I HAD TAKEN THE WARM DAY to wander about the streets of Boston, it really is the most beautiful of cities, much more cosmopolitan than dreary old Arkham, and I must again thank my mother for arranging for me to summer here. The area in which I chose to explore was a genteel district comprised of ladies shops, boutiques, salons, and the occasional antique merchant. Also scattered about were several art galleries, which given my adolescent interests I was immediately drawn to. Finally the caliber of work being produced by American artists has begun to match that done by our European cousins. Beginning to emerge, at least in these Boston galleries, is an overwhelming sense of place and people that I think has been lacking up until now. Particularly notable is the work of Henry Wilcox whose use of vibrant color in both landscapes and portraits seems unsurpassed in its ability to convey a sense of emotion. I also found the portrait work of Cecilia Beaux to my liking, but to be completely honest I cannot tell you why. Sadly, there are works that I find less than fulfilling. The dark primitivism of Sironi contains no redeeming value that I can see. The free-formed expressions and riots of color produced by MacDonald-Wright, though moving, reveal no real skill. Sime’s work shows definite skill, but his content is juvenile and caters to the most puerile of tastes. Angarola seems to handle a similar subject matter but with a wholly more cultured manner. Most stunning were sculptures by Alexander Stirling Calder, I will study the catalog to decide which piece is my favorite.
It was the work of another artist, both a sculptor and painter that drew me into a strange little shop off the main thoroughfare on a dark little side street, almost an alley. Unlike the other galleries, which took to displaying pieces in front windows to entice potential patrons to enter, the Gallery Giallo seemed to be trying to hide its displays, for the curtains were heavy, moth-eaten and an utterly distasteful shade of pale yellow. Why would I enter such a place you might ask? I almost did not, I only stepped down the side street to avoid a rather large crowd coming in the opposite direction, but in that brief moment, in the gap between the curtains, I saw something that intrigued me. A glimpse of grey marble streaked with pink, carved with such mastery that I had to see the entire form.
Stepping inside, I found myself surrounded by the most wild and outré paintings, statues and crafts I had ever seen. Paintings of otherworldly landscapes crowded the walls, there was an entire case of miniatures depicting charnel rites, pedestals bore strange figurines of clay, metal, stone and bone, while a low glass case contained strange rings, necklaces, earrings and tiaras of gold and silver, but proportioned entirely incorrectly for any normal woman to wear. An entire wall was devoted to a single artist, and a small plaque announced that this was Richard Upton Pickman’s first exhibition. This young artist’s work was both weirdly compelling and disturbing. There were a whole series of paintings set in graveyards, and Pickman’s ability to capture the somber dread of such places was uncanny. Yet even more intriguing, were the subtle, and in some cases overt, representations of figures that occupied these dreadful landscapes, for their limbs were too long, their heads too sloped, their joints seemed to bend in the wrong direction. Equally frightening was a scene of a surgery in which two physicians are attempting to administer to dozens of patients. One of the surgeons cradles one of the patients, while the other is preparing a syringe of vibrant green fluid. While artistically stunning The Waiting Room, for that is what Pickman had titled it, suffers from some flaws in execution. The dozen or so patients that await the doctors are rendered in such a manner that they appear too still, too inanimate, too lifeless. I understand that the scene is supposed to convey a sense of hopelessness, but perhaps the artist could have added more color to bring a sense of life or animation to the subject.
Turning, I was suddenly confronted by that which had drawn me into the gallery in the first place. It was a statue carved from marble veined in grey and pink, life-sized, or so I assumed for the subject was a chimera, something ripped from ancient mythology. The head and torso were that of a young woman about my age, with small features and full breasts. Her hair was comprised of dozens of writhing tentacles each about a foot long and covered with rasping suckers. The arms tapered down from the shoulders and about the wrist suddenly transformed around into a pair of large anemones with waving polyps. Below the waist the marine theme continued, for where there should have been some suggestion of downy hair, there was instead a plethora of rough thorny skin. The lower limbs were fused and the resemblance to the tail of a great grey shark was overwhelming. It was both macabre and beautiful and the artist’s achievement was simply magnificent, and magnified by the subtle title Pickman had provided The Siren Calls.
My fascination with the piece must have overwhelmed my senses for I never heard the man who came up behind me and whispered in my ear. “Beautiful.”
I turned and found myself face to face with an intelligent looking man, well dressed, wearing glasses beneath a shock of blonde hair. “I beg your pardon?” I stammered out.
He gestured toward the statue, “The statue, represents one of my greatest achievements.” He stepped forward and touched the marble shoulder. “This girl was from Dean’s Corners, she was barely sixteen. One of the local boys had become infatuated and took her against her will. When her father found out he called her a whore and threw her out. She was living in the woods when I found her, too ashamed to ask for help. Now look at her, look at what I have made of her.”
He tenderly ran his hand through the tentacles of her hair. “I bought these from a fishmonger in Kingsport, the beast they came from was large, easily four to five feet long, and of a species the man did not recognize. It was still alive when he sold it to me, still struggling to survive, teeth rasping, mantle pulsating, tentacles grasping. I was able to sustain it for days, so that I could study it, take notes concerning its movements, understand its anatomy, and its beauty.” He paused and looked at me for understanding or perhaps even approval, I smiled and nodded.
His hand drifted down the arms and lingered at the pulpy masses that writhed there. “I found these in the bay on the docks downstream of the pipe where the slaughterhouses discharge their waste. There were hundreds of these anemones covering the rocks. They had grown fat on the blood, bone and foul entrails that had filtered down the pipe and into the estuary. They had thrived in those waters, propagated themselves amongst those macabre wastes.” He wrapped his hand around one of the things and stroked it. “I took that monstrous reality and made it beautiful.”
He closed his eyes and lowered his head, resting it on the marble girl’s shoulder. “I found the shark on the beach at Falcon Point. It had washed up with the storm the night before and lay gasping on the sand. Even as it lay dying, there was nothing but hate in its eyes. No fear, no pity, no sadness, simply hate. And I took that and transformed it into something else, something entirely different. Something you find beautiful.”
I was moved by these words, and by his obvious passion for the work. Never had I met a man who was so moving and moved by the beauty that he saw in life, in all its forms. There was something magnificently powerful about this man and I felt myself compelled to reach out and touch his cheek. As I did so his hand came up and touched mine. There was such a current between us, and my breath suddenly became shallow and rapid. A heat started in my chest and moved up my neck instantly flushing my face.
He looked me deep in the eyes, and I lost myself as he asked, “What is your name?”
I responded in a whisper, “Megan. Megan Halsey-Griffith.”
Suddenly my paramour pulled back. He stared at me as if I had insulted him, and this lasted for almost half a minute before the silence was finally broken. “You are Alan Halsey’s daughter,” he said and I nodded to affirm this.
He let go of my hand, and backed away. Another man appeared and handed him his coat and hat. He moved confidently toward the door, paused as he stepped through. “I knew your father.” There was a moment of introspection, and then the door closed behind him.
I went to follow him, but the other man stepped in front of me. “Mademoiselle, I could not help but notice your fascination with the statue, would you care to meet the artist, Mister Pickman?”
A wave of confusion washed over me and I felt my legs go weak. I lost my composure but quickly regained it. “Excuse me, wasn’t that the artist I was talking to?” The man politely shook his head. “Then who was he?”
The man ushered me toward the back of the gallery. “He is a friend of the artist. On occasion he supplies models for Mister Pickman, though this is only, how do you say, a hobby. He is a doctor, a surgeon I think.”
My heart and mind raced, this man, this doctor, what he spoke of frightened me, but he was also magnificently attractive. I had to see him again, feel his hand on my flesh, his breath on my cheek. I must find him. “Please,” I begged, “what is his name?”
The man paused and rubbed his forehead, trying to bring a memory to the surface. Then his eyes went bright and he told me what I needed to know, “His name is West, Doctor Herbert West.”
Pete Rawlik‘s fiction is available in Dead But Dreaming 2, Horror For the Holidays, Urban Cthulhu:Nightmare Cities, Future Lovecraft, Tales of the Shadowmen, Innsmouth Magazine, and the upcoming anthologies Eldritch Chrome, Worlds of Cthulhu and Over the Mountains of Madness. His non-fiction has appeared in The Neil Gaiman Reader, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and the Journal of Aquatic Botany. In addition to his writing, Mr. Rawlik spends an inordinate amount of time incarcerated in a private institution for the criminally insane in South Florida. His wife and lawyers hope that soon, given therapy and a proper regiment of pharmaceuticals, he will someday be able to stand trial for his crimes.
Story illustration by Ronnie Tucker.
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