The gravestones splay like zombie fingers getting their first breath of undead air, half-sunk and faded. These gray slabs for Rhode Islanders past, jammed into the uneven ground of St. John's churchyard, seem out of place in the streetlight-yellow glow from North Main, the solemn creepiness ruined by passing cars and screaming fire trucks. The most horrific element of the cemetery now is that it serves as a sort of back yard for the Hallworth House, a "skilled nursing facility" owned by the Episcopal diocese. Children's headstones line the path from the door to the parking lot, a fact that most likely goes unmentioned on the House's brochures, which advertise their program to "lessen anxiety and depression." But rewind Providence history: hear the clap of thunder down the hill as the mall disappears and I-95 snaps back up to Boston, watch the Sci-Li deflate, witness the Hay crumble in the face of the wilting Van Wickle gates, return to the Providence of 1848 and you can meet Poe in the graveyard.
Edgar Allan, of Raven fame and Amontillado infamy, used to stroll among the crowded monuments here beside St. John's Episcopal Cathedral. You might suppose he drew some ghoulish inspiration from the morbid scenery, or simply felt at home among the environs of his stories, but his thoughts, rather than focused on the plots below, were surely pointed up the slope to Benefit Street. Sarah Helen Whitman brought Poe to Providence, and her house overlooking the graveyard was the center of his brief fling with the city.
The pair met in person only after engaging in some literary flirtation, Whitman being a poet in her own right. The story goes that at a Valentine's Day party hosted by a friend, all the guests were prompted to compose some verses for the occasion (this was after they ran out of Karkov and Natty, of course). Whitman, apparently a big fan of Poe's, chose to write a poem addressed to him. She cast Edgar as 'The Raven,' a kind of eternal wet blanket, but managed to make this seem like a compliment by calling anyone who wasn't relentlessly pessimistic "popinjays" or "parrots". The intimate touch came in at the finale, when Whitman proclaimed: "Not a bird that roams the forest/ Shall our lofty eyrie share!" Recall, this was a time when the flash of an ankle could send hearts a-flutter, so the suggestion of sharing an eyrie was verging on the sexily risqu√©.
Poe replied in kind, first by ripping out a poem from a book of his that was conveniently called "To Helen" and mailing it to Whitman, but then by writing a whole new "To Helen," after she didn't respond to his first attempt. In his second "To Helen," Poe claims to have seen Whitman moon-bathing in her rose garden three years prior, when he was in town visiting a friend. He wrote, "the hated world all slept save only thee and me. (O heaven! O God! How my heart beats in coupling those two words!)" and furthered the rhyming romance by suggesting that he had been obsessed with her since that night.
As often happens with poem-based long-distance romances, Whitman and Poe agreed to meet, hung out at the Athenaeum for three days, and then got engaged at Swan Point Cemetery, the big brother to St. John's little graveyard. Unfortunately for Poe, though, he promised Whitman to stop drinking, got caught breaking the promise, was dumped the day before their wedding, and then tried to OD on laudanum on the train up to Boston (on Christmas Eve, no less). Waterfire having not yet been invented, Poe had no reason to return to our hilly burg, and avoided Providence for the rest of his life.
AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS
Fast-forward 88 years (the Hay's un-crumbled, the Gates are standing guard, but still no Rock) to an August night in 1936, and the corpses at St. John's are playing host to a new generation of horror. H.P. Lovecraft and his two friends, fellow writers visiting from out of town, decide to go to the graveyard and end the night on a high note, composing acrostic poems based on Poe's name while sitting on a tomb. While Poe might be the more famous author, it is Lovecraft who truly understands the horror of Providence, and of New England.
Born and raised in turn-of-the-century Providence, and dying in a house now covered by the List Art Building, Lovecraft wrote what he liked to call "cosmic horror." In his work, the terror centers on those driven mad by glimpses of the incomprehensibly alien in the everyday, hammering home man's insignificance in the universe. He claimed Poe as among his largest influences, even copying some Poeian story ideas (cursed cats, insanity in Antarctica), but resituated the Gothic to New England, imbuing Yankee living with an undercurrent of fathomless evil. Both frequented the same graveyard, but for Poe, it was just a pit stop, somewhere to bide time before the real drama of his life began. For Lovecraft, St. John's churchyard was a destination, and the jumbled gravestones hid a drama of their own.
As did the jumbled houses of Providence, to Lovecraft's paranoid eye - each a potential hiding place for unnamable atrocities striving to insinuate themselves into our lives. Much of Lovecraft's fiction is set in the imaginary Massachusetts towns of Arkham and Dunwich, sleepy colonial communities plagued by arcane knowledge, cultists trying to summon the eldritch Elder Gods (Yog-Sothoth, Cthulhu, etc.) from their alternate dimensions to reign over the Earth in inconceivably awful ways. But H.P. gives his hometown the same treatment in "The Shunned House," based on 135 Benefit (still standing today, restored and painted yellow, straight down the hill from Cushing).
The story builds with layers and layers of facts, drawing on local lore to describe the reaction of the house's maid to a series of strange deaths, describing Exeter, Rhode Island, as "a seat of most uncomfortable superstitions," which it was. Exeter's infamous case of vampire hunting ended with the very uncomfortable situation of a brother quaffing a milkshake ('cabinet,' sorry) of his dead sister's incinerated heart. It didn't work, and he died shortly after, but the ancient myths and practices Lovecraft plays with seem rooted in the little wrinkles of local culture that could hint at vast, unsettling revelations.
Lovecraft has, post-mortem (as befits his stories), put a wrinkle of his own in Providence culture, inciting a community that coalesces each year, near the anniversary of his death. Every March, devotees of his work meet, formerly at his grave, but more recently at the Brown Observatory, and hold a memorial service. The event is emceed by Christian Henry Tobler, the author of several illustrated scholarly texts on German Medieval longsword and field combat. A stock eulogy is read, but those attending are encouraged to write their own poems to be read aloud. The affair ends with a dramatic reading, and although there have been strange incidents at these meetings (pictures turn out fuzzy, freak snowstorms, crows), nothing suggests any underlying supernatural conspiracies.
In "The Shunned House," the protagonist, after losing his uncle to the power of the evil miasma in the basement, returns during the day with a shovel and some acid to burn out the problem. He digs and digs, shovel cleaving through the damp dirt, spewing fungous goop with every stroke, until he hits an angled, gelatinous tube, some six feet long. He looks, and looks, and then, like a horrible Magic Eye coalescing out of meaningless dots, he realizes that the tube is the monstrous elbow of some buried giant, sending the miasma up through the ground to melt the life out of people, an utterly alien entity slumbering under Benefit Street for hundreds of years. Providence's defining hill is a monster in hiding, looming over the bay.
WE ARE PROVIDENCE
And so, by his own definition, is Lovecraft. The epitaph on his grave, in the same Swan Point Cemetery that launched Poe's disastrous engagement, reads simply, "I am Providence." Lovecraft first made this claim in a letter to a friend, rhapsodizing about how happy he felt in his hometown. Despite the lurking horror his stories impart to the city, Lovecraft loved this place. He referred to his two-year stint in New York as his "exile," during which he was "ingulph'd in the nightmare of Brooklyn's mongrel slums" and wrote that "America has lost New York to the mongrels," in two displays of era-appropriate racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. In contrast, upon his return to our great city, he penned these lines, which should serve as a mantra to any feeling homesick or warmsick during the long winter:
"Let no one tell me that Providence is not the most beautiful city in the world! Line for line, atmospheric touch for atmospheric touch, it positively and absolutely is!"
This was, of course, before the concrete monstrosities of the 60s surfaced, and before the current tangle of highways wound around downtown, but in old Providence (and even today, if the light hits the Sci-Li right), you can see what Lovecraft was getting at.
The history, the "atmospheric touch," is never more manifest than in the city's many graveyards, especially resonant now, as the nights get longer, the leaves flame out and Halloween rears its drunken, candy-covered head from chthonic slumber. Benefit Street itself, if Lovecraft is to be believed, "was laid out as a lane winding amongst the graveyards of the first settlers, and straightened only when the removal of the bodies...made it decently possible to cut through." So go: take a walk down Benefit, avert your eyes at the shunned house, and maybe stop to sniff Poe's rapturous rose garden. Go down Church Street, down Providence's slippery slope, then enter College Hill's closest cemetery, and there trace the once-trod paths of Lovecraft and Poe. Acrostics optional.
SAM DEAN B'10 is afraid of the dark.