The Picture in the House: The complete Lovecraft #20

Lovecraft’s tales cover a broad spectrum, but the best of them are those that inspire a visceral response deep in your gut. The ones that get under your skin, gnaw the back of your mind and invoke your inner fears. ‘The picture in the house‘ does this in spades, as it slowly builds up the tension within both narrator and reader.

Published in 1921, it was the first of his tales to root itself in the New England countryside of his imagination. While earlier tales were set in within the region, it was with ‘The Picture in the House‘ that New England itself becomes a character in a wider sense. Indeed Lovecraft makes no bones about doing so in one of the early passages in the text.

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure of the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteem most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

It is this passage that really sets the tone for the whole story. Strange though it may seem to compare the backroad farmhouses of New England to Germanic castles and lost cities in Asia, it manages to convey a sense of dread that seeps through the pages. It is the same kind of dread inspired by ‘Evil Dead’ style cabins in the woods. You know the moment you see it that something dark lays within its walls. It is a theme that Lovecraft returns to time and time again in his later fiction, building his own grim new England landscape.  ‘The Picture in the House‘ is also the first tale to make mention of ‘dear’ old Arkham and the Miskatonic Valley, though only in fleeting reference, it lays the groundwork for what was to become ‘Lovecraft country’ as it is sometimes referred to.

Speaking of ‘Cabin in the Woods’ there is something of a reference to this tale in Josh Weldon’s movie, in the horror inspiring picture on the wall that hides the two-way mirror between rooms. Though ‘Cabin in the Woods’ is a movie littered with references to most of the horror genre, this is far from the only Lovecraft inspired aspect of the movie, but I digress…

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That said, ‘The Picture in the House‘ is actually an engraving in an old, rare, and thankfully entirely fictional book. One of Lovecraft’s tomes of dark intent, so liberally sprinkled throughout his work. In this case the ‘Regnum Congo‘ a somewhat vile work on ritual catabolism. The book is in the possession of the inhabitant of an old New England farmhouse the narrator takes refuge in when a storm comes upon him suddenly, in the mistaken belief it is uninhabited, and it is whence his terror begins.

There are many echoes of classic gothic horror in this story, for all its New England setting. The pace, the slow build up of tension while nothing overt is happening, the way you can feel the grim darkness of the ending waiting for you, it echoes much of Poe and the early chapters of Dracula. As I said, it draws you in and gets under your skin, like an itch waiting to be scratched and growing all the more engrossing until it becomes everything and you can stand it no more. This is then, Lovecraft at his eerie, unsettling best.

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It is not universally praised, though for me it is seminal Lovecraft, even the carefully understated nature of the ending, letting the reader’s imagination colour around the edges. It makes it all the more brooding and chilling for what it does not say, but then the best horror is always the darkness of the unknown, given light by the reader’s imagination …

After so many strolls through the dreamlands, getting back to pure horror is a welcome relief, and ‘The Picture in the House’ is most certainly that. For that alone, and the chills that reading this tale still sends down my spine despite having read it several times before it gets a slithering 5 tentacles. It may not be the best work, and indeed I may praise it too highly just because it comes after the disappointment that is ‘Celephais’ But it’s a tale that needs to be read, preferably on a dark stormy night, in a silent house with no one upstairs.

So what caused that floorboard to creak?

5out 6

Further Lovecraftian witterings 

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Celephais: The Complete Lovecraft #19

Regular readers may have noticed there has been a bit of a lull in Lovecraftian posts for the last couple of months. Indeed the last of these was ‘The Tree way back in early April. There are several reasons for this, I have been busy working on the final edit of my next novel, real work has been busier than normal, I finally upgraded my old Xbox 360 to a PS4 and bought a copy of Fall Out 4… and ‘Celephais‘.

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Celephais‘, a tale much beloved by Lovecraft’s fans, leaves me cold. It has always left me cold, and I have never been quite sure why. Indeed I had been dreading Celephais ever since I started this self-set challenge. It has been looming on the horizon since I first put together the list of stories to read and knew where it fell in the chronological order they were written, which if you have not guessed yet, is the order I am reading the Lovecraft tales. ‘Celephais‘ has sat leering at me since I read ‘The Tree’, but if you’re going to read them all, then you have to read them all, and that is all there is to it. So read it I did and tried to put my thoughts together for this post. The page was blank save for one word, however….

Then I read it again because I have made a point of reading each tale twice before I write the blog, which is normally not too great a chore (A Reminiscence of Dr. Samual Johnson aside, which was slightly torrid to read a second time). Yet, after the second reading I still only had the one word.

I left it a while, deciding I was probably in the wrong mood for the story, and besides, I had Molerats and Super mutants to kill after waking up in Vault 111, and I had to get Hannibal Smyth to India at the behest of ‘OoldIiron Knickers‘ Ministry. I had much to do, and I was sure when I went back to it in a better mindset ‘Celephais’ would inspire a few more words on my part…

Time past, as it is want to do…

So I read ‘Celephais’ again, or at least attempted to, though every time I did I gave up a page or two into what is admirably not even a long tale. Eventually, I even summoned up the willpower to finish reading through it again and wrote down my thoughts. One word again, same word again…

Let’s recap a moment, ‘Celephais‘ is much loved by the Lovecraftian literati, they clearly see something within it I do not. So let’s talk about the tale itself a moment. Celephais is part of the Dreamlands stories. Indeed in many ways, it is an archetype for them, everything you would expect to be in a Dreamlands tale is there. It Dunsian nature, its separation from the real, its strangeness and oddity, a man seeking a world beyond the mundane and taking solace in his dreams of a far off land and a strange city… it is little different in context from ‘The White Ship‘ or ‘Polaris‘, the latter of which it shares many hallmarks with. Both of which I have a great deal of time for, but perhaps therein lays the problem. I am reading these tales in order, and ‘Celephais‘ feels like it’s been phoned in. It has all the hallmarks of the other Dreamlands tales I have encountered in this challenge but lacks the originality of them. Perhaps read in a different order it would be ‘Polaris‘ which felt stilted, rehashing ideas, and to be offering nothing new. Though, as I have said, I have read it in the past and it left me cold then as well.

In short, Celephais is best summed up by that one word I kept writing in my notes, an achingly Yorkshire word filled with derision. I know there are many who will disagree, and I hope I have at leats offered a context for my review. I will expand on it a little at least and make the review three words, but no more, as if I must expand further I would have to read Celephais again, and it’s just possible that in doing so, I will never get to ‘The Picture in the House‘… So here is the review…

Celephais, it’s twaddle…

With that in mind, I will give it IMO an overly generous…

1out 6

Because it’s not ‘A Reminiscence of Dr Samual Johnson’ which is the best thing I can say about it…

Further Lovecraftian witterings 

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‘Beyond Redemption’ and the bedside table…

I read a lot, as most writers do. Indeed it is more or less a prime requisite for the job. The great sage himself, Stephen King, says…

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Which is not to say I have ever found reading a chore, far from it. I read with a velocity which has never diminished no matter what else has taken hold of my imagination. At any one time, I have several books on the go, scattered about the house in various places. I always have at least one book on my phone that I am reading with the Kindle app on my lunch hour. On my desk at home, there are always a  couple of books laying open at whatever page I was reading. While the bookcase at the side of the sofa always has a book or two that sit on top of the rest as they are in progress. There is a shelf in my kitchen (with a couple of cookbooks) that always has at least one paperback sat on it. Even the smallest room in the hours has a couple of reference books and the occasional graphic novel in the cupboard below the sink, in easy reach.

Yet of all the places for a book to reside in that twilight time between being purchased and having been read, the bedside table pile is the king. It’s the prime spot. The place reserved for the books I want to read the most.

I have, you see, always been a nocturnal reader. Those twilight hours between going to bed and going to sleep are the ones who call to me the most. Insomnia in all its vainglorious machinations has been both villain and hero most of my life. I would always sooner read than sleep, and many are the hours I have stayed awake reading when I should long have been dreaming, a good book will see me to the dawn. So if I know, it’s going to be a good book… On the nightstand is where it goes.

As a consequence, there is always a large pile of books on my nightstand, all struggling with the internal politics of the book pile, and the couple of rules I strictly ignore.

Rule 1 ‘New books to be read go to the bottom,‘  A steadfast rule that is seldom properly applied. There is a paperback at the bottom of the pile which has been there over a year because while I really want to read it, it keeps getting gazumped by incomers.

Rule 2 ‘Always finish a book before starting the next,’ An equally steadfast rule often ignored. There is a Niel Gaiman book of short stories I have been reading for six months because I tell myself that the rule does not apply to collections of shorts. Which also applies to the Necronomicon, though in my defence reading everything by Lovecraft for my blog is supposed to take me a year…

But back to rule 1, and the politics of the book pile. A new Pratchett (if such a thing were still possible) would go straight to the top (and lead to rule 2 being ignored as well.) A new Stephen King, by comparison, would slip in half way down. Unless it was a new dark tower novel in which as all bets are off… A new Jon Ronson or Matt Haig would slip in at the bottom, as much as I enjoy their books, I have to try and work through the pile somehow, but the lower reaches of the pile are a bit of a wilderness at times, and books get lost there before being moved to one of my other mind feeding stations around the house.

All of which waffle brings me to the actual reason for this post. C.G.Hatton’s latest novel   Beyond Redemption. The second of her Thieves Guild Origins series. A YA sci-fi series that ties into her mainstream sci-fi Thieves Guild universe. This is her sixth novel in all, and I was looking forward to it immensely. When it arrived, it was going to be a bedside table book of the first order, of which I had no doubt. I have read all her pervious books, recommended them to others, reviewed a couple on the blog. It’s safe to say I am a fan. There was no danger of rule 1 being applied… It went straight into the upper reaches of the pile. Which is something that is always a bit of a risk…

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Here is the thing, almost every author I have ever read has thrown me the odd curve ball, those disappointing books that are just not as good as the others in a series. They may not be bad per-say, they just don’t quite live up to the hype. Even when that hype is self-generated by my own expectations. Every Author will fall below your expectations on occasion. Even the Dark Tower series has its ‘Song for Susannah‘ the one book in the series that left me a little flat, not that it’s a bad novel, it’s just not the ‘Drawing of the Three‘, or the ‘Wolves of Cala‘. Book one of ‘Origins’ Kheris Burning which I reviewed last year set a very high bar, as YA novel with real strength and depth to it. The four books in Hatton’s main series ‘Thieves Guild’ (the first of which, ‘Residual Belligerence‘ I reviewed a couple of years ago) set the bar fairly high as well, but Keris Burning, in particular, stands out as a high water mark. I found myself wondering if my expectations were too high, so ‘Beyond Redemption’ stayed in the pile for a little while longer that its high placing would suggest. Trepidation beset me, as much as I wished to read it, I did not want to be disappointed when I did…

Then, eventually, after a couple of other books got read first in a strange disruption to the normality of the nightstand politics of the book pile, I picked up the courage to read ‘Beyond Redeption.’ Hoping all my trepidation was misplaced, and more than a little worried I was going to be disappointed. Such being the logic of fools…

So, as a review let me say this, you need to read ‘Kheris Burning’. Not because this novel does not stand on its own, it does. Not because this novel disappoints, it doesn’t. Not because Keris Burning is the better novel, it’s not… But because Beyond Redemption deserves its Herald. It’s a great novel, a wonderful read, it’s fast, pacey, and once I picked it up I read it in two sittings, which would have been one but for Insomnia failing to win out against the demons of sleep. Like Kheris, there is more to it than just a straight up adventure sci-fi, themes from the first novel come through to the second, but those themes have moved on to bring in more complexity underlying what is always a fun read that draws you along and draws you deeper with each page. You need to read ‘Beyond Redemption‘ because it’s just as damn good. Written with a joy of the storyteller’s soul, fast-paced, surprising and full of the unexpected. You just should read ‘Kheris Burning’ first.

C.G.Hatton continues to defy my expectations, the astounding standards she has set herself in her previous works she just keeps hitting that high bar again and again. If she has a ‘Song for Susannah’ in her she has not written it yet. Who knows, maybe she will just keep defying my pessimistic expectations with every novel. One thing is for sure she will keep going to the top of the nightstand and ignoring rule 1 with each new release…

Anyway, here is the link and due to the wonders of the internet, you can read a little of it for free as well…

 

Oh and if C.G reads this at all. I noticed what you did in the also by’s blurb for Kheris Burning… strangely flattered

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E-Book Giveaway…

As the title suggests I am giving away Ebook copies of my first novel ‘Cider Lane: Of Silences and Stars’ on Kindle this week.  (Follow the link to read more.)

This is for one week only, or five days technically as the offer ends at midnight on Friday. I am doing it in the somewhat vainglorious hope that it will help to get a few more reviews on Amazon (because another 5 reviews will put the novel past the 20 review barrier on .co.uk and a few more for the .com version.)

fireside wisdom

Also, I decided to make this one off offer, because having spent a year or so writing the novel in the first place and a couple of years promoting it, I have reached the point where I just want as many people as possible to read it and don’t greatly care about making any money from the novel. Not that I ever expected to make much or indeed cared about making money from it. If you get into writing purely to make money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and probably on a hiding to nothing.

This is, however, the one and only time I will do this because I value the little slither of my soul that Cider Lane represents a little too much to just give it away all the time.

So, please take the opportunity to grab a copy if you wish, and if you are of a mind after reading it to post an Amazon review, please do so.

On .co.uk

on .com

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Strontium Dogs…

I grew up, back in the 80’s, reading 2000AD. Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Holo Jones, Bad Company, The A.B.C. Warriors, The VC’s, Nemesis the Warlock and all the rest informed my humour, my writing and my love of what sci-fi at its best can be. Stories about the human condition told through the fantastic, the futuristic and on occasion the truly bizarre.  Future shocks taught me of the art of the short story, while the others taught me the scope of the epic. I grew up with 2000AD, but 2000AD grew up with me at the same time, as I have written about before in an earlier blog post celebrating its 2000th issue last year. As I wrote then:

Johnny Alpha, Strontium Dogs main character’s back story was developed into an epic that looked at racism and fascists through the lens of mutants and the Keelers. Doing that most subversive of things, educating young minds while entertaining them. Much of my own abhorrence of racism and the far right I can trace back to reading 2000AD and the long-running ‘Portrait of a Mutant’ Not bad for a strip that started bout as a bounty hunter western set in space.

Which brings me to the point of this particular post, for while I love Dredd and 2000AD with a passion, it was ‘Strontium Dog‘ that brought me to the party in the first place. Johnny Alpha and Wulf were the characters that kept me reading ‘Starlord‘ the comic in which they were the mainstays past the first issue. I had flirted with other comics before, Battle, Eagle, Marvel, DC and others, but Starlord stuck with me, and I stuck with it, because of Strontium Dog.

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John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra created in the stories of Johnny and Wulf a western in space. This is back before ‘Firefly’ had even crossed the mind of a young Josh Weldon. It was a diamond of an idea, mutant bounty hunters forced into a life on the fringe, hated by the society they served, derided by the ‘norms’. They could rock up at some settlement beset by outlaws and take the bad guys out, only to be run off afterwards as ‘mutie scum’. Yet somehow Johnny Alpha strove to be above the hand that was dealt him.

Portrait of a Mutant’ remains one of the finest pieces of storytelling in any medium, as I alluded to in the passage above.  It taught me more than any history lesson could about the rise of fascism and the lure it has in creating scapegoats for all the problems people face. Lessons as valuable today in a world that seems to be edging towards the right of the political spectrum more than at any time since the 1930’s. Yet the full sweep of the Strontium Dog stories are all filled with the same humour, humanity and wonder.

Johnny Alpha remains my hero because I can relate to him more than Dredd. While I love Dredd’s world and the stories within it, ‘Old Stoneface’ himself is the establishment figure, an archetype fascist in some regards. While Dredd himself is a benevolent dictator, treating all equally for his vision of the greater good as represented by ‘The law’, he walks a hard line all the same, and his society is oppressive in the extreme, and his fellow Judges are often far from benevolent. Alpha, on the other hand, is not the establishment figure, but a man trying to make his way in the universe. Trying to do what he deems to be right, look out for the little guy, and push back against the man. As a character, he is more directly relatable than old Joe. If I wanted to emulate anyone growing up, it was Johnny. Which is why I was utterly thrilled to find out the guys who made Judge Minty (also well worth a watch) had made a Strontium Dog film.

Stephen Green and Steven Sterlacchini have managed, just as they did with Judge Minty, to take the vision of the comics and bring them to the screen. It holds true to all the little details as well, the Doghouse and the SD agents that fans will recognise. Durham Red and her little pointy teeth, Mc Nulty and his bumps, even Harvey the odious one behind his desk. The feel of the original comics is there in the settings and the western vista’s, the villain’s arrogant excesses, the beggar be the side of the road. All through it feels like the comics and that is part of the joy, you can see and feel it is made by fans.

It is, therefore, an utter joy, which is the only reason for this post if I am honest because sometimes you just need to share the awesome. My hat goes off to them both Stevens and everyone else involved…

Even if you have never heard of the doghouse, the search and destroy agency and old Johnny eyes…  This is a twenty-minute wonder everyone should see, and Hollywood could learn a lot from…

http://www.strontiumdogfanfilm.com/

 

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Selfish desires and taxation…

I am better off financially than a great many of my friends, I have a full-time job and earn more money than I need to live comfortably. If the Tories don’t win the election, I may have to pay a little more tax under a Labour or ‘as an eternal optomist’ Liberal government…
Ultimately this will mean I may have to wait another week or so before buying another guitar to hang on my wall with the rest of them…

wall of guitars

In return for me being unable to buy another guitar ‘to hang on my wall’ for a week or so, the friends of mine who are currently struggling to pay bills, to put food on the table without going to food banks, to cover the cost of rent, and just to get by week to week, stand half a chance of a government that cares about them, and whom, by taking a little more off me, will actually do something to help them.
These are not people ‘scrounging’ on the dole with just no interest in having a job. These are hard working people who just don’t earn very much, struggling to get by and feed their families… Struggling to feed their families… just think about that for a moment. 

To quote a simple statistic from the Trussel Trust

  • Over 1,182,000 three day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis in past year – 436,000 to children

The UK, in case you’re unaware, is one of the largest and most successful economies in the world, yet families are struggling to feed themselves…

Foodbanks and their growing use is just one issue, but of all the issues you should consider when you vote, are the poor getting enough to eat should probably be fairly high on your agenda.

Frankly, I can survive without the cash to buy another guitar to hang on the wall without waiting for a week or so to save up the money. If that is I end up paying a little more tax every month. And I will not mind if that is the case if it is to help those in society who are worse off,  because I am quite frankly a lot better off than most people… I am not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I sure as hell ain’t poor and living hand to mouth, with an empty hand…


Of course, if you would rather have a little bit more money in your own pocket at the expense of the poorest please by all means vote Tory in the coming election… I believe in democracy and the will of the people. But 
I can not do so, because I would sooner be able to look my friends in the eye when they talk about using food banks and struggling to get by because the few benefits they have, having been slashed.

I would rather pay a little more tax, so when I talk about the new guitar I have just hung on the wall, I do not feel guilty that I spend money, I have more than enough of, on things I don’t need, while they fall deeper into debt just to get through the week. I don’t want to look at my new Epiphone, a beautiful cherry red ES 339 hanging on the wall and feel guilty that I can afford such a thing because I live under a low tax, fuck the poor, government.  

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In the end, it comes down to who do you think about when you vote. Yourself or the society you live in.
I would sooner vote for myself to pay a little more tax and have fewer guitars, in return for living in a nation where the poor, the less able, the unfortunate and those who frankly are less lucky than myself to have a better life.
So, #taxthereasonablywelloffwedontmind
which is a terrible hashtag, but you get the point.

I should add, I have a lot of guitars, I hang them on my walls and occasionally pick them up and strum away at them. I can’t play them for toffee, and they are utterly wasted in my hands, but I buy them anyway because I can. And if I paid 2% more tax, or 5% or 10% come to that, I still could not play them. I could also still afford to buy them, I would just feel less guilty about doing so. So perhaps this is an entirely selfish concept, I want to be taxed more so I feel better about myself, but hell if the poorest in society are better off because of my selfish desire to feel better then it’s win win …

 

Links that you should read before you consider voting…

https://www.trusselltrust.org/2017/04/25/uk-foodbank-use-continues-rise/

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/03/cut-to-disability-benefits-may-make-return-to-work-harder-claim-mps

 

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Further words of wisdom…

In keeping with the last post more wisdom from renown members of the craft. In this case famous writers on the subject of characters… If I am totally with any of them here, I would like to think it is with Joss Weldon.

 

Kurt Vonnegut:  Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Robert McKee:  The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.

Alice Hoffman: After a while, the characters I’m writing begin to feel real to me. that’s when I know I’m heading in the right direction.

Joss Whedon: I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.

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Stephen King: I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.

Been Weeks: Weak characters make for weak stories.

Ernest Hemingway: When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.

Barbara Taylor Bradford: The character is the plot of the novel. Character is destiny.

Trueman Capote: You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.

 

 

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