Arts & Entertainment

In Lovecraft and Hill, every picture tells a story

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HERE'S an unlikely pairing: Susan Hill and H.P. Lovecraft. Hill is a successful mystery writer living in England who also owns a small publishing house. A writer noted for her psychological detective stories -- "The Risk of Darkness," featuring inspector Simon Serrailler, will be published next month -- she seems the model of that writer who has a serene, bookish, rustic life (she and her Shakespeare scholar husband live in the North Cotswold countryside) while her prose is full of violent, unsettled passions and disturbing situations.

Lovecraft lived a seemingly quiet life as well, saving his energies for the fledgling weird genre, and died at 46, in 1937, after eking out a living as a writer. He built a reputation on some very long stories, but no novel. He has inspired others to finish projects of his or else to continue the cosmic vision of his "Cthulhu" stories with a franchise that increases today.

And yet, and yet. Affinities abound between these two very different writers.

In Hill's recent "The Man in the Picture" (Overlook Press: 146 pp., $15) and a reissue of Lovecraft's (with August Derleth) "The Watchers Out of Time" (Del Rey: 292 pp., $14 paper), one can't help noticing their common interest in paintings and windows as menacing doorways into chilling otherworlds.

Hill's novel begins where supernatural stories often start: before a blazing fire.

The aged Theo Parmitter, a university don, tells a story to a young student, Oliver, about how he acquired an enigmatic painting. The painting, which hangs in the gloom behind them, presents a scene of a Venetian crowd celebrating Carnival. At first, Oliver believes the painting, like many strange artifacts one might find in a bachelor don's offices, is just an example of Theo's esoteric obsession with priceless things off the beaten path -- "strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price," as Ezra Pound called them.

That is certainly true, but there is something else about the painting -- there's a moodiness to the Venetian scene that makes Oliver uneasy. There is much more to this "moodiness" than Oliver, or the reader, realizes. Much more. Years before, Theo met the Countess of Hawdon, the original owner, and he tells Oliver how that meeting included this bizarre moment:

"There was, you remember, one particular scene within the scene. A young man was being held by the arm and threatened by another person, on the point of stepping into one of the boats, and his head was turned to look into the eyes of whoever was viewing the picture, with an expression of strange, desperate terror and of pleading. . . . The face of the young man being persuaded into the boat was the face of the Countess's husband. There was no doubt about it. The resemblance was absolute. . . .

"She was staring at me intently.

" 'My God,' I whispered. But I struggled for words, tried to grab hold of sanity. There was, of course, a sensible, an ordinary, a rational explanation.

" 'So your husband was a sitter for the artist.' As I said it, I knew how ridiculous it was.

" 'The picture was painted in the late eighteenth century.'

" 'Then -- this is a relative? One you perhaps have only just discovered? This is an extraordinary family likeness.'

" 'No. It is my husband. It is Lawrence.'

" 'Then I do not understand.' "

The painting, we learn, is cursed by an Italian woman whom Lawrence spurned -- it is a curse that leads any male involved with the painting to a similarly strange, shadowy fate. They vanish without a trace -- except, of course, within the painting, which somehow adjusts the scene to include their images. When the Countess and Lawrence were on honeymoon, she tells Theo, he vanished in that manner. The Venice police said that he most likely fell into a canal, which is why his body isn't found at first -- though perhaps, they said, it would wash up eventually.

But, the Countess explains, she knew better than that. When the Venetian waters failed to produce her husband's corpse, she rushed home to their English estate and eventually approached a locked room to which she possessed the only key:

"I reached the door of the small sitting room and turned the key. . . . [W]hen I found the switch, the two lamps, with their thin light, came on and then I saw the picture again. And as I saw it, I realized that in the mustiness I could smell something else, a hint of something sharp and very distinctive. It took me a second or two to work out that it was paint, fresh oil paint. I looked around everywhere. Perhaps this room was used after all, perhaps one of the servants had been here to repair or repaint something, though I could see no sign of it. Nor were there any painting materials or brushes lying about."

Then, she makes her terrifying discovery.

Hill's story is a clear descendant of Henry James' ghost stories and their familiar elements -- the narrator with an odd tale to tell, the English infatuation with Italy, even the hearth fire -- without feeling derivative; and the use of so many hoary, gothic cliches (a hidden painting whose image alters under a supernatural hand) is a cross between "Dorian Gray" and "The Twilight Zone."

And yet the terrain feels fresh and all Hill's own.

The narrative moves nimbly along, the prose is economical but lush when required -- small details are like buds along an otherwise bare branch of prose:

"It was a still, clear and bitter night with a frost and a sky thick and brilliant with stars and I went quickly across to my own staircase to fetch my coat. It was late but I felt like fresh air and a brisk walk. The court was deserted and there were only one or two lights shining out from sets of rooms here and there.

The night porter was already installed in his lodge with a fire in the grate and a great brown pot of tea.

" 'You mind your step, sir, the pavements have a rime on them even now.' "

The brown pot, the rime of frost -- such lovely touches.

From the onset, Hill's word choice conveys that the painting is more than an object of art. "Every time I came back into these rooms, it drew me," Oliver says early in the story. "I spent more time looking at it -- no, into it -- than I did with pictures of far greater beauty and merit."

"Into it" -- the picture, then, is a portal, an entry point of some kind. Think of Alice's looking-glass, the mirror in which Borges said creatures dwell or, even, that computer screen you are now sitting before. There is a reality on the other side of what you see that invites participation. The Internet is built on that concept -- so is the supernatural.

AT HIS DEATH, Lovecraft left behind stories and sketches of potential stories, many of which August Derleth picked up and finished. In the collection "The Watchers Out of Time," the story "The Gable Window" employs a familiar conceit: A stranger stumbles upon the arcane research of someone who either died or mysteriously vanished. Gradually, the stranger reconstructs that research until it explains, with horrifying clarity, what happened to the other person.

In this story's case, the unnamed narrator moves into the New England home of Wilbur, his deceased cousin, a "student of archeology and anthropology" who spent years traveling in Mongolia, Tibet, Central America and many other places wild and strange, where civilization held on by its fingertips.

At his death, Wilbur left behind an old house cluttered with journals and arcane books that the narrator sets to organizing. Despite the strangeness of these tomes -- bearing titles such as "Cultes des Goules" and "Necronomicon" -- the greater object of mystery here is, not a painting, but a window whose design runs counter to the house's architectural style and to the alterations Wilbur made:

"[T]here was one change which had baffled me at the time that Wilbur had made it, and for which he never offered any explanation; this was the installation in the south wall of his gable room of a great round window of a most curious clouded glass, of which he said only that it was a work of great antiquity, which he had discovered and acquired in the course of his travels in Asia." At night, after a day's labor of organizing Wilbur's work, the narrator hears sounds of animal activity, even though all is quiet outside in the still, cold New England landscape. He hears "hoof beats, or the tramping of some gigantic animal, or the twittering of birds . . . or the slithering of some vast body." Search as he might with a flashlight, however, he can't locate their source. This being Lovecraft (or Lovecraft-Derleth), however, that early tip-off about the strange, cloudy glass window makes it clear where the noises are probably coming from.

Soon, the narrator learns through Wilbur's papers that making occult markings on the floor before this window and then uttering bizarre incantations turns it into a doorway onto another world. When he pronounces a spell that reads like garble--except for the words "Cthulhu" and "R'lyeh," which are familiar to any Lovecraft fan -- the window's appearance changes:

"Instantly a most extraordinary phenomenon took place. I was seated, facing the round window of clouded glass in the south wall, so that I saw everything that happened. The cloudiness vanished from the glass, and I found myself, to my astonishment, looking upon a sunbaked landscape. . . . " The narrator is fascinated. He returns to the window several times to "reopen" this view, and each time he sees different things -- deserts, caves, outer space and ugly creatures that, he realizes with terror, can also see him.

READING Hill's and Lovecraft's stories calls to mind another author, Victor Pelevin, whose "The Helmet of Horror" (Canongate: 288 pp., $13 paper) retells the Minotaur myth by replacing the Cretan labyrinth with an Internet chat room.

Observers, these books warn us, are never neutral. To be ignorant of this point puts us all in peril. The earliest victim of that oversight was Narcissus, and an element of self-infatuation certainly plays a part in all of these (Oliver thinks he is beyond danger, even after hearing the Countess' story; Lovecraft's narrator is too curious to stop; Pelevin's characters are naive in their attitude to the chat room). There is no such thing as a passive witness. When you surf different websites and think you are leaving as quietly as you entered, you're leaving a digital footprint behind that -- some marketer, or worse, may be able to find you later.

Hill's story closes on an agitated note. We can't be sure that the curse of the painting will ever cease. No one destroys the painting or asks a priest to exorcise it: The spell it weaves is too strong. Hill's brief novel closes with narration by Oliver's wife (Oliver joins the others in the Venetian scene, though you'll have to read the book to learn why), who fears the vengeance caused by the painting will one day be unleashed on her unborn child.

Lovecraft's conclusion is simpler, more neat and tidy, because the narrator finally shatters the window so that no one will ever use it again. Even here, however, Lovecraft ends on a splendidly pulpy, melodramatic note. To suggest how close he came to exposing our world to cosmic disaster, the narrator says:

"I found near the shattered glass on the floor of the gable room -- the cut tentacle, ten feet in length, which has been caught between dimensions when the door had been shut against that monstrous body to which it belonged, the tentacle no living savant could identify as belonging to any known creature, living or dead, on the face or in the subterranean depths of the earth!"

Owchar is deputy books editor of The Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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