Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Reviews: I Am Providence

I Am Providence
by Nick Mamatas
The title of this book will be instantly familiar to any Lovecraft fan. It's what is engraved upon Lovecraft's tombstone. It's also an atypically boastful quote from the writer. So you might expect that this is a book about H.P. Lovecraft. Well it is and it isn't. If you are the type of person who avoids horror or sci-fi stories then don't worry because despite the seeming subject matter this is not at all a horror or sci-fi story-with perhaps just one or two minor exceptions. However we earn our daily bread there are millions of other people who do so in the same fashion. And from time to time people in the same line of work will have reason to come together for conferences, dinners and social gatherings. The conversations at such meetings may well be incomprehensible to people outside of that particular circle of experts. There are discussions about the finer points of the law or physics debates about dark matter theories which would not only bore me to tears but which I do not have the training or experience to follow. Someone who works on a farm may have a deep understanding of bovine diseases and be excited to compare notes with like minded people dealing with the same issues. A person who writes or acts for a living will probably be excited to rub shoulders with other artists who do the same thing and discuss challenges which less artistically inclined people simply can't understand. Cops get together to talk about the latest tactics in crowd control, legal requirements and forced entry. Accountants get excited over new payroll software. Guitarists may spend days arguing over amp circuitry and music theory. And so on. Everyone has some area of knowledge which intrigues them and in which they may well be expert. This book asks the reader to imagine that the experts in question are not accountants or lawyers or physicists but instead H.P. Lovecraft fans, writers, would be writers and even a few groupies.

The Lovecraft experts, some of whom fit the stereotype of nerds blissfully unencumbered by traditional notions of hygiene, politesse or body hair removal, have come together in Providence, Rhode Island for the Summer Tentacular, an annual Lovecraft convention. Just because they all get together doesn't mean they like each other. A lot of the attendees are just there for the food and feuds.

Just as in high school or as in any sufficiently large organization there are a number of different cliques at the convention. The fact that many of these folks would be considered losers in most other social groupings isn't something that most of them seem to care about or realize. At the Summer Tentacular they are the normal ones. One person who does realize this is the older (and published) writer Panossian who seems to attend the conventions not to exchange ideas, mentor younger writers, or enjoy presentations so much as he does to troll Lovecraft fans. He's blunt about Lovecraft's racism, sexism and (in his opinion) poor writing abilities, none of which endear him to many people on the panels. And honest critiques of Lovecraft aside Panossian often is simply a rude crass unpleasant man who can occasionally be a bully. No one likes him much which is why a late arriving writer, Colleen Danzig, is forced to room with Panossian- all the other rooms are taken.

But Danzig scarcely gets to know Panossian before Panossian turns up dead with his face removed. There is a long list of suspects, starting with Danzig herself as this is the first time she's attended the notoriously private convention. Some convention attendees are convinced that whatever happened the new girl must have done it. Danzig knows she didn't kill Panossian and sets out to discover who did. She's not exactly a shrinking violet in how she does this. And in the meantime although Panossian is indeed dead he finds that his consciousness has not yet departed his body. He's trying to remember who killed him though of course even if he does remember he has no way to communicate this information. In the course of remembering his interactions with other Lovecraft fans and writers, Panossian slowly comes to the conclusion that most Lovecraft enthusiasts have something wrong with them. This is a closed room murder mystery, a dark comedy and a social commentary on misogyny, loneliness, racism, jealousy, and lowered expectations. The reader may well be indifferent to all of the inside jokes and trivia that a Lovecraft geek would immediately recognize. But all of the infighting, pathetic attempts to one-up someone, arguments over interpretations of esoteric data and professional rivalries will be familiar to anyone who has spent any amount of time in any sort of organization. People's behavior can be pretty consistent, regardless of their area of expertise. 

This book is not always laugh out loud funny but it has its moments. It is most definitely not necessary to know anything about H.P. Lovecraft or his work in order to enjoy this book.
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