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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
Read this story in the library
"Pickman's Model" is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, written in September 1926 and first published in the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales. It was adapted for television in 1972 as an episode of the Night Gallery anthology series.
The story revolves around a Bostonian painter named Richard Upton Pickman who creates horrifying images. His works are brilliantly executed, but so graphic that they result in the revocation of his membership in the Boston Art Club and he is shunned by his fellow artists.
The narrator is a friend of Pickman, who, after the artist's mysterious disappearance, relates to another acquaintance how he was taken on a tour of Pickman's personal gallery, hidden away in a run-down backwater slum of the city. As the two delved deeper into Pickman's mind and art, the rooms seemed to grow ever more evil and the paintings ever more horrific, ending with a final enormous painting of an unearthly, red-eyed and vaguely canine humanoid balefully chewing on a human victim.
A noise sent Pickman running outside the room with a gun while the narrator reached out to unfold what looked like a small piece of rolled paper attached to the monstrous painting. The narrator heard some shots and Pickman walked back in with the smoking gun, telling a story of shooting some rats, and the two men departed.
Afterwards the narrator realized that he had nervously grabbed and put the rolled paper in his pocket when the shots were fired. He unrolled the paper to reveal that it is a photograph not of the background of the painting, but of the subject. Pickman drew his inspirations not from a diseased imagination, but from monsters that were very much real.
Pickman's aesthetic principles of horror resemble those in Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (1925–1927), on which he was working at the time the short story was composed. When Thurber, the story's narrator, notes that "only the real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness", he is echoing Lovecraft the literary critic on Poe, who "understood so perfectly the very mechanics and physiology of fear and strangeness".
Thurber's description of Pickman as a "thorough, painstaking, and almost scientific realist" recalls Lovecraft's approach to horror in his post-Dunsanian phase.
The story compares Pickman's work to that of a number of actual 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).
The technique is unusual for Lovecraft. The first-person narrative takes the form of a monologue directed at the reader in effect as a fictive listener, whose presumed interjections are implied via the narrator's responses to them. Tangential comments reveal that the conversation takes place in the narrator's Boston drawing room at eve, where the two have just arrived via taxi. Pickman's narrative-within-the-narrative is also a monologue, directed in turn at the outer narrator as listener. Both narratives are colloquial, casual and emotionally expressive, which is atypical of Lovecraft's protagonists and style.
Like the Brooklyn neighborhood portrayed in Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook", Boston's North End is depicted as a rundown section inhabited by immigrants and honeycombed by subterranean passageways. Pickman declares:
Prince Street, like Henchman Street, Charter Street, and Greenough Lane, are actual North End streets. Though the story is vague about the precise location of Pickman's studio, it was apparently inspired by an actual North End building. Lovecraft wrote that when he visited the neighborhood with Donald Wandrei, he found "the actual alley & house of the tale utterly demolished, a whole crooked line of buildings having been torn down".
Fritz Leiber, in his essay "A Literary Copernicus", praised the story for the "supreme chill" of its final line.Peter Cannon calls the tale "a well-nigh perfect example of Poe's unity of effect principle", though he cites as its "one weakness" the "contrived ending".An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia dismisses the story as "relatively conventional".
In 1971, writer Roy Thomas and artist Tom Palmer adapted "Pickman's Model" for the Marvel Comics horror anthology Tower of Shadows (#9 Jan. 1971), reprinted in Marvel's Masters of Terror (#2 Sept. 1975).
In 1972, the television show Night Gallery adapted "Pickman's Model" as a segment. In the TV version, the character of the narrator in the short story becomes a woman (Louise Sorel) who has fallen in love with Pickman (Bradford Dillman).
In 1981, Austinite Cathy Welch created a short, thirty minute version of the story. The basic story was preserved, with the tale of Thurber's night at Pickman's being relayed by him to his skeptical girlfriend.
The Chilean horror movie Chilean Gothic (2000) is loosely based on "Pickman's Model", where a private detective searches for Pickman in the Island of Chiloe in the south of Chile, whose mythology is full of monsters and grotesque creatures.