“The Truth About Pickman”

Originally, I was going to review this story at a much later date since I’m still catching up on reviews. However, after I reading it, I nominated it for discussion at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group devoted to weird fiction.

I’m not really sure it qualifies despite originally being published in S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu, but I’ll get to that later.

Review: The Truth about Pickman”, Brian Stableford, 2010.

This is an interesting story, actually a strong piece of science fiction which uses Brian Stableford’s extensive knowledge of biology to rationalize the existence of Richard Pickman from H. P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”. It’s ends on something of a nasty joke.

Spoilers aplenty lie ahead.

This story has an underlying tone of menace almost from the beginning since it narrator, Eliot, makes it clear that he’s concealing information from Professor Alastair Thurber who has come to visit him from America.

Eliot lives in a rather odd house on the Isle of Wight in a chine, a wooded ravine at the edge of the sea, a place formerly used by smugglers.

Eliot lives by himself, and Thurber is a microbiologist who also has an interest in Pickman’s paintings. Both men are descendants of characters in Lovecraft’s story. (You probably should read it before this story.)

After first making some remarks about the rather intimidating entrance to Eliot’s house – it’s on a very narrow path above the sea, Thurber settles in. From Eliot, we get wry asides about Thurber’s stereotypical academic behavior: a tendency to intellectual one-upmanship and dropping quotes.

Eliot tells Thurber – who has written ahead asking to visit – to make himself comfortable while Eliot makes them some tea with filtered water.

Eliot makes a private bet with himself about what Thurber will notice first in Eliot’s house. It’s Thurber’s book, The Syphilis Transfer. Eliot gets in a brief jab that he looked Thurber up after receiving his letter and then ordered the book on Amazon. It’s not like he doesn’t have access to modern conveniences. Though he admits he uses a well in the basement and has to have the house sewage hauled away periodically.

Thurber again comments on the, to him, scary entrance to the house. And then we get our first hint of menace when Eliot says to us “he had no idea what real acrophobia was”.

Then Thurber notices a painting in the house and asks Eliot if he knows who painted it. Of course, replies Eliot. Thurber recognizes it as a Pickman painting, and he’s rather surprised. Eliot didn’t mention it in his letter back to Thurber, and Thurber’s cataloged all the extant Pickman paintings, and he doesn’t recognize it.

They then discuss The Syphilis Transfer, an attempt to settle a real historical biological mystery: did syphilis come into Europe from the Americas or vice versa? The answer Thurber gives – as does modern thought on the issue – is that syphilis existed in both the Old and New World before the Columbian Exchange; it’s just that the natives of each hemisphere had developed immunity to the particular strain in their area.

And is Thurber now working on finding other such strains of bacteria, asks Eliot. “When you’re not on vacation, investigating your grandfather’s phobic obsession”.

Thurber asks what the title of the painting is. It doesn’t have one is Eliot’s reply, but he also rattles off a couple of Pickman titles from ‘the account that Lovecraft had re-worked”.

That makes Thurber suspicious. He thinks the painting is probably an early Pickman. The background is vague. The face, though, still makes you shudder as a Pickman face does.

They engage in a little due of quote dropping:

‘Only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear,’ I quoted.

He wasn’t about to surrender the intellectual high ground. ‘The exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright,’ he went on, completing the quote from the Lovecraft text, ‘and the proper color contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.’

Probing, Eliot says that Thurber, as a good scientist, doesn’t believe in “latent instincts” surely.

Actually, Thurber does. He’s very interested in “in the molecular basis of memory and the biochemistry of phobia.”

Thurber asks if Eliot’s grandfather, when moving to England from Boston, has any Pickman memorabilia about. No, replies Eliot, and the painting is not for sale.

Thurber than asks if Eliot has heard of Jonas Reid. Eliot knows the name. He was the man who thought Pickman was not quite human and somehow kin to the creatures in his paintings.

Genetics was primitive then, says Thurber. There were isolated communities in Colonial America with sectarian beliefs that created a barrier to outbreeding. Eventually, they moved to cities and their peculiar genetic traits and defects were breed out of them. But their odd genetic configuration may have lasted into the time of Pickman.

Eliot tells the reader he’s relieved to hear this from Thurber. He’s on the wrong track. He asks Thurber if he wants something connected to Pickman to try to retrieve his DNA from.

But Eliot doesn’t like what he hears next. Eliot has a sample of Pickman’s DNA already. What he’s looking for is the “mutational trigger” explaining the transformation of Pickman.

Then Thurber gives us a brief – and accurate – account of how genetic mutations work. Recessive genes that lead to mutations are harmless if coupled with normal functioning genes. It’s when two people mate and both have the recessive gene that a mutation can happen. Most mutations cause birth defects. But some lead to cancer later on. And even rarer ones can be triggered by outside events.

Thurber thinks some protein Pickman was exposed to caused his mutation and that traces may survive on the painting. 

This takes Eliot aback. He stalls in his response and agrees to let Thurber borrow the painting for testing. But he’s worried that Thurber could find what he’s looking for on book covers and other areas of the house.

Eliot remarks that it’s rather odd Thurber would look for a mutational trigger in England and not Boston. Thurber says, on the contrary, he’s far more likely to find it here.

This really worries Eliot. Thurber has some mystery all figured out except for the painting “in all its consummate horror”.

Eliot explains that he believes that, in Boston at the time Pickman lived there, some fungi, microorganism, bacteria, or virus was transferred from England to America and triggered mutations which rapidly died out with outbreeding among the Pickman family.

Thurber does start going through Eliot’s library and, yes, he does find some of Pickman’s old books. 

Before he goes, Eliot offers to show Thurber the rest of the house including the cellar and then Thurber looks the rest of the house over for Pickman traces while Eliot goes off to make lunch for the two before Thurber goes. He also makes tea – which, subtly, is not made with filtered water.

As the two eat, Eliot reveals he hasn’t always lived in this house. He only moved in after his divorce ten years ago.

Then Eliot asks him how mutations and cancers and trigger molecules relate to “the anatomy of the terrible and the physiology of fear”.

It’s part of a broader genetic mystery, says Thurber. How somatic structure and instinctual behavior derives from DNA is not very well understood though what proteins a gene codes for is. A lot of human behavior may be learned, but humans still have innate instincts. He also mentions – again, quite true, that a single gene can do more than one thing. The same gene may influence biology and behavior. Thurber thinks Pickman’s artistry of fear was connected to his odd body and both come from a genetic mutation.

Eliot argues that audience’s responses to art may also have an “inherited foundation” that learning can build on. He says that Thurber’s grandfather and Reid may have had extreme reactions to Pickman because of a genetic makeup they both shared.

Then Eliot pointedly asks Thurber if he’s carrying this recessive gene.

As an academic, Thurber answers a question with a question: would Eliot provide a sample of his DNA?

ElIiot responds that, since Thurber has been in his house for two hours, he probably already has one.

Thurber asks just how much Eliot knows.

Eliot points out that an ancestor of Pickman’s was reputedly hanged in Salem. In England, “cunning men” was a term used for witches – at least when someone wanted something from them. Is Thurber looking for some kind of cure for Pickman’s Syndrome?

Not really, replies Thurber. It’s almost extinct as a condition. He’s looking for data on the biological fundamentals of phobia.

Eliot is a bit mocking at this point. If Thurber finds what he’s looking for, maybe he’s found the fundamental “psychotropics for art”, what makes a Pickman and a Lovecraft.

Thurber asks if Eliot is suggesting the cunning men could induce phobic triggers. The Royal College of Physicians, replies Eliot, destroyed the pharmacological traditions of the cunning men.

Maybe, speculates Thurber, the process of taking such a pharmacological instrument to the New World increased its vigor. Its introduction there could have accidentally induced a wave of mutations in Boston.

Then Thurber asks if Eliot’s grandfather would have know about the “traditions of cunning men”. 

And then we start to get the story’s big reveal.

“Silas Eliot was not my grandfather”, says Eliot.

And then Eliot notes the vague dilation in Thurber’s eye, an effect of drinking the unfiltered water the tea was made with, the water from the cellar, the local water. The locals are immune to its effects, but Thurber the American will feel them over the coming weeks.

Of course, Eliot doesn’t tell Thurber this, just us. He just vaguely and mockingly agrees that it would be absurd to claim he was Silas Eliot. But he also talks about the local fungi and how you have to be careful with them. A cunning man would know what could be done with them, but, of course, there aren’t any cunning men any more.  They went to America.

Eliot becomes frank with Thurber. Pickman’s Syndrome is almost extinct, and Thurber could just get the milder form his grandfather did, the one that made him acrophobic, the one that made his grandfather and Reid abandon looking into the matter of Pickman. It may even affect Thurber’s “hobby”.

But Thurber is already showing effects of his mutation as he looks at the Pickman painting again.

Then Eliot reveals it’s not a Pickman painting. He painted it 20 years ago. It’s a portrait of his son. Eliot, unknowingly, married a woman who also carried the same recessive gene he did, the gene Pickman had. After all, says Eliot, he just knew about witchcraft, not genetics.

Thurber now appreciates what has happened to him.

And the last paragraph ends with a rather mean joke, an intellectual riposte to an academic. Eliot tells Thurbet it’s not really a very contagious condition:

it’ll just engender a more personal and more intimate understanding of the anatomy of the terrible, and the physiology of fear.

I like Brian Stableford, and I like his stories in the Cthulhu Mythos, and I have several works of his in the pile to review. But, while I think it’s a fine piece of science fiction and a good scientific take on Lovecraft’s story, I think it’s too clever, too wry to induce much horror. I suspect Stableford may have intended more than a wry smile on conclusion, that he was hoping to provoke some pondering on the place of heredity in our responses to art and the world, But I just felt it was a clever ending with a sting. I don’t think there’s the awe of the weird here.

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