I Am Providence: How This City Influenced Lovecraft and His Work by Paul Lonardo


H.P. LovecraftLike Lovecraft, I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and I have long felt a certain affinity to him because of this happenstance of birth. I became aware of H.P. Lovecraft at a fairly young age, a discovery that was inevitable for me as someone who has always held a fascination for horror and all things spooky, which almost certainly is a prenatal condition unto itself. As a kid, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was a cartoon that I never missed. I also loved The Munsters, and my favorite episode of The Brady Bunch was the one where Vincent Price appeared in The Tiki Caves, part of the Hawaii trilogy. Saturday afternoons were spent eating Count Chocula cereal in front of a b&w cathode ray tube television watching the Creature Double Feature, a syndicated horror show that ran back-to-back classic Universal Horror movies, or Hammer Studios pictures, even some Roger Corman films. Most memorable were the Toho Studio monster movies which featured creatures such as Rodan, Mothra, as well as Godzilla, and many others. We won’t get into my later discovery of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

H.P. Lovecraft is considered the father of supernatural horror, a blend of science fantasy and horror that is alternately known as “weird fiction,” “Lovecraftian horror,” or “cosmic horror.” His narratives emphasized mood and atmosphere, and the setting of his stories predominated character. He used dialogue sparsely, and the action in his stories has been described as spare and cerebral. What made him a grounds-breaking horror writer was how he departed from traditional gothic horror themes and extended its scope by giving his fiction a unique cosmic context. The horror in Lovecraft’s tales is often abstract, and the ancient gods and creatures he envisions consider humanity insignificant, much the same way a child would dismiss a colony of ants underfoot at a playground. His use of the supernatural is particularly chilling because the natures of these entities are not bound by traditional evil but by indifference, and this is something that is more frightening. That sense of detachment is not something you can run from or defeat.

Lovecraft is arguably the most significant literary figure Rhode Island has ever produced. He was born in Providence on August 20,1890 and died there in relative obscurity on March 15, 1937 after succumbing to advanced cancer of the small intestine that was diagnosed too late because of his fear of doctors. He lived practically his entire life in Providence, with many stories either set in this city or inspired by it, most notably his 51,500-word short horror novel, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Though the story was written in early 1927, it was not published until after his death. It was seen for the first time in 1941 when it appeared in abridged form in the May and July issues of Weird Tales, the famed fantasy and horror pulp magazine. In this tale, Lovecraft clearly evokes a nostalgic sense of the city’s history and antiquity, drawing from the dual nature of luxury and squalor that Providence embodied at the time.

The title character of Charles Dexter Ward is a young man from a prominent Rhode Island family who disappears from a mental asylum where he had been confined. The bulk of the story concerns the investigation conducted by the Wards’ family doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, who attempts to discover the reason for Ward’s madness and the strange physiological changes he was undergoing at that time.

Notably, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward contains the first mention of the Cthulhu Mythos entity, Yog-Sothoth, who appears repeatedly as an element in an incantation, while Joseph Curwen, the novel’s antagonist/necromancer in is the owner of a copy of the Necronomicon.

The Halsey House

Lovecraft was inspired to write this tale after his aunt Lillian alluded that this house, located at 140 Prospect Street, was haunted. The Halsey House, as it is known, was built in 1801 by Colonel Thomas Lloyd Halsey, a prosperous shipping merchant and French consular agent during the Revolutionary War. Lovecraft called the house “a magnificent old mansion and a credit to a magnificent old town.” It served as the home of Charles Dexter Ward, though he renumbered the address of the home in the story, changing it to 100 Prospect Street. The Halsey House still stands today.

Butler Hospital

Another building that was of major importance to this novelette, and in Lovecraft’s own personal life, is Butler Hospital, a preeminent psychiatric and rehabilitation hospital in Providence that continues to treat people to this day. It was this “mental asylum” where Charles was sent at the beginning of the story and later went missing. A century ago, the treatment of patients at such facilities was notoriously crude, the conditions harsh. Lovecraft lived his life terrified that he would wind up there one day himself. And seemingly with good reason.  As a young boy, he lived in a comfortable home in Providence that was considered a mansion. The Angell Street estate was owned by his wealthy maternal grandfather. However, when the old man’s fortunes changed and he later passed away, young Lovecraft moved into a small apartment nearby with his mother. By this time, his father had been committed to Butler Hospital, diagnosed as acutely psychotic caused by neurological symptoms of syphilis. His father never got out of the institution, dying there in 1898 from complication of the disease when Lovecraft was eight years old. His mother would later suffer from mental illness herself and become institutionalized at Butler Hospital when Lovecraft was a young man. It’s easy to see why the fear of insanity dominated his writings. He was a sickly child, dropping out of school for periods of time due to various physical and mental ailments. Poverty, isolation, and ill health plagued Lovecraft his entire life.

There are plenty of other actual historical locations around the city of Providence that are intricately associated with Lovecraft’s works. They provide key elements to his fiction, used to establish a dark, foreboding atmosphere and elicit a sense of desperation and despair.

The Shunned HouseLovecraft’s short novel, The Shunned House, is an actual house on 135 Benefit Street. It was built in 1764, and Lovecraft’s elder aunt, Lillian, lived here from 1919 to 1920. It is commonly known as the Stephen Harris House, and it is still in existence. The story was written in October 1924, and first published in Weird Tales in 1937. In this story, the narrator has to unearth and destroy a great evil that is haunting the dwelling.

Another historic Providence home located nearby on 144 Benefit Street was where the uncle of the narrator of The Shunned House resided. This house, built 1863, would become the Old Court Bed & Breakfast, named because of its proximity to the original courthouse, though it is permanently closed now. An interesting note about Providence’s timeworn Benefit Street is that it had originally been named Back Street because it was laid out as a lane winding amongst the graveyards of the first settlers. It was straightened only when the removal of the bodies to the North Burial Ground made it possible to cut through the old family plots.

Fleurde-lysThe Fleur-de-Lys Studios is a unique edifice, to be sure. It’s a spectacular-looking building that sticks out like a sore thumb on the traditional Old-World streets of Providence. Built in 1886, this historic art studio, located at 7 Thomas Street, was the residence of Henry Anthony Wilcox, Lovecraft’s fictional sculptor and RISD student in his famed 1928 short story, The Call of Cthulu. In this tale, the artist locks himself away in the studio while he sculpts a totem of the long-sleeping god Cthulhu based on his cosmic visions. In real life, the studio seems like just the place to create such truly outsider art. The building features one of the most eclectic façades in all of New England. Wedged between the ordered horizontal boards of the traditional colonial buildings, the studio features a series of crude, hand-carved bas-reliefs among a faux-medieval oak grid. The individually carved images are stylized representations of various forms of art, such as sculpting and painting. In addition to the prominent art tributes, the building features such bizarre touches as small expressive faces among the boards and a bold yellow color scheme. The studio looks much the same today as it did in Lovecraft’s time.

Given the building’s distinctive construction, it’s easy to see how Lovecraft envisioned the site as a warren of insanity where the crazed sculptor would create a so called “Horror In Clay.”

The Samuel B Mumford HouseThe Samuel B. Mumford House, built in 1823, was not only the dwelling where Lovecraft spent the last four years of his own life in, it was also where the main character in his story, The Haunter of the Dark, resided. The house was originally located at 66 College Street but was moved to 65 Prospect Street when an expanding Brown University overtook the former location. You can find it there today. The private residence has a historical plaque that reads “Samuel B. Mumford House,” but nothing about Lovecraft.

The house is close to Prospect Park, a small square that Lovecraft visited frequently, and which magnificently overlooks the city and features a giant statue of the founder of the state, Roger Williams, with his remains interred therein. It was in this house that Lovecraft wrote his autobiography, “Some Notes on a Nonentity” in which he mentions the house and the “haunting vista” that could be seen from there (though it cannot now because of the house changing location).

In The Haunter of the Dark, the church that figures prominently in the story was based on St. John’s Church, a church on Atwells Avenue that was built in 1873 and demolished in 1992. In Lovecraft’s day, it was the principal Catholic church in the area. In the story, the church was used by a sect called the Church of Starry Wisdom, and it housed the Shining Trapezohedron and the ‘Haunter’ itself.

In The Haunter in the Dark, Lovecraft described the church this way: “Of all the distant objects on Federal Hill, a certain huge, dark church most fascinated Blake. It stood out with especial distinctness at certain hours of the day, and at sunset the great tower and tapering steeple loomed blackly against the flaming sky…Peculiarly grim and austere, it appeared to be built of stone, stained and weathered with the smoke and storms of a century and more.”

The John Hay Library, known as the Hay, is located on Prospect Street and is the second oldest library on the campus of Brown University. The Hay houses many rare books and manuscripts, including personal letters and manuscripts written by H.P. Lovecraft. The library also contains three books that are bound with human skin. The practice is called anthropodermic bibliopegy, and such books are rare, indeed. Historically, books bound in human flesh have been anatomy textbooks, but in some cases, there have been eccentrics who’ve requested that upon their deaths their skin be used to bind their favorite books.

Lovecraft's graveFor Lovecraft, Providence was more than just a place he called home and an inspiration for the setting of some of his fiction. In one letter, he famously said, There is no other place for me. My world is Providence, and Providence is part of me. I am Providence. If you visit his grave at Swan Point Cemetery you will find “I am Providence” carved into his gravestone. The epitaph was added in 1977 through the efforts and funds raised by some of his fans.

You don’t necessarily have to be a horror fan to appreciate H.P. Lovecraft’s work, nor do you have to be a resident of Rhode Island’s capital city, but Providence is one of the best places to be a horror fan.

Published 10/31/23

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