October 14, 2020

Take A Tour of New England's Lovecraft Country

It's October, so let's take a tour. No, not a foliage tour - a tour of Lovecraft country.

We've been watching Lovecraft Country on HBO these past few weeks. It's a horror/fantasy series based on Matt Ruff's novel of the same name; the main character is a Black veteran of the Korean War who likes science fiction and fantasy literature. The series explores a variety of genres (occult horror, science fiction, ghost stories, Indiana Jones style adventures) to examine racism and what it's like to be Black in America.

Despite the title, there's not a lot of Lovecraft in the show. H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) was a Rhode Island native and is considered one of the world's most influential horror writers. In recent years a lot of critical attention has been paid to the racism in his work, and Lovecraft Country in some ways is the attempt of genre fans, like author Matt Ruff and show runner Misha Green, to grapple with the negative aspects of the stories they love.

In one sense, the title Lovecraft Country refers to the fictional genres the show explores, the worlds of fantasy and horror fiction. However, the term "Lovecraft Country" existed before either the novel or the show, and was coined by scholars to refer to the various towns and places Lovecraft repeatedly mentions to in his fiction. Most of those places are in New England, so New England is actually Lovecraft country.

One of the reasons Lovecraft's fiction remains effective is because he blends facts and fiction. For example, he'll slip a fictional book like the Necronomicon into a list of actual occult books in a story. He'll mention real people like Cotton Mather or Dr. John Dee while discussing fictional occultists. Its a technique that leaves the reader wondering what's real and what's not.

He used a similar technique when writing about geographic locations. The monster-haunted coastal town of Innsmouth is fictional, but it's supposedly located near Rowley and was inspired by Newburyport, both real towns in Massachusetts. Many of the fictional locations he mentions are actually based on real ones, so you could take an actual tour of Lovecraft country. It might be a nice way to spend an October day. Just watch out for those tentacled monsters.

And here's a word of practical caution - if you do visit any of these places please follow COVID-19 protocols. Wear a mask. Maintain six feet of distance. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. Stay healthy and keep the horror in your life fictional.

Arkham: 

This decaying city with a sinister history appears in many of Lovecraft's stories. It's the home of Miskatonic University, a prestigious school whose library contains a copy of the accursed Necronomicon. Arkham was the site of witch trials in the 17th century and residents believe that witchcraft still secretly happens there. 

Photo from StreetsOfSalem.com

Arkham's location was not clearly defined in Lovecraft's early stories, but in later stories the town is clearly an analogue of Salem, Massachusetts. The cemetery in his 1923 story "The Unnamable" was inspired by Salem's historic Charter Street Burying Ground, and some family names that Lovecraft uses (like Derby and Pickman) are old Salem family surnames. 

Featured in: The Unnamable (1923), The Dunwich Horror (1928), The Dreams in the Witch House (1933), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937).

Boston:

Boston is obviously a real place. According to Lovecraft, the Massachusetts capital is riddled with underground tunnels home to man-eating, dog-faced ghouls. Hopefully that isn't true. Lovecraft also claims there is an entrance to the realm of dreams in Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street, which probably isn't true either but sounds nicer than ghoul tunnels.

Boston's North End. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Featured in: Pickman's Model (1926), Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927)

Chesuncook:

Ancient stone ruins can supposedly be found in this small Maine town. Hidden beneath the ruins is a stairway of 6,000 steps that leads to a pit full of shoggoths, hideous protoplasmic monsters. A secret cult of witches gathers there to celebrate their rituals. 

I don't think the pit of shoggoths is real, but Chesuncook is. It's actually a small lakeside town that Henry David Thoreau visited in the 1840s, and today is popular spot for rafting trips. The word "chesuncook" means "place of geese," which doesn't sound particularly frightening. 

Featured in: The Thing on the Doorstep (1937)

Dunwich:

"Outsiders visit Dunwich as seldom as possible, and since a certain season of horror all the signboards pointing towards it have been taken down..." According to Lovecraft, this central Massachusetts town is full of historic architecture, but "most of the houses are deserted and falling to ruin" while Dunwich's only church has been converted into a grimy general store. The inhabitants of Dunwich are rumored to be both inbred and abnormally intrigued by black magic. 

Wilbraham Methodist Meeting House, from LostNewEngland.com

Dunwich is totally fictional, but was inspired by a visit Lovecraft paid to a friend in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. He enjoyed the trip, and I'm sure he appreciated Wilbraham's historic town center. Some aspects of Dunwich were also inspired by a visit to Athol, Massachusetts. 

Featured in: The Dunwich Horror (1928)

Haverhill:

Haverhill, Massachusetts is the birthplace of two academics who learned things they'd rather forget. Walter Gilman studied theoretical physics while staying in an old 17th century Arkham house once inhabited by a witch and died a strange death. Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, a professor at Miskatonic University, experienced a strange bout of amnesia for several years. When it subsided he claimed his mind had been kidnapped by monstrous alien beings from the past.

Haverhill is real, and is where I was born. As a child I was intrigued and yet terrified to see it referenced in Lovecraft's fiction. Lovecraft's friend William 'Tryout' Smith lived in Haverhill and he visited the city often. 

Featured in: The Dreams in the Witch House (1933), The Shadow Out of Time (1936)

Innsmouth:

According to Lovecraft, this decaying Massachusetts port city experienced a strange plague in 1846, although some residents say it was actually a massacre of some kind. Shortly thereafter a religious group called the Esoteric Order of Dagon took over Innsmouth. The Order was investigated by the US government in 1928 and many of its members arrested. The Navy also torpedoed an unknown target off the city's coast. 

Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport

Innsmouth is another fictional creation, but is very closely modeled on Newburyport, Massachusetts. Lovecraft visited that city in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, and wrote that it was so run down "it is today locally known as the City of the Living Dead." When Lovecraft visited the business district was nearly abandoned and many of the buildings were falling into ruin. Today it's a thriving and renovated tourist destination.

Featured in: The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936)

Kingsport:

Another Massachusetts town with strange secrets. Some residents are said to practice ancient rites during winter solstice. An elderly man who hates immigrants supposedly uses black magic against them. Locals discourage anyone from visiting a strange old house that sits on top of a nearby cliff. 


Another fictional town, but like Innsmouth also inspired by a real location, this time Marblehead, Massachusetts. Lovecraft was an enormous fan of Colonial architecture, and he wrote that his 1922 visit to Marblehead was "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence." That must be some really good architecture. 

Featured in: The Terrible Old Man (1920), The Festival (1923), The Strange High House in the Mist (1926)

Providence:

Lovecraft was born in the Rhode Island capital and lived most of his life there. The epitaph on his monument in the Swann Point Cemetery reads: "I Am Providence." He clearly loved the city and set many of this stories there. In Lovecraft's world, an old house on Benefit Street was haunted by a life-sucking fungus, a church steeple on Federal Hill housed a mysterious giant crystal, and the city was home to psychic artists, reincarnated wizards, and nautical cult members. Those things may not be true, but Providence is still pretty amazing even in real life.

Featured in: The Shunned House (1924), The Call of Cthulhu (1926), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), and The Haunter of the Dark (1935).

5 comments:

silverfishimperitrix said...

The Terrible Old Man did not hate immigrants. He hated robbers and thieves.

Anonymous said...

There’s a terrific series of gay horror/romance novels called Widdershins, by Jordan L. Hawk. They take place in a town called Widdershins, another Salem knockoff, and Hawk has said, in a series of podcasts, that each novel is suggested by a Lovecraft story. One of the two main characters has a degree from Miskatonic University. They’re very clever.

Anonymous said...

This was a great job. I've shared it elsewhere.

Unknown said...

Athol is indeed as grim as it gets. Heck even the Horror wanted o.u.t.

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