Artscape: Providence Loves HP Lovecraft

Oct 31, 2013

As a 10-year-old child, Howard Phillips Lovecraft would tuck himself into his grandfather’s library and read. Lovecraft’s father had gone mad and his mother eventually would too, making his wealthy grandfather – and all of those books –the center of Lovecraft’s world. Then his world fell apart. Lovecraft’s grandfather died and the estate was badly managed, wiping away his comfortable life in Providence. To earn much needed income Lovecraft, at 13-years-old, carefully crafted astronomy pamphlets and sold them, essentially starting his career as a published writer.

Holly Snyder picks through a box filled with Lovecraft’s hand-drawn pamphlets, “this one’s done in 1903, so Lovecraft was 13,” Snyder said. “It has illustrations of comets and other phenomenon.”

Brown librarian Holly Snyder holds one of HP Lovecraft's hand-drawn pamphlets.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

Snyder’s in charge of the HP Lovecraft collection at Brown University’s Hay Library. She’s fascinated as she flips through one of these monthly almanacs filled with Lovecraft’s passion for astronomy. 

“Presenting here scientific information based on Herschel’s observations about Neptune,’ said Snyder. “And at one point he had a whole discussion about Percival Lowell’s theory about the canals on Mars.”

From here Lovecraft’s writing evolved into horror stories filled with monsters and aliens. In the 1920’s some of his stories landed in pulp magazines, which brought him little money and even less respect.  People barely read Lovecraft until the 1960’s when Baby Boomers got their hands on paperback collections. Even though popular writers like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oats praised him, said independent scholar S.T. Joshi, the literary world considered Lovecraft lowbrow until 2005, when the Library of America canonized his work publishing “Tales of HP Lovecraft.”

“When that Library of America addition came out there were some reviews saying, ‘oh, he really doesn’t belong in the cannon,’” said Joshi. They argued it was because Lovecraft’s work showed up in pulp magazines like “Weird Tales.”  “They’re regarding the venue of his publication as an excuse not to take him seriously.”

But now Lovecraft is taken seriously by scholars and fans who are spreading the word of his spine tingling, alien tales on social media. Joshi thinks more people are reading Lovecraft because he taps into contemporary concerns about our place in the universe.

A couple roams the ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel this summer at the HP Lovecraft Ball.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

“Are we alone in the universe, what are we doing on this planet,” said Joshi. “There’s a lot of sense ofcosmic alienation and the fragility of mankind in the universe that’s both frightening and appealing to people.”

The growing fan base fueled the revival of a HP Lovecraft literary conference in Providence that took place in August. At the Lovecraft Ball  fans in masks, horns and hoods roam the ballroom at the Biltmore hotel as an organist cranks out creepy tunes. Vic Cabal came from Pennsylvania and is thrilled to see so many fellow Lovecraft fans. “I’ve read a lot of the books but never been to Providence,” said Cabal, “so it’s kind of amazing to see all the sights and actually where he wrote about and the different places he visited.”

Neils Hobbs helped put the conference together. He said it was easy to sell city leaders on a conference based on a long-dead author of monster-filled science fiction by putting it this way, “Lovecraft is the single greatest American author of imaginative fiction since Poe”

And he’s Providence’s native son. People from New Zealand, Europe, and Central America came to the conference, which pumped some $600,000 into the economy. Now Providence is catering to Lovecraft fans: there’s an official HP Lovecraft Memorial Square, the historical society is working on markers for walking tours, and conference organizer Niels Hobbs said, if you want a virtual tour of HP Lovecraft’s Providence – there’s an App for that.

A bronze bust of HP Lovecraft is drawing fans to the Providence Athenaeum.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

An exhibit at the Providence Athenaeum features a silent movie based on a Lovecraft story, and a new bronze bust of the author.  Athenaeum librarian Kate Wodehouse said ever since the bust appeared, so have Lovecraft fans who are making the pilgrimage almost every day.

“We knew that the event would attract a lot of people and a lot of attention,” said Wodehouse, “but didn’t realize how much we would become associated with Lovecraft by taking the bust and that would continue for us, so, it’s great.”

Conference organizer Niels Hobbs said this is just the beginning. He’s already planning for another conference in 2015, tied into Lovecraft’s 125th birthday.

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