“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a 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. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model” (1927)

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” is a sequel in every sense of the word. Not only does Kiernan unfold the next chapter in the narrative, peeling away more onion-layers to reveal deeper mysteries, but it is a continuation of the themes of the original story in a new direction. Without so many words, Kiernan asks and answers the unobvious question: What’s better than a photograph from life?

The story could have been labeled “Eliot’s Tale”—Eliot being the person to whom Thurber, the protagonist in Lovecraft’s story, had been addressing his narrative to. Now three years later, Thurber was dead and it was Eliot picking up the pieces of the man’s life, sorting through the letters and drawings, uncovering something that Thurber, in Lovecraft’s story, failed to mention: Pickman’s nudes.

It isn’t some lingering prudery that kept nudity out of Lovecraft’s story, nor is it any particular prurience of Kiernan’s that places it at the center of hers. Lovecraft’s focus was on one of Pickman’s models, the necrophagous critters that haunt Boston’s old tunnels; Kiernan’s focus is on his other model—a young woman whom any artist might sketch in the nude to hone their skills at anatomy, and who catches Eliot’s attention.

The development of the investigation is leisurely, with specific details that are highly suggestive but never so explicit as to reveal the central mystery. Hints along the way, artfully arranged, touching on some of Kiernan’s favorite themes…echoes of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Hound,” old family shames and lesbian desires—and a particular anatomical feature—that echo Kiernan’s own stories like “Houndwife” (2010), “pas-en-arrière” (2007), and Daughter of Hounds (2007). Always keeping that toehold in reality, the story coded with all the care of a good hoax, as when Kiernan discusses what might well have been the inspiration for the story:

It might have only been a test reel, or perhaps 17,000 or so frames, some twelve minutes, give or take, excised from a far longer film. All in all, it was little but than a blatantly pornographic pastiche of the widely circulated 1918 publicity stills of Theda Bara lying in various risqué poses with a human skeleton (for J. Edward Gordon’s Salomé).
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Pickman’s Other Model” in Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart 276

thedaskeleton

I overheard, when the lights came back up, that the can contianing the reel bore two titles, The Necrophile and The Hound’s Daughter, and also bore two dates – 1923 and 1924. (ibid)

As much as Lovecraft and others liked to portray the artist as portraying some supernal truth, Kiernan knows that reality tends to be much baser. So much is the case when Eliot finally meets Pickman’s other model in the penultimate chapter: a tired young woman who has seen a little too much of the world, with bad habits and a filthy mouth. Living in the present but still haunted by the past.

A past which catches up to her in the final chapter, hinting as Lovecraft did of more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of, darker and uglier realities at play which even the best of art could only hint at as a shadow in the final flickering frames on a black-and-white reel.

The success of “Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” is less in revelation than in suggestion and presentation. This is a story not so much for readers who want another piece of the Mythos puzzle as much as those who enjoy the process of discovery…and how some stories and images stay with you, for a long while. That is the other question, and perhaps as close to a theme of Kiernan’s narrative and her utmost reflection on Lovecraft’s: How do you unsee such things? You can’t.

“Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” was first published in Kiernan’s Sirenia Digest (March 2008), it has been reprinted Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (2010), New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart (2012), Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan Volume Two (2015), and Houses Under The Sea (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

 

“Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

In the coffin lay an amulet of curious and exotic design, which had apparently been worn around the sleeper’s neck. It was the oddly conventionalised figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face, and was exquisitely carved in antique Oriental fashion from a small piece of green jade. The expression on its features was repellent in the extreme, savouring at once of death, bestiality, and malevolence. Around the base was an inscription in characters which neither St. John nor I could identify; and on the bottom, like a maker’s seal, was graven a grotesque and formidable skull.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”

“Houndwife” is a tribute to Lovecraft, and a continuation. It is not a pastiche, as are so many Mythos tales, because it does not attempt to borrow or even suggest anything of Lovecraft’s prose style, however much it may take specific images and ideas from his stories; break them apart, expand on, and rework them. Lovecraft’s story is a background episode: it is unnecessary for the reader to have knowledge of “The Hound” to appreciate and understand “Houndwife,” but those who have read both have perhaps a greater understanding than those who have only read one. It stands on its own, but together they suggest more. That’s rare.

Caitlín R. Kiernan has style.

“Houndwife” revolves around several of her familiar foci—lesbians, the American South contrasted with New England, the Lovecraft Mythos, ghouls, the Church of Starry Wisdom, the occult, and broken perception. The protagonist is an unnamed woman, unlearned but highly intuitive: wisdom borne of experience contrasted against book-knowledge. And this is the story of how she went through a transformative experience, died and was buried, rose again. Not as a martyr or a messiah, not quite as a sacrifice. The experience changes the protagonist, unglues her from the understanding of time. The reader experiences in a linear fashion the protagonist’s now decidedly nonlinear existence.

Lovecraft’s jade amulet from the corpse-eating cult of Leng is the Chekov’s gun of the piece, waiting to be fired. The central mystery of the curious hound-sphinx remains, refracted through the protagonist’s shattered timeline. Only once in a thousand years is a woman chosen to be the houndwife. What that means, ultimately, the answers the Starry Wisdom (and the readers) want, are not readily forthcoming. This is not a Mythos story with passages of long exposition on cosmology or the family trees of the gods: this is a prose poem to experience. Answers, if there are any, will come with reflection.

Aside from the excellent prose styling, and the masterfully done nonlinear structure of the narrative, “Houndwife” is an exemplar of Kiernan’s careful handling and development of characters and relationships, which is part of what sets her work apart from many Mythos writers. While Kiernan has written erotic works, this is not one of them: the lesbian relationship between the protagonist and her girlfriend Isobel Endecott is not there for titillation, but to drive the connection between the protagonist and the cult, and contrast the ties between Isobel and the cult and Isobel and the protagonist. Glimpsed only in fragments, the sense is there of a real relationship, one where both partners are clearly distinct, but a strong attraction and attachment binds them—although strained and slightly alienated by the ritual of death and rebirth.

That too is one of Kiernan’s familiar themes, the strained relationship despite mutual attraction, and is reminiscent of her earlier story “At the Gates of Deeper Slumber” (2009), where the unnamed narrator and Suzanne are not the perfect lesbian couple: they have disagreements, fights, and flaws. They quibble and worry over gender roles and each other’s space. Suzanne refers to the narrator as a “butch dyke” in reference to the persona she projects, but the narrative itself reveals the uncertainty and discomfort—perhaps even jealousy—that accompany the invasion of her home by the Shining Trapezohedron. The narrator cannot give full force to her worries for fear of alienating her partner, and it is the fear of losing Suzanne that is the consuming dread of the piece, more than anything else. Kiernan has revisited this theme of love, loss, and the Shining Trapezohedron in her later piece “Ex Libris” (2012).

The “Kiernan Mythos” is a bit hazier than comparable efforts by other writers, her contributions tend to be free-standing, without the need for strong tie-ins, though they may exist if you look for them: Isobel Endecott probably related to the Endecotts of “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008). She has developed no single common setting like Lovecraft’s Miskatonic region, Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley, or W. H. Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley, although certain works like the recent Agents of Dreamland (2017) and Black Helicopters (2018) are tied together, and she has four connected stories in the “Dandridge Cycle”, but she does not invent new gods with unspeakable names or eldritch grimoires which are consistent in story after story. Kiernan’s Mythos tales like “Houndwife” are strange growths sprouting from the Lovecraft Mythos, new stories growing from old soil, each unique and distinct.

I should hope that not even the most die-hard admirer of H. P. Lovecraft’s work would date argue that “The  Hound” (1922) is a well-written story. And yet I love it. Despite all it’s garish purple-prose histrionics, the story pushes my buttons. So, it was probably inevitable that I would someday write a tribute to this minor Lovecraft tale, and in March 2010 that’s exactly what I did.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2, 360

“Houndwife” was first published in 2010 in the Sirenia Digestand first saw print in Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012). It has been reprinted in hardcover twice in her collections Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2 (2015) and Houses Under the Sea: Mythos Tales of Caitlín R. Kiernan (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)