ETERNAL REST Lovecraft’s grave at Swan Point Cemetery.
Brett Rutherford was walking down College Street on an overcast day in the late 1990s when a car with Oregon license plates pulled up next to him. The window rolled down and a passenger said, "Excuse me sir. I know this sounds like a dumb question, but could you tell us where H.P. Lovecraft's grave is?"
Rutherford — a poet and small press publisher who teaches Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island — not only knew where the author was buried; he knew that the site of his final home was only yards away from where the car was parked. And, having written a play about Lovecraft's life which had been performed at the Athenaeum on the centennial of Lovecraft's birth in 1990, Rutherford knew much, much more.
"Well," he said, "you have asked just the right person."
Rutherford tells the story nowadays for a couple of reasons. For people who haven't heard of Lovecraft, it is testimony to the magnetic power of his tales of madness, aliens, and human-fish half-breeds; Rutherford happily gave the out-of-towners a personalized tour of Providence that day, and has since taken visitors from Serbia and Australia on similar outings.
But he also tells the story because it shows how little there is in terms of public signage and tribute around Providence. Lovecraft's influence has grown into a vast, multi-tentacled thing that might have been found in one of his stories. Yet, here in his hometown, there is little more than a headstone in the Lovecraft family plot in Swan Point Cemetery and a modest plaque tucked away on Brown's campus. There are no signs or painted sidewalks guiding visitors on a "Lovecraft Trail." There are no Lovecraft museums or bookshops. The author's former homes have either been razed or closed off to the public, while the houses featured in stories like "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" remain unmarked.
Lovecraft is famous for his fervent loyalty to his native city. "Let no one tell me that Providence is not the most beautiful city in the world!" he once wrote. "I am Providence, and Providence is myself — together, indissolubly as one, we stand thro' the ages . . . ." But as the 75th anniversary of Lovecraft's death rolls on, Rutherford and others have wondered whether the feeling is mutual.
"People come here expecting that there's some place where you would walk in and it would be Lovecraft Central," he says. "It's just not here."
Long before he was dubbed "The King of Weird" by The New York Review of Books; before his stories were translated into Polish, Spanish, and Japanese; before there were "Cthulhu Ate My Honor Student" and "Got Tentacles?" bumper stickers in homage to his most famous beast, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an only child living on Angell Street.
He was born on August 20, 1890 to parents who would both die at Butler Hospital — Winfield, in 1898; Sarah, in 1921 — racked by physical and mental ailments. Howard, too, had a feeble body and a feverish mind. In his teens, he was writing treatises on chemistry and making frequent trips to the Ladd Observatory, where he scribbled notes and sketches of the heavens. His frailty prevented him from finishing high school or entering college.
He would later write of bicycle trips to the Seekonk River where he considered "how easy it would be to wade out among the rushes and lie face down in the warm water till oblivion came." This, apparently, was more favorable than the alternatives. "Bullets were spattery and unreliable," he wrote. "Hanging was ignominious. Daggers were messy unless one could arrange to open a wrist-vein in a bowl of warm water — and even that had its drawbacks despite good Roman precedent."