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256 pages, Paperback
First published August 9, 2016
The dust-up at the opening ceremonies was basically a conflict between literary critics and fans, to name two of the more ridiculous sets of people in the world. What's a critic but a reader who can neither stop re-reading the same thing over and over, nor shut up about it? And what's a fan but a reader who has stopped reading, and still can't shut up about it? Fans resent critics, and critics disparage fans. What a great idea to get everyone together and provide inexpensive booze.
Let's be clear—Lovecraft was an anti-Semite. He wasn't an anti-Semite for the time, he wasn't an anti-Semite only before his marriage to Sonia Greene, he wasn't an anti-Semite until he learned about the horrors of Nazism, he was an anti-Semite from beginning to end.
The nitty-gritty: A hilarious romp through the weird world of a Lovecraft convention, narrated by a murder victim and full of strange characters.
It seems these days you can’t swing a dead cat in a bookstore without hitting a Lovecraft-inspired speculative fiction novel. I’m not sure why 2016 seems to be the “Year of Lovecraft,” or maybe I’m just hyper aware of all these tentacle-filled stories. But in any case, I’m curious enough to read as many of them as I can. Enter Nick Mamatas, whose take on the Lovecraft mythos feels quite different from some of the other books I’ve read. For one thing, I Am Providence is funny. Mamatas has not only done his research on Lovecraft and the rabid fans who worship him, but he’s thrown in his first-hand knowledge of the ups and downs of being a small press published writer. This story is full of irreverent pokes at just about everyone and everything: fan conventions, writers, editors, publishers, fanzines, bloggers, social media, racists and more. But it’s much more than just a humorous look at a very specific subset of the SFF world—it’s also a fast-paced murder mystery that felt almost like a “locked room” mystery to me, since most of the story takes place at the convention hotel where attendees are told not to leave, after one of their own shows up dead.
It’s time for the annual Summer Tentacular, the premiere convention for Lovecraft fans and writers, which is held in Lovecraft’s home of Providence, Rhode Island. Horror writer Colleen Danzig is attending the convention for the first time and is anxious to make connections that might help her career along. Colleen’s first day of the convention is spent schmoozing in the bar, meeting an assortment of strange writers and publishers, and attending the (very odd) opening ceremonies.
But before the convention can really get underway, Colleen’s roommate, an unlikable writer named Panossian, is found dead, his entire face cut off. The local police are called in to question everyone at the convention, who are now suspects in the murder. But Colleen decides to take matters into her own hands, as the police don’t seem to be getting anywhere, and launches her own investigation. One of the attendees is most likely the killer, and Colleen is determined to find out who it is.
As the convention spirals out of control, the deceased Panossian lies in the morgue, dead yet still conscious in some way, able to hear everything around him but unable to see. He is trying to not only figure out who the shadowy figure was that he saw right before he died, but to reconcile his strange life as a writer.
Colleen’s and Panossian’s stories eventually collide as the investigation takes a dangerous turn.
I have to start this review by confessing that I haven’t actually read a lot of Lovecraft myself. When I was a kid, my parents let me buy the 1971 Scholastic paperback edition of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror, probably from a school Scholastic book club order form—a decision that I’m sure they regret to this day. I remember struggling with the prose (a word I actually didn’t know at the time) and thinking "Get to the point, already!" In other words, I didn’t really dig Lovecraft. (Or maybe I was too young...)
Fast forward a bunch of years and suddenly Lovecraft is everywhere, and I’m finding I much prefer stories that riff on his themes than those by the writer himself. And I Am Providence is a great example. One of my favorite things about this book was its snarky humor. Mamatas has clearly lived in this world—I mean, you can’t write this kind of biting humor without first-hand experience—and although his story has made me fearful of ever going anywhere near a Lovecraft convention, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that, despite being over-the-top, must have a kernel of truth to them.
The characters by themselves are all a bit on the annoying side and feel like caricatures rather than real people (which I think was the point), but when you put them all together it made for a ridiculously fun story. Despite Lovecraft’s legendary racism, many of the characters are people of color, including writer R.G. Gonzalez and even Panossian himself. Colleen was one of the more likeable characters, a writer trying to gain traction in the odd and insular world of Lovecraft. She’s even willing to be roomies with a man she’s never met (Panossian) in order to afford the hotel room. Once Panossian’s body is found, Colleen jumps at the chance to be Nancy Drew (and unfortunately, several of the male characters even call her this) and try to solve the murder on her own, since the local police don’t seem to have a clue about how to conduct a murder investigation.
I loved that Mamatas gave Panossian a voice, and I imagine having a dead character narrate half the book is something Lovecraft would have done. Panossian’s chapters helped shed some light on the mystery and gave the reader lots of insight into the motivations of the other characters—in his snarky and disapproving voice, of course. The only slow part was a long chapter near the end where Panossian’s soliloquy got to be a bit too tiresome for me, which I was tempted to skim (but didn’t).
I Am Providence was great fun, full of funny and irreverent commentary on all sorts of things related to the field of writing. Even if you aren’t a writer, you’ll probably recognize these characters, but for those who have attended fan conventions of any sort, you’ll probably feel right at home.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
This review originally appeared on Books, Bones & Buffy