Monday, 2 April 2012

‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘Dance of the Damned’

There used to be a time when I could review a whole anthology here and pay attention to each and every one of the stories contained therein. Not these days though, not with anthologies being released that can make even a Steven Erikson novel look all weak and anaemic (I’m looking at you ‘The Weird’ and you know it…)
Instead of leaving these books to gather dust on my lovely new shelves I thought I’d find a way round the ‘reviewing problem’ by picking out one story, every now and again, and writing a short post about it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? So why am I looking at two short stories today...?

While I’d love to sound like I know what I’m talking about, the truth is far more… well… me really. I thought that today’s post could feature a tale from Otto Penzler’s ‘Zombies’ compendium and, opening the book completely a random, found myself faced with the illustrated opening to Arthur J. Burk’s ‘Dance of the Damned’. I’d never read anything of Burk’s and resolved to set that straight right away. At least until I closed the book and realised that I’d forgotten to pop a bookmark in…
A quick trip to the list of contents showed me that H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Pickman’s Model’ was also to be found in the book. Here was a tale that I’d heard a lot of good things about but wasn’t included in the ‘Call of Cthulhu’ collection that I’ve been dipping in and out of.
Which story to post about first? Why not both of them…

Reading both ‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘Dance of the Damned’ immediately informs the reader as to how diverse and far ranging the term ‘zombie’ actually is. For those of us who think that zombies can be neatly divided into ‘shamblers’ and ‘runners’ there’s a lot more to it, a lot more. Arthur J. Burk’s 1936 tale hearkens right back to a time when zombies were only really a part of Voodoo lore although ‘Dance of the Damned’ does attempt to bring science into the picture with a mad scientist kidnapping partygoers and killing them so that he can raise them from the dead.
Lovecraft’s ‘Pickman’s Model’ is perhaps a little more tenuous in calling itself a ‘zombie tale’ but the argument is there and it’s not a bad one either. Zombies are the ‘living dead’ or ‘undead’; what lurks beneath the streets of Lovecraft’s Boston is not only ‘undead’ but also quite happily makes a feast of the living. That’s a zombie in a nutshell if you ask me. Without giving too much away about the tale, Pickman’s model may not strictly be a zombie but shares enough of the same characteristics not to look out of place in this collection.

I spent a happy couple of hours, yesterday afternoon, totally engrossed in both ‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘Dance of the Damned. Both tales had a lot to offer and kept me occupied until the little one woke up. If you were to find me in a week’s time though, which of the two tales would still be at the forefront of my mind? I would have to say that ‘Pickman’s Model’ would edge it here.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to recommend ‘Dance of the Damned’. What we have here is a tale in the finest traditions of the finest pulp. There’s a terrible disaster that is being marked by a wild and rowdy party with our hero and heroine in attendance. A mystery unfolds in a wave of death and it is up to our hero to solve that mystery before any more people die. ‘Dance of the Damned’ is a fast paced affair with an underlying mystery that surprises on more than one front. Just when you think you’ve got your head around something quite simple Burk turns things upside down and leaves you with your mouth wide open by the very end of the story. A man can do what he is sure is the right thing but is it really? Our hero will never know for sure and Burk’s plan is that we’ll never be quite sure either. The problem is that that final surprise comes at the right time to dumbfound our hero but it’s maybe just a little too late to have the same kind of affect on the reader. ‘Dance of the Damned’ also chooses to focus a little bit too much on its characters and the atmosphere of the piece feels more like an afterthought than something that can really grip you. It’s not a bad story but ‘Dance of the Damned’ misses its opportunity to really grab you by the throat.

Not so with ‘Pickman’s Model’, a story that I’ll be pondering over for a while to come. I am in awe of ‘Pickman’s Model’ and its ability to unsettle on so many levels. You can’t help but be unsettled in the presence of the narrator who is so scared that he initially doesn’t want to tell the story at all. What an amazing hook to get the reader on board, it certainly worked for me. Lovecraft doesn’t stop there, mingling some of the more sordid histories of Boston with the activities of Pickman himself and how this is expressed in his art. ‘Pickman’s Model’ is certainly one of the more graphic of Lovecraft’s stories (that I’ve read anyway) with no detail spared the attention of the reader. This approach makes for some uncomfortable reading and this is very much deliberate. ‘Pickman’s Model’ isn’t just about a brief glimpse into the mind of an insane artist, it’s also about where Pickman gets that inspiration from. This is delivered in one of Lovecraft’s trademark ‘earth shattering final sentences’ and the affect really hits home. Our narrator doesn’t like the subway and his words will be lurking at the back of my head the next time I take the tube.

A couple of very good stories then and well worth a look if you can get your hands on either. If you can only get hold of one though, make it ‘Pickman’s Model’.

‘Dance of the Damned’ 8.5/10
‘Pickman’s Model’ 10/10

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