January 28, 2020

Madness, Monsters and A Meteor: A Review of Color Out of Space

This past weekend I went to see Color Out of Space, the new film based on H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 story of the same name. The film begins with narration from Ward Phillips (Elliott Knight), a hydrologist from the big city who's been sent to rural Massachusetts on an assignment. His dialogue is lifted directly from Lovecraft's story:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight... When I went into the hills and vales to survey for the new reservoir they told me the place was evil. They told me this in Arkham, and because that is a very old town full of witch legends I thought the evil must be something which grandams had whispered to children through centuries... (H.P. Lovecraft, "The Colour Out of Space," 1927).

The film follows the outlines of Lovecraft's tale relatively closely. While surveying for a new reservoir Phillips meets the Gardners, a local family whose lives are impacted when a strange meteor lands on their property. The original story is set in the 1880s, but the the film updates the setting to the present, and rather than hardscrabble Yankee farmers the Gardners are now urban transplants trying to re-start their lives on an inherited farm.

Their efforts aren't working out too well. Father Nathan Gardner (Nichola Cage) spends his time drinking, learning to farm via audio recordings, and raising alpacas for reasons he doesn't seem clear about.  His wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), is recovering from breast cancer and trying to continue her career as a stockbroker on their isolated farm with a terrible internet connection. And is it really a good idea for her to be living an hour away from the nearest hospital? Oldest son Benny (Brendan Meyer) spends his time getting stoned and looking at NASA's website, while daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) practices Wicca in the woods, imploring the spirits to help her get away from the boredom of the farm. Only youngest son Jack (Julian Hilliard) seems adjusted to the situation.

Life on the farm seems stifling and a little dysfunctional, but things only get weirder once the glowing meteor lands in the yard. Some of the changes are almost imperceptible - the parents fight more than usual, stoner Benny gets even more distracted, the Gardners' phone and internet reception degrades. The family barely even notices when strange plants start growing in the yard, neon pink mist fills the surrounding woods, and the progression of time itself becomes disrupted. Is radiation from the meteor affecting everyone's sanity, or is there really a monster in the alpaca barn? The answer is both.

"The Colour Out of Space" is one of Lovecraft's classic tales of cosmic horror where human protagonists learn the hard way that they're living in an uncaring universe. It's a horrific science fiction story, not a tale of the supernatural. Still, the film's director Richard Stanley is a practicing occultist and occult imagery appears throughout the film, mostly in rituals that Lavinia performs. She invokes archangels using the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, reads the Simon Necronomicon, and carves the odal rune on her forehead. The rune symbolizes inheritance and land, and is germane to her family's situation. It also looks like she carves the words "solve" and "coagula" into her hands. These words may be familiar to you from Eliphas Levi's illustration of Baphomet, and they mean "dissolve" and "coagulate." Many things dissolve and coagulate in Color Out of Space, often in a gruesome manner.

Speaking of coagulation, Nathan says "Families stick together" several times during the movie. When I recently re-read the story I was struck by how the Gardners don't leave their farm, even as things get worse and worse. The family in the movie behaves the same way. Like frogs in slowly boiling water, they don't realize they're in danger until it's much too late. It's hard to know you're in a strange situation when it's what you've grown accustomed to.

Director Stanley and Amaris Scarlett, who co-wrote the script with him, incorporate nods to Lovecraft's work throughout the film (a Miskatonic University t-shirt, a symbol on a TV news van, character names) and it's clear they appreciate their source material. They're not afraid to modernize the story where appropriate, not just by adding well-written female characters but also by casting people of color: Elliot Knight as Ward, Tommy Chong as a blissed out hippie unbothered by all the weirdness, and Q'orianka Kilcher as the town's ambitious mayor.


If I have one complaint, it's a minor one. Color Out of Space was filmed in Portugal, and it just doesn't look like New England. The trees are wrong, the Gardner's house clearly is not an old Massachusetts farmhouse, and the town hall is obviously European. Lovecraft's story is an homage to the New England landscape and an elegy for the Yankee farmers whose way of life was fading away and it would have been nice to see those incorporated into the film. But like I said, that's a minor complaint.

This is definitely a classic B movie, and I mean that in a good way. There are rubbery monsters, men with shotguns shooting things, copious amounts of gore and slime, and Nichola Cage chewing the scenery. It's not an arthouse horror film like Midsommar, The Witch or Mandy. On the other hand, there is also beautiful psychedelic imagery, a script with multiple levels of meaning, and good acting (including some by Nicholas Cage) so it's more like a B+ movie. It's also one of the best Lovecraft adaptations I've seen in a long time.

Surprisingly, it's also emotionally moving. I found myself teary-eyed by the end and got a little choked up as the film ended with this narration, pulled directly again from Lovecraft's story:

It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.

January 20, 2020

Anna and Her Damn Bread: A Legendary Recipe

This past weekend actually felt like winter, by which I mean it was cold and we got some snow. The recent 70 degree weekend was pleasant but a little freakish. Give me a cold snowy weekend instead! I know some of you out there hate snow but it always makes me happy to see it falling. It also makes me want to bake.

I'm still recovering from eating too many cookies and too much candy over Christmas, so I decided to bake some bread rather than a dessert. A wintry New England weekend calls for a classic New England recipe: anadama bread.

Anadama bread is a yeasted bread made with wheat flour, cornmeal, and molasses. Its consistency and taste is somewhere between cornbread and traditional sandwich bread. You can certainly use it to make sandwiches, but I think it's best just toasted and spread with butter. 

The cornmeal and molasses are dead giveaways that anadama bread originated in New England. These two ingredients feature in classic Yankee recipes like Indian pudding and brown bread and have deep roots in New England history. Corn (aka maize or Indian corn) has been part of the local diet for thousands of years. The Pilgrims stopped by Provincetown in 1620 on their way to Cape Cod and stole some corn that the local Wampanoags had stored there. That's how deeply rooted corn is in local history. 

Molasses also has deep roots in New England as part of what's known as the Triangular Trade. In the 1700s distilleries in New England produced rum from molasses, which merchants then traded in Africa for slaves. The slaves were transported to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations which produced molasses. The molasses was then brought to New England to be distilled into rum which was traded in Africa for more slaves to make more molasses to make more rum... You get the picture and it's pretty grim. I tend to think of molasses as a quaint ingredient used in gingersnaps and molasses cookies but it does have an unhappy history. 

Back to the bread. There are two legends that explain anadama bread's unusual name, and they both center on a woman named Anna. In the first, Anna is the wife of a Cape Ann fisherman and she is a lousy cook. A really lousy cook. Every day she serves her husband the same exact thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner: cornmeal mush sweetened with molasses. Finally he can't take it anymore. He screams "Anna damn her!" and combines the cornmeal mush with flour and yeast to make bread. Thus we have anadama bread. 

In a second, less prevalent legend Anna is the wife of a sea-captain. This Anna is a great cook and provided baked goods for her husband's long ocean voyages that never spoiled or went bad. Still, the captain always referred to her as "Anna damn her" to his ship's crew, and her bread became known as "Anna damn her's bread." Thus we again have anadama bread. When Anna died the captain put the following on her tombstone: "Anna was a lovely bride, but Anna damn her, up and died." 

I don't know if either of these stories are true. They're pretty vague (what was Anna's surname and when did she live?) but the bread's unique name has no good historical explanation. None. Some people have suggested the recipe was created by Finnish fishermen or stonecutters living in Gloucester or Rockport, but I couldn't find anadama in the Finnish dictionary. The stories about Anna and her damned bread are the best explanations we have for the name.

Food historian Joyce White, on her blog A Taste of History, notes that "anadama bread" was filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1850 as a brand of bread and was used in 1876 by a company called Anadma Mixes, Inc. The bread is definitely connected to Cape Ann. A man named Baker Knowlton produced the bread in Rockport by the end of the 19th century and shipping it across New England. 

Me and my bread! My expression's kind of odd...
If you have a hankering for anadama bread, rich in legend and history, you can probably buy some at the supermarket. When Pigs Fly, the bread company from York, Maine, sells a multi-grain version that is widely available. Anadama bread is not that hard to make, though, and you can find lots of recipes online (like this one from Yankee Magazine). Baking bread is great way to spend a cold, wintry day.

My source for the two legends is Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, second edition (1988 ) by William, Mary and William Otis Morris. 

January 15, 2020

Strange Old Trees in Boston and Beyond

If you're ever near Boston Common or at the Massachusetts Statehouse you might notice these two unusual looking trees. They're heavily pruned and flank the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment.

I once thought these trees were planted as part of the memorial, which was completed in 1897. I was wrong. They actually were planted by John Hancock, probably in 1772, which makes them around 248 years old. These trees are OLD, and are definitely the oldest ones on Boston Common.

John Hancock (he of the famous signature) once lived in a mansion that stood where the Statehouse is now. Apparently he wanted to improve his view, so he planted two English elms across from his home. The trees did well, and when the Shaw Memorial was erected a century later the builders made sure not to damage them. The memorial actually sits on top of a large stone vault which was built to house the roots of the trees.

There are very few English elm trees left in North America, and these two are allegedly the oldest English elms in the Western Hemisphere. Elms used to be widespread in American cities but sadly were decimated in the 20th century but Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection spread by an invasive beetle. The trees planted by John Hancock were protected from the disease because their roots are encased in the stone vault.

Elm trees can live for up to 400 years (!) and arborists are determined to keep these two alive for as long as possible. One method they use is heavy pruning, which prevents damage from heavy winds or ice and also encourages the trunk to stay thick and healthy. They've also filled in hollow parts of their trunks with bricks to stabilize the tree. The trees may look odd but they are very healthy.

Surprisingly they are not the oldest trees in Boston. I think that title belongs to a bonsai tree in Arnold Arboretum which was planted in Japan in 1737 and later brought to Massachusetts. But even that bonsai is young compared to a pear tree planted by the Puritan leader John Endecott in the mid-1600s which is still alive in Danvers, Massachusetts today.

All the trees I've mentioned so far are domestic and were planted by humans. There are wild trees that are even older. The oldest tree in Massachusetts is a 450+ year old hemlock in the Mohawk Trail State Forest. Trees of similar ages can also be found in Sherburne, Vermont and New Hebron, New Hampshire. Most of the original trees in this region have been cut down but there are still a few pockets of old growth forest left.

I don't have much else to say. Trees are amazing beings. They're good for the atmosphere, good for animals and birds, and good for our mental health. Maybe some day the tree in your backyard will be hundreds of years old!

January 06, 2020

Aunt Mose, the Rocks Village Witch

Aunt Mose was reputed to be a witch and the people of Rocks Village (a rural part of Haverhill, Massachusetts) blamed their misfortunes on her. If the butter didn't churn properly they blamed Aunt Mose. If the lamps flickered and went out at a party they blamed her too. One of her neighbors, Captain Peaslee, covered his house and barn with horse shoes to deflect her evil magic. 

Once a group of neighbors who had gathered together for a corn-husking were troubled by a junebug that kept flying around their heads. The insect was quite persistent and wouldn't leave. Finally someone swatted it to the ground with a stick. The next day Aunt Mose was seen limping around the Village. She said she had fallen down the stairs but no one believed her. Clearly, people whispered, she had assumed the form of a junebug and been injured when it was swatted. Clearly she was a witch.

Like many people accused of witchcraft, Aunt Mose did not have much money. She lived for many years in a small house but was forced to sell it. On the day of the sale she angrily told the family who bought it that they would never be happy there. She was right. The family's spinning wheel stopped working as soon as they moved in and only worked properly when Aunt Mose borrowed it. When she returned it to them it stopped working again. Even worse, the mother of the family sickened and died eighteen months after moving in. At her funeral everyone remembered Aunt Mose's angry words...

Of course, the rumors infuriated Aunt Mose and she always denied she was a witch. In an effort to preserve her reputation she went to the local Justice of the Peace and asked him to draft and notarize a document declaring she was not a witch. The JP didn't have any such document, but he wrote one and signed it just to humor the elderly woman.

A 19th century daguerreotype
A young man once fell in love with Aunt Mose's daughter. His friends warned him that her mother was a witch but he just laughed at them. When he told them he was going to Aunt Mose's house that night to announce his intentions they decided to play a prank. They arranged big old chains above the door of her house that would fall when he opened it and scare him off. But things didn't quite work the way they planned. As the young man approached the house a strange light illuminated the doorway and he saw the chains. The prank didn't go off the way they wanted, but the young man was frightened by the strange light and decided not to court Aunt Mose's daughter. 

When Aunt Mose finally died no one could find her will but it was believed to be held by the local wealthy squire. The squire, however, had plenty of other things on his mind and was in no rush to find the document. 

A few months later the squire was sitting next to his fireplace when he got the strange impression he was not alone. Looking up he saw Aunt Mose sitting next to him. He was frightened since she had seen her put into the ground. They sat there in silence, Aunt Mose puffing ferociously on her pipe, until the squire finally spoke:

"Aunt Mose," he said at length, "for the Lord's sake, get right back to the burying-ground! What on earth are you here for?" 
The apparition took her pipe deliberately from her mouth and informed him that she came to see justice done with her will; and that nobody need think of cheating her, dead or alive." (quoted in William Sloane Kennedy, John G. Whittier, the Poet of Freedom, 1892. Note: Kennedy's text calls her "Aunt Morse.")

Aunt Mose then stepped out in the dark night. The squire made sure the will was executed according to her dying wishes the following day. 


I think most small New England towns had their "witches," usually eccentric elderly women that were convenient scapegoats for life's misfortunes. Most of them have been forgotten now but the legends about Aunt Mose have survived thanks to John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892), the famous poet who was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Aunt Mose lived on Corliss Hill behind Whittier's childhood home and he mentioned her in his poems and other writings. Other local residents added their remembrances to Whittier's, giving us the colorful stories we have today. 

John Greenleaf Whittier
Aunt Mose was a real person but it's not entirely clear who she was. In some stories she is called Aunt Mose and in others she is called Aunt Morse, which makes things complicated. The Rocks Village Historical Society suggests that she was Sarah Flanders Chase, who was born in 1762 and was the wife of Moses Chase. Perhaps she was called Aunt Mose because his name was Moses, or perhaps because she was called Aunt Morse because she was related to the Morse family. The Society also suggests that another woman named Chase may have been involved in the sales of the cursed house, not Aunt Mose, so several legends might be conflated. 

In the 17th century being accused of witchcraft was a serious matter, but by the early 19th century being called the town witch was much less dangerous. It was still inconvenient and unpleasant though. I find the stories about Aunt Mose charming (and maybe a little spooky) but I suspect her life was not an easy one. I like reading these old witch tales but have no desire to live in the past. 

My other main source for this post was Rebecca Ingersoll Davis's Gleanings from Merrimac Valley, Sheaf Number Two, 1886.