I Am Providence
Night Shade Books
August 9, 2016
Reviewed by William Grabowski
In the wake of the November 2015 decision to retire the likeness of H.P. Lovecraft from its 40-year tenure atop the World Fantasy Award, Nick Mamatas’s latest novel looms over the cultural mulch like a punchy stand-up comic. Those seated nearest the stage are liable to be mocked—or splashed with beer (that was beer, right?).
As both a long-time creator and consumer of horror and dark fantasy (I don’t like labels either, and use them simply as ways to discuss the matter at hand), I miss the less complicated days when squabbles usually amounted to “us versus them”: us being writers/editors, and them anyone who considered us weird. These days, of course, being known as a geek or a nerd is commonplace (and commodified)—people actually like it. Over the years, these petty disagreements turned inward, and we now have incestuous microcosms of discord and time-wasting. Few know this better, historically and otherwise, than Nick Mamatas.
This isn’t to say that readers must be horror historians in order to enjoy I Am Providence, but it won’t hurt. Besides, the various infighting, one-upmanships, casual sniping, and enough cavernous emotional neuroses to overwhelm the inventory of Abbot Laboratories is but one aspect of the greater narrative. I did infrequently find myself trying to decipher real-world personalities from Mamatas’s composites—but that’s inevitable, considering that nearly all of I Am Providence takes place at the Summer Tentacular, a convention devoted to Lovecraft and his cosmic legacy. Here gathers a literal rogues’ gallery of writers (established, neophyte, and wannabe), editors, critics, collectors, fans of all stripes, and a few attendees (we won’t say who) harboring belief systems rooted in HPL’s Cthulhu Mythos. There is a certain book bound in human skin, the catalyst at the narrative’s heart.
Writer Colleen Danzig, six online short stories under her belt and a forthcoming chapbook from a (very) small press, registers as a Summer Tentacular newbie, and finds herself slated to room with Panossian, a more experienced writer admired and loathed in equal measure by those familiar with the man and his work. Despite early and uneasy camaraderie, the two don’t get much time together, as Panossian disappears after stepping out of an annoying presentation to visit the dealers’ room. He is later discovered sans pulse and face, and Colleen soon becomes the central unoffical investigator of the crime. (Since the back-cover copy is fairly revelatory, I see no harm in stating this.)
Sadly, very few attendees display any concern over a murder and muderer(s) among them. As in our day-to-day existence, consensus “reality” has become a media-distorted bedlam corroding human empathy, and hours—if not minutes—after some horrifying event, business-as-usual resumes its organized dullness. Mamatas could have resorted to caricature and still produced a worthwhile novel, but I’m glad he didn’t. Even minor characters have their isolated despairs and epiphanies, a quality present in every Mamatas work I’ve so far read. There are plenty of hilarious moments: a police officer sharing his “take” on Lovecraftian culture; an after-hours hotel room party brimming with the usual drinks, bickering, and posturing; disturbance of local grounds by a hardcore clique searching for the remains of HPL’s insultingly-named cat. Try though I did, there was no outsmarting the author regarding Panossian’s end and its mystery.
Fandom is the social network of last resort, opines narrator Panossian, and many of us recognize ground truth and poignance there. His physical locale for the greater part of the story allows him plenty of time and relative freedom to ponder the mystery behind his abrupt life-change, and to overhear various dialogue among detectives, police, forensics types, and those closer to him in life. I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by saying how much titling each chapter after a Lovecraft tale enhances the general high-wyrdness, nor by observing Mamatas’s adherence to deadpanning (pun intended) the biological facts of bodily harm and death. I Am Providence might not satisfy all readers, but I’m confident it’ll end up as one of 2016’s best novels.