Full disclosure up front: I’m not the biggest H. P. Lovecraft fan. But you know what? I think that makes me as good a litmus reader as any for a novel spun from the threads, if not also kindled by pretentions, of his mythos. And you know what else? Mamatas’s flinty cynicism makes for one bonfire of a good read, even to my street-cred-deficient mind.
To be sure, I Am Providence is as much a takedown of as paean to a writer whose stories were as influential as he himself was racist, bigoted, and eugenically tactless. Rather than iron Lovecraft’s name until wrinkle-free, Mamatas takes to starching its every stroke until Lovecraft’s inconsistencies hurt to step on. More importantly, Mamatas takes on the unsettling vacuity, if not also the vacuous unsettlement, of Lovecraftian fandom, a world that most will likely want to engage no more deeply than this book allows.
Told in part from the viewpoint of its dead protagonist, a fan novelist by the name of Panossian, I Am Providence puts us at a narrow remove from the Summer Tentacular, a made-up convention of Lovecraft fans who gather in Providence, Rhode Island to honor their prized Elder. The proceedings begin predictably enough, coughing through the chalk dust of a messy emotional curriculum, until Panossian ends up dead at the hotel that is hosting the convention. When his awkward roomie, a vegan, Riot Grrrl College dropout by the name of Colleen Danzig, and whose third-person omniscience is shuffled into the victim’s first-, is named a primary suspect, she takes advantage of the erstwhile congoers around her to get to the sticky bottom of things. With only these so-called “omegas of society” to aid and hinder her quest alike, it’s all Colleen can do to keep her innocence afloat in the sea of gothic waves in which she finds herself.
Exposition teaches us that Panossian has a handful of potential enemies, any one of whom might have been capable of murder, and with that the mystery is atentacle. If any of this sounds a bit moronic, even uncaring, it’s only because Mamatas’s characters are of that very gormless ilk. Like the protagonists of The Blair Witch Project, what this sordid bunch lacks in empathetic appeal it makes up for an almost endearing willingness to take risks. Our conduit Colleen is particularly savvy in her investigative abilities, which culminate in a final act that is equal parts bravery and tragedy.
Mamatas brings a vivid realism to the proceedings, kneading the subculture of his interest with prophetic flour. (There’s even an excerpt from a ’zine—clipart, ransom note pastiche, and all—mentioned in-story to add to the realism.) Compelling is the way in which Mamatas unravels interpersonal politics from Panossian’s death, in the wake of which conversations that might otherwise feel mundane now become an opportunity for us to comb for clues. Even being sequestered in the hotel doesn’t stop these determined congoers from bathroom brawls, morbid meetings, surreptitious séances, and eccentric excavations. And floating along this alliterative smorgasbord is a rare book, bound in human skin—a pound of pulp for a pound of flesh—that may or may not have a connection to Panossian’s death.
On that latter note, I Am Providence hinges on the thoughts of a dying brain. Even as Panossian lies horizontal in a morgue drawer, his self-awareness between death and total disappearance makes for some of the novel’s most fascinating detours. In stark contrast to Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, at no point do we encounter Panossian floating around like a free spirit, but rather chained to some ineffable remainder of his cellular destiny, which he can only hope will stop him from thinking without a body.
Mamatas has no compunctions about jumping up and down on Lovecraft’s moral fault lines. And why should he? A man and his art are not always the most consensual of lovers, and posing them before the camera obscura of a writer as down-to-earthly talented as Mamatas is one way of sneaking at least one pasteboard of truth into the deck of biographical worship. For Mamatas is indeed that rare fiction-slinger who forbids both his characters and his readers to get away with anything unchecked. It’s right there in the novel’s frontispiece—All characters appearing in this work are fictitious, especially you—and bears out affirmatively in the dialogue, sharp yet believable throughout.
If you’ve ever played the Lovecraft-inspired board game Mansions of Madness, then you know that it’s nearly impossible to win if you’re not the Keeper, and that the Investigators are sure to fall prey to all-out annihilation. But in the explosion of leviathan-proportioned bullsh*t Mamatas has so passionately rendered, it’s the Investigators who take the lion’s share of fun, leaving the Keeper to run frantically behind the scenes to keep things balanced, and to ensure that what we’re left with isn’t some paraeidolic etude for the darkly minded. All of which is to say, don’t feel afraid to bring this one to the beach while the sun’s still out. All those glistening bodies and crossfires of assessing glances will make it that much more delectable beneath your umbrella.