Monday, June 6, 2016

Notes on a Recent Visit to Providence

Because of “severe driving conditions”—and there had already been several of these earlier in the day:  a crumpled van and exploded semi-truck in Pennsylvania, an upside down car on a bridge in Connecticut—Ms. Garmin rerouted us through the southwestern edge of Providence.  Not its most attractive section, a region cluttered with abandoned houses, boarded up storefronts and graffiti on nearly every surface, intensely colorful and incoherent.  We arrived in this part of Providence at rush hour, enduring miles of incomprehensible serpentine name-changing streets and start-and-stop traffic, halting at lights that were green for seconds and red for hours.

By degrees the chaotic streets were replaced with older, better preserved homes and buildings, as well as reassuring campus architecture the nearer we approached College Hill.  Though a relief to see, Benefit Street was a traffic horror at this time of day.  In a brochure somewhere it says that the road had originally been designed as an alternative to the main street, in hopes of siphoning off the congestion down near the river, but this it did to its own doom.  Benefit Street is a narrow street lined on both sides with beautiful, antique homes, most of them built in the early 19th century. (A few of the houses at the northwest end of the street date back to the Revolutionary War era or before.)  But the road was built with horses and pedestrians in mind, nothing much wider than a wheelbarrow or wooden wagon, and not for SUVs.

Modern day Benefit Street theoretically allows traffic to move in both directions along its course.  However, people can park along the curb, which turns the street into a nail-biting single lane featuring oncoming traffic.  Adding to the suspense that day were numerous driveways and cross-streets, those on the left dropping precipitously toward the streets and river below, and those on the right serving as steep chutes for other cars to barrel down at right angles to the direction we were headed.  All the roads that travel in an east-west direction are pitched at a nightmarish 30˚ angle or steeper.  For Midwesterners who are used to streets laid out in grids on flat, stable land, making a turn on Benefit Street is the emotional equivalent of driving off the side of a bridge or cliff.

Naturally we missed the driveway to our bed-and-breakfast the first time through, which forced me to make a precarious, multi-directional turnabout near the corner of Benefit Street and Olney.  My fellow drivers along Benefit Street were kind and accommodating as best they could be in such a narrow space—had this been Detroit, I would have become merely an object of scornful mirth.  I later suggested to staff  at The Old Court Bed and Breakfast—a gem of a place—that it might be helpful to demolish at least every other historic home in order to create space for travelers to turn their cars around in.  But Providence is not about efficiency or ease of transport, much less parking. 

But enough griping about traffic; Benefit Street and its neighborhood were marvelous to see in the short time we were there.  Once we unpacked—and my nerves had settled—my wife and I strolled down towards the river for a seafood dinner.  I tried the “Rhode Island Style” clam chowder, which is not creamy like the conventional form of this soup but a thin broth of clam, shellfish, onions, potatoes and bacon—is there nothing that cannot be improved with bacon?  It is also inflamed with a generous helping of chili pepper, which made it a delicious and indelible gustatory memory.  The Rhode Island Style chowder also cleared my sinuses for days afterwards. 

After dinner we walked up and down a lovely riverfront park along South Water Street, admiring all of the steeples and taller buildings that were now lit gold by the setting sun.  We wandered here and there among the residential neighborhoods to the east, climbing the hilly streets and exploring the edges of Brown University campus. The College Hill section of Providence reminded me of Charleston and Savannah, the only cities of comparable age that I have visited recently. 

Back in our neighborhood, I was struck with how just a few doors down from where we were staying on Benefit street the homes grew progressively older in age, as if one were subtly going back in time. This is an effect Lovecraft actually achieves in a couple of his stories, as in “He”, through clever attention to architectural details.

A few places resembled pictures that I had seen in the marginal notes of The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, but I could not be absolutely certain during this initial foray.  We did find the Providence Athenæm, reputed to be one of Lovecraft’s favorite haunts, as well as the original location on College Street of the last house Lovecraft had lived in.  I dimly recalled that he had spent his remaining years at 66 College Street.  We found 48 and 54, but not 66.  I determined later that this house had been moved to Prospect Street, several blocks over, and to the north.  I made a mental note to visit it the next day.

Because Boston, our next destination, was only about an hour north of Providence, we had ample time to explore College Hill more thoroughly the next morning.  I had printed off a very helpful map from the website, which proved indispensable.  Our itinerary began with the Stephen Harris House, which turned out to be just across the street from the place where we were staying.  This is “The Shunned House”, with its foundation wall exposed and visible along the sidewalk.  It was possible to imagine the climactic events of Lovecraft’s story happening on just the other side of this wall.  Many of the locations on College Hill are connected with the author’s life or are referenced in a few of his stories, especially “The Shunned House”, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Haunter of the Dark”.

Heading east, we climbed a steep hill and then rested—had to, to avoid cardiac arrest—at Prospect Terrace Park, a pretty little place overlooking downtown Providence.  It is a shady green trapezoid with a wrought iron fence along its western rim.  The skyline must have been less complex in Lovecraft’s day, and he reportedly enjoyed relaxing here.  There is a large granite statue and monument to Roger Williams, but his may not have been there in Lovecraft’s day. 

The statue, about 15 feet tall, depicts Williams looking out over the city—his remains were taken from his original gravesite and placed beneath it in 1939—his third interment.  Apparently at his original place of rest a nearby apple tree had sent its roots into his casket, assuming the form of the famous theologian and advocate for religious tolerance. The “Williams Root” is reportedly housed as an exhibit in a museum on the east side of the city.  I do not know if this story is true, but I certainly hope that it is.  Too weird.

We later saw the house on 10 Barnes Street, entangled in power lines and almost impossible to photograph from the street.  Lovecraft wrote a number of his stories in this house, including “The Call of Cthulhu”.  It is the address given for Dr. Willett in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”.  We also saw the Halsey House, the model for the Ward residence in the same story, behind a wrought iron gate and half concealed by some trees planted close to its foundation. 

At the southern end of Prospect Street we discovered a couple of memorials to H.P. Lovecraft at the edge of the Brown University Campus.  At the corner of Angell Street and Prospect, attached to a metal street light pole is a brown oval plaque, appropriately festooned with tentacles and what appear to be multiple eyeballs, which labels the corner as “H.P. Lovecraft Memorial Square”.  I later discovered a copy of this plaque on a high shelf in the “Lovecraft Arts and Sciences Council” shop in the Arcade on Weybosset Street.

Not far from here was the John Hay Library, where some of Lovecraft’s manuscripts and correspondence have been stored.  I asked the librarian if by any chance there was a display of any of this material.  I had envisioned Lovecraft’s papers being in a special locked glass case, just as the Necronomicon is at the Miskatonic University Library.  The librarian said that he only had copies of some of the letters—it would take at least 24 hours to obtain them—and that the original Lovecraft material was now stored in a different location. 

But he directed me—as he probably has done many others—to a small monument on the front lawn, a boulder with a plaque commemorating the author on the centennial of his birth, in August of 1990.  It displays a sonnet of Lovecraft’s, “Background”, from the collection of poems called, “Fungi from Yuggoth”.  It recalls the imagery and sentiments expressed by the author in “The Silver Key”, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and others—basically, his disaffection and estrangement from modern life.  (“I never can be tied to raw, new things, /For I first saw the light in an old town…”).  This seemed to capture an essential characteristic of H.P. Lovecraft, and is a favorite theme in his work.

The most impressive recognition of Lovecraft, it seemed to me, was a large bust of the author prominently displayed inside the Providence Athenæm—itself an antebellum marvel with its neoclassical façade and antique racks of books.  Lovecraft frequented this place, as did Edgar Allan Poe.  Perhaps it was one of the places where he felt most reassured, most at home in the world.  On the pedestal bearing Lovecraft’s likeness is a plaque listing many names familiar to horror aficionados.

We finished our visit in Providence by perusing the shelves at the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences Council headquarters in the Arcade on Weybossett Street.  It was an obstacle course to get there that day; the street was under construction, and the downtown is a maze of narrow winding streets that seem to change names for no apparent reason.  Finding a place to park requires psychic powers—not my forte.  But the trip was well worth the ordeal.  The place is a shop of Lovecraftian wonders, full of books, posters and obscure artifacts of uncertain purpose.  I purchased a collection of the author’s letters to August Derleth, and a T-shirt that I can never wear in public.  I could have spent hours in that establishment, though my patient wife could not…


  1. That John Hay librarian you met is obviously a lying toad, who just wants to get Lovecraftians out of the building as quickly as possible.

  2. You may be right, though he didn't look very batrachian. I was surprised to hear from him that none of Lovecraft's original material was stored on the premises. (Nor Clark Ashton Smith's.)

    I realize I am biased, but it did seem to me that Lovecraft deserved more recognition--in the way of monuments or better, exhibits--than he received from his home town. I imagine some folks are working on this.

  3. Most of the Lovecraft manuscripts are currently off-site because they're in the process of being digitized. Photocopies are still on site, but they have to be retrieved from the vault where the originals are normally held, hence the 24-hour delay.


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