“Lovecraft and Benefit Street” (1943) by Dorothy C. Walter

The house was—and for that matter still is—of a kind to attract the attention of the curious. Originally a farm or semi-farm building, it followed the average New England colonial lines of the middle eighteenth century—the prosperous peaked-roof sort, with two stories and dormerless attic, and with the Georgian doorway and interior panelling dictated by the progress of taste at that time. It faced south, with one gable end buried to the lower windows in the eastward rising hill, and the other exposed to the foundations toward the street. Its construction, over a century and a half ago, 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.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shunned House”

Dorothy Charlotte Walters was secretary of the League of Vermont Writers, a worker on the Vermont Commission on Country Life, and local historian and writer who had attended Brown University in Providence.  She met H. P. Lovecraft only once, in the summer of 1934 while visiting Providence; her memoir of that meeting was later published as “Three Hours with H. P. Lovecraft” (1959). But her first memoir of Lovecraft, published in 1943, as “Lovecraft and Benefit Street.” It is one of the first such memoirs of Lovecraft by any of his female acquaintances.

Returning from such rambles in space and time to his desk in his sightly study from which he overlooked the treetops of Benefit Street, dark against the sky-glow of downtown Providence, he spent night after night, which was his working time, using the familiar localities, the characteristic family and Christian names of Rhode Island, and factual details of the present and past of the life and business of Providence to furnish a setting for tales and doings that were strange indeed.
—Dorothy C. Walter, “Lovecraft and Benefit Street”

At the time they met, Lovecraft was ensconced at 66 College Street, his final home; the window in Lovecraft’s study offered a good view of the treetops and roofs lower down the hill. Walter’s piece combines elements of biography and literary criticism; it is obvious she either read or re-read a good chunk of Lovecraft’s fiction before writing this piece, probably from the first Arkham House collection The Outsider and Others (1939) which she mentions later on in the piece. Some of her observations are more cogent than others:

In the making of imaginative tales of the sort that Mr. Lovecraft wrote there cannot help being a good deal of claptrap and mumbo-jumbo. His stories suffer, if too many are read in quick succession, from similarity in the method of producing a weird atmosphere. It is easy to tire of gothic effects in landscape and in weather when one knows that by such artifices one is being “softened up” to be bowled over at the appropriate moment by the horror of the narrative. One longs for a mystery to develop in a neat, ordinary house, or for a homicide committed in brilliant daylight. Many of the stories are too long. Cutting would have improved them. And Mr. Lovecraft leaned too heavily on a few trick words that had come to have a heightened significance for him—nameless and forbidden, for example, to mention two. He also relied much too often on references to things distasteful to himself that he assumed would produce similar feelings of aversion or fear or disgust in others—fishy odors, for instance, which he couldn’t endure and used again and again as a symbol of the evil and the malevolent; the strangeness of the foreigner; the unpleasantness of things squirmy and slimy; and chief of all, the sensation of cold. […] He would have agreed with Dante in making hell cold. (ibid.)

Subjective assessments aside, there are criticisms and observations in Walter’s piece which would be repeated by many others—indeed, some of the myths about Lovecraft may have been partially popularized by her little memoir. The main thrust of her article is not just about Lovecraft, but about Benefit Street itself, and here it should be remembered that Walter and Lovecraft were of an age—she was born in 1889, he in 1890—and shared a few of the same influences and, probably, prejudices. So in describing the street, she wrote:

One can savor early Providence under its elms, or the Yankee Providence of today, and one can also travel to foreign lands without leaving the street, if one has an open sesame to the pleasant hospitality of the Syrian, Portuguese, and Jewish homes that cluster around its opposite ends. (ibid.)

Benefit Street also provides the setting of “The Shunned House,” and so  involves one of the more dramatic and complicated publishing histories in the Lovecraftian corpus. Robert Weinberg wrote an excellent article on the publishing history of “The Shunned House,” but the short version is that in 1928, Lovecraft’s friend W. Paul Cook—a small-time printer—offered to publish the story in an edition of 250 copies. It would have been Lovecraft’s first standalone hardcover publication. Nothing went right. The edition was printed, but not bound; some of the unbound sheets were bound by R. H. Barlow, and later still some were bound by Arkham House, becoming an odd collector’s item long after Lovecraft’s death, with asking prices in the thousands of dollars (and at least one set of forgeries). The general failure of the book to be properly published during his lifetime was one of Lovecraft’s many discouragements and regrets in the writing game. Cook mentions the printing briefly in his own memoir “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Recollections, Appreciations, Estimates” (1941), which is probably all that Walter knew of the matter.

Her own approach to this confluence of Lovecraft and local history comes by way of an anecdote:

But one below-zero night in northern Vermont, in search of a bedtime story, she opened the huge Lovecraft volume that a friend had loaned her. Her eye chanced on a familiar name in a story entitled “The Shunned House,” and she read on just where she had opened the book, astonished to find herself in Providence, wandering along Benefit Street. It was pleasant to be so transported so unexpectedly to a neighborhood well known since college days, interesting and amusing to find it figuring as a setting for the outrageous events of a weird tale when she had always considered it seemly and sedate. She read on, absorbed in the pleasures of recollection. And before she knew it, she was getting shivers and a crinkly spine out of the hair-raising particulars of an uncanny and not very believable yarn. Well, of course it was late, and a very cold night! But what more could a writer of weird fiction have asked for his efforts! (ibid)

Walter’s memoir doesn’t offer any uniquely critical insight into Lovecraft: their association was too brief. Yet it as an example, if any be needed, at how we all touch the lives of others, and might be remembered afterwards by those we knew but briefly. Walter has her few anecdotes of Lovecraft, expands on his fiction and character through her own lens, and even though there is little hard data here that you won’t find anywhere else, she still adds what little she has to the store of Lovecraftian lore. We are richer for her brief memoirs of Lovecraft than we would be without them.

“Lovecraft on Benefit Street” was first published by W. Paul Cook in The Ghost #1 (1943), reprinted by his Driftwind Press as a small chapbook, reprinted again in the fanzine Xenon (July 1944), and finally reached something like wider publication in Rhode Island on Lovecraft (1945, Donald M. Grant), and finally in Lovecraft Remembered (1998, Arkham House).

“Three Hours with Lovecraft” was first published in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959, Arkham House), republished in Lovecraft Remembered (1998, Arkham House), and again in Ave atque Vale: Reminiscences of H. P. Lovecraft (2018, Necronomicon Press)

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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