I moved to New England officially in the late summer of 2011. Before that I had lived a fairly vagabond existence between West Virginia, New Hampshire, Illinois and Texas. The decision to finally settle in Vermont was, on the surface, based upon simple economics — i.e. I not only was accepted to graduate school, but the university made the puzzling decision to pay me to teach their undergraduate students for two years. It was an uncomfortable arrangement (grad school, with its endemic poverty and fostering of self-doubt, should never be comfortable) that had seven-year-old roots.
It was in 2004 in the small town of Amherst, New Hampshire that I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft. One could not have asked for a better time, for during my very first trip to New England, I got the chance to visit the same locations that populate Lovecraft’s fiction. Then, after revisiting Lovecraft’s oeuvre in preparation for a family trip to Rhode Island in 2010, I made the decision to apply to the University of Vermont based solely on the fact that Henry Akeley, the owner of an isolated farmhouse in Townshend, Vermont in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” was a fictional alumnus. Everything else just sort of fell into line after that.
Although the Commonwealth of Massachusetts appears most often in Lovecraft’s fiction, his true love was his own home state of Rhode Island. In particular, Providence, the state capital and Lovecraft’s hometown, holds a special place in the author’s fiction and his personal letters. Referred to as “the ancient city” in “The Shunned House” — a posthumously published haunted house story which not only describes an actual house on Benefit Street that was more than once visited by Edgar Allan Poe, but also details the real-life Rhode Island “vampire” case of Mercy Brown — Lovecraft considered Providence so integral that he declared to his aunt Lillian D. Clark that:
My life lies not among people but among scenes — my local affections are not personal, but topographical and architectural. No one in Providence — family aside — has any especial bond of interest with me. … The question is that of which roofs and chimneys and doorways and trees and street vistas I love the best; which hills and woods, which roads and meadows, which farmhouses and views of distant white steeples in green valleys.
While other writers might claim that it’s the people who make places special, Lovecraft, a legendary perambulator who was fond of seeking out the oldest sections of cities, claimed to have felt intrinsically attached to the physical as well as the imagined properties of New England. In this way, Lovecraft was a bit of an impressionist when it came to Providence and his other favorite spots in New England, and few stories articulate this better than Lovecraft’s longest work of fiction, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
A small novel about the vengeful spirit of an 18th century warlock consuming the body, mind and spirit of a 20th century student of the occult, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is Lovecraft’s love letter not only to the history of Rhode Island, but also to what he called a “magnificent old mansion” in yet another letter to his aunt. The mansion, which sits at 140 Prospect Street, was built in 1801 and is still named after its builder, Colonel Thomas Halsey. Serving as the Ward residence, the Halsey House of Providence looks very much like the type of Gothic abode one would expect to see appear in a horror story. Better yet, the Halsey House is reputed to be haunted — a claim that the very skeptical Lovecraft discounted.
As much as Lovecraft took to the antiquarian delights of Providence, Boston and even New York, he despaired over what he considered to be the legal destruction of these very same cities. A man and a writer who is constantly and justifiably called out for being a racist and bigot, Lovecraft considered the flood of Southern European, Asian and other immigrant groups who came to the United States during the late 19th century and early 20th a ravaging plague and curse upon all dreamers such as himself. In story after story, Lovecraft describes these new arrivals as inherently antagonistic to what he considered the Anglo-Saxon heritage of America and small-town New England. In “The Street,” a little read story written during the height of the First Red Scare in 1919, Lovecraft traces the history of a street in an old New England city (presumably Boston) from its earliest colonial days until World War I. With each passing decade, the street grows more foreign and more hostile to the older, more English ways of its original inhabitants. Finally, after communist terrorists draw up designs for the takeover of the United States in the very same houses which used to be owned by humble Yankee merchants, the street can no longer take it and decides to commit suicide by collapsing all of its houses at once with the terrorists still inside.
During Lovecraft’s two-year exile in New York City, his loathing of immigrants only increased, and the apotheosis of this hate is the 1926 short story "He." Told by a narrator that is more or less a thinly veiled version of Lovecraft himself, “He” presents a hellish vision of the future of New York, one which combines the terrifying hordes of Lovecraft’s own demonology with his racism, in particular his abhorrence of East Asians:
For full three seconds I could glimpse that pandaemoniac sight, and in those seconds I saw a vista which will ever afterward torment me in dreams. I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aerial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, the clatter of obscene crotala and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.
While New York and its multi-ethnic population seem like obvious fodder for Lovecraft’s pessimism, his beloved Providence was not immune either. In one of his last stories, 1936’s “The Haunter of the Dark,” Lovecraft morosely paints a picture of his hometown that is not too far off from his vitriolic depictions of New York:
Plodding through the endless downtown streets and the bleak, decayed squares beyond, he came finally upon the ascending avenue of century-worn steps, sagging Doric porches and blear-paned cupolas which he felt must lead up to the long-known, unreachable world beyond the mists. There were dingy blue-and-white street signs which meant nothing to him, and presently he noted the strange, dark faces of the drifting crowds and the foreign signs over curious shops in brown, decade-weathered buildings.
In “The Haunter of the Dark,” Italians and Italian Americans take the brunt of Lovecraft’s wrath, but in truth the changing face of Providence was really his target. By the 1920s and 1930s, Providence was an economically depressed city with a population largely derived from places such as Italy, Lithuania, Poland and French Canada. This was a far cry from the sleepy New England city of Lovecraft’s childhood, and this undoubtedly depressed the usually dour Lovecraft during his final days.
In an odd twist, Providence, a city that once knew Lovecraft about as well as any other (that is to say not very well), has wholeheartedly embraced its most famous son ever since interest in Lovecraft and his work increased over the years. There are now Lovecraft-themed walking tours, and Brown University, a place the author associated with his life-long shame over never having graduated high school, currently holds one of the world’s most extensive collections of Lovecraft’s books, manuscripts and letters. Things, in a way, have come full circle. Lovecraft, who once found inspiration in the twisting byways and long neglected vistas of Providence and New England at large, is now inspiring new generations of dreamers drawn to the New England of his imagination. Some of these dreamers no doubt define New England through the prism of Lovecraft’s fiction — and some even make the rash decision to move 800 miles north just because of some brain-in-a-jar yarn.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
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