History Notes

H.P. Lovecraft - Footsteps in Johnston

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H.P. Lovecraft, famous author and Providence native, is a literary figure whose popularity and cult status continue to grow nearly 70 years after his death. He is considered by many to be an equal of Edgar Allen Poe and one of the world’s premier horror story writers.

It seems that there are collections of his stories and studies of his works published every year. There have been several movies based on his work and Rod Sterling featured versions of his stories on the television classics, “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” and, of course, he has his own website. Popular author Stephen King has called him, “easily the most influential and important writer of the 20th century.”

But despite this acclaim and current popularity, he was relatively unknown at the time of his death. Lovecraft was born in Providence in 1890 and spent his childhood in his grandfather’s “rambling colonial mansion” on the East Side of Providence. Except for a few years in New York City, he lived all his life on the “ancient hill” in his beloved Providence. He worshipped the 18th century and early American architecture, and he spent a lot of time traveling and exploring historic spots around New England.

Lovecraft was a voluminous letter writer and correspondence all over America. It is estimated that he wrote over 100,000 letters during his lifetime, many of them 50 pages long, plus postcards. Recently his letters have been published by the Arkham House Publishing Company under the titles, “Selected Letters I-V.” It is from these books that most of the information for this article has been taken.

Early in 1920, the Hughesdale Grammar School was in need of substitute math teachers and as a result of a family connection, the job was offered to one of Lovecraft’s aunts. H.P. was called in to help, and he corrected the papers that his aunt brought home to him.

At this point in his life he was pretty reclusive, and he mentions that he would provably have become a nervous wreck if he had to work at the school and “hold in check a room full of incipient gangsters.” Well, that is calling it pretty close, but at least he did not call them a bunch of little monsters. Anyway, if anyone out there had family that went to the Hughesdale Grammar School in the early 1920s, their math papers may have been corrected by the old master himself.

Lovecraft often took long walks around Providence and vicinity, soaking up local flavor. In the fall of 1921 he and his aunt Annie headed west from College Hill toward “that remarkable eminence known as Neutaconhaut Hill” (the spelling is H.P.’s). From there he boasted of seeing the most magnificent view of Providence and the bay that was ever beheld. He also took note of an observatory built in the Gothic manner that crowned the hill but was in a state of disrepair.

This would have been the King Observation Tower built around 1900 by Abbie King as a memorial to her family which was one of the oldest in that section of town. The tower was used by sight-seers before vandals severely defaced the structure. Eventually it burned down. Perhaps it was the same “incipient gangsters” that had handed Lovecraft their math papers.

From here Lovecraft and Aunt Annie traveled northwest through territory that H.P. claims was lived in by his ancestors some 80 years previously. We will let him describe it: “Now and then we could spy some stately colonial farm house with gambrel roof and small paned windows nestling proudly under the precipitous lea of the lordly Neutaconhaut. We then walked on to the ancient hamlet of Simmonsville now called Thornton. At the turn of the village stood the archaic Simmons Mansion, white and austere with the regal Ionic columns of its portico silhouetted against the Western sky. My grandmother visited here in the 1830s when a small child and we could imagine her inside the long old windows, primly curtseying, playing the harpsichord, weaving samples, or making crayon drawings after the accomplished young females of her day!!”

As the sun set, Lovecraft and his aunt passed by the mansion and came upon a still older house. Lovecraft describes it: “A mighty farmhouse of 1720 with severe Colonial doorway, having Doric pilasters and triangular pediment. Back, back come the years.” (Steve Merolla told me that this is probably the Pardon Fenner House which was located on Priscilla Lane near the Johnston Senior Center. It no longer stands.)

Lovecraft continues: “In the gathering dusk we walked on to Hughesdale where the coach line ends. We came upon it as the first lights twinkled out from antique cottage windows. The small-paned windows of little white cottages set back from the highway with the wells and wellsweeps beside them and white picket fences all about. At the four corners we stopped and saw the school house and village church loom white through the evening, and on one corner a little shop glimmered invitingly as it had glimmered when the young swains and ploughboys stopped to buy stuff and gunpowder on their way to join the rebels in Providence at the Market Parade in 1775.”

Lovecraft was to return to Thornton and Neutaconkanut Hill many times over the year-end particularly during the last autumn of his life. In another letter he speaks of his love for the region, a region of great oaks, hidden meadows, and crumbling stone walls. He hoped to use the setting in a future story, but that was not to be.

Well, that ends H.P.’s visit to western Johnston. It is nice to see local scenes described so well in print, but I hope that you were not expecting to read about haunted houses and graveyards. Lovecraft’s interests were varied, and he generally kept the scary stuff in his short stories, although in a later letter he does tell of traveling up Putnam Pike to search for “the mysterious, dark swamp of Chepachet.” Maybe we will go there with him in a future article.

Lovecraft died in 1937 and is buried in the family plot in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. His tombstone bears the quote, “I Am Providence,” taken from another letter describing his love for the city. He died a poor man and relatively unknown. Only two people attended his funeral services at the Chapel of Horace B. Knowles on Benefit Street. One of the people was his Aunt Annie.

Postscript: A few years back I was speaking to the president of the Swan Point Cemetery, and he mentioned that H.P. Lovecraft’s gravesite was, ironically, the most visited in the cemetery.

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