Richard Upton Pickman: Time Traveling Ghoul

Travel through Time with Pickman's ModelThe macabre artist Pickman appears to travel through time through three different stories by H P Lovecraft.This remarkable bit of research began in the thread of Harley Warren, WWI & Carter’s Age by Ningauble on The SFF Chronicles.

Richard Upton Pickman is the main character of the story “Pickman’s Model”(1926), but he receives critical attention in “The History of the Necronomicon” (1927) and the novella “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1926).  The timeline of events in these stories do not entirely sync up.

In “The History of the Necronomicon”, Pickman is noted as disappearing in 1926 and also dating the year of the final events of the story “Pickman’s Model”.

In “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, Randolph Carter meets with Pickman. Carter relates that Pickman was an artist of Boston who introduced him to a ghoul. By this time that Carter meets him in the Dream Lands, Pickman is already mostly transformed into a ghoul himself.

In the story “The Silver Key”(1926), Carter loses the ability to dream his way into the Dream Lands in 1903 at the age of 30. Therefore, the events of “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” must have occurred some years before 1903.

The Time Paradox Revealed!

The disappearance of a human looking Pickman was at least 22 to 26 years after his appearance as a human-ghoul in “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”.

How can Pickman appear as a ghoul before 1903 to Carter, yet at the time of his disappearance in 1926, he still looks mostly human?

I don’t know of any commentary by HPL himself about this mystery. Several stories that previously took place in a mythic or Ancient Earth, such as “The Cats of Ulthar”(1920) and The Other Gods” (1921), later had their characters and place names revised or ‘retconn’d’ into the Dream Lands.

What Pickman’s Paintings Reveal…

Two of Pickman’s paintings might be giving us a hint. In one painting (unnamed) a witch is depicted as hanging, her body surrounded by ghouls and her face being similar to the faces of the ghouls.

Likewise, another picture depicted a pious Christian family, with an evil looking boy that somewhat resembles Pickman himself.

As in either painting, the nature of the witch and the boy are apparent to the narrator, but their natures would not have been visible to others, such as the boy’s family. It suggests that even if their physical appearance wasn’t that of a ghoul, they were already tainted or transformed in character.

Carter clearly met Pickman in the real world, and Carter remembered Pickman’s human appearance – clearly before 1903. This suggests a few things:

  • Since Pickman was already a known painter in Boston at that time, it suggests that Pickman is possibly only a few years younger or the same age as Carter
  • Pickman was already interacting with ghouls before 1903 and safely introduced Carter to one as a living man in the real world
  • Carter never met Pickman before in the Dream Lands prior to “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”

Pickman was a ghoul in spirit in the Dream Lands at least 20 years prior to showing any physical signs of a transformation in the real world. This suggests:

  • A dream self can appear entirely different from the existing real world person
  • A dream self may reflect the moral state or decline of a person
  • A dream self can change the appearance of an existing real world person

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