Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Must have been a great Flash on Pickman's Camera

Taking photos of monstrosities from the bowels of the earth would take a fair amount of skill to achieve without getting eaten yourself. Or did Pickman pay his models a sitting fee?

H. P. Lovecraft is one of the masters of, as he defined it, “stories of the weird.” These are stories that study the outer limits of what man understands of his existence. Lovecraft gave his readers aliens, monsters from other dimensions and in “Pickman’s Model” monsters from the bowels of the earth.

“Pickman’s Model” illustrates Lovecraft’s most outstanding attribute as a writer: tone and setting. Lovecraft was a master at setting a tone and providing a backdrop that was both ordinary and eerie to the reader. In "Pickman's Model" the narrator shares Pickman's description of the underground in the vicinity of his studio: "Look here, do you know the whole North End once had a set of tunnels that kept certain people in touch with each other's houses, and the burying ground, and the sea? Let them prosecute and persecute above ground - things went on every day that they couldn't reach, and voices laughed at night that they couldn't place."

Not once does Lovecraft come out and say "things aren't right" or "this is scary." But describing his setting by using "tunnels," "burying ground," and "voices laughed at night that they couldn't place" puts the reader on edge.

Nothing is ever exactly right in a Lovecraft tale, and the reader knows this from the surroundings described. Lovecraft could write a nursery rhyme and not change a single plot point and the story would still feel creepy and moody because of the way he would describe his setting.

“Pickman’s Model” also predates the modern era for the subject matter. People have always believed in good and evil, and depicted evil in many ways. Lovecraft was one of the early fiction writers to put these evils into a story via supernatural elements and have characters interact with them. Lovecraft was way ahead of his time in this regard. While everyone else seemed to be writing stories of class warfare and impossible love he was pushing the envelope of what was acceptable and delving strictly in dark things that should not be.

However, “Pickman’s Model” also suffers from the shortcomings of Lovecraft’s writing. The story is told in past tense, in first person, by a narrator that is recounting the terrible tale. This is fairly common for Lovecraft, and for a lot of work of his era. This narrator telling the story to a companion and the reader simultaneously deflates a great deal of the conflict. We know the narrator has made it though the peril. He or She is recounting past events. Much of the story’s immediacy and tension is lost due to this point of view choice.

Also, Lovecraft tended to recount dialogue from that same singular point of view. Modern readers are used to reading dialogue as it is spoken by the characters. Lovecraft’s dialogue generally is spoken by the narrator and He or She recounts all the character’s words in a stilted and abridged way. This doesn’t allow for tension to build, nor does it give the reader the present-tense experience that things are unfolding “live” or in “real time” for them. Again, this removes a lot of the tension the story might have had.

As a casual reader “Pickman’s Model” is effective. A reader may notice all the clues are there to know the ending. The word “Model” in the title of the story ends up being a pretty big clue. Anyone from, or aware of Boston will recognize that Lovecraft uses landmarks, neighborhoods and streets to great effect. This goes back to his outstanding ability to evoke reader response to setting and tone.

A critical reading of “Pickman’s Model” probably leads a person to conclude this isn’t Lovecraft’s best story. His strong points are there, but the story itself is pretty straightforward. The “twist” at the end is less surprising than it should be.

Overall “Pickman’s Model” is a solid example of an H. P. Lovecraft story. He is one of the pillars of the horror genre for showing readers that tales of the weird were acceptable and that the supernatural and horror are excellent breeding grounds for stories.

1 comment:

  1. I think you make a lot of really good points here, and I personally gained a great deal more insight about Lovecraft after reading your entry. I have only read "At the Mountains of Madness" and literally hated it... word for word. But to sit back and appreciate the story for what it is doing is an entirely different scenario. When you talkeda bout Lovecraft doing something different for the era he was in, that really sparked some interest in me. Everyone really was doing the class differences and unrequited love for there main conflict, but Lovecraft was introducting early science fiction in a world that was probably not ready for it. That only is admirable in my eyes.

    I also liked how you talked about his use on tone and setting and the fact that it is written in past tense. I agree that it loses a LOT of its tension through this style choice, but I still thought that the story was eerie and uncomfortable. I agree though that the twist of the story was rather predictable to readers, and part of me wishes that the "Model" wasn't in the title itself.

    Which by the way... clever title choice for the entry :)