The Picture in the House by Mercvtio (www.deviantart.com)
Previously we discussed the occurrence of cannibalism in nature and the potential literary meaning of the act. While actual incidences of cannibalism in humans are somewhat rare, particularly in recent times, it is and has known to occur. For example, under circumstances of extreme life and death, humans have had to eat the dead to survive. An example of this is the Donner Party, which was a group of pioneers who were moving west and got stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains over the winter of 1846-47. Slightly less than half of the 87 pioneers did not survive the trip to California. It was reported that in order to survive the harsh winter a number of individuals had to resort to cannibalism. While many survivors dispute accounts of cannibalism, others have been on the record saying it did occur and food was provided to the youngest and weakest in order to survive.
Reports of cannibalism in the Donner Party (www.thecomunitypaper.com)
Other such tortuous and heart breaking accounts of cannibalism have been documented in more recent times such as the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, known as the Andes flight disaster, of 1972. Of the 45 people on that flight only 16 survived and they and to resort to cannibalism of their deceased friends, family and teammates. While such circumstances of extreme survival are rare, cannibalism has been known to occur in some primitive societies for religious or cultural-based reasons.
Practicing cannibalism has been known to occur in a variety of societies from isolated South Pacific cultures, to some select areas of Africa such as the Congo, to the Amazon Basin. While cannibalism has been well documented from the 17th century to recent times, it should also been noted that the accusation of such practices have been used by some to justify the subjugation of more primitive societies (Cannibalism and the Colonial World edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iversen, 1998). Finally, there individuals with mental illness who have been documented to be obsessed with and practiced cannibalism. Thus, in the modern world the practice of cannibalism has always been thought of as an abhorrent act, practiced only in the most extreme of circumstances or by disturbed individuals. Thus, the horrific elements of cannibalism have certainly by utilized by HPL in a number of his stories.
In HPL’s “The Picture in the House” a young man is caught in a rain storm and seeks shelter in what he assumes is an abandoned house. In it he meets an old man who shows him a book, which is an account of the Congo region by Antonia Pigafetta, an Italian scholar and explorer. Pigafetta was an assistant to Magellan on his voyage to the Indies and kept a detailed journal; he was one of 18 men who returned to Spain out of the 240 who set out on the voyage three years earlier. The book the old man shows the protagonist is the Regnum Congo, which includes illustrations by the Brothers De Bry of the cannibal Anziques, is probably based on the journal entries and accounts of Pigafetta. While this is an actual book, it is unlikely that HPL ever actually saw the book. More than likely HPL knew about it through an essay in Man’s Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays, written by Thomas Henry Huxley and published in 1894 (H.P. Lovecraft The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, edited by S.T. Joshi, 1999).
One of the illustrations from the Regnum Congo, showing the natives in a cannibal butcher’s market is shown below. It is interesting to read Kenneth Hite’s essay on “The Picture in the House” in Tour De Lovecraft: The Tales (2011). He cites that from reading the story to the protagonist in the tale, to the book and its various iterations and translations, there are 8 to 10 levels from the reader to the actual accounts, so the accuracy of both the text and the illustrations have been questioned. For example the Anziques, which is a distinct tribe or nation of people living in the Congo (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft by Leslie S. Klinger, 2014) were depicted as Caucasians that may have black or white skin; it’s difficult to say as demonstrated in the accompanying illustration. In any event, however HPL was exposed to the Regnum Congo and its associated illustrations of cannibalism; it had a significant impression on him which ended up in a number of his tales.
One of the possible illustrations from the Regnum Congo by the Theodore De Bry
The practice of cannibalism had the supernatural “benefit” of extending the old man’s life in “The Picture in the House” (Joshi, 1999), which seems to be the reason for this abhorrent practice. However, this tale can also be described as a cautionary tale of the isolation of an individual, group or family from society. The old man is alone and apparently has been alone for quite some time, which allowed him to practice cannibalism. He would probably abduct wayward travelers like the protagonist for consumption. Indeed, by the blood dripping from the ceiling the protagonist probably interrupted the old man preparing of some of his meat. Thus, as identified by Kenneth Hite again in his Tour De Lovecraft: The Tales (2011), the horrors in this story are not in faraway places or far in the past but right in one’s own backyard. Those small towns and neighbors that have been isolated from society as a whole have the potential to breed horrors that are loathsome and repulsive to any sane individual.
The Picture by Dan Champy (www.deviantart.com)
In a sense, “The Picture in the House” can be thought of as a precursor to films such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In that film a rural family is isolated from society primarily through the closing down of a local meat packing / processing plant. The family in the story becomes more and more isolated and (to use a Lovecraftian word) decadent and begin to practice cannibalism to make ends meet. Indeed, the old man in the film may have had his life extended unnaturally long due to the practice of cannibalism, similar to the old man in “The Picture in the House.” Does this mean that “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” can be thought of as a Lovecraftian film? Possibly.
The decadent, cannibalistic family from the film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”
Next time we will be discussing cannibalism in “The Rats in the Walls.”
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Thank you! Fred