The Picture in the House (fiction)
"The Picture in the House" is a short story written by H. P. Lovecraft on December 12, 1920, and first published in the "July 1919" issue of The National Amateur (though dated before Lovecraft wrote the story, this edition was actually was published in the summer of 1921 after the story was written.)
The story is set in 1890s Lovecraft Country.
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The story is narrated by a lone traveler (a genealogist conducting research), riding on his bicycle in the Miskatonic Valley of rural New England, who seeks shelter from an approaching storm in an apparently abandoned house, only to find that it is occupied by a "loathsome old, white-bearded, and ragged man," speaking in "an extreme form of Yankee dialect...thought long extinct", whose face is "abnormally ruddy and less wrinkled than one might expect". "His height could not have been less than six feet." The narrator notices that the house is full of antique books, exotic artifacts, and Victorian furniture. The old man is apparently harmless and ignorant, but shows a disquieting fascination for an engraving in a rare old book, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, and admits to the narrator (who becomes increasingly nervous and frightened during the man's story) that it made him hunger "fer victuals I couldn't raise nor buy"- presumably human flesh. It is suggested that the old man in the house was murdering men who stumbled upon the shack to satisfy his "craving", and that the old man has extended his life preternaturally through cannibalism. The narrator realizes the old man has been alive from at least the early eighteenth century to the year 1896 when the story takes place. The old man denies that he ever acted on his desire, but then a red drop of blood falls from the ceiling, clearly coming from the floor above, and splashes a page in the book. The narrator then looks up to see a spreading red stain on the ceiling; this belies the old man's statement. At that moment, a bolt of lightning destroys the house, although it is ambiguous whether the narrator manages to survive, or whether he is telling his tale from the "oblivion" of the grave.
Associated Mythos Elements
- A Report of the Kingdom of Congo
- Ghoul - at least, an early version in the form of a disturbingly youthful but very ancient man kept young by a diet of human flesh (fan interpretation)
Heresies and Controversies
- The strange old man is actually a Ghoul, kept alive since the early 18th century by a diet of human flesh. (fan interpretation)
- De Bry's strange illustrations of light-skinned African cannibals were actually inspired by a colony of Dreamlands Tcho-Tchos. (fan interpretation)
In the story, Lovecraft refers to a real-world book about African tribes, complete with the actual illustrations (executed as woodcuts by the brothers De Bry in the 1500s) described in the story, and included in this article (click the illustrations for details).
"The Picture in the House" begins with something of a manifesto for the series of horror stories Lovecraft would write set in an imaginary New England countryside that would come to be known as Lovecraft Country, and (though neither location is explored in detail) the story introduces two of Lovecraft Country's most famous elements, Arkham and the Miskatonic Valley:
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure of the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteem most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.
I had been travelling for some time amongst the people of the Miskatonic Valley in quest of certain genealogical data.... Now I found myself upon an apparently abandoned road which I had chosen as the shortest cut to Arkham.
As Lovecraft critic Peter Cannon writes, "Here Lovecraft serves notice that he will rely less on stock Gothic trappings and more on his native region as a source for horror." (Peter Cannon, "Introduction", More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 2)
The heritage of American weirdness was [Hawthorne's] to a most intense degree, and he saw a dismal throng of vague spectres behind the common phenomena of life.... Foremost as a finished, artistic unit among all our author’s weird material is the famous and exquisitely wrought novel, The House of the Seven Gables, in which the relentless working out of an ancestral curse is developed with astonishing power against the sinister background of a very ancient Salem house.... From this setting came the immortal tale — New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature — and we can feel in an instant the authenticity of the atmosphere presented to us....
- H.P.L., "Supernatural Horror in Literature"
Donald R. Burleson's 1983 study of Lovecraft's work adjudges "The Picture in the House" as demonstrating that "as early as 1920 Lovecraft was capable of weaving a powerful tale of horror - capable of evoking and sustaining mood through highly artful use of language, capable of exercising control of focus in handling his characters, and capable of using his native New England as a locale for horrors as potent as those to be entertained in more conventional settings."