52 Stories #21: “The Picture in the House” by H.P. Lovecraft

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s #52Stories selection is my first real experience with the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, as I consider his 1921 story, “The Picture in the House.” The Lovecraft name has become synonymous with supernatural horror, and I was curious finally to explore his work for myself.

So, what did I think? Gird up your loins, dauntless reader, and proceed!

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The Pitch

A traveler takes refuge from a storm in what appears to be an abandoned house, only to find there is one inhabitant…and he’s hungry.

The Pay-off

I made the mistake of choosing a Lovecraft story that was conveniently located in a collection I had picked up to use for another story in this series, so I went ahead and read that one rather than searching out what might be considered his better/best work. At least, that’s what I hope, because if this story is considered one of Lovecraft’s better works, I’m fine with not reading anything else of his. Does that tell you what you need to know?

The Takeaways

Fair warning, adventurer—there be spoilers ahead. Take heed, lest ye

You know what, I’m just going to stop, because giving you spoilers might actually be doing you a favor by saving you the trouble of reading this.

Steel yourselves, brave the fell wind, and hark:

  • You can certainly credit Lovecraft with having a distinct style—even if that style is “15-year-old goth kid with a thesaurus and an axe to grind.” The sentences were belabored and flowery to the point of being silly. Reading his prose almost became a game of “How could I rewrite this sentence in as few words as possible?” I understand that he’s trying to set the mood, but his verbosity quickly became ridiculous. Suffice it to say, this was a jarring shift in style after reading Hemingway’s sparse text.
  • First line: “Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.” Yet, he continues, New England holds the greatest horrors, “…for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.” Yikes.
  • Lovecraft’s narrator (and likely Lovecraft himself) holds a deep and bitter prejudice against the Puritans who settled New England, describing their “gloomy and fanatical belief that exiled them from their kind” and their “appalling slavery to the dismal phantoms of their own minds.” Having actually read Puritan writings and theology, one wonders if Lovecraft has actually read the Puritans, or is merely working from academia’s stereotypes of these early American immigrants (who were fleeing religious persecution, not “exiled” as if they were banished from polite society, thank you). Indeed, the narration was so arrogant about New Englanders  past and present that I hesitated to feel bad for the evil that would imminently befall him.
  • The short version of the plot: In November, 1896, the narrator (a genealogist) is travelling by bicycle through New England, when he breaks into what looks like an abandoned house to wait out a storm. He discovers an ancient book about exploration in Africa, that falls open to a woodcut picture of a cannibal tribe’s “butcher shop,” if you will. As he stares at the picture, he hears a creak in the floor above, and a creepy old man comes down to greet him. Rather than demanding he leave, the old man welcomes the stranger and comments on the open book and its pictures. The old man begins describing how the pictures stir up murderous, hungry impulses in him, when suddenly a drop of blood falls from the blood-stained ceiling above and lands on the page. Then (and this is a bit unclear) there is a clap of thunder, and the narrator is struck by the old man and presumably killed. Or so I thought. Per the Wikipedia entry, a bolt of lightning destroys the house and brings oblivion to the narrator, preventing him from a dark fate–which is the plain reading of the text, but I thought that was too easy and that HPL was being more artistic? Silly me.
  • If the narrator is killed, in either case, how is he able to write this story? Or am I not supposed to ask?
  • But yeah, that’s really all there is to it. A traveler almost (?) falls victim to a cannibalistic recluse in the New England countryside. Also, Puritans are creepy and bad. Thanks, H.P.!
  • Okay, I admit, this is probably an unfair summary/review. HPL sets the mood and tone of the story with his descriptions and language, and I admit, there’s a growing dread as the tale unfolds. I just wish he had set aside the unnecessary potshots at Christianity, because it took me out of the story and made me more guarded and critical of the narrator. (A brief Google/wiki search clears this up: HPL rejected his culturally-Christian roots in childhood and from then on held to a persistent and antagonistic atheism/agnosticism throughout his whole life. Yet all that time, he wrote quite often about powerful, malevolent gods/demi-gods who destroy, corrupt, and drive mad the helpless characters in his stories. There’s QUITE a bit to analyze there, eh?)

All this to say, I was…not a fan of this story. While the references and allusions to Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones” mythology that I’ve come across in other media have been intriguing (including one of my favorite stories so far in #52Stories!), this entry was a dreary mess. I might give him another shot, but if it’s more of the same, I won’t be digging any further into the Lovecraft bibliography.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

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