Night Shade Books, 2016, 256 pages
For fans of legendary pulp author H. P. Lovecraft, there is nothing bigger than the annual Providence-based convention called the Summer Tentacular. Horror writer Colleen Danzig doesn't know what to expect when she arrives, but is unsettled to find that among the hob-knobbing between scholars and literary critics are a group of real freaks: book collectors looking for volumes bound in human skin, and true believers claiming the power to summon the Elder God Cthulhu, one of their idol's most horrific fictional creations, before the weekend is out. Colleen's trip spirals into a nightmare when her roommate for the weekend, an obnoxious novelist known as Panossian, turns up dead, his face neatly removed. What's more unsettling is that, in the aftermath of the murder, there is little concern among the convention goers. The Summer Tentacular continues uninterrupted, except by a few bumbling police. Everyone at the convention is a possible suspect, but only Colleen seems to show any interest in solving the murder. So she delves deep into the darkness, where occult truths have been lurking since the beginning of time. A darkness where Panossian is waiting, spending a lot of time thinking about Colleen, narrating a new Lovecraftian tale that could very well spell her doom.
Nick Mamatas, if you've read his blog posts and other social media commentary, seems to have a love/hate relationship with Lovecraft and Lovecraft fandom (and fandom in general); an affectionate regard for the old WASPy racist's squamous prose and cyclopean imagination (yes, I know I'm misusing those words) while being fully, critically aware of his faults. And he takes the same attitude towards Lovecraft's fandom, though with perhaps not quite as much affection.
It's better than the cover.
I Am Providence reminded me quite a lot of an old, infamous classic from the 80s, Bimbos of the Death Sun. Sharyn McCrumb's award-winning murder mystery takes place at a science fiction convention, where an abrasive, unpopular author is murdered. It did not go over well with a lot of sci-fi fans because of its sharp - some might say, unaffectionate - satire of fandom tropes and convention culture. Bimbos of the Death Sun is full of geeky SF&F stereotypes and thinly-veiled jabs at real people, and it would be pretty painful to recognize oneself in one of McCrumb's characters.
I'd be amazed if Mamatas is not familiar with BOTDS. I Am Providence reads like a more literary version of that book, honing in on H.P. Lovecraft fandom rather than fandom in general. The plot is essentially the same — a somewhat unsympathetic (though less unlikeable than McCrumb's victim) writer of Lovecraftian stories is murdered at a Lovecraft con, and a fellow writer with hardly any connection to the victim tries to solve his murder.
I Am Providence, however, tells this story with a few twists, the first of which is that it is co-narrated by the deceased victim.
The main character is Colleen Danzig, who is attending Providence's Summer Tentacular because she'd just been published and figured she ought to show up to make a few contacts and do the newly-published author circuit. She winds up sharing a room with a man who goes by "Panossian" - a not-very-beloved but well known figure on the Lovecraft scene with a few writing credits and not a lot of friends. Between Colleen's third-person narrative chapters, Panossian ruminates from beyond the grave (well, technically, from the coroner's slab) about his life, the nature of Lovecraftian fandom, and his perturbation at the fact that someone killed him and (literally) tore his face off.
The Summer Tentacular is full of odd characters, as you'd rather expect from a Lovecraft con. Colleen is probably the sanest and most "normal" person there, which is why she's told at one point that she won't be staying in the fandom - she'll move on to mainstream horror or urban fantasy. The murder mystery itself, while it unravels in a fairly imaginative way that more or less fits together in the end, is not really the most interesting part of the book, though. I Am Providence is really Nick Mamatas's love letter/middle finger to Lovecraft fans. There are a lot of riffs on the hapless prose and egos of small-press and fanzine writers, the conceits and obsessions of Lovecraft fans (who range from roleplaying nerds to white supremacists who think Lovecraft's rants about swarthy immigrants were prescient to whack jobs who actually want to summon Great Old Ones), the D&D-ification of the Cthulhu mythos, the omnipresence of Arkham-themed everything, etc.
Mamatas shows off his copious knowledge of Lovecraft and fandom lore by having characters bounce one-liners off of the cops or service people who usually serve as the straight men. A lot of I Am Providence is straight-up funny, often in an uncomfortable way. For example, Lovecraft's cat, which we know from his copious letters was named "Nigger Man," is actually the focus of a sub-plot. A couple of fanatics go looking to dig up the feline's remains, and are caught by a pair of Providence PD officers, one of whom is black. The cops, of course, being residents of Providence, are familiar with Lovecraft, but the way in which the characters alternate between actually naming the cat and making awkward "N-word" substitutions is kind of symbolic of how Lovecraft fans tend to deal with the man himself.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft... not down with the PoC.
H.P. Lovecraft was infamously racist and in recent years this has surfaced in many, many debates (particularly surrounding his likeness being used for the World Fantasy Award) about the meaning and relevance of his attitudes, the degree to which they informed his writing (spoiler: quite a lot), and how fans who like to think of themselves as "not racist" can Be Fans of Problematic Things. Mamatas might not be a "Lovecraft scholar" in the way, say, S.T. Joshi is, but he's written an awful lot of Lovecraftiana and goes to a lot of cons, so he's probably one of the most well-informed contemporary writers on the subject of HPL, his issues, and the issues of his fans. So he punctures such well-known canards as the "Man of his Time" defense or the "Was horrified by the Nazis and recanted his views" defense. Yup, Howie was a big ol' racist anti-Semite until the end of his days. Yet he wrote stories and virtually created a genre we still love almost a century later. Mamatas is one of those people who has no trouble making peace with this, but he does loving poking those who can't.
All that being said, the "Whodunnit?" aspect of I Am Providence is practically an afterthought, but it does emerge logically, with all the clues having been properly laid down, along with the expected and well-placed red herrings.
As for poor faceless Panossian, mourning his own demise? While the story sometimes seems to flirt with the supernatural (how can you not flirt with the supernatural in a Lovecraft story?), I'll spoil it by saying Cthulhu does not rise. Other than Panossian's grumblings from the afterlife, I Am Providence is a mostly Muggle murder mystery. It's well-written (Mamatas is a writer who pays attention to craft, not just characters and plot, and he's sometimes a bit snooty about his fellow authors in that regard) and recommended for Lovecraft fans, but if you aren't familiar with the convention scene or Lovecraft trivia, an awful lot of the references will shoot past you.
Also by Nick Mamatas: My reviews of Starve Better and Move Under Ground.
My complete list of book reviews.