One of my favorite literary pieces would be Pickman’s Model. 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 draws the reader in, while testing the limits of the imagination until the bitter end.
The story itself utilizes all of Lovecraft’s storytelling techniques, outlined in his own essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature. For the novice writer or reader, this story is highly recommended. Lovecraft not only tells us the fear, he shows it. A good example is when story narrator Thurber 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? Lovecraft uses Pickman’s Model to imitate his idol, Edgar Allen Poe, not only in genre but in technique. Poe is a master craftsman on understanding the very mechanics and psychology of fear and the weird.
It would seem at times that Lovecraft was in an almost parodying or a satirical state when he created Pickman’s Model, and the experienced Lovecraft fan may find similarities between Lovecraft and Pickman. Lovecraft as the tortured genius, Lovecraft as the great artist, and Lovecraft as the master of fear. The artist is known to chase perfection, even though it may never be as perfect.
Pickman is 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 is the hole that needs to be filled, yet the hole is never quite filled. Suffice to say, the story also plays on the theme of moderation. The tale compares to Pickman’s work, along with a few other 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 of Pickman’s Model revolves around a Bostonian painter named Richard Upton Pickman who creates terror-ridden images. His works are brilliant but too graphic in nature, and his membership to the Boston Art Club is revoked, resulting in him being shunned by his fellow artists.
After the mysterious disappearance of Pickman, the narrator, Pickman’s friend Thurber, relates to another acquaintance about 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 the reader and narrator further into the abyss of Pickman’s artwork. That feeling of obsession never allows the reader out of its grip. On many levels, the tale felt close in spirit and nature to Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness (1899), and of course the grand film adaption, Apocalypse Now (1979). Coming away from the story, one can almost feel the horror in our everyday lives.
Pickman’s Model 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.