I’ve spent a lot of time this month reading newer short horror fiction. Much of it from authors at the start of their careers. For today’s story I decided to take a look back at an older story. From an author that never had much of a career. A few months ago I was at a thrift store where I found a 40 year old hardcover collection of lesser known stories from the Weird Tales magazine. Long time listeners may recognize that as the magazine that published a lot of Lovecraft’s fiction.
The idea behind this collection is to publish one underappreciated story from each year of the magazine’s existence. The first story in the collection was A Square Canvas by Anthony M. Rud. I was pleasantly surprised at this one, though I should be clear that my expectations were pretty low. For as much as I enjoy Lovecraft and all things pulp, I will readily acknowledge that most of it is not “good” in a literary sense. I also have a complicated relationship with Lovecraft and his ilk. I like some of the ideas they play with, but they tend to have an uncomfortable fixation on race that was ignorant even by the standards of the time. I’ve already covered that in some detail, though, so I won’t get into it again here.
A Square Canvas started off very much like a generic Lovecraft story. A first person narrator explains to a curious interviewer why they are not insane. This explanation requires a brief recap of their entire life story with the occasional clumsy concession to the framing device by remarking that the listener “probably already knew” this or that. In true Lovecraftian fashion our narrator is careful to inform us of his distinguished lineage lest we blame his breeding for his madness.
After the awkward introduction, though, Rud distinguishes himself by telling a story that is actually kind of interesting. A boy who has little interest in studying discovers that he has a talent for art. His greatest works, though, arise from morbid inspiration. He does his best work after inflicting fatal disfigurement on defenseless animals. The artist’s tortures escalate as does his skill, culminating in a predictable, but satisfactory “masterpiece.”
The most interesting thing to me about A Square Canvas is how close it came in 1923 to predicting an actual serial killer behavior of escalating cruelty to animals that culminates in killing people. The escalation is frighteningly believable. The only thing the author gets wrong is that the character seems not to enjoy his behavior, but is willing to set his morals aside for the sake of his art. If it had been written today then I’m sure the author would have gotten a psychosexual thrill from the act of torture and murder.
If you like any of Lovecraft’s mad artist stories then you will definitely like this one. I think it’s actually better written than Lovecraft’s attempts, though that’s not saying much.
6 arbitrary stars out of 10 arbitrary stars.