly. Compulsion is something Lovecraft writes about well. He understands how hidden things can be all consuming and how an artistic image can take over your waking thoughts.
Lovecraft is hitting on some really real things here. A madman, filled with obsession and aware of a deep guilt. A house filled with texts and pictures of gruesome acts. This is Lovecraft writing the first serial killer story. Okay sure other writers could be attributed with the first actual stories of serial killers, but when I think of the modern killer story, this sort of atmosphere is inherently necessary. The result is a story that feels uncomfortably real.

That is, of course, until the unrealistic ending, undoubtedly inspired by Poe's Fall of the House of Usher. That final sentence aside, this is a wonderfully creepy read. If you want to check out the full text and feel a little unsettled too, you can check it out here: HPL's The Picture in the House

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