New England produced three of the world’s most famous horror authors: Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, and H.P. Lovecraft. They are all great in their own ways, but I find myself re-reading Lovecraft’s stories more than anything the other two wrote. Maybe it’s his overwrought prose, maybe it’s all those hideous tentacled monsters, or maybe it’s because he used a lot of authentic New England lore in his writings. Folk beliefs, legendary places and bizarre history all show up in Lovecraft’s work.
He also incorporated New England’s witchy history into several of his stories. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” a wealthy young Providence scholar learns that one of his ancestors was an evil alchemist who fled Salem to escape the 1692 witchcraft trials, while in “The Shunned House” a man in Colonial Providence is suspected of witchcraft:
“Etienne’s son Paul, a surly fellow whose erratic conduct had probably provoked the riot which wiped out the family, was particularly a source of speculation; and though Providence never shared the witchcraft panics of her Puritan neighbours, it was freely intimated by old wives that his prayers were neither uttered at the proper time nor directed toward the proper object.”And of course, “Dreams in the Witch House” is full of witchcraft, as you might guess from the title. The story tells how college student Walter Gilman rents a room in an old house once inhabited by a witch named Keziah Mason. Mason escaped the Salem trials in 1692 by drawing strange diagrams on the wall of her jail cell; legends say she and her ratlike familiar spirit now haunt the house where Gilman is staying.
|Still from the 2005 film Dreams In The Witch House.|
“The expression on her face was one of hideous malevolence and exultation, and when he awaked he could recall a croaking voice that persuaded and threatened. He must meet the Black Man, and go with them all to the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos. That was what she said. He must sign in his own blood the book of Azathoth and take a new secret name…”
Much of this is classic New England witchcraft lore (although the name Azathoth is Lovecraft’s own creation). Lovecraft incorporated other types of New England lore into his stories so it’s not really surprising.
What is surprising is that Lovecraft believed that witches were real – at least to some extent. Lovecraft was a materialist and didn’t believe in magic or the supernatural, but he did think there was something real behind the legends.
“Something actual was going on under the surface, so that people really stumbled on concrete experiences from time to time which confirmed all they had ever heard of the witch species. In brief, scholars now recognize that all through history a secret cult of degenerate nature-worshipers, furtively recruited from the peasantry and sometimes from decadent characters of more select origin, has existed throughout northwestern Europe…” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 178, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)According to Lovecraft, this cult was once the dominant religion in Europe but was forced underground by the “more refined, evolved and poetic polytheism” practiced by groups like the Druids, the Romans and the Norse. In retaliation to attacks by these dominant groups the cult turned to malevolent magic and became identified as witches.
Lovecraft didn’t think many of these real witches came to New England as settlers, but he suspected that a few of them did make their way to Salem.
“For my part – I doubt if a compact coven existed, but certainly think that people had come to Salem who had a direct personal knowledge of the cult, and who were perhaps initiated members of it. I think that some of the rites and formulae of the cult must have been talked about secretly among certain elements, and perhaps furtively practiced by the few degenerates involved… Most of the people hanged were probably innocent, yet I do think there was a concrete, sordid background not present in any other New England witch case.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 181, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)Although this theory may seem strange now, Lovecraft wasn’t the only person who thought this way. It was widely accepted in the early 20th century. In the letter laying out his theory Lovecraft acknowledges Margaret Murray’s influential 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Murray was a prominent British Egyptologist with an interest in folklore and witchcraft. The Witch-Cult claimed that people accused of witchcraft in Europe were actually members of a pagan religion that secretly survived the Christianization of Europe.
Murray’s book received a mixed response when it was released. Critics felt she took the alleged witches’ confessions too literally and distorted the historic record to fit her theory, but the general reading public was more appreciative and Encyclopedia Brittanica even asked her to author their entry on witchcraft. Lovecraft was just reiterating an accepted theory of his day. Current historians discount Murray’s hypothesis and don’t think there was a secret witch cult in Europe or Salem.
So even though there wasn’t really a secret witch cult in Salem, H.P. Lovecraft thought there might be. It just adds to the strange mix of folklore that makes New England such an interesting place.