Thursday, September 11, 2014

"I Am Providence"

by Annabeth Leong



The object of my fascination would likely not have thought much of me. H. P. Lovecraft does not seem to have liked women much. He was anti-immigrant and deeply racist. He hated mentions of sexual matters.

Some people avoid these depressing facts by focusing on the writing rather than the man. My fascination, however, is most definitely focused on the man, and specifically his relationship to his city, where I live now.

When people come to visit me, I nearly always say, "Welcome to Providence, the home of H.P. Lovecraft." The first time I stepped out of the Providence train station and began walking up steep roads toward the East Side, I recognized the shapes of the buildings from Lovecraft's stories. The sky was exactly as he had described it, low and gray. I knew I was walking where he had walked, breathing the air that he had breathed.

***



At the Necronomicon convention in Providence last year, an event devoted to H.P. Lovecraft, I attended a panel of modern Lovecraftian writers. "I am obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft," said Wilum H. Pugmire, lingering on every syllable. When asked about recent reading, Pugmire cited Lovecraft, over and over again.

I don't have that kind of obsession, though. I've read Lovecraft. I am intrigued by his central themes—forbidden knowledge, secrets with the power to break the mind, the ultimate irrelevance of humanity, and the hopelessness of any battle against large, cosmic evil.

But I'll confess that I prefer Lovecraft as narrated by the brilliant Wayne June. I'm not frightened by what frightened Lovecraft—I am only interested in it. I smile at his purple prose, and it sets me free, but I don't exactly admire it. It is June who brings his tangled sentences to life for me, who makes me see the true worth of his descriptions.

I wonder, then, why I think so much about his footsteps. I wonder what Lovecraft did to earn my devotion. I visit the house where he wrote Call of Cthulhu all the time. I go there as if venerating a saint, standing awkwardly across the street, looking at the window that I know was once his, searching for a relic.

***



I once paid a healthy sum to tour the city alongside S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft's foremost biographer.

I already knew some of the sites he showed our small group. Over the years I've lived in Providence, I've collected locations relevant to Lovecraft. Every time I walk up Doyle Street, I recall that Lovecraft liked to wheel his bicycle up that very hill on his way to the observatory. When I am stuck in my writing, I go to Prospect Park, where Lovecraft liked to sit and write.

Joshi, however, far surpasses any obsession to which I could pretend. He turns out to have been part of the group that raised the money for a bust of Lovecraft I like to visit. He was the one who corrected a misidentified photograph of Lovecraft on a bench—rather than the New York location where it was thought to have been taken, Joshi recognized the gates outside of Brown University.

Lovecraft's relationship with Providence ran to breathtaking depths. He went through the entire archives of the Providence Journal and read every issue of the paper that had ever been published. He had a love of old Colonial homes (the Victorians were too vulgar, he thought), and he immortalized them in his stories.

Joshi knows where those houses are. At his side, I learned the location of the real-life Shunned House and the home of Charles Dexter Ward (a few houses down from the address given in the story).

I don't think I'm this kind of writer, but I wish I was. Perhaps it's because my life has been so impermanent. I ground myself by clinging to a writer whose roots ran deep, a man who seemed unable to truly exist away from his city.

***



It is painful to think that, were I to meet Lovecraft, he would likely respond to me with disgust—he was wonderfully generous with his white male writer friends, and I'd like to hope for the same. I don't fool myself, though. Lovecraft opened his Mythos for others to play in, but he would not appreciate what I do with it.

I'm not sure what made it into the final book, but Bobby Derie's draft manuscript for Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos mentioned my work. It pointed to "The Artist's Retreat," a story that appears in J. Blackmore's Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica anthology, as a rare example of lesbian Mythos erotica. I've also been in an anthology alongside the aforementioned Pugmire—we both had stories in Martian Migraine Press's Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath.

To me, there is a way that sex is dark and vast and unknowable, liable to disturb, able to break the mind if it is fully grasped. That's why I like to put sex into the Mythos. That's why to me sex has always been in it.

Still, I know that's not a popular opinion in certain Lovecraftian circles. At that panel I mentioned earlier, a writer I won't name went on a diatribe against what he saw as a disgusting tendency to contaminate the Mythos with sex. His comments essentially amounted to, "Why do you have to go there?" His face was contorted with disgust as he spoke, and others agreed.

My body went hot and my heart began to pound. I am very proud of my Lovecraftian work, and yet his disapproval made me feel the stigma that erotica all too often has. I'm not a real writer. I'm perverted, and I'm perverting something sacred to so many.

Sex belongs in the Mythos, but maybe I also put it in to fuck with people. I can sometimes be a rebel like that. Lovecraft is dead. I visit his grave with devotion, and then I raise a middle finger and write about what it would be like to fuck an Elder God. I use words that would make Lovecraft squirm. I talk about how it would hurt, and how it would feel incredible, and how normal life would be impossible ever after. Desire is, after all, a type of forbidden knowledge. Sex can be inexorable, inevitable. It can reveal selves and realities we don't actually want to meet.

It's too bad the title "Booty Call of Cthulhu" is taken, or I would write that story to fuck with Lovecraft even more.

***



"He's stuck with me," I tell my sister. We are on the lawn in front of the observatory. I go there almost every day.

If I studied his every word like Pugmire, this would make more sense to me. Instead, I read enough to be credible, and then I walk and walk the streets he liked to walk. I am in his city, and I want to make it mine, too.

Maybe I am like a would-be lover studying the behavior of the beloved's ex. From the moment I laid eyes on Providence, I wanted her. Her name rings with fate and destiny. Her streets drip with history. She is rundown in the ways I love. The best bands come to play here, and they do it just before they get famous.

I want to know what Lovecraft did to win this city, to tie her to him so powerfully. How did he and this city seduce each other so thoroughly?

Maybe I am like a lover who wants to leave a hickey. I want to walk up Doyle and leave grooves in the sidewalk in the wake of my passing. I want to learn to write settings better so that someday, a generation from now, someone finds the remnants of the labyrinth in the churchyard of the Redeemer (which is already crumbling, already half-hidden by an improbable willow tree), and they feel they've already seen it because they read about it in something I wrote.

I don't have the blood of this city in my veins. My parents did not both go mad and get committed to Butler Hospital. I haven't even been inside the Historical Society, and the Providence Journal is dying now, and I'm not sure what sort of feat it would be to read its every issue. And yet I have a sticker on my laptop that arrogantly proclaims, "I am Providence," and one day I would like that to be true.

22 comments:

  1. I had no idea. In fact, I've never read Lovecraft. Your fascination has infected me. I 've got it on my list. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. Barnes and Noble sell his complete works in a leather bound tome which I keep meaning to buy and never get around to - now I'll have to!

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  3. Sense of place is an important part of sense of self, I think, and I wonder how we modern humans are affected by our migratory habits. Being rooted too firmly in one area can have the downside of promoting an us/them, known-folks /strangers dichotomy, but there's also something to be said for knowing a place well and feeling part of it. I've been shuttling back and forth lately between where I grew up (and my declining father still lives) and where I've lived for forty years, not really all that far apart, and the shift tends to be disorienting, but I also lived long enough in a couple of other places like the SanFrancisco Bay area to retain a sense of the place, or rather of the place as it was back then. You don't have to live somewhere very long to search out its charms and quirks and personality.

    I haven't read any Lovecraft, but my older son, a computer technician in an academic setting, is such a Lovecraft geek that tentacled Cthulu slippers went over well as Christmas present. His lawyer wife is as big a fan as he is. I doubt that his eight-year-old daughter has read any of the actual canon yet, but she's a voracious reader and has grown up hearing about it, so she may get to it. Or not, because what pre-teen wants to read what their parents like?

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    1. I would totally love to receive tentacle Cthulhu slippers--makes sense to me!

      And your comments about place and migration make sense to me too.

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  4. This definitely caught my eye, because I've been snacking a lot on Lovecraft lately. I'm currently rereading "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". He does improve with being read out loud, his baroque prose style is kind of hard to muddle through sometimes. Stephen King is a huge Lovecraft fan and has a lot to say about him in "Danse Macabre". He says that what Lovecraft mainly pioneered is the premise of cosmic horror of things so huge "they could destroy the universe if they grunted in their sleep . . "

    What's notable about Lovecraft also is that he was in his time a failure as a writer. He didn't make any money. Nobody read his stuff. His interior weirdness and disappointment finally claimed him and he committed suicide. Then after his death he became a big celebrity.

    Kind of gives the rest of us here some hope.

    Anyone who wants to read his entire body of work for free as an epub - and who doesn't - can pick it up here at the Australian Project Gutenberg:

    http://gutenberg.net.au/plusfifty-a-m.html#letterL



    Garce

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    1. I agree that his commitment to writing despite financial trouble is inspiring--though Lovecraft also seemed to shoot himself in the foot at times. He gave up on stories pretty easily, and sometimes didn't respond to requests for his work.

      Also, as far as I know, he didn't commit suicide. He was diagnosed with cancer, and later died of malnutrition. It seems more accurate to say he died of poverty.

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  5. Oh - one more thing.

    Your post intrigued me enough to run out to Amazon and push the button on a copy of "Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica anthology" for Kindle.

    This better be good,

    Garce

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    1. Hope you like the book! Glad you took a chance!

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  6. Annabeth, this is interesting, and it points to something that I think a lot of women and "people of colour" struggle with: it's possible to admire some aspects of a famous writer (who, in English-speaking culture, was usually a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male) without admiring all his prejudices or the fans who share them. Now I want to read your Lovecraftian erotica.

    By all accounts, Lovecraft was a tortured soul. I've often wondered exactly what "insane" meant in the time when both his parents were diagnosed that way. (I can't forget that not that long ago, masturbation was seen as a sign of insanity.) Garce, thank you for the link!
    This looks useful.

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    1. Completely agree on your first paragraph, Jean, and I share your interest in what exactly was seen as insanity. Joshi may have addressed that somewhere in his body of work--I confess I haven't read it all.

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  7. I'm another Lovecraft fan, Annabeth, as well as a fan of Providence. Lovecraft's work was a major bond between my dad and me. He bought me a nicely bound volume of selected short stories as one of his last Christmas presents. (And my husband has what purports to be a copy of the dread Necronomicon, won as a door prize at a San Francisco birthday party for Aleister Crowley!)

    I invite you (and everyone else) to read my Lovecraft parody, "The Shadow Over Desmoines" (http://www.lisabetsarai.com/desmoines.html). Although I wrote it to be funny, as part of an ERWA theme challenge years ago, I feel like it does a pretty good job capturing Lovecraft's style. Meanwhile, this story vis a vis your post make me wonder if perhaps the sense of deep dread and disgust in Lovecraft's work is actually a displaced reaction against sexuality. What could be more sexually tinged than grasping tentacles? What leads us to lose ourselves (in a kind of madness) as easily as sex?

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    1. Hooray for a fellow fan!

      And I think there's something to the idea of a displaced reaction against sexuality.

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  8. Hey, I'm Bobby Derie, author of "Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos." I address some of these things in depth in the book, but it's worth talking about it...well, wherever there's a forum for it.

    I think what a lot of people fail to grasp about Lovecraft's fiction is that horror and weird fiction is fundamentally transgressive in nature. You can't achieve the sense of the unreal, fright, or disgust without pushing against those things that make people uncomfortable, and that means horror writers make use of taboo - whether sexual or sacrilegious or philosophical or whatever. People that talk about there being no sex in Lovecraft generally mean there was no explicit depiction of coitus (which is true enough) or no romance (more or less, it wasn't absent from all his works, but it wasn't lovey-dovey either) - but you still have an author that wrote about necrophilia ("The Loved Dead"), incest ("The Lurking Fear"), bestiality ("Arthur Jermyn," "The Unspeakable"), miscegenation ("The Shadow over Innsmouth," "The Dunwich Horror"), polygamy ("The Mound"), and other very taboo sexual topics - not to titillate an audience, but still there, right in the heart of his fiction.

    For Lovecraft himself, I think the myth of the man has in part eclipsed the reality - what he felt, why he felt the way he did, and how he acted. He was prejudiced, and xenophobic - worse than some people of his time, not as bad as others. Lovecraft was not, I think, the asexual that contemporary scholars like to paint him as - I think that's a bit of a cop-out. But I don't want to get bogged down with explanations or sink into apologetics; let me break this down to bare bones.

    Lovecraft is not his fiction. While the study of his life and letters has given us great insight on his fiction, as a body of work it stands separate from the author, open to interpretation and reflection - and what reflection there has been! Critics have analyzed "The Outsider" as a woman and as a homosexual, they have looked at "The Shadow over Innsmouth" as a fable of miscegenation or "coming out," they have reflected on the sexual symbolism of every piece from "The Rats in the Walls" to the genderbending "The Thing on the Doorstep" - all of which is separate from anything Lovecraft wrote or any aspect of his life, but which nevertheless are valid criticisms and interpretations. How Lovecraft was during his life does not diminish the importance of his fiction today, nor should it color our appreciation of it - only to serve and deepen our understanding of the stories, one more data point to reflect on.

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    1. Thanks so much for the detailed comment, and it's all the more reason to read your book!

      The writer versus the fiction is a longstanding debate. I'm interested in the sort of commentary and analysis you point to, very much so, and I would never give up reading Lovecraft. That said, it's not easy or possible for me to handwave about the man. Despite my fascination with him, I feel the attitudes he held in life have to be confronted and mentioned.

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  9. Thanks for that, Annabeth- I've never gotten into Lovecraft. Maybe that'll change now.

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  10. Annabeth - thought you might like this poem.

    Twilight Ride
    by Lisabet Sarai

    (Providence, July 1974)

    some of the streets
    will only come out
    after supper
    in summer,
    only untwine
    as I ride them,
    rusty
    with dusk and
    a muggy night yawning
    and grumbling
    ahead.
    Red
    behind me,
    a final spurt
    of sunset gushing
    over the brink
    of prospect street,
    on the granite feet
    of roger williams
    splashing; but
    my roads
    are cobbled with dark,
    spun out of shadows
    and history
    just as I'm rounding
    the corner; sometimes
    they barely arrive
    before I find them.

    the green-grown hollows,
    the rose-starred brambles
    glimpsed through the slats
    of picketed gates
    are indistinct,
    almost unfinished -
    wells of mist
    gathered and meshed
    in intricate wrought iron
    arabesques.

    the windows:
    a treasure
    of diamond panes,
    leaded or faceted,
    jalousied, shuttered,
    bowed or clasped
    by balcony curves -
    tower windows,
    cupolas peering
    down on my city
    floating toward dark;
    the startling gold
    of a parallel world
    shimmering veiled
    by curtain lace.

    obscure little lanes
    lined with wind-eaten shingle,
    gingerbread carving,
    sandpaper stucco
    swallowed in ivy -
    architectures
    I've sketched through years
    of reading and dreaming -
    wink into being
    in time with my pedalling
    clambering up
    along with me,
    breathless, into the evening,
    melt with my echoing
    wheeling away.

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  11. Oh, that reminds me for anyone interested, this group is always looking for submissions: http://martianmigrainepress.com/NECRONOMICUM-The-Magazine-of-Weird-Erotica

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    1. Indeed! And they're also taking submissions right now for Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales from Beyond, deadline Nov 15: http://martianmigrainepress.com/Whats-In-YOUR-Resonator

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