Tag Archives: Providence

Home of Cthulhu

Travel by train seems to be so much more civilized than flying. You don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance for the privilege of standing in long lines to be practically strip-searched. You just hop on the train and find a seat. The wifi is free and you don’t have to set your phone on “train mode.” Amtrak isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s not bad. When I’m flying I often wonder where I am. I guess at each large town we fly over, although some natural features can’t be mistaken from the air. The Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, and even Niagara Falls are all pretty obvious. The names of many towns, however, remains unknown from above. On the way from New York City to Boston, each stop is announced, small towns and large. I noted that one of the later latter was Providence.

Providence is, of course, many things to many people. To me it will always be the home of Cthulhu. Yes, I know that Brown University and Providence College are both located there, but higher education doesn’t seem to have a room for me, so I revel in the imagined monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. You can’t help but experience a bit of Lovecraft’s New England on the train. Skirting not far inland, the tracks take you through swampy lowlands with grand houses and dilapidated hovels overlooking them. Miskatonic University, as is widely known, is based on Brown, which Lovecraft never attended. He was a writer keenly aware of place. These tracks take me through the world of his murky water gods on the way to Boston.

The train station in Providence turns out to be subterranean. Well, not really, but it is under the street level with no noticeable distinguishing features. Lots and lots of graffiti cover every concrete surface along the tracks coming into the city. It’s hard to tell from the train, but none seem to make reference to Cthulhu. I thought of Lovecraft’s gravestone with it’s famous epitaph, “I am Providence.” Idling in the shadowy station, unable to see anything of the enjoyable town I recall from my few visits here, it’s easy to suppose that this might be Cthulhu’s home after all. Caught somewhere between civilization and the sea, in the half-light of a late autumn day, buried under what we think is somehow progress, I think perhaps Lovecraft was right. Cthulhu may be dead, but he is dreaming still.

Lovecraft Legacies

Although long fascinated by popular culture, I’ve not really been part of any fandom. I suppose this is because my interests tend to be quite broad, and finding one piece of pop culture over which to obsess is difficult. I might miss something somewhere else! While not really a “fan” of H. P. Lovecraft, I’ve read much of his writing and I’m amazed at how pervasive his cultural influence has been and continues to be. W. Scott Poole, who’s taken us into realms historians often shun, has done a great service to those interested in Providence’s most famous son. In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft is a thoughtful, honest, and in-depth consideration of both the man and his fiction. The basics of Lovecraft’s life are easily accessed, but the probing questions Poole puts to the evidence are thought-provoking and, in many respects, revelatory.

Perhaps the largest Lovecraft demon that Poole tackles is H. P.’s racism. There’s no secret about this, but fans often find ways of excusing it or explaining it away as being a product of his time. Those of us who write can understand that Lovecraft didn’t get out much. When he did get out he preferred it to be among people like himself. (Male, white, and gentrified.) It’s difficult to say what the origins of prejudice are, beyond the natural tendency to fear those who are different. Still, intelligent people can generally figure out that such biases are based on lack of experience or willingness to learn about other cultures. There are many, many cultures in the world and it’s often hard to think that yours isn’t the best. A large part of today’s political turmoil is based on this very thing.

An added benefit to reading Poole’s book was the realization that although Lovecraft really didn’t travel much (he didn’t live very long either, and the two are at least partially related) he did at one time visit the small town in New Jersey where I live. That came as a bit of a surprise. The last time I visited Providence, there wasn’t much in the way of signage or plaques to mark where Lovecraft had left his stamp. That may have changed in recent years as his literary star has continued to ascend. Still, to find out that he’d passed this way once upon a time was a nice little bonus in the investigation into who this man was. There’s a lot more to dig out of Poole’s book, and fan or not, if you’re interested in Lovecraft this is a must read.

Gothic Religion

Every great once in a while, you run across a book that seems to have been written just for you. I’m cheap enough to wait for most books to be issued in paperback (and storage is getting to be an issue in our cozy apartment), but sometimes the urgency is too great and I can’t resist. In Providence a few weeks ago, I visited the university bookstore—one of my favorite places in town. On the new arrival table was Victoria Nelson’s Gothicka. For what seemed inexplicable reasons, I always found Gothic tales among my favorite growing up. Poe was a standard, but he was accompanied by other stories that elicited the same cocktail of sensations, accompanying a dark and mysterious atmosphere with a suggestion of menace. Transfixed by even the mere presence of this book, I knew I was in the power of a force to which I would eventually succumb. And, unexpectedly, the book helped to explain part of my childhood.

Not every book I read has to do with religion. Far from it. I expected Nelson to discuss literature and movies and culture—all of which she does—but not necessarily religion. The first three chapters proved a revelation in that regard. Nelson deftly explains how Gothic largely overlaps with the characteristics of religion, bringing the supernatural into human lives and insisting that we tremble before it. Perhaps best explained by pastor Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy; the transcendent is something that terrifies as well as compels. In a culture where organized religion appears to be losing ground, Gothic offer the opportunity to tremble before the supernatural, and many people find it almost a religious experience. As becomes clear, the “almost” may appropriately be dropped.

Tracing the trajectory of my own reading interests, Nelson next provides an insightful chapter on H. P. Lovecraft. In many ways the initiator of worship of the dark divine, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and kith and kin represent an undisguised secularization of deity. At the same time, the trembling is still very much present—indeed, it is a native part of the experience. Lovecraft, who was an atheist, understood the literary utility of gods. They frightened and haunted him with their very non-existence. That is power. Gothic acknowledges and embraces that power while never relinquishing its darkness. Nelson’s Gothicka holds the potential of a journey of self-discovery. As she ranges deeper and deeper into that world, the reader discovers just how much it is part of being human in a world tormented by fallen gods.

Ebenezer

Providence has been on my mind lately. Most obviously, traveling to Providence for my niece’s graduation from Brown brought the city back to mind.  A book I’ve been reading has been referencing H. P. Lovecraft, a person readily associated with Providence as well.  And who can forget the Baptists?  While in Providence we visited First Baptist Church, widely considered to be the actual first Baptist church in America.  Portions of the commencement ceremony are held here, but between times it was open for the curious.  I guess I qualify.

Baptists are a widely diverse group.  In the United States they are often guilty by association with the shenanigans of the Southern Baptist Convention, and given the numeric force of the Baptist Church that can appear a little intimidating.  Nevertheless, Baptists were (and generally are) great defenders of religious tolerance.  Their own non-hierarchical tradition allows considerable freedom within the denomination itself.  Houses of worship (originally meeting houses, not churches) were plain and devoid of symbolism.  That is still a hallmark of most Baptists today.  Inside First Baptist, I was surprised to see a symbol.  A chunk of rock, an Ebenezer, rested on the table at the back of the meeting house.  The origin of a “stone of help” (an adequate translation of “ebenezer’) is certainly biblical-the reference goes back to the story of Israelite victory over the Philistines in 1 Samuel 7.  Samuel is reputed to have set up the stone as a memorial of the unanticipated victory.  After that story, the stone never reappears in the Bible.

The Baptists have always been concerned with idolatry. They do make a point that some Christian traditions rely very heavily on trappings to get the message across.  They are also correct in that early Christianity was a much simpler faith than the densely layered, extremely complex, imperfectly blended varieties of religion that today claim the title “Christian.”  It isn’t a copyright-protected brand and there is little that all Christians could be said to have in common.  As I touched the stone of help, I realized not even all Baptists share the stringent standards of no symbolism in their churches.  That is probably a good thing, because that, in itself, is symbolic.

Haunted Pilgrim

No visit to Providence is complete without a tip of the hat to H. P. Lovecraft. As someone who dabbles in the noble art of writing, I have great appreciation for those who somehow made an impact (often only after they’ve died) on the literary world. I discovered Lovecraft only after I left Nashotah House, which was probably a good thing. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate his breadth of vision, populating the earth with ancient gods who emphasize the powerful and heartless side of divinity. His vivid images of Cthulhu pervade popular culture to a level that few of the uninitiated would ever expect. And yet, deep in the depths he lurks. So when I was in Providence over the weekend for my niece’s graduation, I spent an afternoon seeking out some time with H. P.

Place inherently partakes of that we term holiness. Where something happened matters. There is no science to explain it, but it is something people know. It is for this reason that I try to visit the homes and resting places of classic writers. Over the years we’ve visited the haunts of Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edna St Vincent Millay, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and others, as well as H. P. Lovecraft. Simply standing in or near the places they once frequented provides a form of inspiration unavailable in any other way. So it was that I found myself at 598 Angell Street in Providence. It is a house still occupied, with no indication of who once called this building home. Lovecraft lived here from 1904 to 1924. If it weren’t for the Lovecraft walking tour I found on the Internet, I would have never known.

In many ways a provincial man, Lovecraft was born and also died in Providence. Apart from a stint in New York City, he spent his time in his hometown. I walked to 454 Angell Street, the address at which he was born. I knew the building had been razed in the 1960s, but I wanted to see what society deems more important than preserving those places that sequester the holy for haunted pilgrims. Although I couldn’t tell for sure, since house numbers change, I believe his birthplace is now the Starbucks that sits pleasantly in a small commercial district. I wonder how many of the thirsty realize where they’re sitting. Have they read any of Lovecraft’s stories? If so, are they uncomfortable sipping coffee in such a spot? Or perhaps it has become a kind of secular sacrament—a toast to all artists whose pasts have been obliterated.

WaterFire

Providence is not always as assured as the divine aid its name suggests. Rhode Island’s capital, like most cities, hosts significant dualities—people who have more than an abundance and those who struggle to get by. There are also those who don’t. In an effort to revitalize the downtown, artists have created WaterFire—an organic sculpture bringing together the pre-Socratic four elements, but focusing on the two encompassed in its name. Great braziers are dot the middle of Providence’s rivers and WaterFire is a new performance art that suggests a religious underpinning. On Saturday, during Brown University’s commencement exercises, WaterFire was performed. Watching fire erupting in the iron braziers as the fire dancer twirled flaming sphere in intricate and dangerous patterns, I felt a primal sense of awe. Indeed, the fire dancer’s motions would be classified as religious by anthropologists in an unfamiliar context.

Religion is generally a response to that which we cannot control. Conscious beings like to think they have some measure of control over their destinies—indeed, people behave that way constantly. It doesn’t take much, however, to demonstrate that our sphere of control is actually miniscule and tenuous. Religions assure us that some cosmic older sibling (whether deity or force or principle) is on our side, watching our backs. Ceremonies propitiate any angry being and bring us back into the graces of elements beyond our control. Is this not the very meaning of the name Providence?

Watching the blazing bonfires tracing the contours of the river, lit by a dancer in time to moving music, WaterFire felt like more than simple performance. Fire is a powerful element, necessary and dangerous to our existence. Water too is crucial, but threatens to overwhelm us as our planet is mostly covered in it. Earth and air often seem the more comfortable elements, often inert and unconsidered. We never confront fire or water in the natural world without giving pause to consider their significance. Whether it is crossing a river or opening an umbrella, water forces itself onto our consciousness. Fire even more so. WaterFire taps into something vital and may just be the real divine guidance that Providence requires at this time.

Love the Craft

It is a cold, windy New England day in November. You find yourself in Providence. How can you not visit the gravesite of H. P. Lovecraft? I have mentioned Lovecraft before, in my podcast on Dagon, but that brief citation does not give credit to a man whose life provides episodes that feel strangely familiar to me. Barely known as a writer in his own lifetime, Lovecraft had difficulty finding employment and had a fascination with ancient gods. Indeed, I discovered Lovecraft while researching Dagon for a serious presentation and soon students were telling me about the Cthulhu (I would not dare attempt to pronounce) Mythos and how I had only scratched the surface of his writing.

Lovecraft’s fascination with ancient gods brought new life to forgotten entities. Dagon, despite being a major deity of ancient Mesopotamia, would likely have been completely forgotten by all but professors of arcane mythology had not Lovecraft resurrected him, albeit in a fishy form. His fascination with the protagonists of ancient myths, nearly forgotten deities, clearly influenced Neil Gaiman in his American Gods, and has preserved for the modern reader some of the fascination with powerful, ancient forces that show the insignificance of humanity. I found reading American Gods while in Providence a very humbling experience. Lovecraft also gave the world Arkham, the asylum of Batman fame, as well as Miskatonic University.

Along with Melville and Poe, Lovecraft deserves a place of honor in the pantheon of American literary explorers. The assortment of gifts left for him at his tombstone, including a small cairn, pennies, a pen, and even a note reading “thank you for the ideas,” attests his local fame. The prominence of his books at neighborhood bookstores assured me that I was not the only traveler to breathe in the air that Lovecraft exhaled. My visit also brought to mind a story that a friend of mine started to write some years ago. It had something to do with ancient gods coming back to life, although my friend had never heard of Lovecraft or Gaiman. Lovecraft’s spirit, it seems, may still be alive and well in Rhode Island and in the minds of other residents of Arkham.

Lovecraft