Bloodcurdling Tales: The Picture in the House

best-of-lovecraft

A curious entry into Del-Ray’s The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, “The Picture in the House” is a slight, minor affair which doesn’t quite hold up. An exercise in mood-building, Lovecraft portrays a ramshackle New England home in the countryside with poetic finesse as his ubiquitous nameless protagonist seeks shelter from a storm (“the antique and repellent wooden building which blinked with bleared windows from between two huge leafless elms near the foot of a rocky hill”). If so much of the narrative reads like a prototypical Gothic story transplanted to New England, that’s because it is; “Picture in the House” forms the beginnings of Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic River region, which would become his favorite setting. The dark, stormy night, the hospitable resident of a seemingly abandoned home, the buildup to a climactic revelation (with a deus ex machina resolution), all the classic trappings are there, and Lovecraft balances his prosaic language with efficient plotting (at seven pages, the only story in the collection any shorter is “The Outsider”). “Picture in the House” dies, however, on its horror figure, an old man fixated on a picture of African magic and cannibalism (if “The Rats in the Walls” left wiggle room on Lovecraft’s views on race, this obliterates it). As part of the exercise in Gothic transplanting, Lovecraft attempts to recreate “an extreme form of Yankee dialect…thought long extinct,” likely meant to evoke thoughts and feelings of rustic, down-home, rural working poor living. The attempt at emulation (“new faces is scurce arount here”) instead conjures up cartoon hillbillies playing banjos. As fascinated with language as Lovecraft is, his attempts at the speech patterns of the lower class were always a weakness, reflecting his shut-in lifestyle and upper-class upbringing. Next to a stronger piece like “The Rats in the Walls,” which reads more like a diary entry, “Picture in the House”‘s weaknesses are only more pronounced.

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