The Uncanny and the Fantastic in H. P. Lovecrafts "Pickman's Model"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction: The Gothic

2 Freud’s Psychoanalysis
2.1. The Uncanny
2.2. Uncanny elements in “Pickman’s Model”

3 A Structural Approach
3.1. Todorov’s Theory of the Fantastic
3.2. Fantastic and Supernatural elements in “Pickman’s Model”

4 Aesthetic and Narrative Effects of the Uncanny

5 Conclusion: Why the reader comes back to Horror

6 Works cited

1. Introduction: The Gothic

The establishment of the term Gothic in literature is a pretty recent development of the twentieth century, borrowed from disciplines like architecture or philosophy (cf. Clery 2002 : 21). Horace Walpole’s 1765 novel “The Castle of Otranto” is widely seen as the starting point and gothic literature could distinct itself from romanticism, with a new species of unnatural occurrences (cf. Clery 2002 : 24). Enormous popularity of the Gothic can be seen since the second World War, playing with chronology and imaginary history and contemporary gothic or horror stories do not break with this tradition (cf. Bruhm 2002 : 259). The Gothic can also be seen as “ a barometer of the anxieties plaguing a certain culture” (Bruhm 2002 : 260) at this particular moment in history and those anxieties are often linked to this type of literature as a rich source of the imaginary (cf. Bruhm 2002 : 261). Freud’s psychoanalysis provides an understanding for this type of thinking and the unconscious, since the unconscious echoes prohibited desires, aggressions, painful and terrifying experiences, which are topics of gothic literature (cf. Bruhm 2002 : 267). Horror has very slowly gained legitimacy, because of the fuzzy and overlapping genre boundaries (cf. Spratford 2012 : 1) and was long synonymously connected to excess and exaggeration, while portraying “the terrors of the haunted house, vampires, werewolves and soulless monsters unleashed on society” (Spratford 2012 : 2). With the rise of technology and science, new fears of misuse of those for good or evil established and the gothic warned about “the consequences of playing God” (Spratford 2012 : 4).

One of the most influential horror writers of the early twentieth century is indeed Howard Phillips Lovecraft, born in 1890, who influenced a great number of other writers of his time and after his time (cf. Spratford 2012 : 5). With his seeking for more than the logical everyday life, Lovecraft has become a cult figure in the horror community and for readers of supernatural fiction (cf. Spratford 2012 : 53). Lovecraft created distinct universes filled with mythology and ancient monsters, with protagonists fighting their own demons and inner struggles (cf. Spratford 2012 : 91-93). With his short story “Pickman’s Model”, published in 1926, the reader gets a fictional portrayal of the painter Pickman and the narrators report of various weird and strange happenings with the artist. On the base of this short story by Lovecraft, this paper will in the first two chapters examine the theories of Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” and Tzvetan Todorov’s “The Fantastic”, their characteristics and how exactly “Pickman’s Model” applies to the theories, since both play a big role in gothic and horror literature genres. In the last chapters, this paper will work out, which literary and aesthetic effects these theories have in a text, regarding “Pickman’s Model”. With these analyses, this paper will in most terms be able to answer the questions which elements make a horror story effective, how Lovecraft’s story fits into the context of similar literary genres such as the fantastic, the uncanny and the marvelous and what makes a horror story, that is meant to evoke fear and dread in the reader, so appealing to many people, in the context of Lovecraft’s techniques.

2. Freud’s Psychoanalsis

To look any deeper into H. P Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”, this paper will first introduce Sigmund Freud and his theory of the uncanny. Born in 1856, Freud nowadays is most known for his work on psychoanalysis and the examination of dreams and unconscious forces, childhood and sexuality. In his early works, he distinguishes three systems in the psyche: the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious (Masschelein 2011 : 35). His theory of the uncanny can be placed within the system of the unconscious and therefore anxiety also has to be taken into account.

2.1. The Uncanny

The first question that this paper tries to answer in this paragraph is: What is ‘uncanny’? And furthermore: Can Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model be considered as ‘uncanny’? A general explanation of the term itself is often something so frightening that it “evokes fear and dread” (Freud 2003 : 123), yet it is questionable if it is as simple as that. Freud first tries to explain the term by looking at its etymological concrete meaning, the keyword being ‘unheimlich’ (Masschelein 2011 : 17). ‘Unheimlich’ translated merely to ‘eerie’ or ‘unhomely’, being the opposite of ‘heimlich’ or ‘heimisch’ (Freud 2003 : 124). But suggesting that the term means ‘unfamiliar’, Freud rightly points out that “not everything new and unfamiliar is frightening.” (Freud 2003 : 125). His second explanatory attempt involves Schelling saying that uncanny is “everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open” (Freud 2003 : 132). Here, he goes by the meaning of ‘heimlich’ as ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’, ‘unheimlich’ being the opposite, so ‘something that is known’.

Freud’s second chapter of his essay mainly deals with listed things that he considers as uncanny. The first thing he lists are objects that might be animate or lifeless, like dolls or wax figures. The doubt of “whether a particular figure is a real person or an automaton” (Freud 2003 : 135) produces the uncanny effect. As an example he names E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”, in which the protagonist Nathaniel is uncertain whether a figure like a sandman that collects children’s eyes exists (Freud 2003 : 136). Here, the connection to anxiety gets clearer, since Freud connects this phenomenon to the fear of losing or damaging one’s eyes, which is a substitutional fear for the fear of castration for him (Freud 2003 : 139). This goes back to the story of Oedipus, who blinds himself after getting to know that the woman he had sexual intercourse with was in fact his own mother (Schwab 2011 : 243). Although, Freud points out that especially children “make no sharp distinction between the animate and the inanimate” (Freud 2003 : 141), openly referring to the play with dolls etc., where the child becomes a creative writer creating a new world (Armitt : 4). Another phenomenon that creates an uncanny effect is “the idea of the ‘double’ […], the appearance of persons who have to be regarded as identical because they look alike” (Freud 2003 : 141). Mental processes like telepathy, a person’s uncertainty of “his true self” (Freud 2003 : 142) or substitution of a person, mirror-images, shadows and spirits are linked to this according to Freud. For Freud, telepathy seems to be “an archaic form of communication [which] […] has been replaced by more effective communication through signs” (Masschelein 2011 : 30). But he also believes that this form can be reactivated, which has an uncanny effect. Repetition of the same thing, especially if unintended can be acknowledged as uncanny (Freud 2003 : 144). Linked to some sort of helplessness, the “recurrence of the same thing” (Freud 2003 : 145) can be on the one hand connected to the infantile compulsion to repeat, which fulfills the pleasure principle. “The organism strives to avoid displeasure by trying to discharge as many impulses as possible” (Masschelein 2011 : 37), so children tend to repeat their actions driven by their drives (“Triebe”). On the other hand, it can be connected to the déjà vu as “projection of the psyche onto the outer world” or “a memory of an unconscious fantasy” (Masschelein 2011 : 21). Also in a déjà vu we seem to recognize something but cannot really pinpoint where from; a repetition. The fear of the evil eye is considered uncanny, meaning the fear of the envy of others and furthermore the fear of the conversion of the “intensity […] [of this feeling] into effective action” (Freud 2003: 147). The fear of the jealousy of valuable things of others “is attached to the glance, for looking at someone else’s goods is symbolically equivalent to touching them” (Masschelein 2011 : 29). The main fears here are harm or that the fragile valuable thing is taken away from us. An uncanny effect is also produced by “anything to do with death, dead bodies, […] spirits” (Freud 2003 : 148), ghosts and monsters. Since this creatures and the phenomenon of death lack movement, this is often linked to “the uncertainty of our scientific knowledge” (Freud 2003 : 148), especially about death. This includes the non-existent answer to why we have to die, how the conscious or unconscious works and life after death, may it be in a higher mental life or as a spirit haunting loved ones (Freud 2003 : 149). Masschelein connects spirits also to the double mentioned earlier, because a double could simply be “a projection of the self that has become independent” (Masschelein 2011 : 29). Furthermore, persons can be considered uncanny. May the person have evil intents, mighty hidden powers or be mad (“insane”) (Freud 2003 : 150). This can also be connected to the influence of demons; persons or objects possessed by evil spirits. Including epilepsy, which has uncanny effects “because it is considered to be an illness […] not from the human world” (Masschelein 2011 : 26). Epilepsy is seen as a “failure of the human mind”, which can lead a person “to doubt his or her own faculties” (Masschelein 2011 : 26). Darkness, Silence and solitude have uncanny effects (Freud 2003 : 153) and this brings up Freud’s major thesis about the uncanny: the uncanny is “the indicator of repression” (Freud : 151). Especially darkness and solitude seem to derive from childhood, mainly “related to the separation from the first love object, i.e., the mother” (Masschelein 2011 : 44). Repression here seems to play a big role, since the libido has no further purpose, when in early years the child is left alone and the libido is seen as “desire for the mother” (Masschelein 2011 : 44). Masschelein connects this phenomenon to anxiety, because according to her, the libido is now transformed into anxiety, which is repressed as we grow up. But exactly this is the uncanny effect of it: “the repressed [in the unconscious] […] remains active and as intense as [in] the conscious […]” (Masschelein 2011 : 25) and when something repressed comes up later again as adults, may it be conscious or unconscious, uncanny effects appear, since the process of repression produces anxiety (Masschelein 2011 : 43). Lastly, Freud also links thoughts like “instantaneous wish-fulfillment, secret harmful tence of thoughts and the return of the dead” (Freud 2003 : 154) to this “infantile anxiety, something that most of us never wholly overcome” (Freud 2003 : 159).

2.2. Uncanny elements in “Pickman’s Model”

Considering the thoughts of the previous paragraph as some kind of definition of the uncanny, at least according to Freud, do we now find uncanny effects in “Pickman’s Model”? Taking the first explanatory attempt into account that uncanny is everything that evokes fear and dread and is in some way unfamiliar or strange, there are a few things in Lovecraft’s short story that may have this effect on the potential reader. The very first uncanny element under this category is the artist Pickman himself. By the time the story starts, Pickman has already disappeared: “Now that he’s disappeared I go round the club once in a while, but my nerves aren’t what they were. No, I don’t know what’s become of Pickman, and I don’t like to guess.” (Lovecraft 2008 : 13). This also has to do with the narration used by Lovecraft. In comparison to Pickman being gone, the text “sedulously [makes] him a vivid presence through impressions of him” (Burleson 1990 : 91). As Thurber reconstructs his conversations for Eliot, especially “the long stretch of reported speech” (Burleson 1990 : 91) makes Pickman appear as if he was present on a symbolic level. The uncanny effect here creates “mystery and [an] aura of wonder” (Burleson 1990 : 91). Not knowing what happened to the artist evokes an uncanny effect, but also his talents do. Pickman is described as the genius of Morbid art, that “Boston never had a greater painter than Richard Upton Pickman” (Lovecraft 2008 : 14). Creatures like the devil, spirits, ghosts and monsters have an uncanny effect of their own, but according to the narrator, Pickman “can make such a thing really scare of ring true […] There’s something those fellows catch – beyond life – that they’re able to make us catch for a second.” (Lovecraft 2008 : 15). Navarette, taking physician Nisbet as an example, explains this as “sanity as frequently merging into insanity, and insanity into genius” (Navarette 1998 : 34). She explains this with criminal genius Dr. Moriarty, Sherlock Holme’s genesis, who could be compared to Pickman. It in fact has to be considered if Pickman is a victim of madness or insanity. This phenomenon can be linked to the uncanny effect of the “blurred limit between fantasy and reality” (Masschelein 2011 : 22). Paintings so real looking that a “loss of reality” occurs that “is caused by confusion between symbol and reality” (Masschelein 2011 : 22). This goes so far that the narrator at one point of the story even questions if Pickman actually was a man, because he sees things that no one else seems to capture (Lovecraft 2008 : 15). Fright of hidden powers also applies to this. The second major uncanny element of the story are Pickman’s paintings, which are described as “awful, blasphemous horror […] beyond the power of words to classify” (Lovecraft 2008 : 22).

The madness and monstrosity lay in the figures in the foreground – for Pickman’s morbid art was preeminently one of demoniac portraiture. These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness. […] They were usually feeding […] [and] sometimes shown in groups in cemeteries or underground passages, and often appeared to be in battle over their prey […]. Occasionally the things were shown leaping through open windows at night, or squatting on the chest of sleepers, worrying at their throats. […] It was faces, Eliot, those accursed faces, that leered and slavered out of the canvas with the very breath of life! […]

(Lovecraft : 22-23)

Here, one can see the confusion and blurred line between fantasy and reality, as the painted figures seem real and alive on canvas. Perhaps, this also has some effects of the doubt whether figures are lifeless or animate, because they seem so real to Thurber that they could be animate, but are still only painted on canvas, so lifeless. The term strangeness can be applied here. Since “something seems familiar because reality corresponds to an unconscious representation” (Masschelein 2011 : 22), the opposite happens when something is strange: “reality no longer corresponds to a representation” (Masschelein 2011 : 22). Strangeness seems to originate in the ego and here Freud brings up two kinds: Strangeness as a defense mechanism in hysteria and “rejection of reality by a megalomaniac ego” (Masschelein 2011 : 22). In the blurred lines of reality, the defense mechanism applies more to Thurber, because the figures are so horrific and real; that’s why he feels the urge to tell his friend Eliot in the first place, maybe to distance himself from what he saw. Alienation and depersonalization are further effects of this, Thurber overcomes the feeling “that what he is experiencing is not real” (Masschelein 2011 : 22). These defense mechanisms can be described as “the temporary failure of memory [that] is meant to protect the ego” (Masschelein 2011 : 23) and therefore has uncanny effects while looking at Pickman’s paintings. The later finding of the photograph by Thurber supports the uncanny effect of the blurred lines of reality:

It was – something I found in my coat the next morning. You know, the curled-up paper tacked to the frightful canvas in the cellar; the thing I thought was a photograph of some scene he meant to use as a background for that monster. […] Well – that paper wasn’t a photograph of any background, after all. What it showed was simply the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas. It was the model he was using – and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life!

(Lovecraft : 32)

That it was a real photograph by Pickman supports that the painted creatures are in fact real and alive. Here, one can apply Freud’s later attempt to explain the uncanny; something that was meant to remain hidden, but has come to light, just like the ghoul-like creature. Masschelein links this to the term taboo, Freud also mentions in another essay. What originated from obsessive-compulsive neurosis can be explained as “a strong power of extra-ordinary […] associated with certain people, things, or situations that must be kept under control by strict regulations and ceremonies” (Masschelein 2011 : 28). In this case, the creatures Pickman photographs and paints are a taboo that must be kept under control. “Based on the fear of demons”, which were mentioned earlier in this paper, “demons in fact stem from the same source as the taboo […]” (Masschelein 2011 : 28). Coming back to the feeling of helplessness mentioned earlier, Masschelein not only mentions taboo but also trauma. “Traumas are […] totally unforeseen confrontations with mortal danger […] [and] derive their traumatic character from the utter helplessness of the ego” (Masschelein 2011 : 45). It is questionable if the confrontation with the paintings, the creatures and the photograph was indeed a traumatic experience for Thurber, since the reader does not get to know, whether a later similar situation reactivates the felt anxiety to cope with the events. One piece of evidence for such a reaction might be that Thurber now “can’t use the subway or […] go down into cellars any more.” (Lovecraft 2008 : 14). It is trauma which “collapses the ability to render experience in a narrative […] Trauma destroys […] ‘narrative memory’, the ability to apply principles of coherence and analytical understanding to one’s life events.” (Bruhm 2002 : 269) and perhaps this applies better to Thurbers experience. After the traumatic event, he truly believes that the photograph shows a real monstrous creature captured by Pickman without questioning any principles of logic or coherence.

After all, the term model of the story title can have several meanings, which can be observed when we stick with the creatures. “In customary artistic terms, the model” can be both: “the person is the model, and the painting is the model” (Burleson 1990 : 88). So, the creatures portrayed are the model, just like the painting as a copy of the creatures is a model and “by Pickman we mean, metonymically, his work” (Burleson 1990 : 88). “The text will blur the distinction between Pickman and his ‘model’”, which creates another uncanny effect. “Well, I should say that the really weird artist has a kind of vision which makes models, or summons up what amounts to actual scenes from the spectral world he lives in.” (Lovecraft 2008 : 15) – another hint at Pickman being the genius from another world?


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Uncanny and the Fantastic in H. P. Lovecrafts "Pickman's Model"
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar I)
The Weird and the Fanstastic in the American Gothic
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ISBN (Book)
h. p. lovecraft, Lovecraft, Freud, Sigmund Frued, Psychoanalyse, psychoanalysis, the uncanny, uncanny, Todorov, The Fantastic, fantastic, american literature, american studies, pickman's model, short story, gothic, the gothic, gothic literature
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Katharina Wagner (Author), 2016, The Uncanny and the Fantastic in H. P. Lovecrafts "Pickman's Model", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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