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. 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. But, no, not a single statue, bust, or “Lovecraft lived here” plaque marks Lovecraft’s place in Providence history.
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.
But Lovecraft got out of the city here and there to explore a bit, hitting many points along the East Coast and making it all the way down to Florida. Nevertheless, despite the seemingly bland texture of most 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, especially if you allow his ideas to fester a bit in your mind. 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. 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. It's true. Honestly, though, 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” merely campy, pulpy, and hyperbolic, I don't have a lot of time for.
As to his storytelling abilities (or deficiencies, as some might term them), Lovecraft seemed to avoid character and plot because they got in the way of the sense of weirdness and dread that he was striving to evoke. I always feel like I’m reading something absolutely ancient and forbidden whenever I hold one of his works, despite the copyright.
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 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 didn’t have the time. But I highly recommend touring the whole city Lovecraft-style. I ended up doing four sites pretty easily, starting with the most important.
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 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). 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 guard who noticed the tripod sticking out of my backpack. He 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.
This time, though, I went on a drizzly day when no one else was in sight and was able to capture whatever remains of his soul in my camera. Swan Point in general is one of those interesting New England cemeteries worth spending time in anyway, even if they’re too selfish about their ambiance to let you photograph it.
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 think 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. Either way, the house now resides at 65 Prospect Street, close to Prospect Park, a small park with a magnificent view of the city. It also has a giant, awkward statue of the city's founder with his remains interred therein. Lovecraft visited the park frequently.
Back to the house, though, Lovecraft wrote his pamphlet of an autobiography here, entitled Some Notes on a Nonentity (pretty much the best title of any book in the history of the world). In it, 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.
That’s where my quest for Lovecraftia on this particular trip was supposed to end. 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.
Anyway, those are the four 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.