Tag Archives: Pickman’s Model

Origins of the Ghoul

The earliest documentation of the ghoul comes from the Mesopotamian civilization, where these creatures were originally called “Gallu” and described as some type of demon (The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture by Ahmed Al-Rawi; Cultural Analysis, Volume 8, 2009). One of the earliest, pre-Islamic origin stories of ghouls is that when devils tried to eavesdrop on Heaven, God threw meteors at them; the meteors that hit the ground changed into ghouls (Al-Rawi, 2009). This is one of many pre-Islamic stories of ghoul but frequently the Pre-Islamic ghoul is a female devil creature who is a shape changer and is intent on abusing or harming travelers. In most cases the only way of kill this type of ghoul was to strike it once with a sword.

After Islam spread through the Middle-East, Arabic scholars of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries compiled various Bedouin (descendants from nomadic Arabs who historically lived in the desert) folktales about the ghul (Arabic). Many of these talks found their way into “The Thousand and One Nights,” which was translated into various languages and eventually ended up in Europe by the 18th century (Ancient History of the Ghouls by Robert Lamb; http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/strange-creatures/ghoul.htm). Thus, the “ghoul” was born.


“Amine Discovered with the Goule” from the story of Sidi Nouman, of the One Thousand and One Nights (www.wikipedia.com)

HPL was enamored by these Arabic tales. When he was five he received a copy of “The Arabian Nights Entertainments”, selected and edited by Andrew Lang from his mother for Christmas. Based on S.T. Joshi this was not the edition that HPL read. Instead it was one of three possible translations (I Am Providence, the Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2013). However, as Joshi notes the exact translation that HPL read is not as important as the impact these stories had on his young imagination.

In these tales of “Arabian Nights” ghouls were documented as being vile tricksters and ravenous flesh eaters. Sometimes they took on the form of a beautiful woman and lured lustful men to their doom. Originally, ghouls were sometimes associated with scavenging hyenas and cannibalism, but Arabic texts did not describe them as body snatchers or eaters of the dead. Those attributes appear to emerge with the translation of many of these tales into French by Antoine Galland in the early 18th century (Robert Lamb).


Ghoul of Lovecraft by Verreaux (www.deviantart.com)

Based on Thomas R. Campbell’s analysis in The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (1903), in the classification of various forms of malignant spirits, there is a demon that is described as a pariah dog that hides in dark caves, ruins and deserted buildings. It lies in wait for unwary victims, rushing out of its hiding place to attack. This half human, half devil may be one of the earliest descriptions of a “modern” ghoul (Campbell, 1903).

Later in his analysis Campbell explicitly describes this creature as a ghoul – a creature that dwells in the desert, appearing as a friendly person to travelers, only to pounce when their guard is down. Ghouls have also been called Hag-demons or robber-sprites whose body is covered with “sickness” (Campbell, 1903). Ghouls are frequently associated with plagues or sickness, possibly linking their feeding of the dead as being the ultimate goal of their desire to spread disease, particularly in cities where the population density is high. However, they have also been associated with aliments such as heart disease, headaches, tooth aches and “heartache” (Campbell, 1903).


Ghoul by Eclectixx (www.deviantart.com)

It is interesting to note that supernatural encounters with strange entities are fairly rare in the tales of the Arabian Nights (Joshi, 2013) so the concept of the ghoul, originally described in Arabic culture and then later refined to incorporate many of the traits and behavior of European ghouls, was certainly something that stuck in HPL’s young mind when he read The Arabian Nights. Additionally, the dog-like facial features and the ghoul’s association with hyenas was something that was described prior to Lovecraft’s documentation of these creatures. In contrast, the ghoul’s detritivore-mode of feeding (feeding on the dead) appears to be a trait of ghoul biology more formally identified with European sources. Again, early historical accounts describe the ghouls has been more of a malignant spirit who attacks unwary travelers or spreads disease. A primarily detritivore-based diet does appear in these earlier accounts.

To wrap this discussion up, there are varying hypotheses on how ghouls are created. This subject is obviously open to further research; however, these secretive and elusive creatures would make such studies extremely difficult. The first and most obvious hypothesis it that they breed like most animal species; that is, the male and female reproductive sexually to create offspring. There is evidence to support this, largely as anecdotal information that ghouls would occasionally steal human babies and replace them with one of their own – a changeling. HPL describes this in “Pickman’s Model” where one of Pickman’s paintings, “The Lesson,” shows ghouls teaching a small human child how to feed on the dead. In addition, HPL also describes in “Pickman’s Model” an account where family portraits will sometimes show one family member who has the ghoul-like traits conveyed by Pickman’s art, while the rest of the family do not. The need to occasionally introduce fresh human genetic stock into a population of ghouls can easily give rise to another set of specific hypotheses; however, the basic idea is that the ghouls need to infuse their genetic stock with human genes for a specific evolutionary reason.


An interpretation of Pickman’s “The Lesson” by Senecal (www.deviantart.com)

Another hypothesis on the creation of ghouls includes “ghoulism” being a disease (possibly a virus or prion), being transferred from one individual to another through biological fluids, with the most likely candidate being blood. A third hypothesis is that ghouls are another “offshoot” or part of the human genome. In this case the ghoul is essentially a complex set of polygenetic traits that are occasionally manifested an isolated population of detritivore-feeding individuals. Thus, a sub-set of humanity would arise when a very specific set of recessive genes are realized in a homozygous state. The unusually high frequency of recessive genes and their associated phenotypic traits is quite common in small, isolated communities, where genetic drift can be as important as natural selection.

To conclude, the creation of ghouls is more than likely a complex evolutionary state that may involve more than one of the hypotheses cited above. For example, while ghouls may be able to reproduce on their own, they may be genetically weak due to the dominance of the recessive genes. This may result in the need to occasionally infuse their genetic stock with more healthy human genes to increase genetic diversity and reduce the possible genetic diseases that are associated with being a ghoul.


Lovecraft Ghoul by Pickmans Model (www.deviantart.com)

Next time we will discuss the ecological role of the ghoul. Also, if you are interested there is less than a week to go on the Journal of Lovecraftian Science Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/journal-of-lovecraftian-science-volume-1). Please check it out if you are interested. Thank you – Fred.


Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 1 the Early Tales

Combination of human evolution and the future food chain for the planet (from Lovecraft eZine; http://www.alanbao.tumblr.com)

Evolution is frequently an important factor in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.  At times he display’s astonishing insight into the mechanisms of evolution, at least how it was understood at the time.  In other instances his use of evolution is not close to being a reasonably accurate interpretation of this biological process.  However, the misuse of evolution in fiction is extremely common and even today the basic concept and operation of evolution through natural selection is misunderstood.

Some of these points I have discussed in a previous article (The Mismeasure of Lovecraft – the “scientific” origins of his racism) so I will not dwell on them too long.  First, simply put, evolution is change over time.  In addition, the terms “primitive” and “advanced” should only be used within the context of time and not for interrelationships among organisms.  While we may think we humans are more “advanced” than jellyfish, a jellyfish living today is just as “advanced” as a human living today.  However, a jellyfish of today is more advanced than a jellyfish living 100 million years ago.  While they may look exactly alike, genetically, the jellyfish living 100 million years ago is more primitive than a jellyfish living today.  What we can say is that humans are a more complex organism with more differentiated cells relative to jellyfish.

A fossilized jellyfish and a living jellyfish.  While morphologically they look very similar, genetically they were probably very different, making the fossilized one “primitive” and the living one “advanced.”  For more details on the genetics of both forms and how the Cambrian environment gave rise to more complex organisms please see the article by  John Timmer, Misperceptions meet state of the art in evolution research at http://www.arstechnica.com.

Another important point to make is that unlike Haeckel’s idea of the Tree of Life, moving ever upward with humans as the pinnacle of evolution, Darwin did not see the progression of evolution as one moving onward and upward to “better” organisms.  Thus, just because humans are on top now does not mean that they will be in the distinct future.  For example, dinosaurs were on Earth for approximately 160 million years (Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman, 2005), while Homo sapiens have been around for under a million years.  This is why Darwin drew his “tree of life” more like a shrub.  HPL had a fairly good understating of this, particularly in his later stories where he talked about humanity eventually being replaced as the dominant organism on Earth by a race of beetles.  In this case the future of Earth is not a super-intelligent form of humanity colonizing the stars.  Instead it is the extinction of one life form and replaced by another, just like the mammals expanded in dominance after the dinosaurs when extinct, most likely due to a meteor that hit the Earth approximately 65 million years ago.

A member of the beetle race by King Ovrats (www.deviantart.com)

In many of HPL’s earlier works the concern was one’s own genetics coming back to “haunt” ones’ self. In “The Rats in the Walls” once de la Poer realizes his ancestors were a strange tribe of cannibalistic creatures, he becomes one himself.  In “From Beyond” all of humanity has a dormant organ, the pineal gland; when exposed to a particular type of radiation this gland triggers a series of mutations, switching some genes on and some genes off, in a spectacular form of human metamorphosis.  In HPL’s juvenile story “The Beast in the Cave” a strange blind creature living in Mammoth Cave turns out to be a man. In each of these cases, among others not mentioned (e.g. “The Lurking Fear” – to be discussed at a later date) the genetic variation within in the individual is large enough to produce substantial alterations from what we perceive as human, triggered by a particular set of environmental or other external forces.

In “Pickman’s Model” or more appropriately cited in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” Richard Upton Pickman reverts or becomes a ghoul. Such instances may be thought of as evolution, however, natural selection does not occur within the individual. Evolution occurs over generations of breeding populations with an inherent amount of genetic variability that is occasionally impacted through mutations. Thus, does Pickman “evolve” into a ghoul? No, the potential of being a ghoul was already in his genetic “catalog” and it took a specific external stimulus or factor to bring it to the surface. In these early stories that is the horror conveyed by HPL. No matter whom you are, your status in life or where you live, you cannot run away from your genetic destiny.

Something called “Modeling for Mr. Pickman” found in an article “Our Ghouls Are Creepier” on tvtropes.org

The previous photograph of a fossilized and living jellyfish was obtained from an article, Misperceptions meet state of the art in evolution research, written by John Timmer (www.arstechnica.com, February 2008).  In that article it mentions studies that have identified genes responsible for the development of complex, bilateral animals in organisms that are not complex, bilateral animals such as Cnidarians (which includes jellyfish).  In other words the genes for a bilateral body plan predates the bilateral animals themselves!  Thus, it was only when specific environmental changes  occurred in the Cambrian that opportunities arose for these genes to be selectively advantageous and be manifested in the phenotype (appearance) of the organisms.

Are similar genetic changes triggered when the pineal gland is exposed to the resonator or when humans convort with ghouls?  Possibly, but such changes can not be thought of as Darwinian evolution – at least for now – since it is not known if such traits can be pasted from one generation to the next.  However, if a recessive “ghoul” gene exists, then maybe this is a portion of human evolution that has not be actively explored.

Next time we will discuss how the concepts of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial evolution play an important part in the later tales of HPL.  Thank you – Fred.

The Use of Saturn in Lovecraft’s Fiction

HPL mentions Saturn twice in his fiction.  One is fleeting but very interesting, the other is in reference to one of the most interesting creatures created by HPL.  The first is in Pickman’s Model when the narrator, Thurber, is exposed to Pickman’s artwork.  When Thurber tries to describe Pickman’s work in one of the passages he says, “There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood.”

Pickman revealing his latest “ghoulish” masterpiece to Thurber (artist is Joshua Hoffine)

As we will be discussing in an upcoming article, Clark Ashton Smith mentions Saturn in a number of his stories.  However, in Pickman’s Model, the “trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi” may have been referring to Smith’s strange artwork, which included sketches and sculptures.  Some examples of Smith’s work is shown below and more can be found on http://www.eldritchdark.com.

Saturnian by Clark Ashton Smith (from http://www.eldritchdark.com)

Sculpture of a Young Ghoul by Clark Ashton Smith (from http://www.eldritchdark.com)

The second mention in HPL’s fiction of Saturn is in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.  This novel is very different than most of HPL’s other work and has more of a fantasy feel.  I will not go into the story; someday I would like to possibly to a treatise on the ecosystems of the Dreamlands but that is for another day.  In any event, in the story Earth cats rescue Randolph Carter who is imprisoned on the moon by a strange race of creatures called Moon Beasts.

A Moon Beast by Grumble Putty (daily-steampunk.com) 

In the Dreamlands cats are a fierce and proud race who help Carter out of his dilemma since he has shown a kitten some kindness in the past.  However, once they rescue him the cats are careful not to spend too much time on the moon because the one foe they fear the most likes to inhabit the dark side of the moon – the cats of Saturn.  HPL provide no other description or detail about the cats of Saturn.  We only know they are “large and peculiar” and like the “charm” of the dark side of the moon.  We also know that Terran cats are afraid of the cats of Saturn.  Since Earth cats were not afraid of Moon Beasts, the cats of Saturn must be terrifying creatures.  A few artist conceptions of these creatures are shown below.

Cat from Saturn by KingOvRats (kingovrats.deviantart.com)

A cat from Saturn (from Michael Bukowski; yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)

Next time we will briefly discuss Clark Ashton Smith’s references to Saturn in his stories and then its on to Uranus.  Thank you – Fred.