H.P. Lovecraft and Block Island

Fri, 03/01/2019 - 6:30am
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Stephen King holds the position of New England’s pre-eminent horror writer.

But King’s literary canon would not exist without the inspiration of the author who was King’s predecessor: H. P. Lovecraft, who blended sci-fi and horror in ways that continue to shape both genres. And while Portland native King uses his works to create an alternate, horror-infused geography of Maine, Lovecraft — who famously proclaimed of the relation between himself and his hometown, “I am Providence” — set many of his most memorable works in his beloved Rhode Island, including perhaps his signature story, the 1926 “The Call of Cthulhu.”

I am a native of yet another New England state, Connecticut, yet Lovecraft and Block Island have a strong connection in my mind. In my youth, my family would often spend a week on the island during the summer, and it was during one such trip that I first read Lovecraft. I have a vivid memory of staying up late and reading Lovecraft’s 1931 novella “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” about a man trapped in a New England seaside town as cultist townsfolk and amphibian monsters comb the streets to hunt him. To this day, it remains one of the most emotionally-resonant works of Lovecraft for me, and I am sure the effects of reading it alone in the dark on a damp island off the Rhode Island coast helped.

This has led me to wonder: did Lovecraft himself ever visit Block Island? He loved his home state, and traveled across it. Block Island’s status as an early colonial settlement would appeal to his antiquarian sentiments, as would its role in the Pequot War which Lovecraft had an interest in. Its occupation by the British in the War of 1812 would seemingly interest the avidly Anglophile Lovecraft. And of course, there is the supernatural connection. Charles M. Skinner’s 1896 book Myths and Legends of our Own Land, which Lovecraft owned and used as inspiration for some of his most famous stories, has a section on Block Island recounting the Palatine Lights and Buccaneer Lee. Notably, those Block Island stories are immediately after the entries on East Haddam, Connecticut which Lovecraft drew from for his 1928 story “The Dunwich Horror.”

But after reviewing volumes of Lovecraft’s writings, including his exhaustive correspondence to friends and family, I am as certain as one can be that he never did visit the island. However, that is not to say that there are no connections between Lovecraft and Block Island.

The only time that Lovecraft mentioned Block Island in one of his published works was his 1933 short essay “Some Dutch Footprints in New England,” which begins with an account of Adriaen Block and a mention of how Block Island came to bear his name. Through Lovecraft’s maternal great-great-grandmother, Esther Whipple, Lovecraft was tangentially related to another early sea captain, Abraham Whipple. Lovecraft featured Whipple in his 1927 novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in a segment set in 1770. On March 27, 1778, during the Revolutionary War, Captain Whipple ran his ship Columbus aground off Point Judith, one of the mainland termini for today’s Block Island ferries. Lovecraft himself does not seem to have visited Point Judith — at least in reality. But in the 2017 German-language ebook novel Lovecraft Letters, author Christian Gailus sends his fictionalized Lovecraft from Point Judith to Block Island in October 1936, several months before Lovecraft’s death from cancer.

While the actual Lovecraft may not have visited Point Judith, he did often pass through the other major Block Island ferry point of departure, New London. Lovecraft often took the train between New York and Providence, and New London was one of the stops — though Lovecraft dismissed the town, referring to it as “a dingy little burg — a Victorian relic” in a May 18, 1922 letter to his friend, Maurice W. Moe. Moe was also the recipient of another rare Lovecraft mention of Block Island in a September 18, 1932 letter. In it, Lovecraft took on the persona of someone from the early 1900s, amazed at the reception of radio messages from Block Island, an apparent reference to the pioneering radio stations of Lee deForest and Walter Massie.

But the most essential link between Lovecraft and Block Island was a familial one: Lovecraft was the paternal great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of John Rathbone, one of the original 16 purchasers of Block Island from 1661 now immortalized (under the spelling John Rathbun) on the Settlers’ Rock plaque near the North Light. Lovecraft’s descent from Rathbone/Rathbun came via the latter’s son and grandson, both also named John Rathbone and resident on Block Island until the grandson relocated to Escoheag, in modern West Greenwich. Lovecraft’s aforementioned ancestor Esther Whipple had a son, Jeremiah Phillips, who was Lovecraft’s great-grandfather. Jeremiah’s wife — Lovecraft’s great-grandmother — had the maiden name Roby Rathbun. This seems to suggest that both of Lovecraft’s parents may have been descended from Rathbone. The most extensive biography of John Rathbone/Rathbun and his descendants can be found in the 1877 Livermore’s History of Block Island.

Lovecraft discussed his descent from Rathbone in a May 24, 1935 letter to R. H. Barlow, a young collaborator who would go on to become Lovecraft’s literary executor after the older man’s death. The relation between Lovecraft and Barlow forms the backdrop of Paul La Farge’s 2017 novel The Night Ocean. Barlow would go on to have a distinguished academic career, becoming a leading scholar of the Aztecs and himself serving as a mentor to Beat author William S. Burroughs. This makes it all the more interesting that — as Lovecraft discussed in an August 27, 1936 letter to their mutual friend Elizabeth Toldridge — Barlow was also descended from Rathbone. In a visit to Lovecraft in the summer of 1936, Barlow and Lovecraft discovered that Barlow’s family tree split with the original Rathbone’s son, making the two authors sixth cousins.

Edward Guimont is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut. He can be reached at edward.guimont@gmail.com.