HOMETOWN HORROR A page from The Lovecraft Anthology, Volume 1.
At the same time, bands like Septic Flesh and Cradle of Filth continue to turn to Lovecraft for lyrical inspiration. Every year, there are new Lovecraft-inspired video games and books like The Lovecraft Anthology, Volume I, a graphic collection of adapted short stories released earlier this month. The merchandising market for just one of Lovecraft's creatures — the winged, multi-tentacled Cthulhu — ranges from cufflinks to "What Would Cthulhu Do?" t-shirts to "Cthulhu Loves You" thong underwear.
Ironies abound. What would the brutally self-conscious Lovecraft make of the H.P. Lovecraft "pocket/purse mirror" available on eBay? How would he react to the Lovecraft-inspired Fiddler On the Roof spoof, "Shoggoth On the Roof," given his oft-professed disdain for Jews?
The bizarre world of Lovecraftiana can perhaps best be described up by a quote from Lovecraft's story, "The Tomb": "Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal." If you like that quote, you can buy a mug on which it is printed for $18 plus shipping and handling from cafepress.com.
Hard as he may be to find, Lovecraft hasn't disappeared from Providence entirely.
On March 17, two days after the anniversary of Lovecraft's death, the Arkham Film Society held a screening of the 1980s cult horror classic, Re-Animator (based on Lovecraft's story, "Herbert West, Reanimator") at Brown's Granoff Center. Two weekends later, on April 1, local fans — including Brett Rutherford — gathered in front of the Ladd Observatory to sing songs and read excerpts from his stories. And for the last few years, there have been Lovecraft walking tours during the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival in October.
No less than Lovecraft authority S.T. Joshi, author of a two-volume, 1200-page biography I AM PROVIDENCE: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, writes via email that "Providence remains the Mecca of Lovecraftdom." Joshi spent six years in Providence earning a B.A. and an M.A. at Brown and has often returned both for research "and merely to soak up the atmosphere of the city that meant the most to Lovecraft."
But local efforts to celebrate the city's most famous author are easily matched — even surpassed — elsewhere. At the third annual H.P. Lovecraft Festival at Kraine Theater in Manhattan's East Village, running weekends through mid-May, actors read Lovecraft stories on stage accompanied by orchestral scores and sounds of "moaning creatures, creaking doors, gunshots, thunderstorms, ocean waves, crowds yelling, screams in the night, digging in the graveyard, a 1920s bus ride, a parade of slobbering monsters in the rain, [a] broken church bell tolling in the night, [and] the echoing prayers of Innsmouth fish people to the great god Cthulhu," according to Radio Theatre artistic director Dan Bianchi. The first two festivals sold out and continued into extended runs, he says, and ticket sales for this year's iteration are higher than ever.
Next month, Lovecraft fans will descend on Portland, Oregon for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and Cthulhu Con, founded in 1995. They will watch film adaptations of Lovecraft stories, attend panels with writers and artists, and browse wares from the festival's consumer wing, Arkham Bazaar.
Lovecraft fans also eagerly await the latest news from Hollywood, where Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro has been doggedly lobbying for a $150-million, studio-backed adaptation of Lovecraft's aliens-in-Antarctica story "The Mountains of Madness" — sure to be the biggest Lovecraftian event of all time, if it happens.
So, why do Providence's efforts pale in comparison? Is it just a classic case of a bumbling Rhode Island failing to capitalize on its assets? Or is it something else? Perhaps the city is uneasy with the man.
Lovecraft, to be sure, is not a perfect hometown hero. It would take a diehard fan, indeed, to read his private tirades against "undesirable Latins," "low-grade Southern Italians and Portuguese," "the clamorous plague of French Canadians," Jews, Asians, and "flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers" without flinching.
His published work is hardly flawless, either. With Lovecraft, the line between self-expression and self-parody can be blurry, if it exists at all. Edmund Wilson wasn't wrong to lampoon Lovecraft's "incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such words as 'horrible,' 'terrible,' 'frightful,' 'awesome,' 'fearsome,' 'eldritch,' 'eerie,' 'weird,' 'forbidden,' 'unhallowed,' 'unholy,' 'blasphemous,' 'hellish,' and 'infernal.'" (Although, he seems to be missing the point when he adds, "especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus.") And present-day critics are still not entirely satisfied. "Did he ever hear anyone talk to anyone else in his entire life?," says local fiction writer Max Winter, of Lovecraft's tin-eared dialogue.
Lovecraft's general weirdness is also a hurdle preventing, or at least slowing, mass appeal. There was a time, not so long ago, Brett Rutherford says, when he would make the rounds with the newsletter for his Cthulhu Prayer Society and have the papers tossed back at him with the remark, "You people are nuts."
Indeed, if Fitzgerald gave us Jay Gatsby staring longingly at a single green light across the bay, Lovecraft, in his story "The Haunter of the Dark," gave us Robert Blake, staring out of his College Hill apartment window at the "alien, half fabulous" Federal Hill and scribbling feverishly in his diary, "I see it — coming here — hell-wind — titan blue — black wings — Yog-Sothoth save me — the three-lobed burning eye . . ." before he dies. Hardly ideal copy for a tourist guide.
Or is it? Shouldn't the "Creative Capital" take a little more pride in one of its most wild-eyed and imaginative former citizens? And for the thousands of readers who are entranced by Lovecraft's prose — and who, like the couple from Oregon, drive 3000 miles to get here — shouldn't we have something more than a plaque to greet them?
Ray Dowaliby, the editor of SCARS, would simply like to see a statue somewhere near Lovecraft's grave — on Blackstone Boulevard, perhaps. "Just imagine," he says, "tentacles coming out of nowhere, enveloping right up to the waist of H.P. Lovecraft. That would be an awesome bronze."
Brett Rutherford agrees.
"There ought to be an H.P. Lovecraft Bed and Breakfast. There should be an H.P. Lovecraft café. There should certainly be a shop that sells H.P. Lovecraft tchochkes," he says. "There's none of that."
And as for the "Lovecraft Central" visitors center — what would that look like?
He pauses for a moment, clearly enjoying the images whirling in his head.
"I hadn't really thought about that," he says.
There is another silence, before he says, "Definitely a place you wouldn't go into with a baby carriage. That's for sure."
Philip Eil can be reached at email@example.com.