Rhode Island School of Design now requiring incoming freshmen to read H.P. Lovecraft

Is it really possible that a modern-day American college has actively taken steps to transform the experience and education they offer their students into an overtly Lovecraftian affair? Why, yes, it is, much to my jaw-dropped astonishment and delight. Cue the sound of stars aligning.

First, the wide-scope background: As reported by The New York Times in 2007, “Nationwide, hundreds of colleges and universities, large and small, public and private, assign first-year students a book to read over the summer, hoping to create a sense of community and engage students intellectually.”

And now the eldritch case in point: Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the fine arts and design college located in Providence and abutting Brown University, has joined the national trend by launching a Summer Reading Program this year that requires all incoming freshmen to read the same book. And they’ve picked a title by the Prince of Providence Letters himself:

[T]rue 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 occult.

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.

Those excerpts come from “RISD Summer Reading? Horrors!“, the RISD’s official description of the project. The full piece is well worth your time, especially since it features various faculty members offering their justifications and explanations of this idiosyncratic but utterly appropriate literary choice. It also points out 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 book.” That website, not incidentally, is RISD Common Reading, which in addition to describing the program contains an “About H.P. Lovecraft” page that consists solely of a link to the Lovecraft bio at Donovan Loucks’ definitive Lovecraft site, as well as a link to the online text of Charles Dexter Ward.

The Providence Journal ran a story on the program today, and quoted RISD’s Daniel Cavicchi, head of the Department of History, Philosophy, and the Social Science’s, about the college’s choice:

“Well, it’s not a typical choice,” RISD’s Daniel Cavicchi acknowledged with a chuckle. “Most reading programs assign books that deal with contemporary issues, and we certainly considered some of those. But this one resonated the most, I think, with everyone. It’s different in that it’s a horror novel. But we thought it would be a really good idea to have something that would engage the students in thinking about their new home of Providence.”

…“And we thought it had many different entry points, many themes,” said Cavicchi, who suggested the book — which he had read in high school long before setting foot in Providence — to the rest of the committee that picked it. Themes like the role of place in creative inspiration; the point of knowing one’s personal history; the ethics of manipulating nature; the limits of science and rationality… “To me, the book is very layered. There is the horror story, but then there are all these other elements in and around the horror story.”

(See full story at The Providence Journal.)

Beautiful. Amazing. Wonderful. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I had to make up my own Lovecraftian curriculum. By “had to” I mean I was driven to do so by a positively daimonic compulsion and fascination, and by “Lovecraftian curriculum” I mean Lovecraft’s complete fiction, as ordered in hardcover from Arkham House (to be followed by his selected letters after I graduated), as well as everything by and about him that was housed in the university’s library. This included Donald Burleson’s H.P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study and Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe, Maurice Lévy’s Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, Darrell Schweitzer’s The Dream-Quest of H.P. Lovecraft, the Joshi-edited H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, and more. But this was all, as I said, entirely self-driven and self-conducted. I think I would have suspected that I had accidentally transitioned into an alternate universe a la the cosmic slips in Robert Anton Wilson’s Schrodinger’s Cat if I had actually been required to read Lovecraft at Mizzou.

Pardon me if I hear the hoofbeats of apocalyptic horsemen approaching. Or maybe that crackling sound is hell freezing over. In any case, life is cool, and RISD’s incoming  freshmen are receiving an education indeed.

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on August 21, 2011, in Education and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. This is fantastic! I only discovered Lovecraft a few years ago, but have read just about everything he wrote (and recently re-read The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward) and loved most of it. I used to work across the river from RISD, and often saw their students sketching various scenes near the school. It would be fun to hear what these incoming artists think about the story; I bet they’ll respond to it quite favorably.

  2. Ain’t it fun? Very cool to hear that you worked so close to RISD and rubbed shoulders, figuratively speaking, with their students. Who knows what eldritch influence will begin emitting from the campus in view of their collective absorption of one of Lovecraft’s major tales? (More seriously, I don’t doubt that you’re right, and that the incoming students will respond favorably to their required exposure to HPL.)

  3. What is the world coming to… 😉 Lovecraft is Rhode Island’s biggest export, though. I’d never have heard of Providence in faraway Amsterdam, were it not for their eldritch master.

    • It sounds like RISD’s decision has been pre-emptively validated in your own personal experience, Johan. You’ve been educated about world geography and U.S. political topography by Lovecraft. Excellent. 🙂

  4. Iä Cthulhu! Iä RSID! When the Great Old Ones return they will be eaten first.

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