“Picture in the House, The“

“Picture in the House, The“
   Short story (3,350 words); written on December 12, 1920. First published in the National Amateur (“July 1919” [not released until summer 1921]); rpt. WT (January 1924) and WT (March 1937); first collected in O;corrected text in DH;annotated version in An2and CC
   The narrator, “in quest of certain genealogical data,” is traveling by bicycle throughout New England. One day a heavy downpour forces him to take shelter at a decrepit farmhouse in the “Miskatonic Valley.” When his knocks fail to summon an occupant, he believes the house to be uninhabited and enters; but shortly the occupant, who had been asleep upstairs, makes an appearance. The man seems very old, but also quite ruddy of face and muscular of build. His clothes are slovenly, and he seems to have just awoken from a nap. The old man, seemingly a harmless backwoods farmer speaking in “an extreme form of Yankee dialect I had thought long extinct” (“‘Ketched in the rain, be ye?’”), notes that his visitor had been examining a very old book on a bookcase, Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo,“printed in Frankfort in 1598.” This book continually turns, as if from frequent consultation, to plate XII, depicting “in gruesome detail a butcher’s shop of the cannibal Anziques.” The old man avers that he obtained the book from a sailor from Salem years ago, and as he babbles in his increasingly loathsome patois he begins to make vile confessions of the effects of that plate: “‘Killin’ sheep was kinder more fun—but d’ye know, ’twan’t quite satisfyin’. Queer haow a cravin ’ gits a holt on ye—As ye love the Almighty, young man, don’t tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy—.’” At that point a drop of liquid falls from the ceiling directly upon the plate. The narrator thinks at first it is rain but then observes that it is a drop of blood. A thunderbolt conveniently destroys the house and its tenant, but the narrator somehow survives.
   The tale contains the first mention of the term “Miskatonic” and the fictional city of Arkham. The location of Arkham has been the source of considerable debate. Will Murray conjectured that the Arkham of “The Picture in the House” was situated in central Massachusetts, but Robert D.Marten concludes that HPL had always conceived of Arkham (as he did explicitly in later tales) to be an approximate analogue of Salem, hence on the eastern coast of Massachusetts. The name Arkham may (as Marten speculates) have been coined from Arkwright, a former village (now incorporated into the town of Fiskville) in Rhode Island. “Miskatonic” (which Murray, studying its Algonguin roots, translates approximately to “red-mountain-place”) appears to be derived by analogy from Housatonic, a well-known river running from central Massachusetts through Connecticut. HPL makes numerous errors in his description of Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo,since he derived his information secondhand from an appendix to Thomas Henry Huxley’s essay “On the History of the Man - like Apes,” in Man’s Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays (1894). The story is the first to make exhaustive use of a backwoods New England dialect that HPL would employ in several later tales for purposes of verisimilitude. Jason C.Eckhardt has plausibly conjectured that its use here derives largely from James Russell Lowell’s Biglow Papers(1848–62), where a slightly different version of the dialect is used. Eckhardt notes that Lowell himself declares the dialect to be long extinct in New England; its use by HPL thereby enhances the suggestion of the old man’s preternatural age.
   HPL’s brooding opening reflections on the unnatural repressiveness of early New England life and the neuroses it produced are echoed in his analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (see also SL3.175).
   HPL revised the tale somewhat for later appearances; one alteration was particularly significant. At the conclusion of his initial portrayal of the old man, HPL had written: “On a beard which might have been patriarchal were unsightly stains, some of them disgustingly suggestive of blood.” This catastrophically telegraphs the ending, and he wisely omitted it for subsequent appearances.
   See Peter Cannon, “Parallel Passages in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’ and ‘The Picture in the House,’” LSNo. 1 (Fall 1979): 3–6; S.T. Joshi, “Lovecraft and the Regnum Congo” Crypt No. 28 (Yuletide 1984): 13–17; Will Murray, “In Search of Arkham Country,” LSNo. 13 (Fall 1986): 54–67; Jason C.Eckhardt, “The Cosmic Yankee” (in ET); Robert H.Waugh, “‘The Picture in the House’: Images of Complicity,” LS No. 32 (Spring 1995): 2–8; Robert D.Marten, “Arkham Country: In Rescue of the Lost Searchers,” LSNo. 39 (Summer 1998): 1–20; Scott Connors, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” LS No. 41 (Spring 1999): 2–9; J.C. Owens, “The Mirror in the House: Looking at the Horror of Looking at the Horror,” LSNo. 42 (Summer 2001): 74–79.

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