Before the story begins, before the very first word, Lovecraft fans will recognize the title as the the climactic revelation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” (1926). The title is the hook to reel the reader in, and the import of that one line doesn’t hit the reader until the penultimate sentence. Despite the fact that “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1964, it would not appear in a Mythos anthology until Cthulhu 2000 (1995)… and it hasn’t been reprinted in a Mythos anthology since.
This might seem odd, considering that Joanna Russ might be the first female prose writer who contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos. H. P. Lovecraft himself collaborated with “Elizabeth Berkeley” (Winifred Virginia Jackson) on “The Green Meadow” (1918-1919) and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921), Anna Helen Crofts on “Poetry and the Gods” (1920), and his future wife Sonia Haft Green on “The Horror at St. Martin’s Beach” and “Four O’Clock” (1922). None of these are Mythos tales per se, although “The Crawling Chaos” became a sobriquet for Nyarlathotep. Later, working as a revisionist, Lovecraft ghost-wrote tales for female clients including “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929-1930), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930) for Zealia Brown Reed Bishop; “The Horror in the Museum” (1932), “Winged Death” (1932), “The Man of Stone” (1932), “Out of the Aeons” (1933), and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground” (1933-1934). HPL also “collaborated” with Catherine L. Moore insofar as both contributed sections to the round-robin “The Challenge from Beyond” (1935); Moore herself never appears to have written a Mythos story.
From Lovecraft’s death until 1964, when Russ’ “I Had…” was published, the sub-genre of Mythos fiction appears quite bare of female writers—although it is hard to say this with utmost certainty, given the prevalence of the fanpress (for example, Virginia “Nanek” Anderson contributed the poem “Shadow Over Innsmouth” to The Acolyte Winter 1942). Certainly the first edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969) was all-male, as were several anthologies that followed. Russ finally made it in to the revised version of Tales, the 1990 edition, with her second and final Mythos story “My Boat” (1976).
The problem for editors and anthologists is that “I Had…” was way ahead of its time. It is a reference to H. P. Lovecraft and his Mythos, but it isn’t a Mythos story in itself, does not use or expand the mythology. August Derleth, if he had been in a litigious mood, could hardly have found anything to issue a cease & desist about except the title. The crux of the story is that if you recognize the title, if you pick up the story to read it, if you go in there expecting another pastiche or sequel to “Pickman’s Model”… then you the reader have taken the bait.
Which is all the more apt when you consider that the story is almost cruelly accurate portrait of a certain segment of fandom itself; the socially awkward nerd, the obsessive Lovecraft fan which is a Western prototype of the otaku. Even today the caricature of Irvin Rubin she sketches cuts precisely because fannish collectors not only knows something of the type, but if they’re reading the story then they probably identify at least a little bit with that dark side of fandom. Rubin is the bookish kid with no friends who grew up to be a bookish adult with no friends, no lovers, no real life but a long delayed adolescence. There but for grace may have gone us all. For many such fans starved of human companionship, the possibility of real interaction is enticing as it is abnormal…so it is when Rubin meets a woman.
On a technical level, Russ is playing a stranger game than even the premise of the story. In format, it is not quite a Lovecraftian pastiche; Rubin is the vaguely Lovecraftian protagonist, but the story itself is told through two narrators—the good-hearted, older Miss June Kramer he works with, and a nameless narrator who provides the final piece of the story. Kramer’s narrative gives a view of Rubin by someone who is at once wiser and sympathetic, though we see little enough of her: the Miss suggests a woman who never married or divorced, rather than a widow; her age is somewhere north of 40, putting at least 12 years between her and Rubin; she has sufficient regular social interaction to have a group of ladies over for bridge and to share a story over a cup of coffee in the company cafeteria—and who is moved enough by Rubin to leave her bridge game and go to his cold room, just to prove that he does have at least one friend. The nameless narrator we never see; Kramer’s narrative serves to get us to the anticlimax, where Rubin is about to be married. The nameless narrator carries the story through the last part, which Miss Kramer never saw—perhaps because Russ didn’t want her to see it, wanted her to preserve the innocence of knowing what really happened to Irvin Rubin. Yet Russ definitely wants the reader to know what happened to him…
It is the reader that completes this story. If you haven’t read “Pickman’s Model,” if you aren’t familiar with Lovecraft and that certain type of obsessive and lonely fan, then the story is a fine weird tale, but nothing special. Maybe even a little hokey, because like M. R. James it leaves a great deal unsaid, unexplained; the meaning is implied between the lines. The catch requires recognition, and a very different use of Lovecraft than almost any other author has ever used. Arguably, Russ didn’t have to use Lovecraft for the story—but who else would she use, in 1964? Lovecraft already had the legend for it, the myth built up around himself and his writings.
Once you read the story, once you get the cruel joke, you may never read it again. The prose is not beautiful, the essence of the story a one-note tragedy. That couldn’t have helped it with the anthologists either: many fans want pastiches, stories that celebrate and expand on Lovecraft & co.’s artificial mythology, and many writers want that too. It’s fun, it’s part of the game. “I Had…” is ultimately more adult and demanding—a story with insight, which demands a moment’s reflection. One you may be glad to have read, if only because it is so different from what most people consider a “Lovecraftian” story.