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RISD Summer Reading? Horrors!
In the 1920s, while H.P. Lovecraft was writing tales of horror set in their stomping grounds, these gents were working in RISD’s studios.
This summer RISD has joined
colleges and universities across the country in assigning a selected book to
all incoming freshmen, a kind of book club bonding experience that has taken off in higher education in the last decade.
But, true to RISD’s
penchant for the idiosyncratic and intriguingly off-center, first-year students
won’t be reading The Kite Runner, A Hope in the Unseen or other
bestsellers that are among the top picks on college campuses. Instead, they’ll
be diving into a 1927 pulp fiction novel written by an author who described his
guiding literary principle as “cosmic horror,” and featuring a protagonist who is
driven insane by a journey that leads him into a world of sorcerers and the
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was never published during the lifetime of its
author, Rhode Island native H.P.
Lovecraft. When it eventually did
see the light of day, it was in a 1941 issue of the fantasy/horror magazine Weird Tales. Although it’s anything but a
standard selection, RISD faculty say the work is the perfect choice to
inaugurate RISD’s Common Reading Program: a work of visually rich fiction that is steeped in Rhode Island history and that tackles complex themes – from the notion
of fate and the power of family bloodlines to the dangers of modernization and
the limits of scientific inquiry.
H.P. Lovecraft in 1934
And as a piece of
literature, the book allows students to explore a man who never knew fame in
his lifetime, but whose otherworldly fiction would later influence writers from
Joyce Carol Oates to Jorge Luis Borges to Stephen King.
“It’s such a great story,
and it’s definitely a RISD-esque choice,” says Dan Cavicchi, associate professor of American Studies and head of the department of History,
Philosophy + the Social Sciences. “It makes you think:‘OK, a horror novel –
what’s going on here?’ And that’s exactly what we want. We want students to find their way into the book based on their own interests. And one
thing that sold us on Lovecraft was that he loved Providence so much, and
described it with such enthusiasm.”
From beginning to end, the
book vividly evokes the colonial-era buildings, parks and geography of the East
Side, the section of Providence where RISD is located. Lovecraft described it as
a “city of spires” and referenced local haunts adjacent to campus, including
the Providence Art Club, the Providence Athenaeum, the First Baptist Church of America, the Governor Stephen
Hopkins House and Market House, now home to RISD’s Film/Animation/Video Department.
The 1801 Halsey House, at 140 Prospect Street, figures prominently as the home
where a young Charles Dexter Ward grows up, the child of a prominent Rhode
Island family who descends into madness and later escapes from an asylum.
Assistant Professor of
English Nicole Merola, who
spearheaded the summer reading program, says she was so drawn in by Lovecraft’s
sense of place that she began looking up historical maps of Pawtuxet Village,
where the protagonist’s doctor goes to investigate a bungalow and makes a
horrific discovery. “I’m looking at the maps and realized, this was right near
my house,” says Merola, who lives in the Providence suburb surrounding the village.
“The protagonist is this
kind of obsessed antiquarian who does all this research to discover that a
certain ancestor was a practitioner of the dark arts and an occultist,” Merola
says. “Obviously we’re not trying to turn students into occultists, but we
thought the character’s intense obsession and his hunger for knowledge was a
good metaphor for the intense attention students here will invest in their own
studies. And the digging he does offers opportunities for conversations about the
In July incoming Foundation Studies
and transfer students received electronic copies of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. When they
arrive for Orientation on September 10, they will receive a new edition of the
book – with extensive footnotes and photography – that was released last year
by the University of Tampa Press.
Assistant Dean of Students Sarah Spencer, whocoordinated the new initiative,notes that the goal of the
Common Reading Program is to provide a community-building assignment that promotes intellectual curiosity, exploration and dialogue. All
new students have been asked to come to campus in September “ready to discuss, explore, visualize
and translate the book’s meanings.”
says that an accompanying
website will feature drawings and other work by students inspired by
Lovecraft’s fiction. The book will be woven into various
Orientation programs, with faculty-led discussion groups, a short film about the
author and tours of the city focusing on sites and landmarks identified in the
RISD Common Reading website
H.P. Lovecraft’s Rhode Island
RISD freshmen getting introduced to Lovecraft (Providence Journal)
, History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences
, Literary Arts + Studies