Book Review : Nick Mamatas - I am Providence (2016)
Whoever reads cosmic horror has read H.P Lovecraft at some point. He is the most iconic and widely read author in the genre and the only cosmic horror writer the majority of people have ever read. You've heard about him but you'e probably heard the same thing as anybody: genius, recluse, visionary, antisemite, whatever. Nick Mamatas' latest novel I am Providence is not cosmic horror. It's a satirical murder mystery that mocks convention culture and fandom in general. It also has interesting ideas on Lovecraft's legacy and the vibrant subculture which endlessly celebrates his writing. I am Providence is pretty darn funny, any review will confirm that. Great satire has more to offer than a couple easy laughs, though. There's a lot more to I am Providence than its sense of humor.
So, I am Providence is the story of Colleen Danzig, a young, lonely and quasi-unknown young author attending her first Summer Tentacular in Providence, Rhode Island, home of H.P Lovecraft himself. It is her first experience at a writers convention and feels quite uncomfortable navigating through the endless onslaught of self-interested weirdos. Things get noticeably weirder when Panossian gets murdered for obscure reasons and nobody seems to care. Colleen takes on herself to find her internet friend's killer and bring him to justice. While I am Providence is NOT a roman à clés, the characters are inspired by real people in writing communities. Panossian is based on Nick Mamatas himself, Colleen Danzig is based on Molly Tanzer and the rest is for you to figure out.
There is a lot going on in I am Providence. It isn't exactly a deconstruction of Lovecraftian fiction, but there are elements of it. Nick Mamatas turns several of Lovecraft's themes upon their head to examine their solidity: there is no mythos (only discussions about one), the entire novel is one big social event and not an experience in sanity-challenging solitude, the tone is down to Earth and satirical, etc. The nature of I am Providence itself contradicts and challenges the nature of Lovecraftian fiction itself. Whenever there is an opportunity to make his novel scarier, Nick Mamatas systematically takes the opposite route. This kind of process might appear contrarian to you, but it is quite healthy. Deconstruction is a process that exposes the nature of ideas (in this case Lovecraftian themes) and allows new ideas to emerge from it. I am Providence is critical of things people love irrationally (Lovecraft, creative pursuits, social validation) so it is meant to ruffle a few egos, but its heart is in the right pace.
Lovecraftians in particular are a bunch of misfits and social defectives. It started with the old man himself who was crippled by neuroses so huge that he had no choice but to become a genius at what he did. Lovecraft's short stories, so widely distributed in grade school libraries because they contained zero sex and only the merest suggestions of violence, were like cheese in a mousetrap. Boys, almost all boys, too fat or awkward or arrogant for sports, and not actually right enough to achieve top marks, find their ways to the darkest corners and dustiest shelves, and there Lovecraft is waiting. And if those traps don't get sprung, there are others. The Internet in-jokes, the role-playing games, the video game levels that end with great green tentacles reaching out from a swirling vortex, they all perform an initiatory function.
Lovecraft chooses his own. (21-22)
Now, it would be easy to claim that I am Providence doesn't have anything to do with Lovecraftian fiction and that it could be about any convention. This is where I think I am Providence went a little underappreciated. It is a SNEAKY Lovecraftian novel. Colleen Danzig is not exactly a Nick Carraway type of passive protagonist. She is an outsider on collision course with a group of people that is oblivious to the Greater Truth: there is a murderer among them. She is in a state of perpetual confrontation and alienation with other human being who constantly seek her demise. Colleen is a Lovecraftian character caught in a convention of Lovecraft fans. While the delivery here is satirical, the message is quite respectful: you're allowed to take H.P Lovecraft's work seriously. Be passionate with it. Obsessed. Never take yourself more seriously than the work, though. Because this is how boring art is created and desperate people end up at writing conventions.
I've had a blast with I am Providence. It was an uproarious and sneaky cerebral novel which tackled a wide array of subject from writing convention to the cultural obsession with H.P Lovecraft. It is also very daring. Nick Mamatas proposes a new way of writing Lovecraft-inspired fiction that openly challenges the monolithic aura of reverence about the master's work. If you follow Mamatas on social media, you've probably read one of his infamous sales pitches for I am Providence and asked yourself the question: is it worth the hassle to pay, order and wait for the book? Is it worth the financial and emotional investment? The answer is a definite yes. Even more so if you're a fan of H.P Lovecraft. I am Providence is hilarious, but it's also a critical and iconoclast novel that dares offering new ideas on Lovecraft's powerful and domineering legacy. I can't say enough good things about it. The more people will read it, the better our contemporary Lovecraftian fiction (and therefore cosmic horror) will be.