"As ye love the Almighty, young man, don't tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I couldn't raise nor buy --"
Rating: Three shoggoths out of five
Nutshell: A wayward traveler seeks shelter in an old house during a thunderstorm, and is cordially greeted by its owner, who speaks in a very odd accent and owns a very odd book.
Setting: Vicinity of Arkham
Commentary: This tale is a rather good quick read, and it holds up well until its last sentence, which I see as a poor ending to a pretty good story. Some readers might also be bothered by Lovecraft's attention to detail here; he spells every piece of dialogue phonetically in order to capture the old man's accent on paper.
History, Esoterica, and Factoids: Even though "The Picture in the House" was written in December of 1920, it was published in the July 1919 edition of National Amateur (which came out in 1921). The tale is one of the most frequently printed of all of Lovecraft's writings.
The "catacombs of Ptolemais" refers to the early Christian cemetaries created in any one of several North African cities named after the rulers of the 300-year Ptolemic Dynasty of Egypt. They are also mentioned in Edgar Allen Poe's "Shadow -- A Parable" (1850).
"...sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands" probably refers to the bizarre monoliths on Easter Island (Chile). Easter Island was discovered and inhabited by the Polynesians around 400 AD, at which time it was a lush forest. The population peaked around 10,000 inhabitants, after which the resources on the island were utterly depleted and the population resorted to war and cannibalism. Finally, around 1900, slavery and disease finally brought the number of island inhabitants to 111 people. The island today is quite barren except for the face-monoliths, though the population has risen again to around 2,000.
The Puritans were a frequent subject of American author Nathanial Hawthorne (1804-1864), whom Lovecraft admired. They were the first European inhabitants of Massachusetts, settling at Plymouth in 1620. They were a Protestant group from England who opposed the ceremonial practices of the Church of England. Their rigid code included an aversion to gaity and a love of civic freedom. They were a pious, hardworking, serious folk.
The reference to the "Miskatonic Valley" in "The Picture in the House" is the very first time that the name Miskatonic appears in Lovecraft's work. The name is completely fictitious, though similar Indian-derived names appear in New England (i.e., the Housatonic River). Lovecraft mentioned in a letter it was just a random jumble of Algonquin segments.
"The Picture in the House" also marks the first mention of the fictional city of Arkham.
"Pigafetta's account of the Congo region" is a very real book, though some of Lovecraft's details are incorrect. Relatione del reame di Congo was written by explorer Filippo Pigafetta (Italian, 1533-1604) and first published in Italian in 1591. It was subsequently published in English (1597), German (1597), and finally Latin (1598, as Regnum Congo). Lovecraft never actually saw the De Bry plates nor the book itself; he gathered all the (somewhat inaccurate) information from Thomas Henry Huxley's essay "On the History of Man-Like Apes". Indeed, even in this information age, it is nearly impossible to track down much information about either the book or the original plates.
The "brothers De Bry" are Johann Theodor De Bry (1561-1623) and Johann Israel De Bry (1570-1611), noted German engravers and mapmakers.
The particular plate referred to by Lovecraft (Plate 12) is a plate used in Huxley's essay. It was taken from a drawing by W. H. Wesley, which in turn was copied from the original De Bry engraving in Regnum Congo.
The Anziques were the natives of the historic African state of Anziko, which bordered along the Congo River.
Pilgrim's Progress ( first published in 1678) is a Christian allegory by John Bunyan (English, 1628-1688) which details a Christian's journey from the City fo Destruction to the Celestial City. It is generally considered to be the most successful allegory ever written. John Bunyan was a Protestant, and wrote the book while jailed at Bedford for open-air preaching.
American patriot Isaiah Thomas (American, 1749 - 1831) was the founder of the Revolutionary newspaper The Massachusetts Spy, which was printed from 1770-1775. He was instrumental in making the press an important tool of public expression in the United States.
Cotton Mather (American, 1663-1728) was a religious leader in colonial America. His Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) is a jumble of historical materials, assembled in an attempt to show that the history of Massachusetts demonstrated the workings of God's will.
The bizarre archaic dialect used by the old man in the house is used in several other tales by Lovecraft (such as "The Dunwich Horror"), but this is the first time it is seen. It is unknown where the dialect originated from, other than Lovecraft's own imagination. Its use here also marks the first large amount of monologue to ever appear in Lovecraft's work. He despised writing dialogue, as he felt he had not talent for it (and really, he didn't).
Annoying as it is to today's audiences, in Lovecraft's day, it was still common for writers to phonetically spell out dialect until it was almost unreadable.
The Midianites were a biblical Arabian tribe descended from Midian (the fourth son of Abraham bu Keturah). The eventually decided to go to war with their old enemies the Israelites, whom they oppressed for seven years. They were finally eradicated in a tremendous battle at Esdrealon (in what today is part of central Palestine).
The deus ex machina (defined by Merriam-Webster as "a person or thing ... that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty") at the close of the story is reminiscent to Edgar Allen Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), in which the entire house has to collapse in order to end the story.
Availability: "The Picture in the House" can be found in More H. P. Lovecraft (S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, eds.) and in Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. More Annotated Lovecraft provides full footnotes, but Bloodcurdling Tales contains more stories for your hard-earned dollar.
Map of Africa, from Relatione del reame di Congo (1591)
Author Filippo Pigafetta (Italian, 1533-1604)
Engraving by Johann Theodor De Bry (1561-1623) and his brother, Johann Israel De Bry (1570-1611) (Germany)
Map of Africa (1808)
From R. Brookes' The General Gazetteer, or Compendious Geographical Dictionary, Eighth Edition
Shows the regions of Anzico and the Congo (yellow highlighted regions)
Second generation copy of Plate 12, Relatione del reame di Congo (1591)
This version was copied from W. H. Wesley's reproduction of the original De Bry engravings.