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History and horror meet: See the landmarks that inspired H.P. Lovecraft

By Daniel H. Trafford

Published October 01. 2013 1:14PM   Updated October 02. 2013 10:41AM
Renee Trafford photo
The Fleur de Lys building on Thomas Street, which featured prominently in "The Call of Cthulhu," is now owned by the Providence Art Club.

"The true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous."

Thus begins one of H.P. Lovecraft's endearingly ghastly tales, "The Picture in the House."

And the celebrated hero of horror knew New England well. A writer writes of which he knows. And to H.P. Lovecraft, New England had just enough age, skeletons and secret places to suggest an entire cosmos of horror to his fertile imagination.

Unknown and practically unread in his own lifetime, Lovecraft is regarded as the premiere horror author of the 20th century by a cult of devotees that gets stronger every year. Even Steven King acknowledges that "It is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."

And while Lovecraft is posthumously enjoying a worldwide outpouring of praise, he's been curiously ignored in his hometown of Providence.

That's beginning to change, though.

Just recently, the Providence City Council has christened the intersection of Angell and Prospect streets as "Lovecraft Square."

And the city's first Lovecraft convention, aptly called "NecronomiCon," (a wink at the fictional volume of death and dark magic mentioned in many of Lovecraft's tales) took place last month.

But the best way to steep yourself in Lovecraft lore is by visiting the author's old haunts. For the very buildings that served as inspiration for Lovecraft's chilling stories are not only still standing, but well-preserved on the East side of Providence.

The Rhode Island Historical Society periodically conducts walking tours around the author's old haunts. But you don't need to wait for the next one if you'd like to see the old buildings that inspired his best stories. Not only will you be able to see the buildings that suggested grisly horror, but you'll get to stroll one of the most charming city sections in New England.

But be forewarned — this tour is not for the faint of heart. Not because it will frighten you (in fact a quainter city neighborhood cannot be found), but rather because it one of the hilliest cities outside of San Francisco.

1. The Shunned House, 135 Benefit Street. This house, from the short story of the same name, inspired Lovecraft to pen this tale of a terrible monster in the basement that's apparently immune to bullets, poisonous gas and a couple of army-issue flamethrowers. It may be shunned, but it's still standing, and looks just the same now as it did then.

2. The Fleur de Lys Building, 7 Thomas Street. perhaps the most noteworthy building in Lovecraft lore, this is where his famous "The Call of Cthulu" begins. This short story led to what is now called the Cthulu Mythos by devotees. In the story, it's the residence of the artist whose nightmares launch the initial investigation of the crown prince of Lovecraft monsters. The building itself is a fascinating architectural curiosity,

3. The Providence Anthenaeum, 251 Benefit Street. This exquisite Greek Revival building was constructed in 1838. One of the oldest continuously operating libraries in the country, it's mentioned in "The Shunned House." It was a favorite place of Lovecraft's. And it's even more famous as the site where Edgar Allan Poe courted Sarah Helen Whitman.

4. The Samuel B. Mumford House, 65 Prospect Street. Lovecraft's final residence, this was also the home of Robert Blake in the short story, "The Haunter of the Dark," about an evil church in the city's Italian Federal Hill District. Alas, the church no longer exists.

5. Halsey House, 140 Prospect Street. This mini-mansion was the home of the Ward family in the Providence-rich story, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," a riveting tale of witchcraft, resurrection and the calling of foul beings from the vast beyond.

6. 10 Barnes Street. This was the home of Dr. Marinus Bicknell Willett in the aforementioned tale. In real life, it was where Lovecraft lived from 1926 to 1933.

7. 598 Angell Street. This is where Lovecraft lived from 1904 to 1924, when he got married and moved to New York for a couple of years.

8. H.P. Lovecraft's grave, Swan Point Cemetery, 585 Blackstone Blvd. OK, this isn't in the same East Side neighborhood as these other sites, and it's not within walking distance of them either. But no Lovecraft tour would be complete without a visit to the man's grave. Lovecraft died in 1937 and was buried in the family plot, with his name added to the family stone. It was only in 1977 that his fans raised the money to place a gravestone for him at the site. The epitaph reads, "I am Providence" — a phrase taken from one of his many letters.

To find the grave: After you enter the front gates, drive straight ahead; at the Barnaby monument, turn left onto Junction Avenue and bear right at the Daniels grave marker onto Pond Avenue; go as straight as you can until you reach a "T" intersection with Avenue B; the Phillips family plot is directly in front of you; Lovecraft's stone is behind the bigger family monument.

Just remember that all the homes that served as inspiration for Lovecraft are still private residences. Please be courteous.

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