The Picture in the House

Discussion in 'H P Lovecraft' started by Tinsel, Mar 10, 2010.

  1.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    I read it once over and I did like it but is it ever hard core. If this story was developed any further it might be banned, but not quite. This is real horror here, and it is full of grit. The story is stretched, not unlike, "The Terrible Old Man", but you have the intent. The picture is a nice story telling angle, that could go somewhere and that I'm not sure that I recognize in other stories. What an evil story this one is.
     
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    An interesting take. I've always felt this one was, in many ways, one of his minor works. Not bad, but certainly not on a level with, say, "The Call of Cthulhu", The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, At the Mountains of Madness, "The Colour Out of Space", etc. Genuinely horrific, and a bit more inclined to sadism and grue than was usual in Lovecraft; but also a story which has some notable flaws. For one thing, it shows Lovecraft falling prey to the very thing he chided Poe about: "second-hand" scholarship, with the picture by "the brothers De Bry"... given that the picture actually in the Regnum Congo bears little actual resemblance to that described, and which was taken from a chapter of T. H. Huxley's Man's Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays (I have seen a reproduction of the original -- it is included as an illustration facing p. 134 in The Dark Brotherhood -- and own a copy of Huxley's book, where the one Lovecraft used is on p. 74). In addition, the ending to this tale is a bit too abrupt and leaves a few too many loose threads dangling, which can be less than satisfying for many readers. It is also a bit more histrionic in spots than suits the whole; though the opening paragraphs are certainly among the best for setting a tone and setting forth a thesis in Lovecraft -- something which was a hallmark of his fiction to begin with.

    Nonetheless, an effective piece of grue, and even Lovecraft's minor works tend to be richer than most other weird writers best....
     
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    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    The factual error in this story would probably not even be worth remarking on if it weren't that Lovecraft himself would probably have been appalled had he realised his mistake. I agree that this story stands apart from the more cosmic, weird horror Lovecraft specialised in - but it is a notable tale in his development as a writer, I think.

    Lovecraft's evocation of the horrific possibilities of New England hinterlands with their legacy of fanaticism and isolation is an early example of his usage of regional atmosphere as a backdrop for his tales. He may have taken a cue here from Hawthorne and Gorman, but it was an approach that he would make very much his own. As J.D. notes, The opening passages are notably strong and the whole sequence re: 'searchers after horror' can serve as a cornerstone for the whole move from mystical, Gothic settings to horror that is grounded in places the writer personally knows and can depict in that much more vivid detail.

    The picture of the old man, a man who might even have been impressive and worthy of respect if not for his squalid, slovenly condition is very vivid and resonated with another thread that runs through many of Lovecraft's works.

    While the actual horror here is more the sort of thing that would later be milked by Tobe Hooper, it's worth noting that Lovecraft may have been there first. Definitely a creepy tale with a great slow-dawning of horror, although the over-fortuitous ending is a serious weakness, in my opinion.
     
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    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    I don't think that I'll read it a second time. I'll move on to the next story. There is some reference to Hawthorne as it applies to Puritanism. The atmosphere involved a sort of gothic setting but not quite, and that word, "grue" is perfect since the houses had grown as part of the land itself.

    As for the racist interpretation, I don't think that it was that big of a deal (I know about the photo), and Lovecraft would not be appalled at racism. Those people were all racist, yet it might have worked back than since there was no way to control or govern people and communities, or provide for everyone with services and education, etc. So basically there were strange people in those parts and this story is a reminder. It was a shocking tale, which makes it effective.
     
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    I wasn't referring to the racist element of the picture, but rather the fact that the picture Lovecraft based the story on simply didn't exist where he thought it did... one of those few instances where he really didn't "do his homework", which consequently tripped him up.

    As for the inaccurate "copy" which is in Huxley's book (rather than the Regnum Congo)... that he describes quite well....
     
  6.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    Since this is such a minor piece, I am paying scant attention. Just finished stage two of my wine making, and now I hear this. Well, I'll be damned.
     
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    Lobolover

    Lobolover New Member

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    @ J.D. : I'm prety sure nobody would notice that nowadays . It's not like the book is a classic read most people get their hands on these days :p
     
  8.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    It looks like I'm going to read it one more time, today. Why not. One more analysis to come.
     
  9.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    The picture of the butchers shop you mean?

    After the second reading, the only thing that changed was that God became a character in the story. The wierdo nutjob thought that eating human flesh might prolong his life. Well was Puritanism the model of being left to interpret everything in the context of the Bible?
     
  10.  
    Ningauble

    Ningauble Lovecraftian

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    It did prolong his life. Remember that he mentions getting the book from a guy who the narrator knows died around the time of the War of Independence.
     
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Indeed. Which would have made him at least 150, most likely older. (Though George Wetzel, if I recall correctly, speculated that this was an instance of Lovecraft's theme of the "ghoul-changeling"....)

    As for "God" becoming a character... in no sense is that the case. Coming from the period he did, he would naturally have those views (even those who escaped the Puritan theocracy of Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island were still heavily under the influence of Protestantism of one form or another; being an atheist at that time was darned near unheard of, and distinctly unhealthy). But that does not mean that his beliefs along those lines are true.....

    As for the picture, and the inaccuracy concerning it: no, it doesn't change the story per se, that is, the events of the tale; but it does make it evident that Lovecraft (in this case) was "talking through his hat", making the text less reliable; indeed, quite wrong. This is an important point in that Lovecraft relied very heavily on getting such facts straight as a way of increasing verisimilitude in his work, lulling the reader into trusting the narrator by getting all such facts straight and thereby making the narrator a reliable voice, so that when the tale veered off into the weird or unreal, the reader would more easily be carried along into accepting it as a part of the world, and therefore a violation of what we normally think of as the "natural order". As Lovecraft put it more than once, he felt that the writer of weird fiction needed to compose a piece with the same care as a crooked witness would compose their testimony with cross-examining lawyers in mind; in other words, with all the care and attention to detail and verisimilitude of an actual hoax. And, generally speaking, this is what he indeed did. Hence you have a blending of genuine historical fact and created history which is almost impossible to detect from the real thing in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward or "The Shunned House", where, for instance, the occurrences of vampirism in Rhode Island are quite genuine, yet sound like the sort of thing which would have to be created; while some of the most sober-sounding "facts" are in reality creations of the writer....
     
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    Lobolover

    Lobolover New Member

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    There was an interesting essay on the Weird review (which sadly seems to have not gotten a single new entry for a year now) mentioning similarities between this story and De La Mare's "Mr. Kempe" , has anyone read it ?
     
  13.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    I'm going to have to read Wikipedia on the subject of American History because it seems to keep coming up in these stories. I didn't exactly learn this stuff in school but I did watch the movie "The Patriot".

    Well he went through the door on the left, and God sent a thunderbolt unless I read that wrong. Sin is mentioned. I'm not sure what the rationale was in having blood drip down onto the picture. It is implied that the narrator escaped from the house, and that his mind was saved. He looked up and saw the blood on the ceiling than the thunderbolt.

    So the man was 150 years old. Did he capture something from the photo?

    I'd have to read it again to try to come up with a theory. It felt nice to read it. The words were well put although the beginning of the story had some odd references.
     
  14.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    Well if I don't re-read it, it appears that the photo changed during the story. That is the main point.
     
  15.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    If I were taking the standpoint of the author, I would not use the word "mind", but rather "soul" or "spirit".
     
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Tinsel: There is no photograph in the story. It is an engraving in a very old book, published long before photography was even thought of. Nor does the picture change, save as its appearance is altered (or, more specifically, made more vivid) by the splash of red from above. As for that spatter of blood... the idea is that the room above is his abattoir, where lie the freshly-butchered remains of his latest victim. This is quite likely the reason he did not respond to the narrator's knocking and original entry: he was absorbed in his gruesome task of dismembering and "dressing" his "victuals".

    As for the reference to sin... yes, as I said above, he was of an age where Puritanism was extremely strong, so he would have had such beliefs as the "ain't we all born and livin' in sin" sort... but that is no reason to accept those beliefs as actually objectively working within the milieu of the story. Nor is it likely Lovecraft meant that thunderbolt to be from the hand of God, as it were. For one thing, Lovecraft was an atheist whose worldview was very much that of a mechanistic materialist. It is much more likely that the stroke of lightning was either fortuitous or -- as has been posited before -- the entire experience was an encounter with the ghost of both house and man; which would account for the narrator's surviving the destruction of the house virtually unscathed. There are problems with this reading, but then there are problems with the ending as it stands. But in any event, the entrance of God into the picture is very unlikely, as this would be a distinct deus ex machina... something Lovecraft (and just about any writer worth their salt) would steer clear of as simply a cheap trick. If he were to invoke such a being, he would lay plenty of "clues" in advance -- things one might not notice at the time, but in retrospect would be quite clear... which is obviously not the case here.

    And yes; like Hawthorne, Lovecraft was heavily influenced by history, and one of the major themes of his work is the way the past reaches out to engulf some unwitting inhabitant of the present....
     
  17.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    The book contained quite a few carved plates. Basically plate XII, was focused on, but other plates were mentioned and there was an out of place quality to all of the pictures. What I am suggesting is that the book was evil. The title of the story is a clue, that the picture was significant. I think that the work that was going on upstairs was not simply butchery, but it was an act influenced and brought on by the picture (a supernatural act in progress). There doesn't appear to be a whole bunch of victims in the vicinity to support continuous murders. It is as if time stood still.

    There is talk of the Almighty as well as a Bible, but the storm did slowly build in intensity so it is ambiguous as to what caused the thunder bolt.

    Well, what gets me when I read Lovecraft is that there is always talk of "brothers" in these stories and here is another example involving the brothers De Bry.

    Last of all points, this version of the book was written in Latin. It was a book that was supposed to talk about the Congo region of Africa. It sounded like there were oddities/errors within the book, things out of place or trapped or drawn wrong, etc.

    Anyway, the picture is the focus and it was perhaps not fully explained, but every time this brother talk enters these stories, not far behind is witchcraft and monsters/aliens.

    It turned out to be a more involved story than I first realized.

    Actually, one last edit. The blood that fell down from the ceiling must have been lamb's blood, and than the blood drop would have some form of symbolic significance. I would argue that it was lamb's blood and not a human victim. Anyway, it will remain a mystery. It looks like Lovecraft deals with concepts that are beyond mere fiction because they are left ambiguous. That is the style of his writing, and that is what makes it worth pondering.

    I like how the stories feel when I read them, and than some of them are worth discussing to some extent. When the discussion turns to religion it is difficult to provide a satisfactory answer. Of course the Biblical sacrifice involved Abraham and Ishmael/Issac (conflict between two religions).

    Well I would rather refer to Lovecraft in the spirit of story telling rather than the Bible! The stories of Lovecraft are more entertaining then the stories in the Bible, etc. Not all of his stories are up to par but this one was reasonably well told, although unfortunately is was quite dark and sinister.
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2010
  18.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    I'm not sure what you mean here by "an out of place quality". As I recall, the description of the plates illustrating the volume were in general quite neutral, almost nonexistent, focusing on the fact that the book kept opening to this one disturbing plate.

    Again, I'm not sure where you are getting this, at least from the text itself. It may, however, have made that impression on you personally. But the Regnum Congo is simply an account of travels in the region. To quote from Joshi's notes to the tale:

    -- The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales, p. 372​

    As I recall, the plates were not included in the Latin edition, though I could be misremembering on this. At any rate, there are several errors in Lovecraft's tale concerning the book, and one of the most important is the emphasis on the cannibal butcher shop, as can be seen from the following reproduction of the actual plate:

    http://www.angelfire.com/games5/deltagreen/ForbiddenLibrary/RegnumCongo.html

    (And I wouldn't take too seriously any of the information included on that page, as this is material intended for a Lovecraftian game, not factual scholarship. The reproduction of the plate, however, is genuine.)

    The point being, that this is a minor part of a book of travels, not the main thrust, making the book anything but evil... though, as I said, it may have well impressed you that way from the tale itself; that is an individual reaction, and quite valid on that ground, but it was not something Lovecraft himself is likely to have intended.

    Yes, the title is significant (all his titles are, in fact), though the meaning here seems to be more the perversion of the aged inhabitant of the house and the secrets being hidden within that house; as well, perhaps, as Lovecraft once again drawing that line to the tendency of people in lawless conditions repeating the actions of primitive, perhaps even pre-human, conditions.

    That last is an interesting point, and may apply to what I mentioned earlier. This is an idea which -- though never realized fully or developed as well as it might be -- also plays a part in the events of "Medusa's Coil" (a revision he did for Zealia Bishop) and "The Ghost-Eater" (a revision/collaboration with C. M. Eddy, Jr.). As for it being "an act influenced and brought on by the picture"... I think there is a deal of truth to that, but I'm not sure there is anything actually supernatural at work where this aspect is concerned; rather it fits in with what Lovecraft is saying in the opening paragraphs about how these Puritan people, in isolation, reverted to such actions as mentioned above:

    This seems pretty straightforward an explanation for the events, without drawing on the supernatural for his perversion.

    As for the comment about "simple butchery" and

    I think the text is actually quite clear about how he had become more and more perverted in his taste for "victuals [he] couldn't raise nor buy", along with the strong hints that he himself had done away with Parson Clark and the district schoolmaster (and, as the events of the tale indicate, quite a few others as well over the years), making the likelihood of it being a lamb extremely slender. And if it were a lamb, why would he be butchering such upstairs, and acting so furtively about it, when there was nothing abnormal about such butchery by a yeoman farmer to begin with? No, this is, I think, one of those cases of Lovecraft being a tad too explicit perhaps in driving home his point about the culinary habits of the strange old man of the tale, and the inference that it is yet another person he has killed and is preparing for his table seems pretty inescapable.

    As for the scarcity of such victims... well that is an interesting point; but one must remember that even such isolated roads as the one which led by this place were still the only ways to get to some regions at the time; what we know as modern freeways and the like still being some decades in the future. More often than not, such lonely backroads were traveled by itinerant salesmen, preachers, antiquarians, and various other types of travelers seeking out the smaller towns and villages, and these were not infrequently on foot (automobiles being still a rare commodity and bicycles being only slightly more common with such travelers). So he would quite likely have been able to "keep his hand in" at least periodically; though the coincidence of such having happened on the same day as the narrator's visit may be considered a stretch.

    Yes, there is such talk, but again, this is part of the man's Puritan background, where "theological self-examination" was involved with every aspect of life; that's the nature of a theocracy: nothing is entirely secular; it is all, even the most minute particular of a person's life or thought, involved in the Divine Plan in one way or another. Again, though, this does not indicate anything in the tale to support the idea that such a Deity even exists, let alone takes such an active role as to send a thunderbolt at the opportune moment. As for the storm building slowly... storms quite often do, of course, and I'm not sure where that would indicate such involvement, either. All told, I think this is imposing a reading on the text, one which it does not itself support, rather than discovering such a reading in the material itself.

    I think your point about brothers is an interesting idea... it ties in with the idea of Lovecraft's use of "doubling", which is indeed a common motif in many of his tales. I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on this aspect....

    Well, as noted earlier, it was simply a book of an account of travels, and such were frequently riddled with such errors, even when not written down second-hand (as this was). This sort of error dates back to Pliny at least, and makes for some peculiar looks at the world outside the writer's usual sphere....

    At any rate, an interesting discussion. Keep your thoughts coming. While I may or may not agree with them, it's fascinating to see what someone else makes of these things....
     
  19.  
    Lobolover

    Lobolover New Member

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    While the butcher shop apears in the image almost as an after thoughts , yet it kind of makes you wonder at how common it would have to be for the people around it not taking specific notice in it and it .
     
  20.  
    Tinsel

    Tinsel Science fiction fantasy

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    They type of magic that the book is associated with is Voodoo. There are several races depicted which were originally black, such as Caucasian and Native Indian. An account of the Congo would involve black magic.

    Who were these brothers? fictional or not?
     

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