Life imitating art, or art imitating life. As a child, these were themes that I found myself drawing upon when I discovered H.P. Lovecraft’s short, but vast tale, Pickman’s Model. The tale itself seemed to me, at least if approached from the bird’s eye point of view, draws you in while pushing you out even more, until the bitter end.
The story itself utilizes all of Lovecraft story telling techniques, outlined in Lovecraft’s own essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1925–1927), and for the novice writer or reader, the story is highly recommended. Lovecraft not only tells us the fear, he shows it. A good example is when Thurber, the story’s narrator, notes that “only the real artist knows the actual anatomy of terror or the psychology of fear”.
Perhaps the real artist only understands the internal war between light and dark that lays dormant in us all, or at least explores it more thoroughly. The question being, what is light or dark? On a Literary craft technique, Lovecraft uses Pickman’s Model to Imitate his idol, Edgar Allen Poe, not only in genre but in technique, Poe being a master-craftsman on understanding the very mechanics and psychology of fear and the weird.
It would seem at times that Lovecraft was in almost parody, or a satirical state when he created Pickman’s Model, and the experienced Lovecraft fan may find similarities to Lovecraft and Pickman. Lovecraft, the tortured genius; Lovecraft, the great artist and Lovecraft, the master of fear. A constant battle that all artists seem to chase… the everlasting horizon of perfection – a perfection that never seems to happen.
Pickman’s forever obsessive in his need to take art and horror to its upper most limits resonating similar themes in Clive Barker’s anthology, Books of Blood. Obsession being the hole that literally needs to be filled, and in turn the hole is never quite filled – suffice to say the story also plays on the theme of moderation. The tale can even be compared to Pickman’s work, to that of a few actual artists, including John Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Sidney Sime (1867–1941), Anthony Angarola (1893–1929), Francisco Goya (1746–1828), and Clark Ashton Smith (1893–1961). All clearly admired by Lovecraft.
The plot revolves around a Bostonian painter, named Richard Upton Pickman, who creates terror-ridden images. His works are so brilliant, but too graphic in nature that his membership is revoked from the Boston art club, resulting in him being shunned by his fellow artists.
The narrator, Thurber, is a friend of his, who after the mysterious disappearance of Pickman, relates to another acquaintance and how he was taken on a private tour of Pickman’s own personal gallery – his studio hidden away in the run-down backwater slums of the city.
As they progress, the two delve deeper into Pickman’s psyche and art. The rooms seem to grow more evil as the story moves, and the paintings become more horrific, literally pushing both and the reader and narrator further into the abyss of Pickman’s artwork. That feeling of obsession, never allowing the reader out of its grip. The tale on many levels to me, felt close in spirit and nature to Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness (), and of course the grand film adaption, Apocalypse Now (). Coming away from the story, one can almost feel the horror in our everyday lives.
The story is a perfect passion-play in paranoia and obsession, and most importantly, fear – just as the horror can haunt our very own fears and desires in the mundane it can also haunt us from within.