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…
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.
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?