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”Now the moon takes the stage, the curtain rises … and the show begins! Only in the dark can the park be seen in its true light. Behold! See how they shake off their diurnal torpor! Who would suspect their existence? And yet, here they are! Buried beneath our feet, slithering under tree bark, concealed in murky waters, in the deep crevices of ancient rock ... they watch and they wait, biding their time, ever patient ... And when their time comes, and they turn on those who thought themselves masters here ... who will stand in their way?” (pp. 45-6)

“For there are strange objects in the great abyss, and the seeker of dreams must take care not to stir up or meet the wrong ones.” (H. P. Lovecraft, “The Strange High House in the Mist”, 1926)

The Monstrous Dreams of Mr Providence coverTo the world, it’s just an ordinary park. For the children who frequent it, it’s just another collection of lawns, ponds, trails, and benches. But for Mr. Providence, the park’s caretaker (who bears a striking resemblance to the famed horror-fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft), it’s a den full of dark horrors that only he can comprehend. Reclusive, curmudgeonly, and—at least according to some—probably suffering from “compulsive hallucinatory disorder,” Providence has charged himself with protecting the park’s visitors from these dark creatures, whether they appreciate it or not. But his task becomes more complicated when he fishes a strange book out of the murky waters of a pond—and opens a gate to a host of apparitions that attract the attention of a clutch of sinister figures calling themselves the “Mental Health Services.” To add to his stress, his ambitious new boss (perpetually on horseback) wants to revamp the park, "scale up, decompartmentalize" and "transform outdoor recreation” with the goal of helping people “reforge” their “instinctual ties to the natural world.” All Providence wants is some peace and quiet—and perhaps the strange house perched high upon a cliff that he glimpses in the misty waters of the pond might be just where he needs to go …

With its whimsical humour and rich illustrations, writer-illustrator Daria Schmitt’s The Monstrous Dreams of Mr. Providence plunges us into a world of Lovecraftian allusion and spectacle, exploring the themes of creativity and mental health in a visually rich homage to the progenitor of cosmic horror; Mr. Providence, watcher of the gates between worlds, plumbs the depths of dreams and madness to reveal the possibilities of the extraordinary lurking just beneath the surface of the humdrum and the ordinary, and invites us to imagine the wondrous possibilities of our own lives.

After a routine start to his day—being hounded by his new boss, meeting with three senior members of the park staff who are fond of his eccentricities (and who may or may not be the Three Wyrd Sisters of Anglo-Saxon mythology), checking his “beeping doohickeys” that “measure the activity of the mysterious entities in the park,” and shooing away wayward kids from lurking dangers they are completely oblivious to—Providence investigates what appears to be a new phenomenon emerging from the troubled waters of the pond. While attempting to make sense of a school of fish fighting over a book, he falls into the pond and finds himself in a strange and seemingly dangerous new world filled with colour and mystery, even as he himself remains colorless (literally), while catching a glimpse of a mysterious house perched atop a tall cliff far away in the distance.

Even though the pond appears shallow to the world, Providence has somehow accessed a world within it that only he can see, with a depth that eludes others (a metaphor for the underlying logic of his mythic universe). Returning to shore with the book, he resumes his daily perambulations around the park, accompanied by his talking cat Maldoror (a name taken from one of the earliest works of surrealist literature), and finds himself periodically confronted by apparitions of floating fish that try to steal the book back from him, as well as bizarre oddities, such as an octopus-like monster made of cotton candy that he hurriedly carts away from the crowds. Convinced that the mysterious book is more than just a book, his suspicions are confirmed after he encounters more apparitions—including one of Cthulhu—and finds himself being hounded by zombie-like members of “Mental Health Services,” a department that not even his boss seems to have heard of. The plot culminates with the book opening a portal to another world in the waters of the pond, and Providence leaping into it to save the local children from being swallowed up and transformed into monsters. It is on the other side that he finally arrives on the shore facing the cliffs with the mysterious house, and with the help of Maldoror, succeeds in reaching it, leaving behind a resignation note for his boss in the form of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1926 short story “The Strange High House in the Mist”:

He found a position more in line with his skill set. But he left a letter explaining everything. It’s a long analogy in the form of what seem to be mere stories. You know how he is. He’s still a caretaker. He simply changed locations. This is a sort of bestiary, one of a distinctly monstrous variety. (p. 100)

Although visually remarkable, unfortunately Schmitt’s writing is secondary to her skills as an artist. The story felt underwhelming, merely scratching at the surface of what is possible with the Lovecraftian genre. The whole novel seems to anticipate riding the power of the Lovecraft short story from which it draws inspiration, yet embedding the entirety of “The Strange High House in the Mist” into the novel provides an unsatisfying denouement. Perhaps a truer homage to the master of cosmic dread might have been better presented as a tale of horror, in which the character of Providence undergoes the same vicissitudes to which Lovecraft frequently submits his protagonists, but with a deeper exploration of the dark theme of humankind confronting madness and mortality against its insignificance “in an unfeeling, unthinking universe.” [1]

While the plot of the graphic novel doesn’t go quite as far as one might have hoped, two things do stand out that are worth discussing: the artwork, and the intriguing explorations of themes from Lovecraft’s life and work. The artwork is lush, wholesome, and somewhat Pythonesque, while also reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1989-1996) spiced with a touch of Tim Burton: disciplined black-and-white panels with clean lines reflect the monotony and precision of Providence’s daily life, but give way to vibrant and riotous explosions of colour whenever he finds himself in his imagination, or in other worlds. It’s telling that throughout the novel, Providence remains a figure painted in black and white, even as the worlds of his dreams and the monsters burst with colour and non-Euclidean forms, reflecting his ability to seamlessly transit from the ordered and the mundane to the surreal and bizarre—the colourful inner world of an outwardly colourless man. Providence himself strikes a kind of lonely, surrealist figure—a poet and romantic trapped between worlds, spending his days collecting lost items he finds scattered about the park in a gothic-style baby carriage, hunched over as he pushes it; a tall and lanky figure dressed in a coat and woolens with a long, striped scarf trailing behind him in the wind, who hoards the items he collects in a small cottage overflowing with junk, and peopled by a clowder of cats.

A discerning reader will note that Providence keeps a white cat as his companion, which serves as a nod to Lovecraft’s infamous ownership of a black cat that he named provocatively. Lovecraft famously hated anything to do with the sea, the coasts, and maritime life (despite being born, raised, spending a significant period of his productive years, and dying in Providence, Rhode Island), because he associated it not only with the unknown and bouts of physical illness, but with the immigration and demographic changes reshaping America’s dominant white Anglo-Saxon culture. [2] His thalassophobia and ichthyphobia dovetailed with the explicitly racist and xenophobic outlook that characterized his early years, his fears of the loss of white male privilege—which he conflated with the decline of civilization—his chronic anxiety, and his prodigious imagination, all of which gave rise to a dark mythic-fantasy universe peopled with chthonic monsters, coastal cults, and cosmic horrors.

Within the Lovercraftian canon, all of these figures of terror eternally and unstoppably conspire to undermine the permanence of white Anglo-Saxon culture. His protagonists are nearly always tormented or wretched characters potentially suffering from at least one mental health condition, and researchers have speculated that Lovecraft himself lived with lifelong depression and sleep paralysis. [3] This, in addition to the crippling anxiety that disrupted his pursuit of science as a career—along with the fates of his parents, both of whom died in the same asylum—might have informed his lifelong aversion to the mental health treatments of his day, and compounded the effects of a complicated family upbringing. In any case, he lent physical credence to the poet Russell Edson’s characterization of humans as “teetering bulbs of dread and dream,” oscillating between boundless hope and eternal fear. A living contradiction—and thus a true surrealist—Lovecraft was a rationalist, materialist, and atheist at the conscious level, but as occult scholar Donald Tyson puts it, “a chaos of fantastic daydreams, horrifying nightmares, strange impulses, irrational fears, and uncanny intuitions … [that] intruded themselves on his waking life in the form of obsessions that are too numerous to list.” [4]

Daria Schmitt’s Lovecraft, however, coded here as “Providence,” is a bumbling, absent-minded, and caring figure who recalls a mix of Inspector Clouseau and Doc Brown from Back to the Future (1985): a misunderstood monster-fighter whose curmudgeonly propriety would give Victorians competition; to the world he appears depressed, paranoid, and controlling, but by his own internal logic, he is humanity’s last hope against an all-enveloping darkness. In casting Providence superficially in the mould of one of Lovecraft’s own protagonists, Schmitt gently alludes to their high-strung nature, but also to their Cassandra- (or broken clock-) like prescience too, cleverly playing into the underlying logic of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror: that seemingly normal and natural phenomena have underlying supernatural causes that keep the world perpetually teetering on the brink of being overrun by monsters, which only a few can see, and which even fewer can stop. However, in making Providence sensitive, empathetic, and caring—both towards the park’s visitors and its monsters—she casts him as a foil to the real Lovecraft, whose creative genius is marked by his association with racism and xenophobia.

But the real takeaway is the darker allusion underlying the novel’s seemingly lighthearted and surreal whimsy that explores the link between creativity and suffering: at the end of the novel, Providence enters the portal within the river, leaving our world behind, and reaches the strange high house on the cliff (presumably a portal to other, more fantastic worlds, as per the eponymous short story), accompanied by Maldoror (who always seems to speak only to Providence, and who seems curiously unacknowledged by everyone else even when he is in their vicinity). Throughout the novel it is implied that only Providence can see the monsters (though a few others may be able to too), while others suggest that he may be suffering from mental conditions that cause him to impute monstrosity into otherwise normal everyday phenomena. What if his disappearance at the end is to be interpreted as a metaphor for his taking his own life? Does Providence escape the burden of his hallucinations by committing suicide? The demonic persistence of the “Mental Health Services” figures haunting him, and the behavior of the Three Sisters in the preceding scenes (in which their failure to enter the portal in the pond leads park staff to believe they were attempting to execute a suicide pact), certainly foreshadow this conclusion. Perhaps Schmitt is suggesting that, had H. P. Lovecraft not found a way to express his inner demons as gothic creativity—in other words, had he not cultivated a creative channel through which to express himself—he might have very well chosen to end his own life, robbing the world of the rich contributions of one of the most vivid and troubled imaginations of the twentieth century. That great beauty and enduring art was conjured up by a mind that was vibrant, yet repulsive, and that the greatest art may often arise from the most anguished minds, or be inspired by reprehensible sociopolitical outlooks, are both conclusions worth pondering.

In exploring the sensitive link between suffering and art, the artist’s morality and their work, Schmitt has beautifully woven these tensions into a visual homage that is both accessible and entertaining. What perhaps might be difficult subjects to discuss have been made accessible with creativity, at least for those of us with insight into the life, mind and times of H.P. Lovecraft. As writer Laura Miller puts it, “The unsavory manifestations of Lovecraft’s dread can’t be surgically removed from his fiction by an act of willful blindness … To the contrary, they help us to understand it, but to do that we need to be able to accept the truth that even great artists—greater ones than Lovecraft, certainly—have their ugly sides, and that ugliness can be inextricable from their greatness. Art, being human, is an expression of the whole self. This isn’t the same as accepting Lovecraft's racism. You can acknowledge, contemplate and discuss that racism without feeling obliged to reject the work as a whole.” [5]

Read The Monstrous Dreams of Mr. Providence for the artwork and not the story; to regard how a mind warped by self-loathing, fear, bitterness, and illness was able to express its energies as sustained creativity—and to appreciate the impact that the Lovecraftian legacy has had on, and how it has been transformed by, one among its multitude of fans.

Endnotes

[1] Miller, L., “It’s OK to admit that H. P. Lovecraft was racist,” Salon, 2014. [return]

[2] He was also famously an atheist, and claimed in a 1916 letter that he “never had the slightest shadow of belief in the supernatural.” [return]

[3] Sleep paralysis would have caused his body to experience physically paralysis, while he himself experienced frightening visions that would have left him feeling helpless and terrified. [return]

[4] See here. [return]

[5] Miller, L., “It’s OK to admit that H. P. Lovecraft was racist,” Salon, 2014. [return]


Editors: Reviews Department.

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.



Prashanth Gopalan is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. His writings have previously appeared in the Huffington Post and other publications. He reviews science, speculative, and fantasy fiction works for a global audience.
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