An Act in Providence

“I Am Providence.”
– H.P. Lovecraft

Born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Howard Phillips Lovecraft spent the majority of his life – with the exception of a few miserable (and xenophobically-charged) years in Brooklyn, New York – in the city, roaming and learning its variousIMG_7018 streets and byways. When, in the mid-1920s, he was offered the position of Editor to the pulp magazine Weird Tales (in which many of his best works were published) he declined, despite sorely needing the money, because it would require him to leave his beloved Providence for Chicago. Lovecraft’s deep love for the city can be found throughout his works. It is the location of, among others, “The Shunned House,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and – most significantly – “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Of all that Lovecraft has written, however, it is the simple statement above that best captures his affection for and identification with the city of Providence. Lovecraft foes not merely love Providence – he is Providence.

Yesterday morning, I embarked on a self-guided walking tour of Lovecraft’s Providence, seeking out locations that were significant either because of their presence in Lovecraft’s literary ventures, or because of their place in his life. Having been on a Lovecraft walking tour previously, at the 2017 NecronomiCon, I had a fair idea of the places I mean to visit, but was aided in my venture by the superlative Google Maps.

My first stop was The First Baptist Church in America, an accurately-named structure about a five-minute walk from my apartment. There, a young Lovecraft avoided Sunday School, and – as legend has it – once attempted to perform a ditty called “Yes! We Have No BananasIMG_7016” on the church organ. Across the street from the Church is the colorful Fleur-de-Lys House, featured in “The Call of Cthulhu” and impossible to miss. It is allegedly haunted (according to my former tour guide), though by a spirit apparently unrelated to Lovecraft.

Lovecraft, in fact, took on the one-night-in-a-haunted-house narrative in “The Shunned House,” today a cheerful yellow edifice a couple blocks from the First Baptist Church. Typically of Lovecraft, as J.W. Ocker notes, he turns the traditional ghost narrative quite on its head – though, for those who have not read the story (admittedly not one of Lovecraft’s bIMG_7038est) I won’t spoil the ending. Built in 1764, and known officially as the John Mawney House, it boasts a garden of purple flowers and a signpost that reads “chien bizarre.” All in all, an interesting and noteworthy building – though one that, I’m told, is not altogether fond of the Lovecraft tourism it attracts – perhaps accounting for the aforementioned dog sign.

A few blocks down Benefit Street from this, however, is a treat not merely for Lovecraft fans, but for Lovecraft himself. Painted a faded red, and adjoined with a white, wooden porch, 88 Benefit Street was once the home of a woman named Sarah Helen Whitman – a poet and one-time flame of none other than Edgar Allan Poe, who often visited Whitman and immortalized her in “To Helen.” While their romance, ultimately, did not end in happily-ever-after, Whitman is acknowledged as helping preserve Poe’s posthumous legacy, and it was for her sake that he famously (and spontaneously) autographed a library text featuring a copy of his poem “Ulalume,” giving birth to one of the more charming – aIMG_7063nd, delightfully, true – legends surrounding Poe. The signature can still seen, today kept in the archives of the Providence Athenaeum.

It is behind Whitman’s house, though, that one may find the real treasure trove for fans of horror literature. 88 Benefit Street, you see, backs up into the churchyard of the Cathedral of St. John. Otherwise much like any other old, New England cemetery, St. John’s churchyard bears the footprints – unfortunately, not literally – of arguably the two most important writers of American Horror literature  (Stephen King IMG_7064notwithstanding). Both Poe and Lovecraft are said to have roamed the paths between its crooked tombstones. Poe is known to have lingered there with the aforementioned Sarah Whitman. Theirs, it seems, was a courtship that was particularly on-brand for Poe. Lovecraft, meanwhile, became aware of Poe’s presence there, and decided to follow in the footsteps of his literary predecessor.

From there, I headed to Brown University, dodging graduating students and their camera-ready families as I wandered the campus. Lovecraft, despite his early hopes, never attended Brown University. He did not, in fact, attend University at all, and did not make it past the eleventh grade, ending his high school career without having received a diploma. In his lifetime, Lovecraft never saw the success and acclaim that he would receive after his death – even Poe came closer in his lifetime. He died in poverty, at the age of forty-six. Today, Lovecraft is – if not quite a household name – a true cult icon, inspiring everything from heavy metal bands to episodes of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. Plush toys of his creations can be found on Amazon, and though his work isn’t assigned in high schools, the way that Poe’s is, it can be found on the shelves of nearly every book store in the country. In 2017, I – along with hundreds of other Lovecraft fans from around not only the United States, but the world – attended a convention created in his honor.

Lovecraft’s star is rising. It has been rising for the better part of the last century – and we all know what will happen when the stars are right…

Welcome to Providence.

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