“The Madonna of the Abbatoir” (2014) by Anne M. Pillsworth

 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).

 

“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).

 

 

“Pickman’s Centerfold, Or: The Dunwich Ho” (2003) by Nancy Holder

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).

“A Creak in the Floor” (2018) by Victoria Dalpe

Don’t you know there was a mill on Copp’s Hill in 1632, and that half the present streets were laid out by 1650? I can shew you houses that have stood two centuries and a half and more; houses that have witnessed what would make a modern house crumble into powder.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”

A story doesn’t have to reference Richard Upton Pickman by name to invoke “Pickman’s Model.” When you boil Lovecraft’s story down to its essence, the soul of it’s core message is simple and perfect: there are monsters in the earth, and they eat the dead. So that is what Victoria Dalpe takes a her premise. No Necronomicon, no blasphemous artwork—just a bunch of art school kids renting a space in an old mill in Boston that’s been converted into illegal housing.

The art school kids tell each other stories, urban legend-building in real time, Dalpe working from her Lovecraftian substrate and layering on all the hints and suggestions. The girl who died in the elevator. The guy that got mugged. Where’s Pete? If this was drawn out to novella length or adapted to film, we might get the full Lovecraftian investigation, the secret history unveiled one onion skin at a time. The inexplicable rendered down, explained, pre-digested for the audience.

“A Creak In The Floor” is a short story. It doesn’t have time for that. Everyone knows what it’s about, or they should. Dalpe ends the story by going for the jugular. And she didn’t need a single reference to Pickman to do it, barely uses the g-word. Compared to a lot of Lovecraftian pastiche, it’s refreshing to see someone that can invoke the Mythos without calling the old names. It is reminiscent of “Pugelbone” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin in that way, though Dalpe’s tale hews a little closer to the Lovecraft canon.

If the things-beneath-the-mill are the crux of the story, Where is Pete? is the key to the plot. It is what drives the protagonist Charlie Chan deeper into the darkness. Pete is the reason Charlie is there. Pete is the boy Charlie is in love with. The human connection draws Charlie inexorably in after his friend, his hinted-at one-time lover. The missing Pete’s interpersonal connections with his flatmates is woven in and around the urban legends that Dalpe builds, much as Pickman himself has been built up from Lovecraft’s ghoulish artist, drawing bits of legend to his own personal Mythos as writers weave their stories around him—like “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, or “Pickman’s Modem” (1992) by Lawrence Evans-Watt.

Victoria Dalpe turns the page before we see what crimson end is in store for Charlie, and that is appropriate. While his story could have gone on, the story that Dalpe was telling really ends with the final revelation. In a twist of irony that only Lovecraft readers will get, it once again involves a photograph from life…

“A Creek In The Floor” was published in Pickman’s Gallery (2018). Victoria Dalpe’s other Lovecraftian contribution includes “Mater Annelinda” in Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014).


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

“I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ

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.

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