Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
Book Review of H.P. Lovecraft in the Merrimack Valley (Hippocampus Press, New York, 2013) by David Goudsward
Photo below: Howard Phillips Lovecraft, 1934. Source: Wikipedia
“Now that time has given us some perspective on his work,” says Stephen King, “I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” (quoting a 1995 article on H.P. Lovecraft in American Heritage Magazine)
Who was H.P. Lovecraft? From Providence, R.I., he was a weirdly eccentric amateur author of outlandish horror tales. In 1936, Lovecraft died of cancer at age forty-six, barely known outside of the fans of the United Amateur Press Association, of which he was president. A few of his stories were published in Weird Tales and other pulp publications of supernatural horror tales, but he died basically penniless and unknown.
“Lovecraft explored [his] sense of cosmic alienation in the loosely connected stories composing what would later be called the Cthulhu Mythos. ‘All my tales,’ he wrote in 1927, ‘are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large.’ The universe as revealed by modern science had no place for ghosts and vampires, the stuff of pagan legends and traditional supernatural fiction. But Lovecraft saw room enough for other horrors in the great gulfs of time and space.”
“‘The Call of Cthulhu’ and the other stories in the mythos deal with races of beings from other worlds and other dimensions who once ruled the earth, warred with one another, and now bide their time until they can regain ascendancy. Lovecraft created an elaborate fictional New England for the Cthulhu stories, including the eerie coastal town of Innsmouth [based on Newburyport], the accursed village of Dunwich [based on the western Massachusetts town of Athol], and “crumbling, whisper-haunted Arkham,” [based on Haverhill] home to the unwholesomely curious scholars of Miskatonic University [supposedly Haverhill’s Bradford College, founded 1803 closed 1999].
(From the American Heritage Article)
Since the time of his death, H.P. Lovecraft has developed a huge following of fans, called Lovecraftians. They obsessively comb over Lovecraft’s stories, manuscripts, memorabilia and any other document or place that can link them to the object of their obsession, Mr. Lovecraft himself.
Lovecraft was a prolific letter writer. In his lifetime, he wrote 100,000 letters totaling around ten million words!! His correspondence, which survives as a collection at Brown University in Providence, R.I., allows his fans to trace his every step.
His travels often took him to the Haverhill area, because one of his first editors lived there. This was a colorful character named Charles William Smith, publisher of an amateur fiction magazine called Tryout. A number of Lovecraft’s first published stories appeared in Tryout, which unfortunately had a minuscule circulation. Whenever Lovecraft was Haverhill in the 1920s, he made trips to the surrounding towns, including Amesbury, Newburyport, Salem, Marblehead, Ipswich and Portsmouth, N.H., among others.
Because of Lovecraft’s significant travels in the Lower Merrimack Valley, and the propensity of fans to want to retrace his steps, the librarian of the special collections at the Haverhill Public Library sought a guide to the local Lovecraft sites. David Goudsward, Haverhill-born historian and genealogist who is apparently most famous for a book about mysterious Neolithic stones in North Salem, New Hampshire, stepped in and wrote this book.
“[W]e were originally envisioning a 6- to 8-page booklet” says Goudsward in his preface, but “we both underestimated the number of locations in the Merrimack Valley that merit mention.”
His 192-page [!] book provides a blow-by-blow account of Lovecraft’s travels in the region along with significant contextual explanation about developments in Lovecraft’s personal life and writing career, as well as a number of helpful appendices. I learned for example that Lovecraft made exactly one trip to my hometown of Lawrence, on August 24, 1934, when he left his valise on the Haverhill trolley and had to go to the lost-and-found office in Lawrence.
Rather than summarize Lovecraft’s ramblings over the area, however, I will instead try to convey to vision and understanding of the region propounded by his stories and his correspondence.
He is completely enamored by anything related to colonial America, and resolutely hates urban areas (although he lived in New York for much of his adult life) and immigrants, including Jews (even though his wife for six years, Sonia Haft Greene, a department store manager who supported him financially, was Jewish).
He also apparently was highly squeamish about sexual intercourse, which might explain his numerous stories involving frightened men descending into cold rocky caverns and crypts, the walls teeming with slime.
He also had a low estimation of the residents of many of the economically depressed areas he visited, from rural Athol to inner-city port Newburyport.
For his story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Lovecraft bifurcated the things he liked about the place from the things he detested, collecting the latter in a made-up town called Innsmouth that exists next to Newburyport. In his story, “Newburyport is epitomized by the library, the historical society and High Street,” explains Goudsward. “Innsmouth is represented by abandoned shipyards and rotted docks along the Merrimack and ramshackle clam digger huts of Joppa Flats.”[Now Plum Island]
The plot synopsis of Shadow over Innsmouth in Wikipedia is this: The narrator has a hard time getting any information about Innsmouth from the Newburyport residents, or even getting to Innsmouth. Finally, the narrator finds Innsmouth to be a mostly deserted fishing town, full of dilapidated buildings and people who walk with a distinct shambling gait and have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, starry eyes.
The narrator meets Zadok, who explains that an Innsmouth merchant named Obed Marsh discovered a race of fish-like humanoids known as the Deep Ones. When hard times fell on the town, Obed established a cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon, which offered human sacrifices to the Deep Ones in exchange for wealth in the form of large fish hauls and unique jewelry. When Obed and his followers were arrested, the Deep Ones attacked the town and killed more than half of its population, leaving the survivors with no other choice than to continue Obed's practices. Male and female inhabitants were forced to breed with the Deep Ones, producing hybrid offspring which have the appearance of normal humans in early life but, in adulthood, slowly transform into Deep Ones themselves and leave the surface to live in ancient undersea cities for eternity.
He is told to leave immediately and is warned that government investigators who pry too deeply disappear. He dismisses the story. However, he is then told that his bus is experiencing engine trouble, and he has no choice but to spend the night in a musty hotel. While attempting to sleep, he hears noises at his door as if someone is trying to enter. Wasting no time, he escapes out a window and through the streets while a town-wide hunt for him occurs, forcing him at times to imitate the peculiar walk of the Innsmouth locals as he walks past search parties in the darkness. Eventually, he makes his way towards railroad tracks and hears a procession of Deep Ones passing in the road before him. Against his judgment, he opens his eyes to see the creatures and faints at his hiding spot. He wakes up unharmed. Over the years that pass, he researches his family tree and discovers that he is a descendant of Obed Marsh, and realizes that he is changing into one of the Deep Ones. As the story ends, the narrator is accepting his fate and feels he will be happy living with the Deep Ones. He plans to break out his cousin, even further transformed than he, and take him to the Deep Ones' city beneath the sea.
This short synopsis gives you a pretty good idea of how weird Lovecraft’s stories were! His later story, The Shadow Out Of Time, based in Haverhill, is equally weird and ominous. The narrator is possessed by ancient, powerful beings and witnesses marvels of the distant past.
Lovecraft fills his correspondence about the Lower Merrimack Valley with references to local authors. For example, although poet John Greenleaf Whittier of Haverhill is best known for his nostalgic poetry about rural New England and his abolitionist works, Lovecraft looks to him for his collections of supernatural New England ghost stories and tales. Lovecraft is also enamored with the highly eccentric wealthy Newburyport resident “Lord” Timothy Dexter, who died in 1806.
“You might have heard of Dexter & his lucky speculations,” writes Lovecraft, “attempts to enter society, freakish extravagance, grotesque house & grounds [Dexter’s mansion, which was still standing when Lovecraft visited, was lined with wooden figurines depicting historical personages such as John Jay and Napoleon Bonaparte], ridiculous escapades, hilarious pretensions to titled aristocracy…”
According to Lovecraft, one of Dexter’s statues was “of himself, labelled ‘I am first in the East, first in the West & the greatest philosopher of the Western World.’”
Lovecraft also references Dexter’s “absurd book called A Pickle for the Knowing Ones” which is the best name I have heard for a book in a long time.
Lovecraft writes to a friend: “That book was misspelled & unpunctuated & when people objected to the latter feature, ‘Lord’ Dexter published a second edition (1796) still unpunctuated, but with a page of assorted punctuation at the end of the book, plus the note:
'master printer the Nowing Ones complane of my book the first edition has no stops I put in A Nuf here & they may peper & solt it as they please’
Goudsward’s book is a fascinating tour of the region’s forgotten history, of which Lovecraft was enamored, visiting ancient puritan graveyards all over the region and getting inspiration from the headstones and the names. He makes a passing reference to the Peaslee Garrison House, for example, which I mentioned in another blog post, and other garrison houses such as the Hazen one built in 1720. He is also into other things that interest me, such as Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
This book would be worth the read just for introducing me to Lord Timothy Dexter and his saltbox and pepper grinder of punctuation [!], for readers to liberally spread over the words in his book as they see fit. I will have to look into Dexter and give him his own blog entry.
Goudsward has done a good job, via his exploration of Lovecraft’s travels, of conveying the richness of the history of the region that lies right before our eyes and that was very visible to an eccentric observer like Lovecraft.