I decided to start my weekend by reading H. P. Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House, one of his shortest shorts. It’s a great little story which plays with one of society’s greatest fears… not just being killed, but what will happen to your body once your spirit has gone? It’s always fascinated me that people will dwell on this to such an extent.
Above is the page from Thomas Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, which features heavily in The Picture in the House and describes the Anziques as cannibals, although Lovecraft references Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo. The engraving is by Theodor de Bry and is apparently not even close to being one of his most disturbing images (see heading picture). His interesting and indeed creepy work has been reproduced many times since the 16th century.
They have shambles for human flesh, as we have of animals, even eating the enemies they have killed in battle, and selling their slaves if they can get a good price for them; if not, they give them to the butcher, who cuts them in pieces, and then sells them to be roasted or boiled. It is a remarkable fact in the history of this people, that any who are tired of life, or wish to prove themselves brave and courageous, esteem it great honour to expose themselves to death by an act which shall show their contempt for life. Thus they offer themselves for slaughter, and as the faithful vassals of princes, wishing to do them service, not only give themselves to be eaten, but their slaves also, when fattened, are killed and eaten. It is true many nations eat human flesh, as in the East Indies, Brazil, and elsewhere, but to devour the flesh of their own enemies, friends, subjects, and even relations, is a thing without example, except amongst the Anzichi tribes.
– from Chapter 5 of Regnum Congo
Today, the Anziques are known to be called the BaTeke and the claims of cannibalism are in some considerable doubt.
Anyway, back to The Picture in the House!
In the doorway stood a person of such singular appearance that I should have exclaimed aloud but for the restraints of good breeding.
-from The Picture in the House
Throughout the story I am amused by the snobbery of the narrator, commenting on his own “good breeding” and becoming seemingly bored by the old man once he realises that he possesses a child-like intelligence.
I’ve said before on this blog that I like a horror story which reaches the senses. My favourite parts of The Picture in the House are those which describe the surroundings, making me feel as though I can touch and smell the walls, books and other objects surrounding the narrator.
Inside was a little vestibule with walls from which the plaster was falling, and through the doorway came a faint but peculiarly hateful odour.
I love to be in an old building where the slightest touch causes bits to crumble from the wall, and smell is always my favourite sense to read. If anyone knows of a book or essay in which the portrayal of odour in fiction is discussed, please leave a comment! I must admit that I haven’t yet searched for it myself.
This 2009 well-made amateur film is a fun adaptation of the story and was an official selection of the American H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival of the same year. It’s nice to see short stories kept short when put on the screen and they’ve managed to produce an excellent, effective old-film feel. An Indie film for an originally Indie author!