Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In the Spirit of H. P. Lovecraft

I absolutely hated junior high school. The time I spent there has to count as one of the overall worst experiences of my life. I didn't like the other kids very much as most of them only seemed to think about  hanging out on street corners and picking fights. They didn't like me very much either; so the feeling was mutual. When my three-year stint there was finally drawing to a close, I had the option of attending any one of four high schools in the city. Not wanting to spend another three years with the kids from my area, I chose to attend Hope High School, which is situated on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island; on College Hill.

To this day, I consider my determination to attend that school as one of the best moves of my life. Although unbeknown to me at the time of my decision, that part of the city would soon reveal itself as an alternative universe of sorts. College Hill is the home of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. People there didn't want to hang out on street corners. Instead, they were interested in current events, science or were creating art, literature and music--and the local shops along Thayer Street reflected and still do mirror those interests.

Overall, Providence's East Side maintains an ambiance unlike that of any other place I've ever been to. From the ivy-covered buildings on the Brown campus to the old colonial-style homes on Benefit Street, by which the great American horror writer Edgar Allan Poe once walked, the place strikes you as not only historic, but occult. It holds it own dark secrets that perhaps, have only been detected by a select few.

I don't remember when I first heard of Howard.Phillips Lovecraft, but it was likely some time during my high school years. By that time I was already a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and was aware that Providence had once been home to another great horror writer in Mr. Lovecraft, but I was otherwise unfamiliar with him. I didn't know at the time that, although he and I didn't quite share the same Alma Mater, he did attend my school's predecessor long before I was born. It wasn't until years later however, that I delved into Lovecraft's writings and learned about his life.

The writer was born in his east-side family home at 194 Angell Street on August 20, 1890. Upon marrying in 1924, Lovecraft and his bride moved to her apartment in Brooklyn. Financial problems soon drove the couple apart however, and the writer, totally disenchanted with life in New York, returned to Providence's East Side, where he remained until his death.

It is my opinion that a big part of the author's genius was his ability to capture the darker, more occult essence of the area in which he lived. Oh yes, he took the reader beneath the pyramids of Egypt and to a multitude of subterranean caves, in lands real and imagined, where unspeakable horrors lied in wait for the curious. Many times he concerned the reader with strange civilizations and beings of the Mythos, which although worshiped by their minions, were hostile to humanity. Yet, as a person who has personally experienced the ambiance of Providence's College Hill, it is very easy to visualize the young Charles Dexter Ward's occult experimentation, which eventually drove the lad into madness.* It is not difficult to imagine that in some unremarkable house on Benevolent Street an inventor, driven insane by the nature of his work, might invent a machine by which his victims would view ghastly and frightful beings ordinarily obscured from the human eye.**  

In a piece called The Shunned House, Lovecraft showcases a still-existing structure called the Stephen Harris House, named after a successful colonial-era merchant. After Harris constructed the Benefit Street dwelling in 1763, he and his family fell on hard times and suffered adversity after adversity. It is reported that the couple lost several children while yet others were stillborn. Allegedly, Mrs. Harris went mad and was confined to an upstairs room, from which neighbors would occasionally hear her shrieking in French; a language that she did not herself speak.

In his fictitious account, Lovecraft described a deserted dwelling: "What I heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people died there in alarmingly great numbers. That, I was told, was why the original owners had moved out some twenty years after building the place. It was plainly unhealthy, perhaps because of the dampness and fungous growth in the cellar, the general sickish smell...

"...But after all, the attic was not the most terrible part of the house. It was the dank, humid cellar which somehow exerted the strongest repulsion on us..."

What is it about that house, and especially its basement, that inspired Lovecraft to describe horrifying occurrences from within its walls? To the casual passer by, the old Stephen Harris House, now painted yellow, may be just one of a number of colonial-era structures in a historic part of the city. Still, it is likely through that same building that the spirit of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and his tales of madness, the sightings of ghouls in cemeteries and musky cellars holding dark secrets live on.

As a small child Caitlin Rebekah Kiernan migrated with her mother to the southern United States from Dublin,  Ireland. After spending much of her earlier childhood in Leeds, Alabama she spent her teenage years in the town of Trussville, in that same state. Although a trained paleontologist, Kiernan turned to fiction writing in 1992 and was awarded the International Horror Guild Award in 1998 for first best novel and the James Tiptree Junior Award in 2010.

The Green Man Review has called her "a successor to the traditions of H.P. Lovecraft;" and to anyone familiar with the writing styles of both authors, the similarities are obvious.

In a manner similar to that of her predecessor, Ms. Kiernan delves into subterranean places where frightening creatures await those caught unaware. Although her earlier fiction takes place in the deep south and might be described as southern Gothic, she now lives in Providence and some of her settings are quite similar to those of Lovecraft. In her novel entitled Daughter of Hounds, the protagonist is taken to a yellow house on Benefit Street. It is a house under which various hounds, ghouls and vampires lurk within a dank and musty cellar that is interconnected with an entire network of passages leading to graveyards, subterranean arenas and abandoned railway tunnels. The house and its gruesome inhabitants feature in some of Kiernan's short fiction as well.

It's hard to imagine that this brilliant writer, who is known to regularly visit Lovecraft's headstone in Providence's Swan Point Cemetery, is not aware of the early twentieth century author's shunned house; and although she only refers to a yellow house on Benefit Street, I strongly suspect that her gruesome abode, which is inhabited by a ruthless bailiff as well as the creatures in the cellar, is one in the same with his.

Of course, she has a great imagination of her own, is influenced by other writers as well as Lovecraft, and is an author in her own right. Still, if there is anyone today who continues on in the spirit of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, captures the feel and sometimes dark essence of Providence's East Side and embraces the overall culture of Rhode Island as a whole, I would offer the more recent works of Caitlin R. Kiernan as evidence.   

* The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

**  From Beyond

See also The Shunned House.

Further information on Caitlin R. Kiernan   


  1. Although the Hope High School you attended has a name similar to the one Lovecraft did (Hope Street High School), they're actually different. Lovecraft's Hope Street High School was across Hope Street from the current Hope High School. The current high school was built in 1938 after the original burnt.

    You might find it interesting that both the Stephen Harris House (The Shunned House) and the Thomas Lloyd Halsey House (the home of Charles Dexter Ward) are currently for sale:

  2. That is interesting information. Thanks for sending it along.

  3. ...who dares heed the call of Cthulhu? Nice article.