Read Before Providence #9: Introducing The Shunned House

The Shunned House. Left: Providence 9 regular cover, art by Jacen Burrows. Right: photo by Flickr user AKuchling
The Shunned House. Left: Providence 9 regular cover, art by Jacen Burrows. Right: photo by Flickr user AKuchling

And on the corner of Bridge St. & Elizabeth Ave. is a terrible old house—a hellish place where night-black deeds must have been done in the early seventeen-hundreds—with a blackish unpainted surface, unnaturally steep roof, & an outside flight of steps leading to the second story, suffocatingly embowered in a tangle of ivy so dense that one cannot but imagine it accursed or corpse-fed. It reminded me of the Babbitt house in Benefit St., which as you recall made me write those lines entitled “The House” in 1920. Later its image came up again with renewed vividness, finally causing me to write a new horror story with its scene in Providence & with the Babbit house as its basis. It is called “The Shunned House”, & I finished it last Sunday night.
– H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 4 November 1924, Letters from New York 82

After what seemed like a relatively slow burn, Providence moves into its final act. Providence #9 is due in stores next week, Wednesday June 1. We don’t have any advance knowledge of what this next issue holds, but we can make some educated guesses based on pre-publicized covers and other hints.

In Providence #8, Robert Black met H.P. Lovecraft, who invited Black to pay a visit to his 598 Angell Street home in Providence, RI.

Lovecraft, of course, was born in Providence, and, other than two years in New York City and many travels throughout the country, lived his entire life there. If Lovecraft is true to form, he would likely take Black on a lengthy walking tour of his beloved city, showing points of antiquarian interest and perhaps stopping for ice cream.

One site that seems likely to feature prominently in one way or another is the Babbit house at 135 Benefit Street, shown on the regular cover of Providence #9. In January 1919, Lovecraft’s ailing mother, Susie, briefly stayed with her older sister, Lillian Clark, at this house. In “The Shunned House” Lovecraft later fictionalized the house as a haunted vampire-like place sucking the life out of its inhabitants. From Lovecraft’s story:

What I heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people died there in alarmingly great numbers. That, I was told, was why the original owners had moved out some twenty years after building the place. It was plainly unhealthy, perhaps because of the dampness and fungous growth in the cellar, the general sickish smell, the draughts of the hallways, or the quality of the well and pump water. These things were bad enough, and these were all that gained belief among the persons whom I knew. […]

The general fact is, that the house was never regarded by the solid part of the community as in any real sense “haunted”. There were no widespread tales of rattling chains, cold currents of air, extinguished lights, or faces at the window. Extremists sometimes said the house was “unlucky”, but that is as far as even they went. What was really beyond dispute is that a frightful proportion of persons died there; or more accurately, had died there, since after some peculiar happenings over sixty years ago the building had become deserted through the sheer impossibility of renting it. These persons were not all cut off suddenly by any one cause; rather did it seem that their vitality was insidiously sapped, so that each one died the sooner from whatever tendency to weakness he may have naturally had. And those who did not die displayed in varying degree a type of anaemia or consumption, and sometimes a decline of the mental faculties, which spoke ill for the salubriousness of the building. Neighbouring houses, it must be added, seemed entirely free from the noxious quality.

[…] In my childhood the shunned house was vacant, with barren, gnarled, and terrible old trees, long, queerly pale grass, and nightmarishly misshapen weeds in the high terraced yard where birds never lingered. We boys used to overrun the place, and I can still recall my youthful terror not only at the morbid strangeness of this sinister vegetation, but at the eldritch atmosphere and odour of the dilapidated house, whose unlocked front door was often entered in quest of shudders. The small-paned windows were largely broken, and a nameless air of desolation hung round the precarious panelling, shaky interior shutters, peeling wall-paper, falling plaster, rickety staircases, and such fragments of battered furniture as still remained. The dust and cobwebs added their touch of the fearful; and brave indeed was the boy who would voluntarily ascend the ladder to the attic, a vast raftered length lighted only by small blinking windows in the gable ends, and filled with a massed wreckage of chests, chairs, and spinning-wheels which infinite years of deposit had shrouded and festooned into monstrous and hellish shapes.

But after all, the attic was not the most terrible part of the house. It was the dank, humid cellar which somehow exerted the strongest repulsion on us, even though it was wholly above ground on the street side, with only a thin door and window-pierced brick wall to separate it from the busy sidewalk. We scarcely knew whether to haunt it in spectral fascination, or to shun it for the sake of our souls and our sanity. For one thing, the bad odour of the house was strongest there; and for another thing, we did not like the white fungous growths which occasionally sprang up in rainy summer weather from the hard earth floor. Those fungi, grotesquely like the vegetation in the yard outside, were truly horrible in their outlines; detestable parodies of toadstools and Indian pipes, whose like we had never seen in any other situation. They rotted quickly, and at one stage became slightly phosphorescent; so that nocturnal passers-by sometimes spoke of witch-fires glowing behind the broken panes of the foetor-spreading windows.

Providence #9 Portrait variant cover, art by Jacen Burrows
Providence #9 Portrait variant cover, art by Jacen Burrows

Ultimately, the shunned house’s ill aspects have been caused by an early occupant, the “swarthy Etienne Roulet” who was “less apt at agriculture than at reading queer books and drawing queer diagrams.” Roulet is a character that sharp-eyed Providence readers are already familiar with. According to Suydam’s pamphlet in Providence #2, Roulet was the person responsible for first bringing Hali’s Booke (Providence‘s analogue for Lovecraft’s Necronomicon) to America in 1686, and was a prominent founding member of the Stella Sapiente, who have their own goings-on in Providence. Roulet turns up again in Providence #6, as the malevolent body-jumping entity possessing Elspeth Wade and, in the chilling rape sequence, Robert Black. Roulet appears on the Portrait variant cover for Providence #9.

For additional background, see our new page on what Lovecraft was actually up to in 1919 and our timeline of events in Providence, Neonomicon, and The Courtyard.

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4 thoughts on “Read Before Providence #9: Introducing The Shunned House

  1. Issue 9 was released today. The comment section for the main page isn’t open yet, so I’ll leave some initial thoughts here.

    For me, the biggest surprise was the apparent fake-out regarding the Shunned House. Black and companion walk past it briefly and it’s noted as being the Stella Saps’ main headquarters, but they never go in. Instead, we spend a fair bit of time in the church from “The Haunter in the Dark,” and we finally get a good look at the meteor that caused the blight on the farm in Athol (and which stands in for the Shining Trapezohedron).

    Henry Annesley gives a nice accounting of the Stella Saps here, making them sound very normal and reasonable and the Wheatleys and Salem folks as despicable. That is until you hear what Lovecraft’s mother has to say on the matter (and you see the flappers and wrigglers).

    Lovecraft’s physique, which Black comments on in his notes at the end, is nicely depicted by Burrows. He’s taller and bigger than Black, and despite the protestations of his aunt, he seems to be in rude good health. Not at all the retiring neurasthenic we’ve come to associate with him.

    Based on who we briefly glimpse in the church steeple, I have a pretty good idea who the “secret chief” of the Stella Saps is (and the released covers for issue 10 seem to confirm it): Johnny Carcosa. Makes total sense if he is, in fact, Nyarlathotep.

    It’s not clear to me why the majority of people in Providence are giving Black the stink-eye. Maybe they can inherently sense something about him, that he’s the Herald.

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    • Sorry – WordPress changed their defaults (pages default to no comments now – they didn’t before.) I’ll get the comments open for that page shortly (Robert is currently doing the initial cut on annotations.) Go easy with comments the first day or so while we’re getting what we can up.

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  2. wow! ^ you definitely said it, biggest surprise is the utter lack of Shunned House! oddly enough, I had a strange feeling that From Beyond was going to factor into the story, and watched the stuart gordon film last night. I was more right than I could have guessed, I did a double take on that splash title page!

    Will try to save complete thoughts for the proper #9 page though!

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