Rookie horror writer Colleen Danzig decides to attend The Summer Tentacular, a Providence RI convention dedicated to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. There, she meets a number of fellow authors, most of whom turn out to be antisocial weirdos. Dismayed at the insularity of the “scene”, Colleen strikes up a weary rapport with Panos Panossian, a sardonic writer who seems to detest most of his peers and is hated by them in return. When Panossian is found dead with his face sliced off, Colleen gets implicated in a mystery involving cranky convention goers, Lovecraft’s grave and a book bound with human skin.
I Am Providence is primarily a demolition of the lovecraftian community: The authors, the convrntion organisers, the fans, the sycophants, the trolls, the endless backstabbing, etc. Mamatas conjures a cast of slavering sociopaths, flunkies and self- promoters who bear a distinct resemblance to real- life authors on the scene. Only a couple of characters walk away unscathed but it’s safe to say that the community does not end up looking particularly well overall. Now, it’s true that every organisation features such people (and on a personal note, anyone who has had any first- hand experience with the Athens punk and metal scene or the fractions of the Greek Left over the years will feel perfectly at home in this setting), but the English- speaking genre communities have been embroiled in their own version of the culture wars of late, with quarrels over issues of identity politics, racism, misogyny and sexual harassment coming to the surface. In this climate, Lovecraft’s well- documented racial views are an incendiary topic. There is an increasingly vocal part of the geek community (authors and readers) that believes that their scene is being taken over by feminists, SJWs and assorted marginalised groups, whose demand for more representation is destroying the genre. In these days of Gamergate, Breitbart, the Sad Puppies campaign and an army of fanboys ready to throw an online hissy fit at the slightest provocation, this mentality is alive and well and running for President; meaning that the time for this book is perfect.
The central mystery is therefore not the most crucial aspect of the novel, but it does play fair with the reader. Alternating between Colleen’s amateur investigation and Panossian’s first- person musings as his body lies dead in the morgue and his consciousness gradually fades away (a gimmick that could have backfired but instead works like a charm), the plot of I Am Providence moves proceeds rather lackadaisically. There is some wheel- spinning around the middle section, as the characters move between a couple of locations reciting theories about the potential culprit, but it’s not much of a problem because the damn thing never stops being funny. It does mean that Panossian’s chapters are a lot more entertaining though. No punches are pulled and as a result, I Am Providence becomes a spectacular exercise in burning bridges. Mamatas makes a convincing case for why it’s reductive to dismiss Lovecraft’s racism as irrelevant to his oeuvre and argues that his bigotry was the result of deep, personal neuroses and not a coherent ideology. This is an effective rebuttal to the usual justifications for Lovecraft’s racial views, both the common (“He was just a man of his time!”) and the unhinged (“He was just a man of his time and, anyway, he had a point!”).
Unsurprisingly, I Am Providence has caused quite a stir in the lovecraftian community. There is a lot of frothing at the mouth involved, but the main argument seems to be that Mamatas is benefiting from Lovecraft by association, while being disrespectful of his legacy. This is bullshit of course. Setting aside the fact that Mamatas has produced a significant body of work that owes nothing to the old gent, I Am Providence contains eloquent passages on Lovecraft’s style and influence (including a perceptive assessment of Pickman’s Model) that make it perfectly clear that he considers him an important writer whose work will endure. The gatekeepers of this particular sandbox are missing the point, as nobody’s pet interest is unassailable. As it happens, the human mind can correlate its’ contents on occasion. Some of us can engage with a piece of work and take into account the context of its’ creation, without having to embrace or justify the creator’s unsavoury views. Plenty of fans of Jack London, Sax Rohmer, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and a number of Norwegian church- burning black metal bands do this all the time without becoming apologists or screaming at each other on the internet in ALL CAPS. Lovecraft fandom needs to grow the fuck up and this gleefully antagonistic little book is a step in the right direction.