Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born 125 years ago. Literary fame may have escaped him in life, but after his death in 1937, Lovecraft went on to influence generations. Stephen King credits the storyteller with turning him on to real horror. Mike Mignola lifted lovingly from Lovecraft’s stable of world- and sanity-devouring beasties in the early pages of Hellboy. Even True Detective, with its creepy-as-what Yellow King and Matthew McConaughey’s good ol’ boy existential philosophizing, was, to say the least, Lovecraftian.
Of course those are just the headliners. Here in the city of his birth, fans have dedicated their own lives and crafts to our single greatest literary export. Artists, scholars, fans of the highest order: through them the life and legends of H.P. Lovecraft have been preserved, not just as a literary figure of note, but as vital part of Providence’s own cultural identity.
The Keepers of Cthulhu
Niels Hobbs, Anthony Teth and Carmen Marusich have become the de facto ambassadors for Providence to the global Lovecraft community. As director and co-directors respectively of the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences Council (LASC) they brought the Necronomicon back from its decade-long dormancy back in 2013.
“One day it clicked. We’re in Lovecraft land. Why aren’t we taking more advantage of this?” says Niels, who can even trace his pursuit of a Ph.D in biology back to his love of Lovecraft and his monsters from below the sea. “I think the last straw for me was [when] there was a Lovecraft convention in Phoenix, Arizona. It was getting ridiculous.”
Lovecraft had in fact spent a good part of his life in and writing about Providence, something his local fans wear as a badge of honor.
“He’s somebody who lived here his whole life, [he] basically revolutionized this whole wing of fiction and is by some people considered the greatest imaginative writer since Poe,” adds Niels. “It’s kind of amazing.”
The original Necronomicon ran every other year through the 1990s before fizzling out in the early 2000s. When the LASC brought the convention back in the summer of 2013 they were amazed by the international response. People from all over the country and as far as Germany, Switzerland and Australia made the pilgrimage to connect with a community of likeminded fans, but also to see the city so many of Lovecraft’s stories inhabited.
“It’s kind of insane how passionate they are. It’s a fandom of people who wrap a good portion of their literary lives to it,” said Niels.
“Cosmic horror is pretty much a niche market. You have to first of all like horror, but then like the less historic ideas of the supernatural. Lovecraft went the crazy sci-fi route. It’s a nerdy level that a lot of people don’t necessarily go to,” adds Anthony. “I was amazed by how many intelligent conversations I stumbled into.”
This year’s con is bigger and more expansive, with more guests – including author and Lovecraft heir-apparent Ramsey Campbell – and events around the city like art shows, concerts and film screenings that will be open to non-convention goers. The success of the 2013 Con got the city excited about getting behind the festivities, and support from WaterFire’s Barnaby Evans has certainly helped, but for all it’s celebration, the Con is a very temporary thing. As a means of addressing the lack of a more permanent Lovecraft presence in town, Niels and Carmen opened Lovecraft Arts and Sciences in The Arcade this past July.
Billed as a “weird emporium and information bureau” the storefront will sell books and original art, as well as serve as a first stop for visitors curious about H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft Arts and Sciences, located in The Arcade. 65 Weybosset Street
In addition to the Necronomicon there’s The Providence Art Club’s Ars Necronomica, an art show that attracts Lovecraft-themed art from makers all over the world. Among them are Jason Eckhardt and Gage Prentiss, two local artists whose interpretations of Lovecraft have helped strengthen his connection to the local community outside of fandom.
Jason is an illustrator from New Bedford who has been creating Lovecraft-inspired art since his introduction to his writing when he was 13. That was four decades and many published illustrations ago.
“As if his cosmic horrors weren’t enough, the New England settings rang a bell deep in my soul,” Jason says of reading Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, for the first time. “While reading [Lovecraft] I could look out my bedroom window and see the kind of places he described. In many ways – imagination, setting, the Yankee mentality – he hit home with me.”
His most recent contribution to Lovecraft lore was, of all things, a beer can label he designed for another local cultural institution, Narragansett Beer.
“It’s been that dark side, that wacky side of ‘Gansett. We’re really proud of them,” says ‘Gansett’s BJ Mansuetti of the limited-edition Lovecraft-themed beers that started appearing on shelves earlier this year, just in time for both ‘Gansett and Lovecraft’s 125th birthday.
Jason was chosen based on his work with the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) and for ‘Gansett, remaining faithful to the Lovecraft community was key. Likewise, Jason only sees this embracing of Lovecraft at large as a good thing.
“For those of us who remember the lonely days of the ‘70s, when words like ‘Cthulhu’ would draw blank stares, the current burgeoning of interest in Lovecraft is amazing,” says Jason.
Gage Prentiss, a Providence sculptor and painter who has worked closely with both Necronomicon and the RIHS couldn’t agree more. Gage has been a sculptor most of his life and over the last few years has turned to Lovecraft for inspiration, but for him it’s not enough to just draw from Lovecraft’s stable of creatures. That means creating his own extension of Lovecraft’s lore through the “relics” he makes. For each of these artifacts, Gage creates a backstory and in his own way contributes to the ever-expanding mythos.
“I love all of the Cthulhu idols but I didn’t want to add to the pile. I wanted to make things that were different,” Gage explains.
In addition his relics, Gage’s work has helped usher in a greater appreciation of Lovecraft in the city, including the plaque marking H.P. Lovecraft Memorial Square at the corner of Angell and Prospect Streets and a proposed life-size bronze statue of the author to be installed, he hopes, downtown.
“Before the [last] Necronomicon [the city was] sticking their toe in the water, but after the success of the con they’re very excited about fostering Lovecraft,” he says. “A city isn’t just a place, it’s a culture unto itself and Lovecraft’s a part of that.” Ars Necronomica, August 11-September 4. Providence Art Club, 11 Thomas Street
“I think many of the cultural guardians of Providence regarded Lovecraft as something of an embarrassment because of the subject-matter of his work,” offers S.T. Joshi, a Brown graduate and the world’s foremost Lovecraft scholar. “Given that most of Lovecraft’s fiction appeared in the lurid pages of Weird Tales, it was easy to dismiss him as just a ‘pulp writer’ with no literary standing.”
For Joshi there was never a question about Lovecraft’s place in literary canon. As a teenager in Indiana, he made the decision to pursue serious academic study of his work. Much to the dismay of his mother, he chose Brown over Yale because of its extensive collection of Lovecraft material, including stories and letters. “What I would do to have received one of those letters!” he says.
If S.T. Joshi is the world’s foremost Lovecraft scholar, then Donovan K. Loucks is the world’s foremost Lovecraft geographer. Born and raised in Arizona, Donovan couldn’t get his brain around New England despite Lovecraft’s rich detail.
“The topography, the history and the architecture are completely different. Until I first travelled here, I couldn’t really sense what it was like.”
So he committed himself to digging deep into historical records and Lovecraft’s writing to understand the world he and his work inhabited, as well as to track down the points of interest mentioned throughout his fiction. When he retired he moved here with the purpose of continuing his research. Armed with a strong knowledge of history and architecture, Donovan has since pieced together the locations of even the most obscure buildings Lovecraft happened to mention, satisfying his own personal curiosity and keeping old, seemingly lost maps of Providence alive.
Morgan Grefe of the RIHS can appreciate that. As an historian, she’s more interested in Lovecraft as a man of his time than as a writer of weird fiction. His personal accounts and reflections of the city he spent so much of his life in inform the Lovecraft walking tours the RIHS holds annually on the anniversaries of his birth and death, and both the RIHS and Donovan will be guiding Necronomicon attendees up the man of honor’s streets and to many of his old haunts.
“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is pretty much a map of the East Side,” Morgan says. His letters to friends are as richly detailed as his fiction, allowing historians to see the city the way he had in the early part of the 20th century.
Those letters reveal more than just architecture, but a bigotry that was not unique to Lovecraft. While there are plenty of apologists who prefer to ignore this big, uncomfortable fact about him, the people like behind Necronomicon can’t imagine not addressing it.
“The worst thing we could do is try to sweep it under the rug,” Morgan says “How do we grapple with that history while still acknowledging his importance in this other field?”
That’s a question Morgan will be asking during a panel about Lovecraft and racism. For the LASC, as fans and as the organizers behind Necronomicon, addressing all aspects of Lovecraft, good, bad and ugly, is key.
They Are Providence
In a video promoting his new comic book series, Providence, Alan Moore suggested that as a culture we’ve become too comfortable with Cthulhu. While no one denied an increasingly laid back attitude towards Lovecraft’s uncaring monsters, it’s hard to really see it as a bad thing.
A vast universe of wonder and horror was born right here in our fair city. For these fans, these connoisseurs of cosmic terror, the last thing they want to do is keep it to themselves. What they want is for the world to know where he came from. NecronomiCon Providence, August 20-23. Providence Biltmore (11 Dorrance Street), Omni Hotel (1 W. Exchange Street) and various locations in Providence.