February 18, 2008 — Howard Phillips Lovecraft was Providence. It says so in small block letters on his gravestone, and that makes it, well, set in stone, I guess. But even if it weren’t funereally engraven, the fact that H.P. Lovecraft had an affinity to the point of self-identity with his home city is implied in just about every personal letter and short story that he ever wrote. Judging by the content of those letters, he was enthralled by the place. Judging by the content of those stories, he was terrified by the world outside it. You see, besides being Providence, H.P. Lovecraft was also a horror fiction writer. He wasn’t really recognized for his work during his short, impoverished life (1890-1937), but since his death, he’s grown in stature to become, for many, second only to Poe in that arena. I’m sure that consoles him in oblivion or whatever dimension of mental agony he may have ended up inhabiting.
I’ve been to Providence, Rhode Island, a couple of times, and I can see why a person would become enthralled with the place. It’s many of the most pleasant adjectives of a city without most of the more negative ones. Providence’s biggest flaw, though, is that it doesn’t quite recognize its own master yet. You’d think Providence would be starved enough for notable natives that it’d embellish someone like Lovecraft even if he didn’t deserve it. After all, who the heck hails from Providence, anyway? But, no, not a single statue, bust, or “Lovecraft lived here” plaque marks Lovecraft’s place in Providence history. I have to admit, though, the non-recognition kind of sits well with me, too. It allows the unique pleasure of adoration of a master that too few adore as a master. And I’m all about unique pleasures. And sordid ones, but that’s irrelevant to this article.
Lovecraft lived in Providence his entire life except for a brief, unhappy stint in New York. He’s been called a homebody and a hermit, but that’s not quite true. Sure, most of his friends were pen pals. Sure, he lived much of his life with his mother and then his elderly aunts. Sure, his short-lived marriage was only barely one. Sure, he never really figured out how to make a living. But that just means his life was a bit sedate. Like most of ours, honestly. Except that we have television and the Internet to help us pretend otherwise. Lovecraft had only swollen black nightmares of colossal creatures impinging upon the weak fabric of this dimension. Nevertheless, despite the seemingly bland texture of his waking life, Lovecraft appeared to wring more wonder and joy out of that flat-line of an existence than most trust-funded jet-setting adventure junkies. Yes, that is a category of people.
But I’m not into Lovecraft for his close-held joys. I’m into him for his tentacled terrors.
What makes Lovecraft’s work valuable and unique first and foremost is the fact that his horror is predominantly philosophical. It’s not axe-wielding psychopaths and possessed kitchen appliances. There are no paltry scares that can be induced just as easily by dropping a metal pan on a tiled floor in a silent room. Lovecraft’s concept of horror is engulfing to the point of despair, but only if you pay attention, and only if you allow the idea to fester a bit in your mind. Readers looking for immediate physical reactions from their horror won’t get Lovecraft. His horrors are not the edge-of-your-seat type; they are the edge-of-a-profound-abyss type. In Lovecraft’s conception of the universe, myopia is the only thing that keeps us sane.
You see, your average scientist will walk up to a lectern and say, “The universe is billions of light years across, billions of years old, and completely random.” He will say this with both apparent conviction and apparent humility. However, that scientist is faking either one or both of those traits, because the instant one accepts the ideas just proffered with complete conviction, he will immediately start writhing on the floor, chewing on his tongue, and spewing blood and incoherencies. And no human is capable of humility equal to that notion of the universe. Lovecraft kind of got all that, and his worked is imbued with the idea.
Now, Lovecraft’s work has been disparaged as campy, pulpy, and hyperbolic. I reckon such critics mean both in content and writing style. Content, I’ve dealt with in the past few paragraphs. Plus, the critic who finds the idea of a “mad faceless god, howl[ing] blindly in th[e] darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute players” inherently campy, I’ve got no time for. As to writing style, I actually long for the creative word usage showcased by authors such as Lovecraft. These days stories are all talk. They're literally just fungoused with dialogue. And dialogue’s a bad place for creative word usage, after all. Lovecraft also purposefully avoided character and plot because they got in the way of the sense of weirdness and dread that he was striving to evoke. Now that we’ve seen firsthand through the television programs, movies, and mass literature of our current culture what an over-reliance on character and plot has done to storytelling, I’m inclined to agree. And as to evoking that sense of weirdness and dread, Lovecraft was undeniably successful at that. I always feel like I’m reading something absolutely ancient and forbidden whenever I hold one of his works, despite the copyright. Man, I love the Internet. I can just throw ideas out there and not back a single one up.
Because I do admire his work, I went to Providence years ago to find his grave and, of course, photograph it. It’s a logical following, honestly. If I like your work, I visit your grave. If you haven’t died yet, then I just wait. Dead men don’t disappoint. This is not the story of that first visit, though. But I do want to mention it briefly just to make a fool of myself. I was successful in finding Providence, I was successful in finding the correct cemetery, but I utterly failed at unearthing his grave. For a number of reasons. I visited on a day the cemetery office was closed, and I brought no map, no laptop, and only a quarter of the sense that I claim these days. In hindsight, I realize that’s no excuse for failing. I thought it was then, though, and gave up pretty easy. I eventually settled for the above picture in my hotel room overlooking Providence Harbor and wishing Cthulhu itself were raising its gloppy, cephalopodic head out of the water like the Hall of Doom in its hidden swamp back when the phrase Saturday Morning Cartoons actually meant something. It was the biggest failure of my life up to that point. I’ve topped it many times over since then.
So I’ve always had it on my mind to Quantum Leap back and fix that little mess up of God’s and mine, and when I finally got the chance, I figured I should check out other Lovecraftian locations. One other, actually, although I ended up checking out another by accident. If you want to do a full tour of Lovecraft’s Providence, you have to go, well, everywhere, from the spot where his first residence and birthplace once stood to the hospital where both his mother and father died insane to the funeral home that held his services to the library and neighborhoods that he frequented to all the places he incorporated into his stories. Like the gravestone says, Lovecraft was Providence. On this particular trip to Providence, I just didn’t have the time. But I highly recommend touring the whole city Lovecraft-style, regardless of the fact that I didn’t. It’ll give you a reason to walk around Providence. Because you don’t have one yet.
Despite what I said earlier, Lovecraft’s grave is easy to find. It’s located in Swan Point Cemetery, a large, well kept, park-like rot garden on the outskirts of the city along the banks of the Seekonk River. Maps of the cemetery abound, but none of the official ones list his grave as a point of interest. Like I said, Providence just doesn’t quite get it. The Internet does, though, so many of the online ones do show exactly where his grave is located. In case this is the only Internet site you ever visit (God bless you), I’ll tell you that his grave is located right at the intersection of Pond Avenue and Avenue B (which turns into Hemlock Avenue at some point) in the cemetery. His grave marker is boring, small, and hidden by the tall obelisk that denotes the Philips plot. The only real noticeable part of his gravestone is the inscription that I already mentioned at the beginning of this article, so I already stole my own thunder as far as that goes. If you’re going to take a picture of the grave site, be careful. The first time I went, I got called down by a cop who noticed the tripod sticking out of my backpack who said I couldn’t take shots because the cemetery was a “live cemetery.” I made up that term to amuse myself, but it encapsulates what he said. People still use the cemetery to inter loved ones, so the cemetery’s official policy is no photographs. I’m not too sure of the big deal. Their souls are all gone, so it’s not like we’re stealing them by snapping a few pics. That first trip, I just chalked it up as an added humiliation on top of not being able to find the grave. This time, though, I went on a drizzly day when no one else was in sight. But don’t let the photography policy dissuade you from visiting the cemetery. Swan Point’s one of those interesting New England cemeteries you should spend time in anyway, even if they’re too selfish about their ambience to let you photograph it.
That wrong in my life righted (7.4 million to go), the other location that I wanted to see was Lovecraft’s final place of residence. This is the house upon which he based Robert Blake’s home in his story The Haunter of the Dark. I didn’t fact check that one, so take it with suspicion. The house was originally located at 66 College Street, a spot that has since been overtaken by an expanding Brown University. I’d like to hope that Providence relocated the house out of respect for the author who finished his life there, but the fact that the only plaque on the house reads “Samuel B. Mumford House,” tells me otherwise. I could be wrong, though. Either way, the house now resides at 65 Prospect Street, close to Prospect Park, a small park that magnificently overlooks the city, has a giant statue of the founder of the state with his remains interred therein, and where Lovecraft visited frequently in his time (I've included two pictures of the park in the article, even though I spent only the one sentence on the place...I have no conception of balance). Back to the house, though, Lovecraft wrote his autobiography here, entitled Some Notes on a Nonentity (pretty much the best title of any book in the history of the world), in which he mentions the house and the “haunting vista” that can be seen from there and which can’t be anymore because they moved the house. Notes is only a pamphlet, but I’m pretty sure if most people were honest about the value of their own personal experience and insights, their autobiographies would be as short. Mine’s a sentence long, and I’ll spend my whole life editing it to a gleaming sharpness capable one day of piercing flesh.
That’s where my quest for Lovecraftia on this particular trip was supposed to end. I had to get on with all the other reasons I was in Providence, after all. Because it didn’t, though, this article keeps going. My apologies. This last little memorial I knew nothing about and was just driving randomly up and down the streets around Brown University when my LASIK-eyed girlfriend spotted it. It’s a small, humble memorial in front of the John Hay Library, where the largest collection of original Lovecraft manuscripts is kept, and right across the street from Brown University’s Carrie Tower. The memorial is a two-foot-tall, four-foot-wide stone slab with a small black plaque that quotes one of Lovecraft’s poems, the date of its dedication (August of 1990, 100 years after Lovecraft’s birth), and the relevant parties involved in the dedication. Of course, this little tribute was in no way erected through the initiative of the city of Providence itself, but by a group of ardent Lovecraft fans, including S.T. Joshi, who carved out a niche as a Lovecraft scholar before other people realized there could be a niche to carve out there. To the city’s credit, the plaque does claim to be dedicated by the city of Providence, but to me that means little. I’m sure that as long as somebody else raised the money for it and planned it and as long as the monument didn’t draw too much attention to itself, the city would rubber stamp anything.
Anyway, those are the three Lovecraftian locations that I happened to visit. If you’re looking for a more detailed travelogue of Lovecraft’s Providence, there are way better sites than this one. Heck, if you’re just looking for good sites in general, there are way better sites than this one. This is also the usual part of the article that I start regretting every bit of the article that preceded it. I mean, maybe I’m being too hard on Providence. Maybe I’m being too easy on Lovecraft. Maybe I should have visited more locations before I wrote this. Maybe I shouldn’t have just glossed over the fact that both of his parents went insane. But, then again, Lovecraft’s a favorite topic of mine, so I’m sure I’d disappoint myself with this article no matter how it came out. And that children, is what we call a “cop-out.” And I’m out.