Tag Archives: Rhode Island

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.

Fear and Dissembling

The ConjuringLast year, when The Conjuring was released, it quickly became one of the (if not the) top earning horror films of all time at the box office. Based on a “true case” of Ed and Lorraine Warren—real life paranormal investigators—the film is a demonic possession movie that ties in the Warren’s most notorious case of a haunted (or possessed) doll, with a haunting of the Perron family of Rhode Island. (The Warrens were also known as the investigators behind the Lutz family in the case of the “Amityville Horror,” showing their pedigree in the field.) Given that Halloween has been in the air, I decided to give it a viewing. As with most horror movies, the events have to be dramatized in order to fit cinematographic expectations. Apparently the Warrens did believe the Perron house was possessed by a witch. In the film this became somewhat personal as the dialogue tied her in with Mary Eastey, who was hanged as a witch at Salem (and who was a great-great (and a few more greats) aunt of my wife). Bringing this cheap shot into the film immediately made the remainder of it seem like fiction of a baser sort.

Witches may be standard Halloween fare, but when innocent women executed for the religious imagination are brought into it, justice demands separating fact from fiction. Writers of all sorts have toyed with the idea of real witches in Salem—it was a trope H. P. Lovecraft explored freely—but there is no pretense of misappropriation here. Lovecraft did not believe in witchcraft and made no attempt to present those tragically murdered as what the religious imagination made them out to be. The Conjuring could have done better here. It reminds me of Mr. Ullman having to drop the line about the Overlook Hotel being built on an Indian burial ground. Was that really necessary? (Well, Room 237 has those who suggest it is, in all fairness.) The actual past of oppressed peoples is scary enough without putting it behind horror entertainment.

A doctoral student in sociology interviewed me while I was at Boston University. She’d put an ad in the paper (there was no public internet those days) for students who watched horror movies. I was a bit surprised when I realized that I did. I had avoided the demonic ones, but I had been in the theatre the opening week of A Nightmare on Elm Street (on a date, no less) and things had grown from there. I recall my answer to her question of why I thought I did it: it is better to feel scared than to feel nothing at all. Thinking over the oppressed groups that have lived in fear, in reality, I have been reassessing that statement. What do you really know when you’re a student? As I’ve watched horror movies over the years, I have come to realize that the fantasy world they represent is an escape from a reality which, if viewed directly, may be far more scary than conjured ghosts.

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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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.