On “The Picture in the House” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

I’m sure the weather will be fine.

“The Picture in the House” (full text) was written in December 1920 and first appeared in the July 1919 issue of the United Amateur, which was published in the summer of 1921 before eventually being re-printed by Weird Tales in 1923 and again in 1937.

Lovecraft’s hot-streak continues with another (admittedly more low-key) banger. When I wrote about “Nyarlathotep” and “From Beyond”, I noted that Lovecraft seemed to be moving away from the Dream-cycle and producing works that were rooted in the real-world. “The Picture in the House” seeks to codify this shifting of emphasis by opening with what is widely viewed as a manifesto for where Lovecraft’s writing was headed:

“Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”

This is widely taken to be Lovecraft voicing his rationale for moving away from sub-Dunsanian fantasy and towards a style of writing that is a lot closer to contemporary horror fiction. As someone who found all of those elegantly ruined temples and long-lost civilisations quite tedious, I must say that I emphatically agree with Lovecraft’s thinking here.

While SFF has long been my preferred literary form, I have always struggled with the genre’s fondness for secondary worlds. While this obviously includes sub-Tolkienian epic fantasy, my difficulties with secondary worlds also extend to stuff like space opera and the political thought experiments favoured by feminist SF writers like Joanna Russ and Ursula K. LeGuin.

For me, the problem is a question of salience: Writers like Russ and LeGuin would dream up these perfect little thought experiments where their fictional worlds possessed the precise qualities they needed to present a particular argument or idea. The idea is that we read stories set in fictional worlds, note the similarities between our world and the fictional world, and draw the required conclusions about society and/or human nature. While I understand how this is supposed to work in principle, I cannot help but feel that the impact of the stories is lessened by their distance from reality: The more your world is contrived, the lower the salience of your story, the lower the salience of your story, the less power there is behind your ideas.

If this point holds for overtly political writers like Russ and LeGuin, it also holds for writers who are less didactic in their intentions. For example, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series is set in a world where the laws of physics are a matter of consensus meaning that imperial powers use authoritarian forms of government rooted in ritual to maintain particular laws of physics that allow them to have space-ships, magical guns and other tools of colonial oppression. I read part of the way through that series and understood that a point was being made about the way that empires create their own socio-political realities but the force of the point is diminished by the fact that the books take place in a world that operates very differently to our own. If you want to write about empire and the manipulation of consensus reality then there’s plenty of that going on in our world, writing about another world just lessens the impact of your ideas.

Lovecraft and I seem to be on a similar page here as he seems to be saying that while you can find horror in fantastical far-away places, things become a lot more potent when you write about things that are right here with us now. However, it is amusing to note that while Lovecraft opens this story by turning his back on distant temples and degenerate monster races, the next two paragraphs are basically just him writing the exact same stuff about targets that are closer to home. So, rather than talk about elegantly crumbling temples we get talk about elegantly crumbling farm houses:

“Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled 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 (…) Only the silent, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods can tell all that has lain hidden since the early days; and they are not communicative, being loath to shake off the drowsiness which helps them forget. Sometimes one feels that it would be merciful to tear down these houses, for they must often dream.”

And rather than writing about the degenerate descendants of once-mighty warrior races, we have writing about the degenerate descendants of the people who colonised New England:

“In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen. Seized with a gloomy and fanatical belief which exiled them from their kind, their ancestors sought the wilderness for freedom. There the scions of a conquering race indeed flourished free from the restrictions of their fellows, but cowered in an appalling slavery to the dismal phantasms of their own minds. Divorced from the enlightenment of civilisation, the strength of these Puritans turned into singular channels; and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage. By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folk were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed.”

I mean… gorgeous stuff but also LOL.

The story itself opens with a man trapped in a storm during a bicycle tour of New England. The opening rather put me in mind of the opening to M.R. James’ “A View from a Hill” because it involves a naïf on a bicycle as well as an eruption of the past onto the present, though in fairness that is a fairly standard gothic trope.

Caught in a storm, the bicyclist tries to find shelter and bangs on the door of the nearest farm-house. Clocking the house’s state of gothic disrepair and the lack of response to his knocks, the bicyclist lets himself in only to be confronted with the house’s owner; a degenerate backwoodsman who speaks in an English so heavily-accented that Lovecraft chooses to describe it as a long-dead Yankee dialect:

“Ketched in the rain, be ye?” he greeted. “Glad ye was nigh the haouse en’ hed the sense ta come right in. I calc’late I was asleep, else I’d a heerd ye—I ain’t as young as I uster be, an’ I need a paowerful sight o’ naps naowadays. Trav’lin’ fur? I hain’t seed many folks ’long this rud sence they tuk off the Arkham stage.”

This story also marks the first appearance of both Arkham and the Miskatonic valley.

Lovecraft’s description of the home-owner is about as classist as you’d expect but it’s interesting to see the notes of respect and awe that creep into the description:

“His height could not have been less than six feet, and despite a general air of age and poverty he was stout and powerful in proportion. His face, almost hidden by a long beard which grew high on the cheeks, seemed abnormally ruddy and less wrinkled than one might expect; while over a high forehead fell a shock of white hair little thinned by the years. His blue eyes, though a trifle bloodshot, seemed inexplicably keen and burning. But for his horrible unkemptness the man would have been as distinguished-looking as he was impressive. This unkemptness, however, made him offensive despite his face and figure. Of what his clothing consisted I could hardly tell, for it seemed to me no more than a mass of tatters surmounting a pair of high, heavy boots; and his lack of cleanliness surpassed description.”

This is partly a product of Lovecraft’s weird views on race and him trying to have his white supremacist cake (these backwoodsmen are degenerate savages!) and eat it too (breeding will tell and these men are descended from the people who built America!) but I am also reminded of the notes of sympathy that kept creeping into the descriptions of the mountain man in “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” and suspect that for all that Lovecraft hated the rural poor, he also saw something of himself in their fall from grace.

The cyclist is lured into the house by the presence of an antique book and while the owner of the book professes to be illiterate, he talks about the power of the imagery and the fact that the book contains some engravings of what turns out to be cannibalism. This brings us to yet more weirdness from Lovecraft’s system of racial classification as the book is all about the Congo:

“The engravings were indeed interesting, drawn wholly from imagination and careless descriptions, and represented negroes with white skins and Caucasian features”

Now… far be it from me to gate-keep someone’s race but to what extent is someone Black if they have white skin and Caucasian features?

Marxists of earlier generations would argue that race is not only a social construct but also a set of power-relations meaning that if you don’t look Black, don’t consider yourself Black, and are not viewed as Black then you cease to be Black. This being said, Lovecraft was not a leftist.

I suspect that this is a passing riff on the same ‘white ape’ tropes that informed the writing of “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family”. That story is all about a character whose family have passed as White for generations only to discover that one of their ancestors was in fact a sentient ape, prompting an episode of coded racial panic that results in a character setting themselves on fire. To Lovecraft this made perfect sense as he viewed race not as a matter of social and power relations but as a matter of blood: It doesn’t matter how White you look and how White people treat you, what matters is blood and one non-White great-great-grandparent is more than enough to deny you membership to the local gold club.

For Lovecraft, I suspect Black people with Caucasian features is a way of talking about ‘Civilised’ African people and that connects with his vision of the home-owner as a civilised man who has fallen into a degenerate state and is thus prone to bouts of ‘uncivilised’ behaviour.

The home-owner turns to an engraving of some cannibals and expresses his appreciation for the image:

“What d’ye think o’ this—ain’t never see the like hereabouts, eh? When I see this I telled Eb Holt, ‘That’s suthin’ ta stir ye up an’ make yer blood tickle!’ When I read in Scripter about slayin’—like them Midianites was slew—I kinder think things, but I ain’t got no picter of it. Here a body kin see all they is to it—I s’pose ’tis sinful, but ain’t we all born an’ livin’ in sin?—Thet feller bein’ chopped up gives me a tickle every time I look at ’im—I hev ta keep lookin’ at ’im—see whar the butcher cut off his feet? Thar’s his head on thet bench, with one arm side of it, an’ t’other arm’s on the graound side o’ the meat block.”

Now aware that his host has unconventional tastes, the cyclist starts to back out of the farmhouse but not before noticing a growing patch of red on the ceiling:

The open book lay flat between us, with the picture staring repulsively upward. As the old man whispered the words “more the same” a tiny spattering impact was heard, and something shewed on the yellowed paper of the upturned volume. I thought of the rain and of a leaky roof, but rain is not red. On the butcher’s shop of the Anzique cannibals a small red spattering glistened picturesquely, lending vividness to the horror of the engraving. The old man saw it, and stopped whispering even before my expression of horror made it necessary; saw it and glanced quickly toward the floor of the room he had left an hour before. I followed his glance, and beheld just above us on the loose plaster of the ancient ceiling a large irregular spot of wet crimson which seemed to spread even as I viewed it. I did not shriek or move, but merely shut my eyes. A moment later came the titanic thunderbolt of thunderbolts; blasting that accursed house of unutterable secrets and bringing the oblivion which alone saved my mind.

The story ends there with a move that some have compared to the lightning strike at the end of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” but it just seems like Lovecraft struggled to come up with a denouement and so ended the story with a literal act of God.

 While I enjoyed this story, I must admit that I enjoyed the little details a lot more than the bulk of the plot. While some Lovecraft scholars have taken this story to mark the point where Lovecraft started to turn away from traditional gothic tropes, I feel that this story is way more conventionally gothic than anything he produced before or during the Dream-cycle stage of his career. I mean… “The Picture in the House” is almost textbook American gothic and the splash of gore at the end feels like a pre-empting of the backwoods splatterpunk you find in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills have Eyes and the work of people like Jack Ketchum. For someone who is more familiar with that kind of horror than I am with Dunsanian fantasy, I must say that “The Picture in the House” feels generic in a way that a lot of Lovecraft’s early fiction does not. This story could literally be a shitty horror film you find for sale on DVD in Tesco. It’s well executed up to the ending and it was probably quite novel at the time but to someone writing in 2023, it feels very familiar indeed.

This being said, I do like a lot of the implications in this story: I love the suggestion that the home-owner is incredibly ancient and I love the fact that he lives in a house that is nothing more than a room full of dead bodies and an old book about Colonial Africa. I like the suggestion that he had been kept alive by Cannibalism and I like the suggestion that the home-owner might have lived a normal life had he not come into the possession of an ancient and cursed tome. That’s precisely the kind of energy you want to your eldritch tomes: You don’t even need to read them, just having them in your house is enough to turn you into a cannibal. Glorious stuff.

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