Tuesday, March 8, 2016

H.P. Lovecraft's Connections to the North Burial Ground in Providence

Howard P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), one of the most significant authors of weird/horror fiction in the 20th century, was a nearly lifelong resident of Providence. While he and his ancestors are buried at the Swan Point Cemetery, there are numerous Lovecraft connections with the North Burial Ground. These connections include both characters and settings from his fiction as well as real-life neighbors and acquaintances.

The North Burial Ground Setting

The North Burial Ground holds a place of prominence in two of Lovecraft’s best-known works, “The Shunned House” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

In “The Shunned House,” a short story written in 1924, the inception of the North Burial Ground creates the premise for the entire story. The story postulates that the house at 135 Benefit Street (known to Lovecraft as The Babbitt House, as the Harris House in the story, as the Mawney house according to the Providence Preservation Society plaque it bears, or as “the Shunned House” to 21st century locals) was built over the graves of Huguenots with possible “demoniac” ancestry. The house is the oldest extant house on Benefit Street, and would have been well-known to Lovecraft since his aunt, Lillian Phillips, had lived there as a companion to Sophia Babbitt from 1919-1920.

The "Shunned House" on Benefit Street.
In the opening pages of the story, Lovecraft describes how the house came to be:

Its construction, over a century and a half ago [about 1764], had followed the grading and straightening of the road in that especial vicinity; for Benefit Street—at first called Back Street—was laid out as a lane winding amongst the graveyards of the first settlers, and straightened only when the removal of the bodies to the North Burial Ground made it decently possible to cut through the old family plots.

According to the story, there was no record of the transfer of the Huguenot graves to the North Burial Ground, thus leaving this ancient evil in the ground to infect the house and its inhabitants through the generations.

In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a novel written in 1927, but not published until after Lovecraft’s death, the North Burial Ground also features prominently. It is the location of numerous grave visits by various personages, both real and fictional, in both the 18th and the 20th centuries. Early in the story, recounting occurrences in 1771, Lovecraft writes:

a party of ten visited the old North Burying Ground opposite Herrenden’s Lane [now Rochambeau Avenue] and opened a grave. They found it vacant, precisely as they had expected.

Later entries deal with incursions into the Burial Ground in the 20th century, with the fictional Robert Hart, night watchman, discovering the culprits. Dr. Marinus Willett, the physician who is treating Charles Dexter Ward for his unexplained psychological and physical changes, finds the story in the Providence Journal, where he reads that Hart found

The Rochambeau Avenue entrance to the NBG.
a party of several men with a motor truck in the oldest part of the cemetery, but apparently frightened them off before they had accomplished whatever their object might have been. . . . The diggers must have been at work for a long while before detection, for Hart found an enormous hole dug at a considerable distance back from the roadway. . . . The hole, a place as large and deep as a grave, was empty. . . . In reply to questions Hart said he thought the escaping truck had headed up Rochambeau Avenue [thus marking it as roughly the same location as the 1771 visit described above].

It is important to note that near the current pedestrian entrance to the North Burial Ground at the intersection of North Main St. and Rochambeau Ave. was formerly a main entrance to the cemetery, near the section that contained the oldest graves.

A bit later in the story, Hart again discovers that the “ghouls” who had been at work in the cemetery had apparently dug up and robbed the grave of the fictional Ezra Weeden.

Finally, Dr. Willett himself visits the cemetery, leading to an article in the Evening Bulletin which describes his visit.

Hart observed the glow of a lantern or pocket torch not far to the northwest, and upon opening the door detected the figure of a man with a trowel very plainly silhouetted against a nearby electric light. . . . He saw the figure dart hurriedly towards the main entrance, gaining the street and losing himself among the shadows. . . . A vacant part of the Ward lot shewed signs of a little superficial digging.

Willett describes the results of his visit to the NBG to Charles Ward’s father near the end of the novel:

You can put up a stone in your lot at the North Burial Ground exactly ten feet west of your father’s and facing the same way, and that will mark the true resting place of your son.

To read more about all the connections between Lovecraft and folks buried at the North Burial Ground, including such figures as the Brown Brothers, Stephen Harris, Cyrus Butler, Abigail Cushing, and Clara Hess, visit the H.P. Lovecraft tour on the website of the North Burial Ground Project, where I have documented over 20 denizens of the NBG who were friends or neighbors of Lovecraft, appeared in his books and stories, built or owned houses in which he lived, etc.