Kenneth Hite (princeofcairo) wrote,
Kenneth Hite

[Tour de Lovecraft] The Picture In the House

Lovecraft wrote some great first lines in his day, but there's only one or two that can stand up there with "Seekers after horror haunt strange, far places." The trouble is that people seem to miss his further point, in the delight of the phrase -- that your own backyard is scarier still, if you stop to look. This was one of HPL's unsung contributions to horror; bringing it home rather than setting it in "Italy" or "Geneva" or "Transylvania" or some nebulous no-place like Poe. Yes, Machen had the same instinct, and Stoker was clever enough to briefly bring a foreign vampire into the beating heart of Victorian London, but HPL did it more intensely than either. And yes, HPL did his share of globe-trotting writing, too -- I just think this seeking after horror at home is one of his sterling "Copernican Revolutions" of weird fiction; no less influential for all the occasional Aristarchuses and Nicolases of Cusa before him. There'd be no Stephen King Maine without Lovecraft's New England; it's the richness of reference to something you know intimately that separates the real from the phony. My Chicago-set Unknown Armies game and my LA-set Call of Cthulhu campaign (both set in the late 1990s) were richer, realer, and scarier than many of my other games -- including the Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran in college with settings entirely restricted to Maine in honor of this story (and of Stephen King).


This, to make a very unfair comparison, is partially why I'm less than impressed with the adequate horror-pulp Harry Dresden novels by Jim Butcher. They're supposedly set in Chicago, but for all the Chicago-ness they exhibit, they might as well be set in Arkham, or Metropolis. Or Toronto, which is apparently where they're filming the TV show.


It's fun to peel the layers back on the titular picture, which is of a cannibal feast of "the Anziques." (Again, HPL avoids centering on race, noting instead that the "Anziques" are depicted "with Caucasian features.") Just now, I told you about the picture, as written by Lovecraft, as relayed by the narrator, as described by the Old Man, as illustrated by "the brothers De Bry," from text printed in a Latin edition, of a book originally written in Italian, by an author telling another traveler's story. That's eight levels between you and the cannibal feast. (And since HPL never actually saw a copy of Regnum Congo, but depended on descriptions and some reproductions in book by T.H. Huxley, that's either one or two more levels in there somewhere.) This is a raw version of the interleaved, almost archaeological narrative that HPL will come to master fully in "The Call of Cthulhu."


One more great phrase from the story, less well-known than the opener: "hungry fer victuals I couldn't raise nor buy..."


Of course in Chicago, that describes foie gras, too. Dammit.

NEXT: "The Outsider"
Tags: tour de lovecraft
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