12 May GHOULS OF PROVIDENCE
I’m writing this from my hotel in Providence, R.I. It’s gloomy out and I’m fighting a fever.
I wasn’t as bad yesterday, when I showed up. I took a commuter train down from Boston. The cars were appropriately gloomy and empty, and the countryside grew more gnarled and eldritch-y as we neared Lovecraft country.
I’d booked tonight’s show at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel for the express purpose of walking the Providence streets, and soaking up whatever oily ether H.P. Lovecraft must’ve breathed. I’ve been re-reading his stuff this past year, and it’s clanging around in my head. Maybe a walk down the narrow lanes of downtown would put it into some sort of sad perspective. At around 6pm last evening, I ventured out:
Keep in mind, my fever was in its infancy. While I unpacked and dressed, I played Adam Curtis’ excellent documentary THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES on my laptop, about the simultaneous rise of radical Islam and American Neo-conservatism. Like the war between Lovecraft’s Old Ones and Shuggoth, these two splinters of fanatics, which had their roots back in the Cold War of the 50’s, would eventually limn the lines of combat and stress we’re all living under today.
I was finishing tying my shoes and listening to the documentary, which went into the short, apocalyptic life of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Islamist and the father of the philosophy of Al Qaeda.
“Sayyid Qutb” sounds like one of those guttural, Lovecraft-invented names. If not the name of one of his spectral beasties, then of some doomed researcher of the unknown, who left a “noxious fragment” which led others to evil.
Keep Sayyid Qutb in mind as I leave the hotel to go walking around.
Directly to the left of the hotel’s doors was the most ominous Chinese restaurant I’d ever seen. The sweet-flesh smell exhaling from his portal managed to pierce my swollen sinuses. On a TV over the bar, BETTER OFF DEAD was playing. Curtis Armstrong was tapping on a jar which held a calf fetus.
Three doors further down was Cellar Stories Books:
There was a huge window display of Poe, Lovecraft, and WEIRD TALES magazine. Also, a pulled quote from Lovecraft about the nature of Yog-Sothoth:
“Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate…” While I read these worse, a weird, echo-y whoop rang out, close behind me.
In the parking lot opposite the bookstore, four or five dark, dessicated drunks had gathered around the open hood of a wounded automobile and were making nonsense noises which bounced off the brick walls of the buildings surrounding the lot. They sounded like one, collective thing, barking confusion and alarm at the strange mechanics before them:
One of the group, a squat stick of a man in a wheelchair, peeled off and headed down the street, randomly “yipping” and “yowling” while sipping a beer. He got to a busy intersection and sailed into traffic, blithely missing a speeding car:
Something from an impossible dimension, with a scribbled intellect, was protecting him.
It was growing dark and windy, and I saw an open liquor store that sold medicine. I needed Nyquil. I headed for the door. Before I could go inside, a man on a bicycle sped up to me. He wore a tan Dickies windbreaker, an orange waffle shirt and a NY Yankees baseball cap:
“Hey-hey-ha, I know you. I know who you are. On the TV. There you are. I know you.”
I didn’t have the presence of mind to take out my camera and snap his face, but my mind took a picture all the same. His face looked — reconstructed. Like the bones of the cheeks and forehead had been shattered, and then re-glued. There were faint criss-cross scars on his olive skin, and he’d grown a moustache to cover a particularly nasty scar at the corner of his lips, as if his mouth had torn open in a scream.
He launched into the following monologue, which I tried to remember as he said it. Keep in mind, when he spoke all of his words had to pass through a mouth that was in a permanent letter “o”:
“You’re real on that show. Realer than the rest of the TV. You can’t fake it. Coins under the ground, and you hand ’em out and laughs. That old man. That old man’s angry and you’ve got the coins.”
I thanked him, and he told me he wanted to tell me “something else that wasn’t a joke.”
“Okay”, I said.
“Give me two dollars.”
I didn’t. I had just enough for my Nyquil gels, and I pocketed them and kept wandering, going in a crooked spiral that took me away and then back to the hotel.
Taking up a whole corner was Big Nazo, a sort od art collective/studio/factory. Huge marionettes, costumes, and statues peered from the window:
Wow! I stepped inside. I don’t know if they were actually open this late on a Sunday evening, but the door was chocked open, and I wanted to look at more of the amazing creations.
Two artists, their backs to me, sat Indian-style on the floor and worked on a green head.
One of them said, “You ever heard of Sayyid Qutb?”
The other said, “Qutb, Qutb, Qutb” like a chant.
My fever flared and I left without saying a word. They never knew I was there. I’d had enough.
I washed down the Nyquil with a bowl of the hotel’s superlative chicken soup, and tried to remember when I’d first read Lovecraft. But my head was full of cement, and nothing came:
The Nyquil extinguished any dreams I might have had, and I woke to church bells. There’s a church near the hotel that peals out on the hour — first orderly, flat tones for whatever time of day it is, and then a weird, discordant fistful of notes that sounds like two trolls are chasing each other back and forth between the bells.
I boarded a cab while the bells were going BONG BONG BONG for noon and headed off to Swan Point Cemetery. The driver, who’s skin looked like he’d fended off daily ice pick attacks, drove us aimlessly around the grounds, getting lost. The wind was blowing leaves and blossoms off the trees and in the blue-grey light of the coming story it looked as if we were underwater.
A helpful caretaker pointed us in the right direction, and we found the obelisk with PHILLIPS on it. Behind it, on a little marker, was Howard Phillip’s name, his birth and death dates, and the phrase “I AM PROVIDENCE”:
Little stones, a lead fishing sinker, and coins were left on the grave. A piece of yellow legal paper had a quote from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” written on it. It was held down by a smooth rock. A white piece of paper, nearly disintegrated, was held down by its own small rock. I leaned down, but the writing was in…Arabic.
I called Harlan Ellison, and he revealed to me he was one of the people who donated money to have the headstone erected in 1977. Before that, Lovecraft’s remains were..elsewhere, and his name was simply carved on the Phillips family monument. Not enough for his haunted fans, I guess.
Harlan told me a joke about a dachshund sending a telegram. A cemetery car drove by, slowed, and the occupants pointed at me. It was starting to rain:
The driver got even more lost trying to get us out. A huge, hairless man cam out of a nearby chapel. One of his eyes was glued shut by overgrown skin tags. He told us to follow him, and he led us to the exit in a little cart, also the property of Swan Point.
The Swan Point Cemetery symbol looks almost the same as the symbol on the Swan Station hatch in LOST.
It’s almost dark. I have to go do the show.