New England has long been my spiritual home, and the region informs much of my fiction. One day I hope to find Lovecraft’s portals to his mythical towns of witch-haunted Arkham and Kingsport, shadowed Innsmouth and accursed Dunwich. Until then, I’ll just have to write about them.
—Anne M. Pillsworth, “About Me”
Most readers come to later Mythos fiction as initiated adepts rather than neophytes. They have learned the names of peoples, places, tomes, and entities; know what shadow came over Innsmouth and out of time, the twisting branches of the Pickman and Whateley family trees, and are more willing than most cultists to yell “Iä!” Writers fall into the same category, and to an extant face a more serious problem: how to approach the Mythos when the mystery is already gone?
Some writers turn to pastiche, and some embrace it. The latter is essentially what Anne M. Pillsworth does in “The Madonna of the Abattoir” (2014): her protagonists are undead and undying Mythos sorcerers and make no bones to hide that fact from the reader. Although there are Ornes and Pickmans and a Miskatonic University, they are not those exactly mentioned in Lovecraft’s Mythos; her setting is a couple generations earlier, in the late 1850s or 1860s. The Mythos is Pillsworth’s setting and workspace, but she makes no effort to try and capture the same moods as Lovecraft & co.—instead, she leads the knowing reader on. Because for all their knowledge and foreboding, they can’t be sure what is next…
But they can suspect. That’s half the fun.
Like a horror movie told through the eyes of the killer, the readers are in on the secret from the beginning, but there is still a plot to unfold, characters to expand on. Like the gaslamp fantasy of Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk or “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, the period brings with it certain considerations for the treatment of female characters and sexuality; when Pickman wants Patience Orne to model for him, he does not approach her directly but a male relative as representative—and they go through the charade of propriety and appearances, acting out the pretense of women-as-property or women-as-delicate-flowers, etc. etc.
All the more pointless than in most Victoriana, because of who & what Patience Orne is.
Two easels in the center of the room held studies for Pickman’s Madonnas. Studies! The preliminary oils had finer detail than many finished paintings. Still more detailed were the pencil sketches tacked to the easels, which ranged in subject from the scrollwork on a marble mantelpiece to a heap of refuse in which each fishbone and tattered shoe, each apple core and moldy crust, was distinct. Only the Madonnas’ faces were left vague, their features barely suggested.
—Anne M. Pillsworth, “The Madonna of the Abattoir”
From a certain perspective, the Mythos abounds in Madonnas: women who approach some nonhuman ideal, perfect and almost unapproachable, often vaguely seen yet often felt. The unnamed Ape Princess in “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, the Deep One who married Obed Marsh in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”; Lavinia Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror”, Eliza Tillinghast Curwen in “Facts in the Case of Charles Dexter Ward”… and the female body has often been the subject of art, either to portray an idealized reality or to reveal a hidden truth. Pillsworth tackles these ideas directly, and it is the mood of the characters and situation which hold and sustain interest, rather than any further revelations of Mythos lore that may be coming.
Like many Mythos stories, there is a cyclic tone to “The Madonna of the Abattoir”—not a sequel to “Pickman’s Model” in the sense of “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, but a distant and ancestral prequel which explores and reiterates, in the end, something of the same eternal idea in one of many variations:
She still wore the Madonna’s shroud, ensanguined as in the painting. Of course it was, for how else but from life could Pickman have captured the precise way blood would bloom through the linen weave? (ibid.)
There is an argument to be made that repetition dilutes the original idea, but the difference in style and tone between Pillsworth, Kiernan, and Lovecraft is such that while recognizable as distinct episodes with connective elements—as a Mythos of their own—each has something different to say, and the side-by-side comparison speaks more as a commentary on medium than anything else. Be it paint on canvas, or photography, or crude film reels: how best to capture that terrible reality, how else to capture it except from life?
“The Madonna of the Abbatoir” was published on Tor.com in 2014; it has been republished as a separate chapbook. Anne M. Pillsworth’s other Mythos fiction includes “The Patience Rose” (2009) and her young adult Redemption’s Heir series Summoned (2014) and Fathomless (2015). Along with Ruthanna Emrys, she writes the Lovecraft Reread series for Tor.com.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).