Tag Archives: insanity

“Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft: An Exploration of Art and Horror

Art has the ability to express that which standard forms of communication are unable to convey. This is particularly true when it come to the expression of the deeper regions of the subconscious. Often, these recesses contain our darkest thoughts, the fodder from which our nightmares take shape. It is this realm that the artist in this tale by Lovecraft delves into for inspiration.

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.

Artists who explore these darker regions of the psyche are skirting the fringes of insanity. But often, an artist must temporarily let go of sanity in order to glimpse the internal landscapes which provide inspiration for truly powerful creations.

He shewed me all the paintings and drawings he had about; including some pen-and-ink sketches that would, I verily believe, have got him kicked out of the club if many of the members had seen them. Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum.

Lovecraft uses tunnels and wells as symbols for the entry and exploration of the buried realms of the subconscious. When the characters enter the cellar and uncover the well, leading down into the tunnels below Boston, they are symbolically letting go of their fragile sanity and opening themselves to the darker mysteries of the psyche.

My host was now leading the way down cellar to his actual studio, and I braced myself for some hellish effects among the unfinished canvases. As we reached the bottom of the damp stairs he turned his flashlight to a corner of the large open space at hand, revealing the circular brick curb of what was evidently a great well in the earthen floor. We walked nearer, and I saw that it must be five feet across, with walls a good foot thick and some six inches above the ground level—solid work of the seventeenth century, or I was much mistaken. That, Pickman said, was the kind of thing he had been talking about—an aperture of the network of tunnels that used to undermine the hill. I noticed idly that it did not seem to be bricked up, and that a heavy disc of wood formed the apparent cover. Thinking of the things this well must have been connected with if Pickman’s wild hints had not been mere rhetoric, I shivered slightly; then turned to follow him up a step and through a narrow door into a room of fair size, provided with a wooden floor and furnished as a studio. An acetylene gas outfit gave the light necessary for work.

The danger that artists face when exploring the subconscious is that they may ultimately plummet into insanity, losing all touch with the world of light and getting lost forever in the realm of shadows.

Richard Upton Pickman, the greatest artist I have ever known—and the foulest being that ever leaped the bounds of life into the pits of myth and madness. Eliot—old Reid was right. He wasn’t strictly human. Either he was born in strange shadow, or he’d found a way to unlock the forbidden gate. It’s all the same now, for he’s gone—back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt.

Creative people should never shy away from looking into the depths of the soul for inspiration. But they should do so with care. It’s important to stay grounded when unlocking the forbidden gates of the mind.

Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen has been on my reading list for quite a while, and I finally got around to it. I was somewhat concerned that the book would not live up to my expectations, but I am happy to say that it did. Now the challenge is what to write about it. There is so much that can be said about this deep psychological assessment of our society, with each character representing a modern archetype. I figured I would just talk about some of the book’s darker visions of society and where our society seems to be heading.

It seems to me that many people prefer to be blissfully unaware and ignorant of the future that appears to be racing toward us, and this sentiment is poetically expressed in the text.

Others bury their heads between the swollen teats of indulgence and gratification, piglets squirming beneath a sow for shelter… but there is no shelter… and the future is bearing down like an express train.

(p. 68)

Later in the book, one of the protagonists, Rorschach, presents his dismal view of human existence.

Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

(p. 204)

So we are presented with a meaningless world full of hatred, fear, anxiety, insanity, greed, and countless other social ills. Faced with such a bleak view, the next logical question is whether humanity is worth saving, worth fighting for. This is the question that the characters Laurie and Jon debate in the book. Jon initially does not believe that human life matters, but then changes his mind. When Laurie asks what caused him to alter his view, Jon explains:

Thermo-dynamic miracles… events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible. Like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermo-dynamic miracle.

(pp. 306 – 7)

This provided me with the light I needed to find hope in this dark vision of our world. We are surrounded by miracles. Every single one of us is a living, breathing miracle, whose very existence defies all odds. And this is something I will keep in mind as I continue through this journey.

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Creepy: Issue 23

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On a recent trip to the comic store, I opted to discontinue a couple arcs that I had been following. I had just lost interest and it felt like they were dragging out the stories. So, I perused the racks looking for something different and then an issue of Creepy caught my eye. The cover—dark, gothic, and spectral—enticed me. I have loved horror since I was a kid, and I used to read early versions of Creepy growing up (much to the dismay of my parents). I had read a couple of the “new” Creepy publications put out by Dark Horse,so I decided to pick this one up and give it a read. I have to say, I really liked it.

The stories in the issue were reminiscent of the old graphic horror tales I remember from my childhood. Even the black-and-white artwork captured the shadowy essence of early graphic horror. And rather than being serialized, where you have to commit to issue after issue following a labyrinthine arc, Creepy is composed of several short vignettes, each one a stand-alone tale steeped in folklore and the macabre. I particularly liked one story entitled “The Picture of Death,” which was about an 18th century traveler who stays in a boardinghouse room that has a cursed painting. The painting, populated with grotesquely surreal creatures right out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting, comes to life and draws the unsuspecting man into a nightmarish realm. It was an amazing depiction of how art can also unlock darker regions of the psyche which can lead a person into insanity.

The inside of the back cover is a single-page one-panel tale depicting a mythological demon who creates a play so dark that reading it drive a person insane. I thought it would be worth sharing  the accompanying quote.

Hastur, ruling from the lost, mythical city of Carcosa, revels in chaos and madness. None dare read the play written by this malicious entity, for fear of going insane, crying for salvation while Hastur’s soul-shattering stories give none.

Beware, precious reader, for you too will end up as the pitiful wretch seen here—one whose mind has traveled too far into the realm of the King in Yellow, only to be trapped with countless other lost souls!

If you have an interest in the macabre, then this is something for you. But be warned, these tales are not for the timid.

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Symbolism in “The Lurking Fear” by H. P. Lovecraft

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This is a tale that is terrifying and disturbing on various levels. It has insanity, cannibalism, inbreeding, and psychological terror, all cast against a dire setting that includes a decrepit mansion in the Catskill Mountains. There is also some dark symbolism woven into the story that adds another level to the horror evoked by this piece. Rather than summarizing the story, though, I am just going to point out some of the symbolism.

Shadows appear frequently throughout this tale, and my interpretation is Jungian, that the shadows which the protagonist sees are the dark, shadow aspect of his own psyche.

As I shivered and brooded on the casting of that brain-blasting shadow, I knew that I had at last pried out one of earth’s supreme horrors—one of those nameless blights of outer voids whose faint daemon scratching we sometimes hear on the farthest rim of space, yet from which our own finite vision has given us merciful immunity. The shadow I had seen, I hardly dared to analyse or identify.

As I mentioned, inbreeding is a theme in this story. The inbreeding is symbolized by tree roots, particularly in the graveyard, where the roots connect the present to the dead ancestors.

The scene of my excavations would alone have been enough to unnerve any ordinary man. Baleful primal trees of unholy size, age, and grotesqueness leered above me like the pillars of some hellish Druidic temple; muffling the thunder, hushing the clawing wind, and admitting but little rain. Beyond the scarred trunks in the background, illumined by faint flashes of filtered lightning, rose the damp ivied stones of the deserted mansion, while somewhat nearer was the abandoned Dutch garden whose walks and beds were polluted by a white, fungous, foetid, over-nourished vegetation that never saw full daylight. And nearest of all was the graveyard, where deformed trees tossed insane branches as their roots displaced unhallowed slabs and sucked venom from what lay below. Now and then, beneath the brown pall of leaves that rotted and festered in the antediluvian forest darkness, I could trace the sinister outlines of some of those low mounds which characterized the lightning-pierced region.

The mansion also figures prominently in this story and is the scene of much of what occurs. The house represents psychological decay, where reason gives way to insanity, the result of inbreeding among the previous inhabitants of the house.

Meanwhile there grew up about the mansion and the mountain a body of diabolic legendry. The place was avoided with doubled assiduousness, and invested with every whispered myth tradition could supply. It remained unvisited till 1816, when the continued absence of lights was noticed by the squatters. At that time a party made investigations, finding the house deserted and partly in ruins.

There were no skeletons about, so that departure rather than death was inferred. The clan seemed to have left several years before, and improvised penthouses showed how numerous it had grown prior to its migration. Its cultural level had fallen very low, as proved by decaying furniture and scattered silverware which must have been long abandoned when its owners left. But though the dreaded Martenses were gone, the fear of the haunted house continued; and grew very acute when new and strange stories arose among the mountain decadents. There it stood; deserted, feared, and linked with the vengeful ghost of Jan Martense. There it still stood on the night I dug in Jan Martense’s grave.

Finally, there is a great scene where the protagonist discovers tunnels beneath a grave, into which he enters and crawls, in search of the daemon. This is symbolic of the protagonist entering into the subconscious mind, burrowing deep into his primordial psyche to the place of his most base animal instincts.

What language can describe the spectacle of a man lost in infinitely abysmal earth; pawing, twisting, wheezing; scrambling madly through sunken -convolutions of immemorial blackness without an idea of time, safety, direction, or definite object? There is something hideous in it, but that is what I did. I did it for so long that life faded to a far memory, and I became one with the moles and grubs of nighted depths. Indeed, it was only by accident that after interminable writhings I jarred my forgotten electric lamp alight, so that it shone eerily along the burrow of caked loam that stretched and curved ahead.

Lovecraft’s genius is that he was able to craft truly scary stories and weave in complex psychological symbolism. This is a great example of his literary prowess and definitely worthy of reading on a dark, October night.

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Millennium: Issue 2

Millennium_02

Wow! This installment reminds me of why I loved this show so much when it was on TV. It draws you into a dark psychological labyrinth haunted by shadows, demons, nightmares, and insanity.

In this issue, Frank Black and Fox Mulder continue investigating into the death of Monte Propps, the released convict who had used strange runes and deprivation to drive people to take their own lives. While investigating a murder scene, Frank encounters a boy who is possessed by Legion.

Boy: She thought she could hold us… she didn’t realize I was using her to get closer to you. But you knew that. You’ve already seen it, haven’t you, with that gift of yours? I made you an offer once. That offer still stands.

Frank Black: Legion.

Boy: It’s good to see you, Frank. They put so much value on the taking of life, but so little on the nurturing of it. I know it vexes you sometimes, as it does me.

Frank Black: What do you want?

Boy: The same thing you want, Frank. The same thing they do.

If you were a fan of the show, then this series is a must-read. That said, I leave you with this thought:

IT HAS BEEN 5,527 DAYS SINCE THE NEW MILLENNIUM.


 

Further Reading:

Issue 1 Review

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Alice Cooper: Issue #6

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This is a stand-alone issue done by a different writer and artist (Joe Harris and Eman Casallos did the first five issues). I loved it, but it is definitely a niche comic. If you are not an Alice Cooper fan, you are probably not going to enjoy this much. The premise is that Alice is doing a tour through the Nightmare Place but is plagued by a specter, who is some kind of psychotic clown demon seeking to shatter Alice’s sanity. There are definite allusions to Cooper’s “From the Inside” album, which I think is a nice touch. But again, if you are not a Cooper fan, then this would mean nothing to you.

I do not know if this comic is going to continue. There is a sense of finality about it, and there is no mention of an issue 7. I suppose all dark things must come to an end. I’ll inquire next time I visit my local comic store.

Happy nightmares, and keep on reading!

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Wytches: Issue 4

Wytches_04

This comic continues to deliver quality psychological horror. In this issue, as Sailor’s parents continue searching for her, it seems like their grip on sanity is beginning to slip. The creative team does something that works really well. They splice together fragments of storyline to instill a sense of confusion. As I read through this, I felt like Sailor, trapped in a dark space surrounded by macabre images, struggling to get out, but unable to. All the while, unable to shake the feeling of fear and dread.

I feel like I should be writing more about this issue, but frankly, I am at a loss for words. Probably because, for me, the issue is more about creating a sense of fear as opposed to telling a narrative tale, so while the story is progressing, for me, the story is overshadowed by the feeling that the images and structure of the comic evoke. For me, that’s the real artistry in this graphic series.

If you are following this tale, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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