Sir: As if it were yesterday, I remember meeting H. P. Lovecraft on the corner of Benefit Street and College Hill about noon on a very warm, sunny day.
College Hill is a rather steep climb, but on that day, a friend of mine and I, both attending Classical High at the time, were climbng up it oward the campus. At the base of College Hill on Canal Street, a new courthouse had been built. By taking the elevators to the fifth floor, we could have emerged on Benefit Street and eliminated the climb. However, despite the warm day, we walked.
As we got to Benefit Street, my friend greeted a passerby and introduced me to him. It was H. P. Lovecraft.Lewis Shaw, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” in Brown Alumni Monthly 72, No. 7 (Apr 1972)
Memoirs and anecdotes of H. P. Lovecraft tend to come from familiar names: his correspondents, friends like Clifford & Muriel Eddy (The Gentleman from Angell Street), and his wife Sonia H. Greene (The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft) most prominent among them. Even the few unfamiliar names like Dorothy Tilden Spoerl (“Cosmic Horror”) prove to have some connection to Lovecraft with a little digging. The very few memoirs that don’t have any provable connection to Lovecraft are thus a little suspect; they are extraordinary, and extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence to prove them.
The geography of Providence is real, and while Lovecraft often kept late hours, he was also more active during the warmer months and went out of doors to write in the sunlight. So at least some of the details given are plausible. Yet the most interesting part of Shaw’s account is the least believable:
On that sunny afternoon, H. P. Lovecraft told us the strange story he wrote about a hotel on Benefit Street, a building which stands there no longer.
Lovecraft had written a story about a true incident. At one time there was a young woman, a chambermaid in the hotel on Benefit Street, who left and married into wealth. Sometime afterward, she returned to visit the hotel as a guest. When she found herself discourteously treated and snubbed, she departed but put a “curse” on the hotel, on all those who had humiliated her, and on everything concerned with the hotel. In short order, ill luck apparently befell all and the hotel itself burned down. Furthermore, it had never been possible, somehow, for anyone to rebuild on the site. Even on the day H. P. Lovecraft told us the story, the place where the hotel had stood was still a vacant lot.
Lovecraft had finished the story and, without making his usual carbon copy, made only one draft, which he then mailed to the publisher. His story never appeared in print. It was lost in the mails.Lewis Shaw, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” in Brown Alumni Monthly 72, No. 7 (Apr 1972)
Lovecraft is not known to have written any story about a cursed hotel, nor is there a mention of a Lew Shaw in his voluminous published letters. Scholars might be suspicious—an account of a lost Lovecraft story by an unfamiliar name, decades after Lovecraft’s death, during the early 70s when paperback publication was raising Lovecraft’s public profile? It sounds a bit too good to be true. S. T. Joshi certainly was not convinced:
There is much reason to suspect this entire account. In the first place, the story sounds like nothing Lovecraft would have written—the idea is hackneyed, and the protagonist would uncharacteristically have been a woman. Secondly, it is inconceivable that Lovecraft would have prepared a story without his usual two carbons. In the case of his essay on Roman architecture in late 1934, he wrote the piece by hand and sent it to Moe without typing it at all. Lew Shaw claims to have actually met Lovecraft on the street, in the company of a friend “who was interested in science-fiction” and knew Lovecraft; this might conceivably have been Kenneth Sterling, but Sterling never mentions this matter in either of his two memoirs. Shaw also claims to be of the Brown Class of 1941; but there is no one of that name in that class listed in the Brown University alumni directory. There is a Lewis A. Shaw in the Class of 1948, and a Lew Shaw who received a Ph.D. in 1975, but that is all. My feeling is that Lew Shaw (probably a pseudonym) is perpetrating a hoax.S. T. Joshi, I Am Providence (2010) 2.1001
Joshi’s arguments are well-reasoned—but there are a few counter-arguments. While none of Lovecraft’s surviving letters mention a cursed hotel story, the account does not mention when the story was written or sent out; so it could conceivably fall into a gap in the correspondence, especially if the story was an early one or written for a revision client. A story set in Providence on Benefit St. isn’t out of the question either, “The Shunned House” was based on a real-life house (the Stephen Harris House, 135 Benefit Street). Likewise, while it would be uncharacteristic for Lovecraft to write a story with a woman protagonist, it was not unknown: “The Man of Stone” (1932) for Hazel Heald and “The Curse of Yig” (1929) for Zealia Bishop are primarily focused on female characters, or told in part from their perspectives, so it isn’t entirely out of the question. The postal service has lost many manuscripts and typescripts, so that by itself isn’t unbelievable either. The most obvious evidence of a hoax appears to be the absence of Lew Shaw himself…
Lewis Irwin Schwartz attended Classical High School in Providence, RI and graduated from Brown University in the class of 1941 (listed on page 72 of the Liber Brunensis for 1941). “Lew Shaw” was his stage name (“He Crashed The ‘Crewcuts’,” Brown Alumni Monthly Jan 1962). So, Joshi was correct that there was no “Lew Shaw” among the names in the Class of 1941, and that the name was a pseudonym—but didn’t have access to the bits of the puzzle that would show that Lew Shaw really did exist; those parts of the narrative at least match what we know of his background.
Joshi was also likely correct in identifying Shaw’s unnamed friend interested in science fiction as Kenneth Sterling. In Providence, Sterling attended Classical High School. They were both born in 1920, but Shaw was born in November, so he would probably have been a year behind Sterling. That gives us time as well: Sterling met Lovecraft in March 1935, and in the autumn of 1936 began attending Harvard, so the encounter with Lovecraft could only have happened in the summer of 1935 or 1936. Lovecraft doesn’t mention Shaw/Schwartz in the surviving letters to Kenneth Sterling, but on the other hand, those surviving passages are all excerpts, not complete letters, and there are gaps of months in the correspondence.
Kenneth Sterling wrote two memoirs about Lovecraft: “Lovecraft and Science” (1944) and “Caverns Measureless to Man” (1975). The first is slight, and doesn’t go into detail about how they met; the second is substantial, and more personal and biographical, going into considerable detail. Some of these jive with Shaw’s account:
During the academic year, excepting Christmas and spring recesses, the Science Club met weekly. That meant I had a schedule of one scientist a week—all, with two exceptions, from the Brown University faculty—and every time I walked up College Hill toward the Brown campus I visited Lovecraft for several hours. The total number of hours I conversed with him was huge.Kenneth Sterling, “Caverns Measureless to Man” in Ave Atque Vale 406-407
This would have been the path Shaw describes. Sterling doesn’t mention the cursed hotel story; the one anecdote Sterling tells about bringing a friend to meet Lovecraft doesn’t jive either, since it was at a gathering in New York City. Again, this doesn’t immediately rule out Shaw’s story, but it doesn’t fully confirm it either. Shaw’s account is shifted from obvious hoax to doubtful…and there’s one final bit of evidence to consider: was there a hotel, cursed or not?
The Hotel Lorraine was on 18-28 Aborn Street, on the other side of the Providence River from Benefit Street, a geographic detail that Lovecraft would not have missed, but I’ve yet to find a notable hotel fire on Benefit St. during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and the 18 Aborn St. lot was still vacant according to the 1935 Providence City Directory, which does jive with Shaw’s story. No mention of a curse has turned up yet, but a lot of century-old folklore probably wasn’t written down, much yet made it onto the internet, where searches about cursed hotels in Providence point toward the Biltmore (now The Graduate).
The question then becomes: is this an error with Shaw’s memory, or did he fabricate the whole anecdote? The former might be understandable: a couple of decades can erode the details of many memories, or add details that weren’t there before. If the latter, why? As far as is known, Shaw never attempted to pass the anecdote off to a paying magazine or publisher or profit from the supposed association. It was of the nature of a brief letter to the editor to a college alumni journal about a local writer with ties to the college whose posthumous star had lately been on the rise and who had ties to Brown (Lovecraft’s papers are archived at the university library). In the Feb 1972 issue of Brown Alumni Monthly there had been an article on “Lovecraftmania at Brown” which probably suggested the letter.
Without any further evidence in Lovecraft’s letters to support the idea that the meeting actually took place, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” will have to remain classified as somewhere between doubtful and apocryphal. We have no absolute evidence that Shaw/Schwartz actually met Lovecraft, as there are no details in the incident that can be independently corroborated with sources that weren’t already published at the time. As Joshi noted, the plot sounds fairly hackneyed and un-Lovecraftian; not something he would write for himself, even with the local angle.
However, we also cannot entirely rule out that Shaw did not meet Lovecraft; we know Sterling had brought at least one friend to meet Lovecraft according to his later memoir. The plot of the apocryphal tale sounds un-Lovecraftian, but Lovecraft was willing to bend his artistic scruples a bit for revision clients. Is a lost revision story plausible? There’s evidence to suggest Lovecraft revised more stories than saw print, such as “In the Gulf of N’Logh” (193?) and “Lair of Fungous Death” (193?) by Hazel Heald, and his letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop. By 1935, Lovecraft had largely stopped revising fiction, but it is possible he was talking about an earlier story—Lovecraft didn’t discuss much of his revised fiction that didn’t get published.
While Lovecraft’s life is extraordinarily well documented by his letters, there are still little gaps in which things happened for which we have no record…and, perhaps, in which a clever fiction might be woven. Shaw’s account cannot be entirely ruled out, but neither can it be proved, unless more information comes to light.
Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for all of his help and assistance.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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