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Literature / Pickman's Model

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"Pickman's Model" is a short horror story by H. P. Lovecraft, first published in the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales. It introduces the ghoul to the Cthulhu Mythos; Lovecraft's Dreamlands story The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath follows up on some of the questions and characters that appear in this story.

Lovecraft was fond of the Twist Ending for some of his shorter works, and the one for this story is generally thought to be one of his most potent, right up there with "The Outsider (1926)" because of the sheer punch of the very last line.

Boston painter Richard Upton Pickman has disappeared recently, and his former friend Thurber has a dark story to tell about him. Thurber regales Audience Surrogate Eliot about Pickman's strange artwork — portraits of monsters called ghouls, so lifelike and terrifying that no respectable gallery or museum would show them. Other artists cut ties with Pickman altogether. Only Thurber remained willing to associate with him, and the frightening artist soon offers to give Thurber a private showing of his work.

When Thurber ventures into Pickman's studio, he sees paintings more horrifying than anything Pickman had dared publicly show. When he and Pickman hear something crawling about on the other side of the door, Pickman shoots at it, blaming an infestation of rats.

Thurber had, just before this, plucked a piece of paper off an easel and pocketed it. When he looks at it later, he realizes to his horror... that it is, in fact, a photo that reveals Pickman isn't painting creatures from his imagination, but reality.

For "Pickman's Model", Lovecraft was heavily inspired by the "Amina", which was included in Edward Lucas White's compilation Lukundoo and Other Stories that saw release earlier in 1927. He may even have felt challenged by the last line in "Amina" asserting that ghouls do not roam around in Rhode Island. In turn, a painting mentioned in "Pickman's Model", namely "Subway Accident", was picked up by Robert Barbour Johnson as the basis of his short story "Far Below".

Pickman's Model was adapted into a segment of the anthology series Night Gallery, and then again by Alan Moore (with a few names changed) in Issue 7 of Providence. The horror anthology series Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities features another adaptation of this story.


  • Beneath the Earth: The story features a horde of subterranean ghouls dwelling beneath Boston.
  • Changeling Tale:
    • One of Pickman's paintings implies that ghouls snatch human babies and replace them with young ghouls, who take on human features and dwell amidst unwitting families.
      "(A human family was) sitting about while the father read from the Scriptures. Every face but one shewed nobility and reverence, but that one reflected the mockery of the pit. It was that of a young man in years, and no doubt belonged to a supposed son of that pious father, but in essence it was the kin of the unclean things. It was their changeling—and in a spirit of supreme irony Pickman had given the features a very perceptible resemblance to his own."
    • Another painting shows that kidnapped human children grow to become ghouls in behavior and physiognomy.
      "There was one thing called "The Lesson" — heaven pity me, that I ever saw it! Listen — can you fancy a squatting circle of nameless dog-like things in a churchyard teaching a small child how to feed like themselves? [...] Pickman was shewing what happens to those stolen babes—how they grow up — and then I began to see a hideous relationship in the faces of the human and non-human figures. He was, in all his gradations of morbidity between the frankly non-human and the degradedly human, establishing a sardonic linkage and evolution. The dog-things were developed from mortals!"
  • Chekhov's Gun: The piece of paper that Thurber pockets in Pickman's studio. It sets up the shocker Wham Line at the very, very end.
  • Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humor: One of the paintings shows a group of ghouls laughing their asses off as one of their number reads from a book. The title of the painting is “Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow Lie Buried in Mount Auburn" - they're laughing because they know they've devoured those corpses, but humans don't.
  • Gender Flip: In the Night Gallery adaptation, Thurber is replaced with a female character named Mavis Goldsmith, who has a doomed crush on Pickman. Once she realizes what kind of a guy he really is, though, she ends up just as Horror Struck as Thurber was, so the tone is still suitably Lovecraftian.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Thurber repeatedly demands alcohol to steel his nerves as he recounts the story of his acquaintance with Pickman.
  • Invasion of the Baby Snatchers: The ghouls steal human children and leave ghoulish youngsters in their place. The ghoul whelps appear human enough to fool their host parents into accepting them, and the kidnapped human children are raised as — and eventually transform into — ghouls. There are hints - eventually confirmed in Lovecraft's later work The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath - that Pickman himself is the product of such a swap.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: If you read Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath before "Pickman's Model," you're probably going to wonder what Pickman is doing in Boston and still human.
  • Mad Artist: Richard Upton Pickman is a descendant of a woman hanged as a witch in Salem, and he comments that his "four-times-great-grandmother could have told you things" of magic. Pickman locates his studio in the slums of the North End in order to draw on the "night-spirit of antique horror" left by pirates, smugglers, and witches. He produces paintings of monsters so lifelike and frightening that artists and galleries universally reject his work, and his acquaintances even complain that his face is changing in ways that aren't quite human. It is ultimately revealed that Pickman’s strange behavior and realistic art stem from his use of real, actual ghouls as models for his paintings. How does he do this, you ask? As one of the passages quoted above implies, he is partly a ghoul himself.
  • Our Ghouls Are Creepier: "Pickman's Model", along with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, popularized Lovecraft’s vision of ghouls as a secretive living species instead of undead or demons. "Pickman's Model" portrays ghouls as horrific vaguely-canine humanoids who dwell underground and eat corpses stolen from graves. They snatch human infants and replace them with young ghouls in a classic changeling swap, and it is hinted that the kidnapped babies grow into ghouls themselves. While dangerous, the ghouls are also sentient to the point of being literate and possessing a morbid sense of humor, which is something Alan Moore ran with in Providence. Later, Dream Quest develops this still further, even presenting ghouls in a strangely sympathetic light.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Richard Pickman, who loves slums and cellars, paints nightmarish scenes, and convinces ghouls to model for his artwork.
  • Real After All: The piece of paper that Thurber took is, in fact, a photograph of an actual ghoul in Pickman’s studio, which proves that the artist is painting the monsters from life.
  • The Reveal: Thurber absentmindedly pockets a reference photograph from Pickman's studio, and only looks at the photo later.
    Well — that paper wasn't a photograph of any background, after all. What it shewed was simply the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas. It was the model he was using—and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot it was a photograph from life.
  • Sleep Paralysis Creature: Thurber mentions that some of Pickman's paintings show the ghouls "squatting on the chests of sleepers", invoking this trope. An earlier comparison between Pickman and the real-life painter Henry Fuseli suggests Lovecraft probably had "The Nightmare" - one of the most iconic depictions of a Sleep Paralysis Creature - on his mind while writing this story.
  • Spooky Painting: Everything Pickman paints. His personal gallery includes portraits of ghouls nibbling on human corpses, attacking in the subway tunnels, and dancing around a hanged witch. Pickman’s work is so disturbing that it cannot be shown publicly, and mainstream Boston artists cease associating with him. Even Thurber screams at the sight of some of the more gruesome paintings. The spookiness level reaches true Lovecraftian levels when Thurber realizes the piece of paper he pocketed without thinking is a live photograph of a ghoul — everything Pickman paints is based on reality.
  • Was Once a Man: As described under Changeling Tale, the ghouls themselves. It's implied that Pickman himself is such a changeling, in the process of becoming a ghoul. This is confirmed in the later Lovecraft story The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, where Richard Pickman appears as a full ghoul, having disappeared from Boston and shed his humanity.