This weeks prompt: 19. Revise 1907 tale—painting of ultimate horror.
The nature of this prompt is problematic, as there is not single piece of writing Mr. Lovecraft published in 1907, nor a piece that has been found later (the closest being the Alchemist in 1908). There is a story much beloved by Mr. Lovecraft, The Willows, which matches the stated year. The problem is it lacks the one horror element that is concretely given (a painting of ultimate horror). For that we need to look elsewhere.
Now, paintings have a history in horror. In Mr. Lovecraft’s work they arrive in the form of Pickman’s Model, which we have mentioned before, and is notable in that it lacks anything overtly supernatural about it’s art work. The portrait of Joseph Curwen plays a similar non-mystical role in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a horrifying revelation that is conveyed by merely mortal means. The most famous use of a painting in fiction, particularly the weird and disturbing fiction, is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey.
All paintings act as revelers of some truth in their respective stories, and the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” exists for a reason. Any painting we include, then, ought to likewise reveal something, something preferably both universally true and true about our lead and victim. This is reinforced, of course, by the nature of artist, that we discussed in Idle Hands. To summarize here, the notion of pouring one’s soul and life into an artistic work, or any inhuman thing has some degree of horror present in it. But I believe there is another trope that can be tapped: The Muse.
The muse inspires, the muse arguably actually creates the art, by mortal hands. The Muse, as any artist may tell you, is often a fickle beast, giving inspiration one second and decline the next. Sometimes she robs one of sense, other times she lashes with her tongue and scorns the writer with her eyes. I say “her” for two reasons: the first is that the oringal nine Muses are, after all, goddesses (one of a number of triples in Greek mythology). The other is that majority of literature that talks about Muses talks about them as women from the perspective of men. A few exceptions exist (Shakespeare for example seems to have had a male muse at some point, judging by the sonnets), but it is a common trope.
How would we play with this trope then? Well, the power of both horror and humor, its close friend, lies in subversion. The Muse is a creature of dreams, an ultimately good and beautiful if fickle thing. But let us take a cue from the most famous work of Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, and his own Pickman’s Model, and examine a more terrible muse. A nightmare to the Muses dream, a Fury to her Grace. This inversion, to be more perfect, must maintain the dichotomy of the muse. If the Muse is graceful and occasionally full of wrath, let our new creature be full of terror and wrath that is at the same time intoxicating and alluring. It should be terrible to behold, a nightmare that draws others into its world.
We should not forget an important part of the Muse myth: the Muse is invoked. The Muse, in the old traditions, is called upon. Is summoned, is asked for. The Anti-Muse, as our entity will be called for the time, should subvert this as well. Unbidden comes the Anti-Muse, unwanted and disturbing.
An arc, it seems, is already emerging for a story involving such a creature. First we must arrange the normal life of our painter. Next we introduce the Anti-Muse, who is frightful when first glimpsed and is sent away rather than invoked. Only such a demon does not yield, and begins pursuing the painter through other means. The Anti-Muse invades dreams, sends forth visions, and harasses the painter, to the distress of his colleges. For a time he holds out, but slowly and reluctantly gives way. The more the painter indulges in the Anti-Muse, however, the less painful it becomes, akin to many poor habits in the world. Eventually the painter achieves that sublime state of artists, becoming one with the Anti-Muse. Does the painter join the Anti-Muse for a hell ever after, or does the vampiric and monstrous nature kill the painter? I’m not yet sure. I believe our muse must maintain the almost puritanical desire to inspire rather than devour.
You, dear brothers and sisters, no doubt have noticed I have yet to gender our lead. And there is reason for that. For while a complete subversion of the myth would have a woman with a male muse, the sort of topics that bring to mind may be too big. It should not be hard to see more real life parallels with a mysterious man who is rejected, who stalks a woman like prey, and harasses her constantly. But this would persist even if the lead was male. I admit, for reasons beyond my knowledge, I am more comfortable writing the latter, but the horror in the former is more concrete. More…visceral.
And on that note, of all the stories I have attempted, this is perhaps the one where description is of the utmost importance. The ultimate horror of the Anti-Muse is the production of the painting, which must produce some sort of revelation. And this must either be expressed with words, my chosen medium, or by acquiring some artist to display a nightmarish landscape in the next few days. On the one hand, words are cheaper and I can rely on myself. On the other hand, a picture is worth a thousand words.
What would you do with this corpse, brothers and sisters? When writing about a visual medium, do you use words or commissions (or draw yourself)? What about auditory?
A brief note, good friends. I will be taking up Philausiphah’s challenge of including the word gentle in the story next week.
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