An Analysis of “Pickman’s Model”

An Analysis of “Pickman’s Model”

The short story, “Pickman’s Model,” was written in the year of 1927 and first published in the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales magazine.

The short story “Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft is a tale about a talented artist, Richard Upton Pickman, who is a painter of portraits and landscapes that draw on “cosmic fear” in subject matter and theme. The narrator, Thurber, is a “middle-aged and decently sophisticated” veteran of a World War, who is a close friend and admirer of the artist. He tells a twisted tale about how Pickman takes him to a secluded house in a distant alleyway and down into the cellar where he keeps his artist studio. It is there that Thurber discovers that the Pickman draws his inspiration and subject matter from models of horrifying supernatural beings that come out from “a circular brick curb of what was evidently a great well in the earthen floor” (Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”). These creatures are primitive, bipedal humanoids that have interacted with humans for millennia, one of the paintings showing “a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy” (Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”). The climax of the story comes when Thurber discovers the beasts are actually real and creep about in the subterranean caverns, and Pickman takes a revolver and goes down, out of sight, into the cellar and empties all the chambers into something that cries out and falls with a thud to the floor. When Pickman comes back he says it was only the rats that dwell in the cellar, and he leads Thurber away back to town and they never speak again. Thurber is convinced that the models for the paintings were taken from real creatures and that Pickman was a realist in style and form. He is haunted forever after and avoids any subterranean tunnels, subways, basements, or stairways in fear of what he experienced in the tale.

“Pickman’s Model” must be read internally or aloud and sight and sound are the primary senses involved. If the story is printed in a physical book it has a smell and feel associated with paper, glue, and ink. If it is an old copy it will smell musty or moldy. The paper will be smooth to the touch, the cover glossy, a slick plastic dust jacket on the hardback edition. The paper may taste bitter, acidic, and pulpy on the tongue. If it is read aloud the voice of the reader will affect the rhythm and cadence for the listener.

Language and the structure of the elements of fiction (plot, character, setting, voice, dialog) are of primary importance with this artifact. If a writer does not employ solid literary techniques the story will not be a wonderful experience. The story is available in different mediums that affect the experience such as printed books with text or braille, electronic versions may be downloaded on computers or handheld devices with resizable text, and it can also be found in audible formats.

The purpose of this artifact is to entertain, thrill, terrify, and frighten. The story creates a mood and atmosphere for the reader that may result in physical manifestations of racing pulse, sweating, and even horripilation. H. P. Lovecraft is one of the most influential writers of horror, fantasy, and science fiction and he has certainly succeeded in creating a work that excites the imagination with “Packman’s Model.”

“Pickman’s Model” is a tale that falls within the “horror” genre and is part of the culture of authors who specialize in writing frightening stories. The aspects of this culture reach far back into history in the form of oral tales, books, movies, paintings, statues, costumes, and architecture that deal primarily with horror and death. Horror stories appeal to a specific audience; however, the elements of the genre can be found in art in every culture. The social implication of horror stories is that humans enjoy being frightened for entertainment. According to the author of this story, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (Lovecraft, “Supernatural”).

I suspect horror stories and films have been part of human culture since the beginning of recorded history. The Holy Bible of Christianity is loaded with tales of horror and the macabre. I can prove that horror stories are part of human culture by analyzing some of the greatest works and minds of the creators of horror and ghost stories. It goes back long before Shakespeare and Hamlet (the “Ghost” of his father), even farther back to oral tales told by primitive man around campfires at night. Horror stories serve as cautionary tales to warn of the dangers that lurk in life and are meant to serve as mithridate against grief raised by the inevitability of death. I can prove this by researching the subject in-depth (particularly the essay written by H. P. Lovecraft titled “Supernatural Horror in Literature”) and providing examples that support the idea of the universality of horror stories, citing established works and paraphrasing scholars, writers, psychologists, and specialists who excel in areas pertaining to the genre of horror and the supernatural.

Horror stories scare us while simultaneously making us feel lucky to be alive. Aristotle noted that there is a paradox of tragedy where people enjoy being made to feel pity and fear (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Tragedy reminds us that all humans share a common fate: immortality. Society deals with the resultant grief by creating stories and art to come to terms with the inevitability of death. There is also a paradox of horror: People enjoy horror stories that cause fear, disgust, and terror in the audience, and these are unpleasant sensations; people seem to enjoy the unpleasant sensations, which is paradoxical (Noel Carroll).

Why do humans, in general, write and tell stories? To entertain, to teach, to share knowledge, for posterity, to achieve immortality, as a form of self-expression, creativity, a longing to share with other humans and receive praise, appreciation, admiration.

Why is there a “paradox of horror”? Why do artist create horror tales and art?

Why do horror stories exist?

Horror stories are written by authors who are artists that have a desire to scare their audience. There are people who are thrilled by these scary stories and are willing to pay money for this affect, also known as the paradox of horror. Horror authors come from all walks of life, but they share something in common, a delight in the dark tale, the morbidly curious and frightening weird universe around them, and the possible existence of the supernatural and all of the bogies and monsters that might lurk in the darkness. Artists who choose to work the “horror” genre must thrive in the doom and gloom and delight in making frightful stories.  They have a knack for making the horrible and possibly ludicrous and nonsensical come to life through means of verisimilitude. “This means that the weird artist can transform his visions into life through the medium of his art. This is more than just imagination run wild; this is actual creation” (Sederholm). It takes a certain talent and determination to make the weird and horrible tale come to life.

Why do people find delight in horror stories?

This artifact is part of the horror genre and culture. With horror, it seems that the reciprocal value is an after affect, where at first the audience is horrified and finds the subject matter to be ludicrous and silly, then after a certain amount of time, the scary stories become part of the social ethos and go down in history as in Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example. The Castle of Otranto is hailed as a classic of Gothic literature. Edgar Allan Poe is considered to be without peer when it comes to the macabre and horror in short stories and poetry. His story, The Tale-Tale Heart is considered a classic and is quite popular around Halloween, as is his poem The Raven. H.P. Lovecraft has written and entire realm of creatures and places known as The Cthulhu Mythos that is filled with elder gods and monsters that populate the expanses of space and time and hid in the gulfs of the nether world, creeping underground, terrorizing humans. Stephen King is currently filling the niche with future classics like Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot, Christine, IT, Pet Sematary, and scores more that are destined to go down in history and secure his place in the horror genre literature hall of fame. Even recent horror stories like Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, and A Nightmare on Elm Street (among many others) have found a place in history and are revered for their contribution to entertainment and stand as icons in the horror genre. What audiences find silly and laughable today may well become classics of tomorrow in the horror genre. Today it is comical, tomorrow it will be classical.

What was the intent of H. P. Lovecraft with “Pickman’s Model”?

This one is simple: Lovecraft wanted to create “cosmic fear” and it “should not be lost on Lovecraft’s readers. If we fail to acknowledge how Lovecraft employed cosmic fear in ‘Pickman’s Model,’ we risk overlooking his deeper insight that such fear may permanently alter notions of self and the world” (Sederholm). It seems that Lovecraft was driven to create his own art and was fascinated with the occult, supernatural, and weird tales of horror and terror. He emulated writers that he admired, in particular Edgar Allan Poe, and wanted to follow them to his best ability, creating only the finest art possible. He succeeded in leaving behind a legacy of tales that are still popular and well represented in the horror genre to this day. The interpretation of most of Lovecraft’s stories is that of utter nihilism, that mankind is nothing of importance in the universe and may be nothing more than the plaything of gods and creatures from the vast beyond of cosmic space and time, perhaps larger than the known universe.

“Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft is a short story meant to frighten the reader. Why did Lovecraft choose to write stories about the occult and horror with the intention to frighten his audience?

I can study the history of horror and ghost stories and many articles written about the psychology of the attraction to fear and the delight derived from listening to scary stories or watching horror movies on the screen. It is well documented. I might prove that humans have a natural curiosity to gaze upon scenes of the macabre and death out of a morbid fascination that is a sort of thankfulness that it is not them. When humans pass by the scene of an accident many people crane their necks to see what is happening, to glimpse the grizzly imagery, to spot the corpses on the gurneys and gawk at the death scene. I’m sure I can explore this tendency that is as old as mankind, and the horror story is surely an artifact to arise from this fascination.

Authors have written “scary” stories for centuries, but the modern horror story is arguably an offspring from Gothic literature, specifically the novel The Castle of Ontranto by Horace Walpole. Later came Merry Shelly’s Frenkenstein, Bram Stoker’s Darcula, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Robert Louis Stevenson Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These stories paved the way for the modern horror story, and audiences worldwide now delight in the morbid fascination of movies like Saw, Halloween, and Twilight, to name a few.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noel. “Enjoying horror fictions: a reply to Gaut.” The British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 35, no. 1, 1995, p. 67+. Gale Academic OneFile,

Lovecraft, H. P. “Pickman’s Model”. The H.P. Lovecraft Archive.

Lovecraft, H. P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. Google.Com, 2020,

Sederholm, Carl. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts Vol. 16, No. 4 (64) (Winter 2006), pp. 335-349

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