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THE SIREN'S CALL

In Lovecraft and Hill, every picture tells a story

"The Man in the Picture" and "The Gable Window" present supernatural and cosmic treachery lurking in paintings and windows.

February 22, 2009|By Nick Owchar
(Steve McAfee, xx )

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.

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