My recent posts have been about a trip Tony and I took along Route 44. Our appropriately final stop on the trip was Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. We went to see the grave of H.P. Lovecraft.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror writers of the twentieth century, reinvented this Gothic genre for the modern world by combining New England folklore, science, and a grim materialist worldview. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890 to Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft and Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman. Winfield was hospitalized when H.P. was three years old, apparently for a mental breakdown, and died in 1898 from syphilis. (A lot of critics speculate this influenced most of H.P.'s fiction.)Lovecraft and his mother were later supported by his maternal grandfather and aunts, but the death of his grandfather in 1904 placed the family into near poverty.
Lovecraft eked out a living as a pulp writer. Stories with titles like "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Haunter of the Dark" appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. Although he was popular with readers and loved writing, he never made much money. He died in 1937 from intestinal cancer, possibly exacerbated by a poor diet.
Unlike a lot of pulp writers, Lovecraft's work has grown in popularity. Hollywood makes movies influenced by it, and writers continue to emulate it. But why?
In some ways, his work is repetitive and cliche ridden. Most tales involve a WASPy introverted narrator who stumbles upon unspeakable ancient evil and is driven insane or transformed into a hideous goopy mess. (See note above about insane syphilitic father.) Personally, I think his work remains popular partly because he created his own pantheon of monstrous deities for the modern world. These extradimensional entities, including the enormous squid-like Cthulhu and the sinister Nyarlathotep, and the mysterious books about them, like the fabled Necronomicon, comprise what fans label the Cthulhu Mythos.
Lovecraft himself was an atheist, and was quite explicit that he was writing fiction. But not everyone believes him. Some modern occultists like Phil Hine and Kenneth Grant claim they use his work in real, effective magic. Perhaps, they say, Lovecraft was really a sinister mage who encoded his dark knowledge in fiction. Or maybe he thought he was making things up but in reality was unconsciously accessing occult knowledge through his dreams. Who knows? Maybe the Lovecraftian gods really are lurking out there somewhere. Maybe someday Cthulhuism will become a major world religion, and Providence will be its Vatican City.
Lovecraft loved Providence and all of New England, and included lots of local folklore in his stories. He used witch lore frequently, but also referenced more obscure folklore as well. For example, "The Dunwich Horror" includes references to whippoorwills, the mysterious Moodus Noises and the standing stones on Burnt Hill. He really liked to ground his cosmic terror in the specific New England milieu. So, if you're out looking for Cthulhu or some other hideous Lovecraftian creature, you don't need to travel very far. A hideous unspeakable horror could be residing behind a gift shop on the Mohawk Trail even as we speak!
His tombstone, which reads "I am Providence", is in his family plot. When we visited it was surrounded by grave side offerings of stones, coins, and crow feathers placed there by fans of this New England original.
The cemetery is lovely, and you can visit Lovecraft's grave yourself following the directions on Quahog.org, a Rhode Island tourist site.
Remember that Swan Point is an operational cemetery, so if you go please be respectful. And don't even think of going on Halloween. My friend Matt, who is a Lovecraft expert, says the cemetery posts extra guards that night.