Son of Providence: The weird legacy of H. P. Lovecraft

Jen Rose Smith, CNNUpdated 24th October 2017
Providence, Rhode Island (CNN) — A maze of paths leads though Providence, Rhode Island's Swan Point Cemetery, a 19th-century graveyard at the edge of the Seekonk River.
Continue past the grand mausoleums and memorials, and you'll reach the modest grave of local writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who died in poverty in 1937 before his eerie brand of horror incubated a fervent cult following.
Now, visitors come from around the world with strange mementos. Spooky gnomes lean against the base, while fresh sprays of flowers jostle grimacing Tiki figurines. A smattering of pens, guitar picks, skulls, old coins, hand-written notes and scrawled pentagrams accumulates.
Hemmed in by the offerings, the gravestone's inscription reads simply: "I am Providence."

Lovecraft and Providence

Providence, Rhode Island -- photos related to Jen Rose Smith's H P Lovecraft story for CNN Travel
Providence's Fleur-de-Lys Studios, the fictional home of Henry Anthony Wilcox in Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu."
Jen Rose Smith
A writer whose imagination thrilled to ancient monsters, cursed aquatic cities and cosmic demons, H. P. Lovecraft turned to his earthly hometown for inspiration.
Born in Providence in 1890, he coaxed sinister characters and old mysteries from behind the city's proud facades, publishing his stories in the pulp magazine "Weird Tales."
While critics of Lovecraft's day didn't embrace his uncanny work, he's now celebrated at the NecromoniCon, a bi-annual gathering for fans and scholars that's organized by the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences Council, whose downtown shop should be the first stop on any Lovecraftian journey.
According to Niels-Viggo Hobbs, a co-founder of the Arts and Sciences Council, Providence is the ideal place for an immersion in Lovecraft's writing and imagination.
"You can walk the streets of Providence and really feel old Providence," says Hobbs, "and since Lovecraft described Providence in such great detail, it's like you're really in the stories."
Though it was among America's wealthiest cities at the turn of the 20th century, Providence suffered decades of economic stagnation -- which means that it escaped the urban renewal of the '60s and '70s.
"In Providence, all those 'ugly' buildings that would have been knocked down were left alone, so we still have this gorgeous 18th- and 19th-century architecture," Hobbs explains. As a nostalgic, history-loving architecture buff, Lovecraft would have approved.
Lovecraft Arts & Sciences, 65 Weybosset St., Providence, RI 02903

Providence Athenaeum

Providence, Rhode Island -- photos related to Jen Rose Smith's H P Lovecraft story for CNN Travel
H. P. Lovecraft is honored with a bust at Providence Athenaeum.
Jen Rose Smith
To channel Lovecraft's own version of Providence, an ideal next stop is the tiny Providence Athenaeum, an historic library where the writer whiled away hours in the stacks.
Founded in 1836, it's one of a handful of Athenaeums that are scattered across New England -- secular temples of learning and study named for Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom.
For Lovecraft, books weren't the only draw. The Providence Athenaeum was hallowed ground, a haunt of New England horror writer Edgar Allen Poe, who Lovecraft called his "God of Fiction."
As Lovecraft wrote to a friend in 1923, this is where Poe had dreamed and rambled some 80 years before, but it may be that Poe would not have shared Lovecraft's fondness for the place.
The Athenaeum is also where Poe's fiancée, the transcendentalist poet Sarah Helen Whitman, finally ended their stormy engagement in December 1848.
Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit St., Providence, RI 02903

Walking with Lovecraft

Engraving of the First Baptist Church, and the Unitarian Church, or Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1850. Engraved by Fenner Sears and Co from the original by R Goodacre. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
An engraving of Providence's First Baptist Church, circa 1850.
Archive Photos/Getty Images
The author spent his days strolling the streets of Providence, and he often wrote of the city's architecture and moods.
One favorite destination was the John Hay Library (20 Prospect St.) at Brown University, where the world's largest Lovecraft archive includes handwritten manuscripts, letters and magazines.
Lovecraft once lived next door to the library, now also known for strange holdings that might have thrilled the author, such as its anthropodermic collection -- four books bound in human skin.
A few blocks towards the river, Lovecraft would have passed his family's church, the First Baptist Church in America (75 N Main St.). It's the country's oldest Baptist Church congregation, started by Roger Williams in 1638, two years after he founded the city itself.
And because a family friend oversaw the nearby Ladd Observatory (210 Doyle Ave.), Lovecraft dropped by often to take a turn at the telescope, peering far into the cosmos above Rhode Island.
He loved astronomy, but his own stories offer a dark view through the lens; in "The Colour Out of Space," Lovecraft imagines a rash of death and madness sown by a mysterious meteorite that strikes neighboring Massachusetts.

Lovecraft beyond Providence

Witch House, Destination Salem
"The Witch House" in Salem is the former home of Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges in the 1692 witch trials.
Kate Fox for Destination Salem
While H.P. Lovecraft preferred life in Rhode Island, his imaginative reach extended far beyond America's smallest state.
He was enthralled by the historical darkness of Massachusetts, where his characters lurked in Salem's church cemeteries, visited the sites of witch trial interrogations and made sacrifices to ancient gods.
Lovecraft's voracious reading transported him to the ruins of Nan Madol in Eastern Micronesia, a series of coral reef islands linked by man-made canals. He wove the mysterious, aquatic ruins into his description of the city R'lyeh, a submerged metropolis that defied Euclidean geometry, and was built by "vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars."
And the priory in "Rats in the Walls," one of Lovecraft's most famously creepy stories, is said to be inspired by contemporary accounts of the Irish Sanctuary of Saint Patrick, an island monastery that guards Saint Patrick's Purgatory, a cave believed by some to be a gateway to hell.
The Witch House, 310 Essex St., Salem, Massachusetts; +978 744 8815
Sanctuary of Saint Patrick, Lough Derg, Pettigo, Co. Donegal, Ireland; 00353 (0) 71 9861518

'That is not dead which can eternal lie'

Rotonda del Mar. Photos to be used only in connection to Jen Rose Smith's H P Lovecraft story for CNN Travel
Artist Alejandro Colunga's Lovecraft tribute at Rotonda del Mar.
Ernest McGray, Jr.
Eighty years after his death at the early age of 46, Lovecraft is bigger than ever. His writing, and the "Cthulu Mythos" fictional universe that he helped to create, continues to inspire fans that include artists, writers and scientists.
Far from the chilly climes of Lovecraft's native New England, Mexican artist Alejandro Colunga shaped a cluster of eerie statues with sinuous tentacles and elongated snouts that stand watch over the Puerto Vallarta coast.
There's even a species of wasp named in the writer's honor. Bearing wandering antlers and sloping wings, Nanocthulu Lovecrafti is a tribute that might have flown and crawled through Lovecraft's own writing.
And a diverse group of writers -- such as Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Victor LaValle -- is keeping the "weird fiction" tradition vibrant through constant re-interpretation, critiquing the author's racist and anti-Semitic views even as they revel in Lovecraft's supernatural universe.
La Rotonda del Mar, Paseo Diaz Ordaz, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Lovecraft in space

Cthulhu Regio on Pluto
In 2015, Pluto's Cthulhu Regio was named after Lovecraft's monster deity.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest
Now, Lovecraft's legacy stretches beyond this planet entirely.
On the distant dwarf planet of Pluto, the whale-shaped surface feature Cthulhu Regio is named for Cthulhu, the ancient deity Lovecraft described as a winged, "vaguely anthropoid" monster hundred of meters tall, "but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers."
Circling much closer to the sun, Mercury's Lovecraft's Crater is nonetheless curtained in permanent shadow, a landmark that surely would have made the star-loving horror author smile. A dark stain on the planet's south pole, the Lovecraft Crater pocks a barren planet.
And as the writer would have known well, even Mercury had a place in the pantheon of stories that helped inspire his writing -- the planet's named for the changeable, eloquent Roman god who once led ancient souls into the underworld.
Cthulhu Regio, 0° North, 90° East, Pluto
Lovecraft Crater, 86° South, 285° East, Mercury