A Review of I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas
by Steve Rosenstein
If you’ve picked up Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence (2016, Night Shade Books) expecting a supernatural tale of horror, you’ve come to the wrong rodeo; there is no cosmic tentacled beast at the end of the story, minds aren’t blasted when faced by the soul crushing infinity of existence. Sorry, if you are looking for that, go on-line and pick up yet another Lovecraft pastiche…you know the one, because they all pretty much are the same. Now if you are looking for a tale where the banality of the mundane, where the pettiness and agenda of human relations, where the marginalization of the outsider is the horror.; a story where metaphor is the great many-mouthed beast…then you’ll probably like this one.
Now to backtrack a bit. This is indeed a story of cosmic horror stripped of the trappings the weird tale. The protagonist is an up and coming author in the Lovecraftian mien who is attending her first convention. Her roommate, who is not well liked among the insular Lovecraftian community, ends up being murdered and she takes it upon herself to figure out who done it. The horror of the tale lies in how Mamatas strips the metaphor from the fears that drive traditional Lovecraftian horror. At the heart of this is the fear of the other. For Lovecraft, this was a pretty long list that included just about everyone who wasn’t a white male, Our protagonist is systematically isolated from the community starting really with who she is: a vegan female first-timer who knows nobody personally outside of social media. As the story progresses, she is further isolated from the community as they circle the proverbial wagons to protect their own. But just as she is marginalized from Lovecraftia, she reacts, not as a traditional Lovecraft protagonist would, she inverts that isolation and ends up externalizing her bête noir and comes off better for it. Much like Ulysses did for the Odyssey, I Am Providence takes the narrative of Lovecraft’s stories and, stripping them of the fantastic, shows the reader how the grand cosmic horror can be experienced in the more mundane world; just look at the chapter titles.
At first glance it seems like a detective story, and if read like that, it is a poor one. If, however one reads it as a weird tale then one gets a better story. First there are two points of view, and both narrators are unreliable. The first because he is dead. A nice touch and a nod to the classic Lovecraft ending (the window, the window, the three lobed eye), The second is more difficult to determine but as the actual narration is in third person, a reader is lulled into a sense that her point of view is indeed absolute, when, much like a Gene Wolf narrative, it is restricted to only what she observes and her thought processes. The end result is an unreliable narrator that masks as an absolute narrator.
Another clever thing that Mamatas has done, and it is a great nod to the OG Weird Tales crowd, was to put members of the current Lovecraft community into the narration. And he uses some of the current polarizing arguments within the community to give a certain verisimilitude to the setting. There is actually not a little humor to be had in this with passages like:
“In the world of Lovecraftian fiction, where reputation is the currency, there’s always some dipshit with a settlement check from tripping and falling in the supermarket burning a hole in his pocket, and what better way to spend it all than to start a small press.”
There is even a mock-pastiche fanzine story that features Arkham Massachusetts being invaded by Parliament/Funkadelic, but it’s not all fun and games. When describing why the community is at best indifferent to the death of Panossian, one of the de-facto leaders says, “…he was a fucking asshole. He wasn’t part of this community, and that’s why you don’t see anyone crying into their drinks over his death. You get it? Nobody cares about him. You know why we tolerated him? Because we don’t have any fucking way to get rid of people. Anyone can show up and make a nuisance of themselves and chant ‘Lovecraft, Cthulhu, tentacles, Necronomicon’ and we’ll accept them. We, as a community, are way too accepting.” Except that they really aren’t and the community spends the bulk of the narrative trying to get rid of Colleen, it’s one of those little ironies that drives the narrative.
If you are a Lovecraftian purist, you will not like this book, it subverts your expectations and much like the ending of season one of True Detective, your payoff isn’t handed to you on a plate, and a few of your on-line buddies and heroes may have been insulted along the way. But, if you are made of sterner stuff and can handle some criticism, then you will enjoy this book.
(You can pick up the book here!)