Revisiting NecronomiCon Providence

In August, The Lovecraft conference returned to Providence, RI in honor of H.P. Lovecraft’s 125th birthday.  Sponsored by the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council, the Rhode Island Historical Society, and the city of Providence, this year’s event was an exciting exploration of this author’s life and works.  In addition to the symposium on new academic research, there were panels discussing literary analysis of weird fiction as well as its influence on popular culture, vendors with all manner of books and artwork, and exhibitions of Lovecraft-inspired art, theater, and film.  I was first introduced to this wonderful conference two years ago.

In 2013 I presented an academic paper at the Howard Phillips Lovecraft academic conference and convention in Providence, Rhode Island.  Having recently graduated with my Master’s degree, I was simultaneously filled with unbridled ambition and crippling anxiety; riding on the high of producing a Master’s thesis while unnerved at the prospect of being thrust out into the real world to mingle with accomplished scholars.  The experience was invaluable in providing that first foray into the wide world of conferencing while helping me surmount my fear of venturing into the daunting unknown that is Academia.

For the uninitiated, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was born in Providence, Rhode Island.  He spent most of his life in the College Hill district of the city where he wrote for pulp magazines including Weird Tales.  His body of work is widely regarded as the pinnacle of weird fiction: a convergence of science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

In 2013, one of the largest Lovecraft conventions was held at the Providence Biltmore, which Lovecraft called “the sumptuous Biltmore Hotel, which is 18th century in every essential outline and decoration.”  Affectionately termed NecronomiCon after a plot device used in Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic horror, the gathering was equal parts academic conference and outlet for weird fiction fandom.  There were numerous panels featuring preeminent Lovecraft scholars including S.T. Joshi and Robert M. Price, as well as talks regarding Lovecraft’s lasting impact on film and television that featured renowned director Stuart Gordon.

Despite the celebrities of Lovecraft studies, my personal highlight was the Emerging Scholarship Symposium.  This series of academic presentations was dedicated to various topics of Lovecraft scholarship.  I presented a paper culled from my Master’s thesis research titled “Poe, Lovecraft, and ‘The Uncanny’:  The Horror of the Self.”  This essay posited a psychoanalytic interpretation of Lovecraft’s speculative fiction as a progression from that of Edgar Allan Poe where the narrative “self” becomes the locus of fractured and displaced identity.  As the subconscious mind exists as alien or “other” to the conscious mind, characters (and particularly the narrators) of Poe and Lovecraft are external representations of internal dissonance.  The self is its own primal source of terror, which inevitably evolves into self-loathing.

The Emerging Scholarship Symposium was an audacious forum for professional and amateur academics to present their research regarding the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  There was some backlash regarding the designation of the event as one for “Emerging Scholarship” as several presenters were experienced academics with a wide array of published works on various topics not limited to weird fiction.  This moment brought some humor and much needed humanity to the esoteric affair as the stuffy aura that sometimes plagues Academia was interrupted by the vaunted pride of the experienced scholars and the reckless abandon of the uninitiated, eager to have something (or anything) published.  The panel has since been rechristened the Dr. Henry Armitage Memorial Scholarship Symposium, which is another whimsical reference to Lovecraft’s elaborate mythos of interconnecting characters and settings.

Swamp Things: Professor Branka Arsić Lectures on Disease and Decay in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau

On March 30th, 2015 Branka Arsić presented a captivating section from Bird Relics: Grief and treeVitalism in Thoreau (forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2015). The audience was noticeably engrossed in her meticulously researched findings in her talk titled, “Swamps, Leaves, Galls: Thoreau on Disease and Decay”: the latest installment of the URI Department of English Read/Write Series.

Branka Arsić is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Currently a Visiting Professor at Brown University, Arsić is an authority of American Literature with previous published books including On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson and Passive Constitutions or 7½ Times Bartleby. Arsić opened her discussion with an overview of her subject: Henry David Thoreau. Her specific interest is Thoreau’s view on life that first developed while he attended at Harvard — a philosopher in his own right with a keen interest in science.

Arsić advocates for a literal reading of Thoreau’s writings involving nature. She focuses on his elevation of swamps as generators of life; epicenters of where “cunning mixtures” of life are enacted that spark transformations of lifeforms. For Thoreau, swamps embody incessant continuity of mutation and, therefore, exist as sites of immortality. This view of swamps subverts popular conceptions of these environments as centers of repugnance.

Arsić elaborated on how Thoreau’s interest in swamps intensified after the death of his brother. Decaying fungi preoccupied Thoreau as much as budding flowers. These served as natural glimpses into the operation of life, revealing life’s temporality: one that is not linear as the Aristotelian model would suggest, but exists in overlap between growth and decay.

The discussion developed further with Thoreau’s fixation on leaves and galls, which are the equivalent of tumor-like growths that develop on the foliage. Arsić attests to Thoreau’s understanding that leaves remain alive despite falling, “like the breath of the tree.” In lieu of this notion, traditional views of the seasons as representative of living (spring) and dying (fall) are subverted. Vegetation exists in constant states of life and death. Observations that would typically be viewed as signifying death such as a leaf’s change in color actually serve as reminders to this fact that, according to Thoreau, “All the seasons are spring.”

Arsić’s argument culminates in the assertion that the Aristotelian, linear view of life established values of privileging “healthy” life. Ideals of perfection were normalized and irregularity was devalued and christened the “abnormal.” Arsić posits that Thoreau’s view of disease is not as a series of constant attacks on life, but as a natural aspect of it. There is nothing that does not rot as it buds, and all of nature can be likened to the imperfections of galls that form upon leaves.

Branka Arsić admitted that “Swamps, Leaves, Galls: Thoreau on Disease and Decay” was only a small aspect of a much more complex framework that develops in the chapters of her book. However, the presentation prompted a series of stimulating questions regarding the nature of Thoreau’s authorial perspective and academic tendencies to aestheticize literature to conform to the demands of the reader and drift away from its unadulterated value that can be gained from reading a text on its own terms.