I Am Providence, And I Am Weird

I moved to Providence eight years ago, and unfortunately I still know nothing about or nor have read anything written by one of this city’s cultural icons, HP Lovecraft, the weird fiction …

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I moved to Providence eight years ago, and unfortunately I still know nothing about or nor have read anything written by one of this city’s cultural icons, HP Lovecraft, the weird fiction author. His works and his life are inextricably linked to Providence, in that they were all mainly set here amongst its colonial, Georgian and Victorian buildings, its ancient, winding streets and roads, and in its rich, checkered history. And so it was on a recent sultry August evening that I found myself at the First Baptist Church, on North Main, to attend the opening reception of NecronomiCon 2013, the three-day Lovecraft lovefest, for the purpose of learning something about the man and the people who love him and his work.

The ancient building, its doors and windows flung open to let in the summer air, was nearly full when I took my seat in pew 115, near the rear of the main hall. The air inside was hot, compelling many in the crowd to busily fan themselves with random bits of paper. To a teleported visitor, it would have seemed to be a scene from a sweltering Sunday morning service at a church somewhere in the scorched South were it not for the rush hour traffic, visible and heard through the windows, that clogged the surrounding streets.

But this assembly, an eclectic lot, including Goths, gay men, and what appeared to be a preponderance of spinsters, set to our incongruously grim task: celebrating the ghouls, goblins and monsters of Lovecraft’s dreams.

The crowd, murmuring excitedly, was suddenly silenced by the blast of the first notes of Bach’s famously creepy Toccato et Fug in Minor D. The notes, which immediately filled the cavernous main hall, emanated from an unseen organ, perched apparently on the rear mezzanine, beyond my view but within the view of those in front of me, many of whom had craned their heads to gaze upon this surprise. The assembled wore grins, in contradiction, I suppose, to the song and to funereal garb many sported.

At length, the notes ceased and the rapt audience erupted in thunderous applause. The applause grew suddenly, so I looked up and caught sight of the heretofore unseen player, a short woman, which I half expected to be a subhuman ghoul of sorts, now taking a bow in an appropriately dire outfit best characterized as circa 19th century mourning garb.

A man in black, Barnaby Evans, the man behind WaterFire and tonight’s MC, ascended the tall pulpit at the front of the main hall and announced in his best theatre voice, “Welcome to Providence,” the theatricality of which was a bit compromised by the squawk and birp from the microphone. Evans, bearded and bespectacled, ran through some introductory remarks, and then introduced Director of Arts, Culture + Tourism Lynne McCormack, who by her own admittance had little to say: “I really don’t have much to say," she said, “but I hope this city wows you and that it is the city of your dreams.”

Then came Stan Lemons, the church historian, who explained that Lovecraft hated the church as an institution but loved the building. He would visit the building often and use it in many of his stories as a setting. According to what Lemon called urban legend, Lovecraft, a devout atheist, was booted from the church’s Sunday school at the tender age of five.

Then came the meat and potatoes of the night: S.T. Joshi, the preeminent Lovecraft scholar, who was met with a riotous applause. He summarized the history of Lovecraft’s legacy after his death on the Ides of March 1937. Friends came to the rescue, he explained. One friend, upon learning of Lovecraft’s death, hopped a bus from Kansas and collected, organized and then promptly donated the author’s papers to Brown’s John Hay Library, establishing what would become a bastion for the academic pursuit of the author. Another friend set up Arkham House, a publishing outfit whose sole purpose was publishing Lovecraft’s books.

But it was an uphill battle. Horror fiction hadn’t hit its stride yet. Edmund Wilson, the literary critic, summed up the conventional wisdom on Lovecraft when he wrote, in a 1945 issue of The New Yorker, a scathing critique of the Providence author, deeming the poor guy a “hack”.

The salvation of Lovecraft’s legacy came in the sixties, with the arrival of The Exorcist and soon after, in the early seventies, Stephen King. Horror fiction, as it were, had arrived. It was all uphill from here. The '70s saw an explosion of Lovecraft scholars (including Joshi), conventions and conferences celebrating the author. Horror fiction took root. Brown hosted in 1990 the Centennial Lovecraft Convention, and, in 1996, Joyce Carol Oates, writing in the New York Book Review, called Lovecraft “the king of weird fiction.” In 2005, Penguin Classics published Lovecraft’s works, the “ultimate canonization”, according to Joshi. The long dead author had arrived and his legacy would live through the ages.

In concluding, Joshi remarked, “Lovecraft belongs to the world, but he is uniquely Rhode Island. Providence was his home, his sanctuary. His tombstone, at Swan Point Cemetery, not far from here, reads: 'I am Providence.'” He goes on: “But it is fitting that we’ve come from the four corners of the earth to celebrate his legacy, and I happen to believe that he would be pleased.”

The crowd again erupts and Evans again takes the pulpit and underlines Joshi’s point about the four corners of the Earth bit. He points to a man in the crowd and says that he and his wife have come from Australia. Indeed, after the proceedings, while the assembled filed out of the church, several languages could be heard, including German, French, Italian and others.

Before calling it quits, Evans had a surprise. “You know, this is a Baptist Church, but I’ve never seen the baptismal tank, never known where it was. Do you know where it is?”

“Well,” he went on, “here it is.” He turned and opened a set of shutters behind him and revealed an ante room, the resting place of the baptismal tank. And that was that.

He invited us to walk across the street to the Providence Art Club to enjoy a Lovecraftian art exhibition, a primary component of which were renderings, in ink and in sculpture, of the Cthulhu, a famous Lovecraft creature, and other assorted creatures from the author’s books. Goths, clad in black and exhibiting signs of Vitamin D deficiency, milled about, clutching small plates piled high with hors d'oeuvres. I made a few laps around the gallery while silently ruminating on that epitaph: I am Providence. I finally took my leave, stepping out into the cooling night air. A stream of people emanated from the gallery and seemingly dissolved into the city.

I wandered down Benefit Street, now growing dark. This city, I thought, is truly a city of contrasts and of labyrinth-like complexities and contradictions – a city that, purely by the intent and position of its founder, an exile, is naturally rendered special.

And by special, I mean weird – a characteristic not to be shunned but to be embraced. Many cities aspire to be weird. You’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Keep Austin Weird.” Well, Providence achieves weird breathtakingly effortlessly. It would seem that the epitaph could just as easily be changed to “I am Weird,” and somehow not an ounce of meaning would be lost, because it would be impossible to imagine that the “king of weird fiction” and Providence aren’t inextricably linked by the weird genius of this place we lucky souls call home.