Lovecraft’s Providence

“From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent. Sometimes it enters directly into the composition of the events, while sometimes it relates only to their fortuitous position among persons and places. The latter sort is splendidly exemplified by . . . the ancient city of Providence . . .”

–H.P. Lovecraft, “The Shunned House”

As I was driving through Providence, RI the other evening, on my way to dinner with some fellow TEI Workshop attendees, I couldn’t help but think about H.P. Lovecraft and the various stories he wrote portraying this city, his home throughout his brief life. The streets and scenes I saw seemed almost familiar to me thanks to the Master’s portrayal of his city in such stories as “The Shunned House”, which begins by tracing the walks of Edgar Allan Poe when he was courting Sarah Helen Whitman, and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, in which both colonial and modern Providence act almost as characters within the story.

Some would likely argue that this injection of verisimilitude assists in making the more horrific elements of these fantastic stories that much more intense, and I would not disagree with them. But, I think, more specifically, in Lovecraft’s case, that by drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of such an old American city as Providence, Lovecraft is emphasizing that even the trappings of civilization that seem so ancient to his readers, are really nothing in comparison to the vaster, far more ancient chaos of the universe and that these artificial constructs of humanity can be erased at any moment. I also believe that Lovecraft is not alone in this use of realistic, local geography in his horror tales and can think of parallels in the London strolls of Arthur Machen‘s various protagonists and even the North African settings of Paul Bowles. I’m sure readers of this blog can come up with more examples.