If you didn’t know who Cthulhu was 10 years ago, but you’re familiar with him/her/them/it now, there’s a chance you have Neils Hobbs to thank. Or blame, depending on how scared you were.
“I’ve been interested in creepy underwater stuff since I was a child,” Hobbs says. That led to an appreciation of Lovecraft’s often waterlogged, often deeply terrifying fiction. “I can also blame my aunt, who took me to see Alien when I was a kid. I ran out screaming. Ever since, it really changed my taste in horror. But for as long as I can remember, I was into sci-fi. I was a huge Ray Bradbury fan. So I love science fiction and horror.
“I sort of grew out of pure fandom over the years. There are some things Lovecraft has done that no one else has truly been able to emulate, but there are absolutely better authors who have explored some of the depths he opened up. We look at him as a gateway — a gateway to this incredible burgeoning field of weird fiction. That is leading to things like Jordan Peele doing a whole series [“Lovecraft Country”] on HBO. So much can be traced back to Lovecraft as a gateway. And also, he serves as a gateway to Providence for so many.”
Hobbs is now a lecturer on oceanographic biology, and is working with the EPA to study the effects of environmental changes on various species of local crustacean. “Crustaceans are creepy,” he agrees.
“I didn’t actually set out to start a convention about Lovecraft. A few friends were sitting around a brunch table [in 2011 or 2012 — well before PVD Fest or the wild success of ComicCon] talking about some way to celebrate the city. What are some cool ways we could highlight Providence? How can we draw people to the city? And at the time no one, around here at least, was talking about Lovecraft. It came from looking for a way to do something special: an event that captured the character of the city while being fun and interesting and unique. Even the people who are most critical of him can acknowledge that he’s the global legacy presented by Providence. We have people come into the store almost every day who were visiting from China from Australia, Italy, from the rest of the world. They obviously didn’t come to the US just to check out the Lovecraft store, but this made Providence a destination for them while they’re here,” Neils relates, reclined in the low light of New Harvest Coffee at the ornate, ancient Arcade where the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences bookstore is located, in the oldest indoor mall in the country. The store is an outgrowth of the success of NecronomiCon. “People travel here from all over the world to see the locations Lovecraft brought to life in his stories, and there was really no touchpoint for their tourism.” There were some maps to where he lived online — you couldn’t even find his gravestone unless you knew whom to ask. His work fit all the benchmarks for a weird rejuvenation of PVD with historical underpinnings.
The success of NecronomiCon, which has become one of Providence’s bigger and certainly most iconic recurring events, is something Hobbs won’t take credit for. “It’s a big team, with a lot of people who become deeply committed to the success of its many moving parts,” he says. Nevertheless, under his leadership it’s allowed Providence to reclaim ownership of the Cthulhu Mythos that was born here and should un-die among the rain splattered cobblestones and moldy, centuries-old back alleys of this state’s eldritch capital city.