Next thing I saw on the computer screen was a close-up of a drawing in a book of what looked to me like a big, enormous cock with tentacles and a beaked glans. I thought, Oh, Jesus, he’s the one for sure been cutting up the hookers. He’s got some kind of psychosexual thing going.
Gil slurred, “This’s Cthulhu.” Then he started crying.
—Nancy Holder, “Pickman’s Centerfold” in Hot Blood XI Fatal Attractions 245
Richard Upton Pickman holds a particular fascination with some writers in the Mythos. Artists have often struggled with censorship, obscenity, and unveiling true forms to the naked eye. It’s a very small conceptual leap to add an erotic element to Pickman’s work, like “Pickman’s Necrotica” in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon (2010), the films in “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan…and the camshow websites designed by Pickman in “Pickman’s Centerfold, or: The Dunwich Ho.”
There is a certain reverent irreverence to Nancy Holder’s prose, right from the title to the very last line. It’s a free-wheeling, open approach to the Mythos fiction which borrows liberally from previous works, but isn’t beholden to any of them. So while Cthulhu and the Necronomicon and all make an appearance, it is in service to this story and its plotline, not to some larger fabric of Mythos fiction. “Pickman’s Centerfold” is not a sequel or prequel or really in any way connected with the narrative of “Pickman’s Model.”
This method of radical re-interpretation of the Mythos is very similar to that of “Showdown at Red Hook” (2011) by Lois H. Gresh or “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” (1990) by Esther M. Friesner and the result is…fun. Readers who have chewed through all of Lovecraft’s work and a hundred pastiches will find a story that can’t be fit into any timeline of the Mythos, and that’s okay. Holder has taken inspiration and elements from Lovecraft’s stories but has gone off to do her own thing.
The story itself is a bit light for the subject; despite appearing in (and probably written exclusively for) the erotic horror Hot Blood series, titillation and gore are not really the point, and Holder never crosses the line into either splatterpunk or erotica. Pornography and prostitution, with all its tawdry bits, are the waters in which FBI Special Agent Eliot Blake and his erstwhile comrade Gilman Innsmouth swim, like a particularly screwy episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit crossed with the film 8MM.
Hookers are people too, and we have a lot of those people in Boston, don’t let nobody lie to you that w have “clean up” our cit. It gets cold here. (ibid, 238)
That approach, of an FBI Special Agent hunting a serial killer running afoul of the Mythos is at once familiar to many readers but quirky enough to keep them reading. Alan Moore did much the same thing in “The Courtyard” (1994) and its sequel. This approach helps in that it brings an “outsider” ignorant of the Mythos to come investigating, letting the readers re-live their own initiation into the weird mysteries. Holder draws on some established tropes in the process, some of more relevant than others. At one point, for example, Agent Gil pulls out a pile of books:
So wham! the books got put on the table front and center, and the first one had a picture of a really buffed-out Hannibal Lecter on the front and the title was Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. I picked the next one up and title was At the Mountains of Madness, with a corpse in a hooded robe on the cover.
I waited for Gil to explain. (ibid, 242)
Gil couldn’t explain, and maybe Holder couldn’t either. Having works of Mythos fiction actually be present in the stories themselves is an old trick, going back to August Derleth placing Arkham House titles and copies of Weird Tales in the Mythos stories he wrote after the death of H. P. Lovecraft—Moore did the same thing in Neonomicon, Robert Bloch did it in his novel Strange Eons (1978). But whereas Bloch & Derleth were trying to establish the “truth” of Lovecraft’s Mythos in their narrative, and Moore was pursuing a grand metafictional narrative, Holder’s use here feels like a misstep. There are narrative ramifications which go unexplored: if Lovecraft lived, wrote, and died, then how has the FBI not run across the name “Richard Upton Pickman” before? The title-drops feel like an unwanted tie-in to a story that is deliberately trying to pursue its own separate narrative.
That possible misstep aside, the real focus on the latter part of the story is on the revelations: what Pickman is actually up to, what agents Blake and Innsmouth actually uncover. Despite the title, there is no centerfold—this is the digital era—and no “Dunwich Ho.” A grave disappointment for some readers, certainly, but also exemplary of one of the unconscious problems of this story: the women.
Pickman’s websites are implicitly heterosexual, places for camgirls to post their content and draw in clients; later in the story there is the suggestion he runs sites for men as well, but again exclusively for a heterosexual (if not always human) audience. The women themselves are only present in the story as nameless victims.
She was a truly awesome sight, with silicone tits of rounded perfection, big red nipples pointed directly toward the North Star. Her pussy had been shaved, and she looked fantastic. I figured, professional girl. Then I realized: one of Prickman’s girls. (ibid, 246)
There are a lot of possible invisible constraints here: maybe editorial policy at Hot Blood emphasizes heterosexual relations, maybe it would kill the pacing if Eliot Blake focused in on the identities of the female victims, maybe it’s just in keeping with Blake’s personality to treat all adult entertainers as prostitutes, characterized by their physical attributes rather than their names or personalities, and Holder was honestly reflecting that. Whatever the case, the women end up as ciphers, present only to be sex objects and then die gruesomely.
The human women aren’t the only ones that go nameless, but at least when Cthulhu’s wife/mate appears there’s a deliberate shift in tone: when the focus goes from “he” (Cthulhu) to “she,” it becomes retrospectively obvious that “she” has been the major driver for the story, not Pickman or Cthulhu. Holder doesn’t go into the details of “her”—doesn’t even her use common appellation—but it’s a rare story that puts Cthulhu and his mate on sexual parity, so to speak, and the revelation of what has really been going on works well.
“Pickman’s Centerfold, Or: The Dunwich Ho” was published in Hot Blood XI Fatal Attractions (2003); it has not been reprinted. Nancy Holder’s other Mythos work includes “In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound” (2014), “Baubles” (2015), and “Nyarlathotep Came Down To Georgia” (2018), and she has taught Lovecraft at the University of California at San Diego and the Stonecoast Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).