Tag Archives: well

“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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“The Colour Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft

ColourOutOfSpace

There is so much that could be said about this story, I’m not even sure where to begin. I suppose I could start by saying it’s one of the best works of psychological/sci-fi/horror fiction I have ever read. And honestly, the story transcends all these genres. It’s… amazing.

The story was written in 1927 and is set in Arkham, a fictional New England city featured in other Lovecraft tales. In this tale, a meteor crashes and some strange organism or force infects the surrounding land, causing a slow decay. There is a light of indescribable color associated with the other-worldly thing and this light is what affects the surrounding plants, animals, and humans.

The most obvious interpretation of this story is that it predicts the negative effects of radiation or toxic chemicals poisoning the environment. This is certainly a valid interpretation and easily supported by the text.

It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire; but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid into the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little on the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim.

The next thing about this story that really struck me was the description of the infected plants and their strangeness. As I read it, I had the impression that I was reading an account of someone who had taken hallucinogens. Although this piece predates Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD, there were other hallucinogenic substances that Lovecraft could have acquired. Anyway, this next passage could certainly be the description of one who is under the influence of psychotropic substances.

All the orchard trees blossomed forth in strange colours, and through the stony soil of the yard and the adjacent pasturage there sprang up a bizarre growth which only a botanist could connect with the proper flora of the region. No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth. The Dutchman’s breeches became a thing of sinister menace, and the bloodroots grew insolent in their chromatic perversion. Ammi and the Gardeners thought that most of the colours had a sort of haunting familiarity, and decided that they reminded one of the brittle globule in the meteor.

I have read that the effects of hallucinogenic drugs are similar to the visions some schizophrenics experience. When one of the character in the story who had been exposed to the to the luminosity slips into insanity, I couldn’t help but make the connection.

It happened in June, about the anniversary of the meteor’s fall, and the poor woman screamed about things in the air which she could not describe. In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds. Something was taken away—she was being drained of something—something was fastening itself on her that ought not to be—someone must make it keep off—nothing was ever still in the night—the walls and windows shifted. Nahum did not send her to the county asylum, but let her wander about the house as long as she was harmless to herself and others.

There is a very powerful symbol that appears in this tale: the well. I interpret the well as a symbol for the passage to the deeper, primordial areas of the psyche. This region of the unconscious mind is often associated with mystical visions, creativity, and so forth. In this story, there is something lurking in the well, something that is the cause of the strange luminosity. I see this as representative of a dark aspect of our primordial minds, which lurks below the surface of our waking consciousness, always threatening to surge upward and overwhelm our fragile state of awareness.

At one point, someone goes down into the well to search for the remains of missing people. He uses a stick to poke around the bottom. This is symbolic of stirring up the primordial ooze of our subconscious, trying to plumb the depths but unable to fathom how deep our psyches go.

No one replied, but the man who had been in the well gave a hint that his long pole must have stirred up something intangible. “It was awful,” he added. “There was no bottom at all. Just ooze and bubbles and the feeling of something lurking under there.”

In the end, no one is able to identify the “colour out of space,” because it exists beyond the realm of our comprehension. Whether you want to interpret this as coming from our subconscious or from a different dimension of existence, it is ultimately the same. We can only understand that which exists within our realm of ordinary perception. When we glimpse the other realms, whether through drugs, meditation, or mental illness, we are faced with something that is beyond our ability to express and which can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms where mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.

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