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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 has been adapted to film several times, and Lovecraft's Dreamlands story The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath follows up on some of the questions and characters of "Pickman's Model".

Boston painter Richard Upton Pickman disappeared recently, and his former friend Thurber has a dark story to tell about him. Thurber tells audience surrogate Eliot about Pickman's strange artwork — portraits of monsters called ghouls, so lifelike and terrifying that galleries refused to show them and other artists cut ties with Pickman. Only Thurber remained willing to associate with Pickman, and the frightening artist soon offers to give Thurber a private showing of his work. But when Thurber ventures into Pickman's studio, he sees paintings more horrifying than his nightmares, hears something crawling about on the other side of the door, and finds a photo that hints Pickman isn't painting creatures from his imagination, but reality.

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Tropes:

  • 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!"
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Thurber repeatedly demands alcohol to steel his nerves as he recounts the story of his acquaintance with Pickman.
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  • 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.
  • 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 ghouls as models for his paintings.
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  • 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 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.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Richard Pickman, who loves slums and cellars, paints nightmarish scenes, and convinces ghouls to model for his artwork.
  • Real After All: Thurber finds a reference photograph of an actual ghoul in Pickman’s studio, proving 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.
  • 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 goes Up to Eleven when Thurber finds a photograph of a ghoul and realizes everything Pickman paints is real.
  • Was Once a Man: One of Pickman's paintings shows a human baby being raised by ghouls, who themselves seem to be mutating from humans into doglike monstrosities. The implication is that some or all ghouls were once human. In the later Lovecraft story The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Richard Pickman appears as a full ghoul, having disappeared from Boston and shed his humanity.

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