Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Ghoul as Objet d’Art

“I wanted to do in sculpture what Poe and Lovecraft and Baudelaire have done in literature, and what Rops and Goya did in pictorial art.”

This is the ambition of Cyprian Sincaul, the sculptor depicted in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hunters from Beyond (1932).  It is appropriate that Sincaul’s statement contains an homage to Lovecraft—it should really be to Richard Upton Pickman—who was likely an important source of his artistic inspiration.

There are interesting similarities and differences between Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hunters from Beyond and H.P. Lovecraft’s better known Pickman’s Model (1927).  Readers may want to have a dictionary at hand.  Like Pickman’s Model, Smith’s story is encumbered by Lovecraftian verbosity and a tendency to use obscure adjectives, (mephitic, feculent, inominate, pullulating, etc.)—it may be that the cadence and verbosity of text is itself an homage to Lovecraft’s style.  But Smith is by far the more readable author.       

Both stories involve reclusive artists whose subject matter is derived less from their nightmarish imaginations than from real life.  The joke in both stories is that the artists are both realists.  Pickman’s Model is generally familiar.  A well done television adaptation of the story appeared in an episode of the Night Gallery, (#11, second season, December 1971).  As with nearly all of Lovecraft’s adaptations to film or television, women are added to humanize and make more credible the cast of characters.  The possibility of a doomed romance between a woman student and the artist is suggested, but is not present in the original story. 

Pickman is a painter whose macabre and grotesque subjects excite primal fear in their audience.  The narrator is given a tour of the studio by Pickman, which allows Lovecraft some fun in ticking off what amount to scenes from a freakish carnival side-show.  (My favorite is the bit where several laughing ghouls are shown perusing a Boston guidebook that describes where “…Holmes, Lowell and Longfellow lie buried…”).  Pickman becomes increasingly agitated; his mysterious disappearance is connected with subterranean passage ways underlying an older part of the city.

Smith’s story is located on the other side of the continent, in San Francisco.  The narrator, a writer named Phillip Hastane, is on his way to visit his cousin, a sculptor named Cyprian Sincaul.  On the way, he visits a favorite old book store which is very close to his cousin’s studio.  While studying a book about Goya, he is startled by a ghoulish apparition that may resemble some of the images he saw in the book.  The description of the creature, a kind of gargoyle, is very reminiscent of the ghouls painted by Pickman: apish beasts with canine faces, talons, and deep set glowing eyes.

Shaken, he arrives at Cyprian Sincaul’s studio to discover that his cousin is fashioning creatures exactly like the one he saw in the book store.  Sincaul applauds the narrator’s apparent psychic powers, and goes on to make an artistic argument about the need to have direct experience with the subjects of one’s creative products. 

He criticizes Hastane’s literary efforts:  “You are very clever and imaginative…You try to depict the occult and the supernatural without even the most rudimentary first-hand knowledge of them…Your stories hardly show anything of the kind—anything factual or personal.  They are palpably made up.”  In view here is the more general critique of genre fiction from the ‘write what you know’ school of creative writing.

(But ‘what we know’ is so little…)

After a period of mediocrity and derivative work, the sculptor has become masterful and compelling because of his direct contact with the source of his inspiration, beings he calls ‘the hunters from beyond’.  Perhaps he means to help his writerly cousin achieve similar heights.  But ‘the hunters’ have their own agenda, which appears mainly to be dragging human souls into their dimension for some undisclosed but likely unpleasant purpose.

There is a significant difference between Pickman’s subjects and Sincaul’s.  Lovecraft’s ghouls are tangible, slimy, subterranean creatures—an unknown or forgotten species, but still subject to the same natural laws that their human counterparts are on the surface.   They are animals, perhaps a depiction of humanity’s repressed animal nature—or Lovecraft’s for that matter—and are chiefly concerned with eating and procreating.  Pickman himself is a half breed, the very earthy product of an unsanctioned union between human and ghoul.

In Smith’s story, ‘the hunters’ are ethereal and ghostlike, appearing in various locations but essentially intangible and harmless until they can seduce and draw their victims into their dimension, which appears to be a version of the Biblical Hell.  Their hunger is for the soul, not so much the body.  One wonders why, from an evolutionary perspective, they would need the composite features of a carnivore.  It would seem that metaphorically speaking, the form of a scavenger or parasite might be more appropriate.

However, both smell pretty bad when present.

The tiresome theoretical discussion about artistic creativity is enlivened by the presence of a naked woman.  Sincaul has hired a model named Marta to complete his compositions.  She is described as “beautiful, in a dark, semi-Latin fashion; but her mouth was sullen and reluctant; and her wide, liquid eyes were wells of strange terror…”  Before she is rendered soul-less and comatose by a visit to the hunter’s dimension, she tries to get Hastane to rescue Sincaul from his obsession with the hunters.  She has fallen in love with the sculptor, and is fearful that he is literally going to Hell for his work.

Of course, the sin in view here is idolatry, and in the end, Smith logically has the sculptor destroy his evil images in a fit of terror and remorse.  If this were a Lovecraft story, the idols would more likely have been squirreled away and handed down through history and generations, to wreak havoc again later.  Evil wins in a Lovecraft story, or at the very least, only suffers a strategic retreat.  Smith’s character, though consumed by hubristic ambition early on, remains human at the end, remorseful, wizened, and compassionate.  Pickman, animated by strange passions and filled with barely concealed contempt for his fellow anthropoids, apparently succumbs to his other-than-human nature.

Yet the most striking difference between Clark Ashton Smith’s story and virtually all of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction appears near the beginning of The Hunters From Beyond:  the naked lady.  Lovecraft’s fiction is almost completely devoid of any women, unclothed or otherwise, and this absence of one half of humanity detracts from his importance as a writer—at least of fiction.  What may not be apparent to many new fans of Lovecraft’s work are his strengths as a writer of nonfiction.  He was a very able literary critic, chronicler, and commentator, despite expressing some views that would be considered politically incorrect these days.  It would be helpful for his reputation, as well as horror fiction enthusiasts, to have volumes devoted to his literary criticism, social commentary, and satire.


And while we are on the topic of ghouls and their appetites—have a Happy Thanksgiving!

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic review! I enjoyed very much and learned a good bit. I wrote reviews of both of these stories and would love to have you take a look at:


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