'MY WORLD IS PROVIDENCE' HPL in 1930.
If you live in Rhode Island in 2013, it is increasingly inexcusable not to know H.P. Lovecraft.
We don’t mean “know” Howard Phillips Lovecraft, personally; the man The New York Review of Books once dubbed “The King of Weird” has been dead 76 years.
And we’re not even suggesting you have to be a fan of the author, whose stories can lead readers into dank, fetid, underground spaces or the depths of madness, and often feature slimy, murderous aliens, sea creatures, and/or reanimated corpses. Some people will simply never slap a “CTHULHU IS MY HOMEBOY!” bumper sticker on their Chevy.
But to be unfamiliar with the “Old Gentleman of Providence,” whose words echo in cinemas and libraries all over the world — and whose fictional monsters, rest assured, are being passionately discussed on social media at this very second — is to ignore an ever-expanding piece of our state’s cultural significance. If local high school teachers haven’t included “The Shunned House” on their syllabi by now, then perhaps we should convince the DMV to add questions about R’lyeh and Azathoth to the written test at the end of driver’s ed.
There are many reasons for our adamancy on this issue, but, for now, we’ll point to just three.
First is the fact that, in the years since his 1937 death from intestinal cancer, Lovecraft has ascended to superstardom. The man whose work appeared only in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Astounding Stories in his lifetime has now been canonized in the Library of America alongside Abraham Lincoln, Jack London, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His works have been translated into nearly 30 languages, including Japanese, Polish, and French. The Lovecraft merchandising industry – from shot glasses to key chains to Cthulhu ski masks and “Arkham Sanitarium” white lab coats — seems to expand by the hour. And, nowadays, Lovecraft counts among his fans Metallica, Stephen King, and the 2013 blockbuster, Pacific Rim’s, director Guillermo Del Toro, who told The New Yorker in 2011 that an adaptation Lovecraft’s novella The Mountains of Madness was the film he most desperately dreams of making.
A second fact worth noting is that, perhaps more than any other American author, Lovecraft is inextricably tied to his hometown. The man strayed from Rhode Island a few times on sightseeing adventures and a brief, ill-fated marriage in New York. But mostly, he lived here and he loved it here. Again and again, he describes the city in his work. There, in his poem “Providence” are “centuried domes of shining gold” and “A rotting wharf where gambrel roofs/Keep watch above the sea.” There, in his novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is a character whose “head swam curiously as the vehicle rolled down the terminal behind the Biltmore, bringing into view the great dome and soft, roof-pierced greenery of the ancient hill across the river, and the tall colonial spire of the First Baptist Church limned pink in the magic evening light.”
A letter the author wrote upon his return in 1926 stands as perhaps the most passionate homage to the city ever written. As the train nears its destination, Lovecraft breathlessly ticks off its progress — “a hissing of air brakes – a slackening of speed – surges of ecstasy and dropping clouds from my eyes and mind — HOME — UNION STATION — PROVIDENCE!!!!” — before announcing, when he finally stands on the “holy ground” of his birthplace, that “there is no other place for me. My world is Providence.” He goes on like this for pages.
Finally, and most urgently, is fact that, this upcoming weekend, more than a thousand of Lovecraft’s most obsessive fans will descend on Providence for NecronomiCon, a reboot of a bygone, smaller conference in his honor that was held in Danvers, Massachusetts and Providence. It is these fans — and, if we can briefly be a tad cynical, their wallets; the Providence Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates they’ll bring more than $600,000 in direct spending — who provide the strongest reminder of how Providence is the undisputed center of the Lovecraft Universe.
Traveling to NecronomiCon will be people like the Washington state-based writer and filmmaker, Jason Brock, who says “Providence is to Lovecraft aficionados as Mecca and Medina are to the faithful of Islam . . . it looms large in their mental landscape.”
It’s people like Mallory O’Meara, a veterinary technician from Newburyport, Mass., who tell us that she and her boyfriend are “absolutely in love” with Providence and they “would have never visited if it wasn’t for Lovecraft.” They’re trying to move here, she says.
It’s people like Sean Branney, founder of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (the Facebook group with more than 7500 members) who is traveling with a contingent of fellow fans from Southern California. At his organization’s website, cthulhulives.org, visitors can download vintage replica Providence postcards featuring Brown University’’s Van Wickle Gates and City Hall. “He might have sent notes on postcards just like these!” the page reads.
Also hopping on a plane to Rhody is Wilum H. Pugmire, poet laureate of NecronomiCon, who wrote us a gushing email from Seattle about what the “Genius of Providence” means to him. When he visited Providence in 2007, he says, he walked the streets from College Hill to Federal Hill with a diary in hand, scratching impressions as he went. Some of those notes turn up his latest book, Bohemians of Sesqua Valley, which he’ll be reading from at NecronomiCon.
As for this upcoming trip, “I think that I shall be so inspired by the city when I visit . . . that I’ll be able to write an entire book of horror stories set therein,” he says. “In dark of night, I shall attempt to venture out for solitary midnight strolls through areas near to the Biltmore, stalking beside the river and contemplating the things that swim and crawl beneath the water.”
Fellow Rhode Islanders: when Wilum Pugmire & Co. arrive in our capital city, let’s greet them not with confused stares, but with a cosmic, slimy, multi-tentacled, madness-inflected hospitality that would make Lovecraft proud.