“From the Light into the Darkness”: Who’s ready for a campus tour?
H.P. Lovecraft: He should be as October as Pumpkin Spice Oreos and sexy-Wednesday Addams costumes. In a way he is. His most famous creation, the monstrous cosmic entity Cthulhu, has its own video game and merchandise line, even a campaign for President (sample slogans: “No Lives Matter” and “Why Settle for the Lesser Evil”). But Lovecraft himself has a harder time gaining traction. His influential horror tales are encased in baroque prose that is a hard sell nowadays (many head straight for “Call of Cthulhu” on their PlayStations instead) and his latent xenophobia is a very bad look in our Woke age.
But in the details of his adjective-rich and dread-filled stories written by this baleful bard of Providence, as well as in aspects of his generally somber life, are a whole host of fab facts, fun ideas and teachable moments that just may raise your Halloween to a new level.
Bust of Lovercraft, Providence Atheneaum
No Dunwich, No Horror
Was Howard Philips Lovercraft the first alt-tourist? True, he didn’t travel very broadly, though by the time he died in 1937 (at age 46), he had made it as far south as Key West and as far north as Quebec City. He regretted that he never made it over to Europe. But when it came to granular, near-home expeditions, he was top notch.
In 1928 Lovecraft toured north-central Massachusetts, visiting a few friends and, as was his wont, wandering around a bit. He was forever inspecting local landmarks, taking stock of fading architectural remnants of earlier eras and conjuring up what hidden horrors may lie beneath the surface of topographical features. All of this would be grist for the mill in the tales he would publish in Weird Tales magazine and which would be anthologized beyond his wildest imaginings after his passing. Over-arching existential terrors don’t happen without a setting and whatever Lovecraft saw in that relatively non-descript region was configured into the opening three paragraphs of “The Dunwich Horror” which would end up being one of his most enduring tales. A tour-de-force of fictional scene-setting, Lovecraft tells of what you will encounter should you ever make a wrong turn on the Aylesbury Pike.
As you walk up this forbidding country road, in the blessed age before GPS, the bordering stone walls seem to inch closer together the more you walk up it. The trees seem abnormally large and “the wild weeds, brambles and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions.” The scattered houses have a uniform appearance of “squalor and dilapidation” and the “gnarled, solitary” figures seen on crumbling doorsteps are best avoided. So you push on without directions, crossing unstable bridges over ravines of “problematical depths,” thru the mostly-abandoned village with its “malign odor” and past the unnaturally-smooth, domed hills topped by tall stone pillars. I don’t doubt Lovecraft when he says the wayward traveler is relieved when the Dunwich road eventually reconnects with the Aylesbury pike.
But let’s face it: curiosity has already got the better of you, am I right? That’s why the reader reads on, to find just what sort of cataclysmic event turned this once respectable New England town into a repellent ruin. I am here to say, what is good for books, is good for life. In this age of urban explorer websites and legal weed, it’s easier than ever to have an adventure off the beaten path (while there are still some that are unbeaten). You just may come away a more enlightened person, if the monster doesn’t get you first.
This book is a good a place to start as any.
Dreams in the Witch House, With 20,000 of Your Closest Friends
Closer to the subject at hand, consider my hometown of Salem, Mass. The roads into town are all blocked up on weekends in October as about 20,000 people crowd on the average Oct. weekend day (don’t even ask about the actual Halloween night) and its costumed crush of humanity. If you’re in you’re in, if you’re an amateur stay clear. Of course, the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 had more to do with the persecution (and in 19 cases, execution) of innocents caught up in a puritanical hysteria of superstition, misogyny and straight-up land grabbing than hook-nosed crones on broomsticks. To be fair to the city, the teachable moment in regard to universal intolerance has been more emphasized in recent years, but there is still money to be chased. The message is sure to be lost on many of the cosplayers and ghouls-for-a-night who discard their fried dough wrappers in the Colonial graveyard adjacent to the food fair and funhouses.
The Witch House in Salem, before they learned how to properly monetize it.
Naturally, Lovecraft was drawn to the Witch City for inspiration, changing the name of Salem to Arkham for his fictional purposes. If your averse to long lines and clueless revelers you may want to wait for a moody, overcast day November to have your own “Dreams in the Witch House.” The historic Crowninshield House was a setting for the gooey and grim “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The Crowninshield is located in an enclave of historic buildings off of Essex Street near the Salem Common. While rich in atmosphere, you can just as easily wander around the Federalist neighborhoods centered around Chestnut St. to soak up some mysterious vibes of long-gone days. The brick sidewalks here are often quite narrow and first-floor windows are sometimes at shoulder level, giving the nocturnal stroller an even chance at catching a glimpse of once aristocratic families fallen on hard times—a favorite jumping-off point for Lovecraft stories.
Cthulhu Origin Story: From the Deepest Darkest Cosmos to 7 Thomas Street
H.P. was himself to the Victorian manor born in 1890. Though his family lineage could be traced back almost to the Mayflower, by the time Howard Philips came around the clan’s star was pretty faded. Both of Lovecraft’s parents spent time in the psychiatric wards at Butler Hospital on the outskirts. Their son was not the most hale and hearty of children, but he did find intellectual nourishment in his grandfather’s attic library at the family manse at 454 Angell Street. The boy was also beset with fantastical nightmares of huge demoniacal beasts and far-off galaxies.
The Fleur-de-lys Studios, part of the Providence Arts Association.
Providence, with its sharp inclines, tightly-packed Colonial districts, eccentric landmarks and moody waterways, provided plenty of great settings for Lovecraft’s later tales of creeping existential dread and imminent monster hegemony. “The Call of Cthulhu” marked the first literary appearance of HP’s big fella, the strange sculpted subject of an unstable artist housed in the colorful and flamboyant Fleur-de-lys Studios on Thomas St. in the College Hill area near Brown (oops, I mean Miskatonic) University. Lovecraft was one of the first authors to divest himself of man’s general anthropocentric notions, that the human race is the central feature of the universe. The overriding futility of this concept plays well into the man’s general xenophobia as well as to his main character’s tendency to succumb to madness. The inscription on Lovecraft’s grave marker, he is buried towards the back of Swan Point Cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Seekonk River, reads “I AM PROVIDENCE.” This has got to be a reference strictly to his hometown, because the defitional meaning (that God is looking out for you) couldn’t have been farther from the author’s way of thinking.
Relevant sites in Providence are many so a good place to get your bearing when in Rhode Island’s capital city is at the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences store inside the Providence Arcade at 65 Weybosset St. downtown. Open daily. Find out more at http://necronomicon-providence.com/store/
Lovecraft’s allusive prose has inspired artists of all types, from painters and illustrators, to musicians, filmmakers and other writers. One of the most famous examples is the adaptation of his Arkham Asylum into the Batman universe. This artist has appropriated the hand-colored style of vintage postcards to offer us this fictional view.
Many genre writers carried on the informal Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, these included Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber and “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard. This trend was likely a boon for various pulp fantasy digests and helped cement the iconic status that Lovecraft, who died as a marginal scribe, enjoys to this day, albeit from beyond the grave. One of my favorite newer entries in the Lovecraft-inspired literary continuum is the 5-part comic book series “Innsmouth” by Massachsetts-based cartoonist-writer Megan James.
James’ greatest source of success is the recognition of the rich vein of humor lying just below the surface of Lovecraft’s writing. If anyone was primed for affectionate parody it’s this guy with his purple prose, his decrepit towns plagued with cosmic inter-breeding and his ready-to-crack narrators. She takes as her locale the shunned village of the title, that dread municipality of “blasphemous abnormality” (HP’s phrase) half-populated by half-fish people in league with the Deep Ones. In his 1931 story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the intrepid (i.e. foolhardy) narrator boards a bus of “extreme decrepitude” in Newburyport, Mass. to the mystery town. Drawn to the town for reasons that only became clear at the end, he is chased out (in one of Lovecraft’s few action scenes) but not before seeing enough blasphemies to tip off Federal agents, who soon burn down half the town.
In James’ contemporary tale, enough of the town (and its cult-like citizenry) has survived to get up to their old shenanigans: that is, enabling sea monsters by identifying “the tear in Eldritch time” that will allow the beasts to end the world as we know it, not knowing (or even caring much) that this apocalypse could include them. (At the Church of the Esoteric Order of Innsmouth, one parishioner objects to the scheduling of End Times because it conflicts with the Potluck Dinner). James is quite in tune to this notion and her lively (if oft misguided) characters and richly-colored settings keep her story–and her message–moving along. When Randolph Higgle, a lowly door-to-door Pocket Necronomicon peddler, becomes the chosen one when claimed by the local eyeball-intensive Shoggoth, conscience leads him to befriend the Miskatonic U. employee guarding the unabridged grimoire. This young woman in a headscarf, a direct descendant of the “Mad Arab” Alhazred, is the kind of canny character that just might help the hapless Higgle save the world from itself. Brilliant stuff from Megan James, let’s hope we see lots more of her work in the future, whether Lovecraft-related or not.
The Gentleman Wants to Walk.. A Lot
Although a fair amount is known about Lovecraft in a standard biographical way, he wrote many letters and had numerous professional contacts, it’s always been a bit harder to get the inside personal scoop on the odd, semi-reclusive writer. A great way for fans to get that closer look is check out “The Gentleman from Angell Street” from Fenham Publishing. Fenham is the passion project of Jim Dyer, the grandson of Muriel and C.M. Eddy, Jr. The couple were writers and Providence residents who befriended Lovecraft and were possibly his only regular contacts in town, besides his two aunts who he lived with after his mother passed.
The Eddys were in written communication with Lovecraft for a long time before finally meeting him (Howard eschewed the use of modern devices like the telephone and typewriter). When Lovecraft did agree to meet them, he hoofed it three miles across town in nearly 100 degree heat, dressed in suit and tie and straw hat, yet his handshake was cold and he didn’t appear to be sweating. A peculiar man, yes, but he also turned out to be a very cordial one. Eager to discuss writing and to help others do the same, he was quickly found out to have quite the sweet tooth and to have an affinity or cats (although the couple move to change the subject when their new friend tells how his black feline, called Nigger Man, got lost).
“The Gentleman from Angell Street” consists of Muriel Eddy’s lucid title essay about she and her husband’s long-standing friendship and some of her related poems inspired by same. C.M. Eddy’s main piece here is about the many long walks he took with, many of them nocturnal. (Fenham has also re-printed several volumes of C.M.’s short fiction, he also was a “Weird Tales contributor). Destinations included the aptly-named Poe Street, a dark and distressed corner of town that must have fired Lovecraft’s imagination. They also took a trolley to outlying Chepachet to try and find the Dark Swamp of local legend. Although they didn’t find it, Lovecraft pointed out that a “walk was never wasted.” Good thinking, get out there and make your own adventure! For more, see fenhampublishing.com
Great piece of writing Rick. You capture the Lovecraft atmosphere perfectly.
Thanks, Stan! Much appreciated.