Lovecraft’s Descriptive Powers Resurrect the Bones of an Antiquated Providence…

I am completely enamored of this man’s powers of description. What a fine writer he was. Watch how he brings the past back to life in this excerpt from his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward…


Built in the late 18th century, the house referred to as “Shakespeare’s Head” (left) is still standing at 21 Meeting Street, Providence, Rhode Island. Captain John Updike’s house is on the right. (See footnote *)


“When he was larger his famous walks began; first with his impatiently dragged nurse, and then alone in dreamy meditation. Farther and farther down that almost perpendicular hill he would venture, each time reaching older and quainter levels of the ancient city. He would hesitate gingerly down vertical Jenckes Street with its bank walls and colonial gables to the shady Benefit Street corner, where before him was a wooden antique with an Ionic-pilastered pair of doorways, and beside him a prehistoric gambrel-roofer with a bit of primal farmyard remaining, and the great Judge Durfee house with its fallen vestiges of Georgian grandeur.


“…they were set high over basements with railed double flights of stone steps…” High Second Empire French style on Benefit Street, Providence.

It was getting to be a slum here; but the titan elms cast a restoring shadow over the place, and the boy used to stroll south past the long lines of the pre-Revolutionary homes with their great central chimneys and classic portals. On the eastern side they were set high over basements with railed double flights of stone steps, and the young Charles could picture them as they were when the street was new, and red heels and periwigs set off the painted pediments whose signs of wear were now becoming so visible.

Westward the hill dropped almost as steeply as above, down to the old “Town Street”that the founders had laid out at the river’s edge in 1636. Here ran innumerable little lanes with leaning, huddled houses of immense antiquity; and fascinated though he was, it was long before he dared to thread their archaic verticality for fear they would turn out a dream or a gateway to unknown terrors.


The Golden Ball Inn, Providence. George Washington was known to stop here. 


He found it much less formidable to continue along Benefit Street past the iron fence of St. John’s hidden churchyard and the rear of the 1761 Colony House and the mouldering bulk of the Golden Ball Inn where Washington stopped. At Meeting Street—the successive Gaol Lane and King Street of other periods—he would look upward to the east and see the arched flight of steps to which the highway had to resort in climbing the slope, and downward to the west, glimpsing the old brick colonial schoolhouse that smiles across the road at the ancient Sign of Shakespear’s Head where the Providence Gazette and Country-Journal was printed before the Revolution.


The sign on John Carter’s “Shakespeare’s Head” house, one of the oldest three-story houses in Providence.

Then came the exquisite First Baptist Church of 1775, luxurious with its matchless Gibbs steeple, and the Georgian roofs and cupolas hovering by. Here and to the southward the neighbourhood became better, flowering at last into a marvellous group of early mansions; but still the little ancient lanes led off down the precipice to the west, spectral in their many-gabled archaism and dipping to a riot of iridescent decay where the wicked old waterfront recalls its proud East India days amidst polyglot vice and squalor, rotting wharves, and blear-eyed ship-chandleries, with such surviving alley names as Packet, Bullion, Gold, Silver, Coin, Doubloon, Sovereign, Guilder, Dollar, Dime, and Cent.”

– Howard Philips Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward


“…the exquisite First Baptist Church of 1775, luxurious with its matchless Gibbs steeple…” Providence. ca. Early 1900s.


*”Shakespeare’s Head” still stands at 21 Meeting Street. Here lived John Carter, who for a time printed the Providence Gazette, founded by William Goddard, its publisher and editor. Carter had been taught printing by Benjamin Franklin, and as a publisher in Providence he was most successful. He continued the publication of the Gazette until February, 1814, when he sold the business to Hugh H. Brown and William H. Wilson. From all accounts, spice was added to the routine of Carter’s days by the fact that John Updike, his brother-in-law, rented his house next door to Shakespeare’s Head to a rival printer, who Carter strenuously tried to outdo; and the quarrels that ensued between Captain Updike and his tenant gave much amusement to the neighbors. The Updike house is also still standing. Carter is said to have been singularly shrewd at repartee. The interesting printer’s shop, which was described in October, 1771, as “the new building on Main street, opposite the Friends’ meeting house,” has been thus spoken of: “John Carter’s ‘Sign of Shakespeare’s Head’ topped a post some six or eight feet in height which stood before the house, and symbolized the treasures of literature to be found inside.

[All images: Providence, Rhode Island (Source: Pinterest;; &]


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