Lovecraftian People And Places by Ken Faig (book review).

To some extent, HP Lovecraft’s identification with the city of Providence is an integral part of his personal mythology. No less important are the places where he lived. Born at a rather grand mansion house on Angell Street, family fortunes declined, and his childhood was marked by moves to successively less grandiose dwellings. Nostalgia for a lost and, to his eyes, manifestly superior past would colour much of his writing.

It was not just the building that Lovecraft mourned, but also the people associated with his childhood. When he was just 8 years old, Lovecraft’s father died, and the substantial father figure in his life became his maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. His mother and aunts were also highly significant figures in his upbringing. Yet, to truly understand Lovecraft and his often macabre fascination with heritage and genealogy, do you need to go deeper than that to the very roots of the Lovecraft family tree?

Ken Faig would seem to think so, and in ‘Lovecraftian People and Places’ he presents a series of essays on different aspects of Lovecraft’s origins and life. I say a ‘series of essays’ because the individual chapters are essentially standalone pieces. If there is an overarching synthesis to be drawn here, it isn’t made obvious in the text. On the other hand, the wide range of topics presented here do make the volume very useful to those researching the field.

For example, the first chapter looks at the Devonshire origins of the Lovecraft family name. HPL himself had dallied in genealogy (of course!) and drawn some conclusions from his research, based largely on a family tree compiled by his Great-Aunt Sarah’s, known as the ‘Allgood chart’. Much of this chapter delves into the claims made by this chart, critiquing or explaining them in light of modern scholarship. In some cases, some of the things Lovecraft believed about his family can be disproved, but, more generally, given the importance of genealogy in some of Lovecraft’s stories, such as ‘The Shadow Out of Innsmouth’ and ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, getting a sense of the value Lovecraft placed on his own familial and ethnic origins is important.

Speaking of ethnicity and family names, a later chapter is one of the most interesting, focusing as it does on the ethnic names in ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’. While Lovecraft tended to use Anglo-Saxon names for his protagonists, in this story he also included some Polish, French, and Bohemian names for his secondary characters. Is there any significance to the names chosen? asks Faig. For the most part, no, it would seem, though some of the names do seem to have been carefully chosen from a stockpile of common ethnic names appropriate to the time and place where the story is set. But one name, Mazurewicz, may be a deliberate dig at Edmund Mazurewicz, a political rival in amateur journalism.

A substantial section of the book focuses on places, including three houses where Lovecraft lived in Providence, Rhode Island: the original and rather grand Angell Street home that his grandfather owned and where he was born; the smaller Angell Street ‘duplex’ where his family lived after their financial circumstances worsened; and the humble College Street apartment where he lived for the last four years of his life. Taken together, these can be seen as contributing to that sense of nostalgia for a lost childhood that colours so much of what he wrote.

The essays go further than that, though, describing not just the architecture and history of the buildings involved but also the other occupants, particularly those that might have had an impact on Lovecraft’s life. The essay that is perhaps the most interesting is the one on the putative home of Joseph Curwen, the antagonist of ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’. Using photos and maps, as well as detailed research, Faig, writing with Jason Eckardt, makes the case for a house on Olney Street being the one Lovecraft had in mind when writing about Curwen’s house. At the time he was writing the story, the house in question was rented to Delilah Townsend and her family. They were black, originally from Virginia. She was a housekeeper and launderer by trade and is known to have worked for Lovecraft’s aunt. She is referred to by Lovecraft in a number of letters that, as the authors point out, rage from the ‘openly appreciative to the blatantly racist’. The fact that the house was in an ethnically diverse neighbourhood is probably significant as well, and the authors give some of the history of the place and point out similarities with events in ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’.

Although readable and filled with interesting sidelights on Lovecraft’s life, ultimately, this is a book for the scholar rather than the casual fan of his fiction. If what you’re interested in are the fictional characters and imaginary places Lovecraft writes about, then Joshi and Schultz’s ‘An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopaedia’ would probably be a better fit. But if you consider the wider span of Lovecraft’s life, particularly his early life and his subsequent contributions to amateur journalism, then Faig’s book is going to fit the bill very nicely indeed. Impressively deep and usefully illustrated with maps and photos, it frustratingly lacks an overall family tree, timeline, or even an index, which makes navigating the book more difficult than it might have been.

Neale Monks

April 2024

(pub: Hippocampus Press. 354 page enlarged paperback. Price: $25.00 (US), £29.97 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61498-337-8)

check out website: www.hippocampuspress.com/h.-p.-lovecraft/about-hp-lovecraft/lovecraftian-people-and-places  

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