Most folks who know him will say that my father-in-law is a fairly well-read guy. He’s the president of a small Great Books college here in New Hampshire. He went to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which my sources tell me is a pretty good school, before earning his Ph.D from the Catholic University of America.
I call him Papa Doc. He’s broadly tolerant of me.
A few days ago, I mentioned in passing that I’m into the Cthulhu mythos. Papa Doc was aghast. He is not broadly tolerant of H.P. Lovecraft.
This rather surprised me. Papa Doc has more than enough Yankee blood in his veins. He’s from Maine, which is better than nothing. But I thought every New Englander naturally appreciated the Lovecraftian thing.
Granted, none of H.P.’s books would quality as Great Books. Actually, as books go, they’re pretty bad. For starters, nearly all of them would be a lot better if he’d chopped off the last third or so.
Lovecraft begins every story by creating this atmosphere of metaphysical madness. We hear a mysterious tapping behind a wall with no door. Inhuman cries echo from deep in the woods, where no man dares to venture at night. There’s a strange, sickly glow coming from the bottom of a vast and lonely lake. The police raid a cult hidden deep in the Louisiana bayou and find them dancing around a grotesque idol, half-octopus and half-dragon.
It could be nothing—an ancient delusion, a fit of mass hysteria. Then again, it could be—
Wait, what’s that?! There’s a giant monster coming out of the ocean! It’s so, so… cyclopean! So blasphemous! And the geometry is all wrong! And… oh, wait. Now it’s flying back to Pluto.
I know part of Lovecraft’s appeal is the whole cosmic ecosystem of Elder Gods and alien terrors, every last one of whom he describes in confounding detail. Yet Cthulhu was so much scarier as an idol, a legend, a half-forgotten dream. Lovecraft just couldn’t resist the big, gory reveal.
One can’t help but feel like Lovecraft is both the J.R.R. Tolkien and the George R.R. Martin of weird fiction. He elevated the genre to an artform and reduced it to kitsch—often in the same story.
So, as literature goes, Lovecraft gets a gentleman’s C. Maybe a B minus. Still, no writer in the English language can spook the way he spooks. Not Henry James. Not even M.R. James. Maybe Algernon Blackwood, but he also tends to be a little on-the-nose.
Still, I also don’t think any fiction writer has ever captured the haunted feeling that pervades New England quite like H.P. Lovecraft.
For me, his creepiest story is “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” It’s set in the fictional town of Arkham, which is based on Salem, Massachusetts. I grew up about half an hour from Salem, and one of my best friends was the son of the mayor. I spent a fair bit of time there, beyond the usual fieldtrips to the Witch Museum.
I can picture exactly the kind of house he describes: a dark brown, First Period number with the wrought iron windows that seem to block out more of the sun than they let in. (Really, Salem was asking for it.) For the witch’s portal, Lovecraft chose the slanted roof of a top floor bedroom. That was a stroke of genius. You have to imagine he found himself in one such room, sitting up late into the night, staring that one of those low, heavy angles the lamp-light can never quite reach.
Even the witch’s familiar, Brown Jenkin—the rat with a human face and human hands—didn’t break the story’s awful realism. In a tale about Salem, it worked all too well. You really can imagine that evil little bastard scurrying underneath your bed at night. I mean, try not to.
For pure atmosphere, though, nothing beats “The Dunwich Horror.”
The eponymous (fictional) town of Dunwich is located somewhere in Western Massachusetts. According to Lovecraft, “the natives are now repellently decadent, having gone far along that path of retrogression so common in many New England backwaters. They have come to form a race by themselves, with the well-defined mental and physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding. The average of their intelligence is woefully low, whilst their annals reek of overt viciousness and of half-hidden murders, incests, and deeds of almost unnamable violence and perversity.”
Anyone from North of Boston will immediately think of Seabrook, New Hampshire—a town on the Mass border notorious for its inbreeding. It’s not quite as isolated as Dunwich, but not for lack of trying. I grew up twenty minutes from Seabrook and I remember going there exactly once.
For some reason, everyone here calls these sorts of people “gypsies.” When my mother was growing up, an old Brooker clan moved into our hometown. Ever since, rumors have told they slept on their family plot in the cemetery. I have no idea if it’s true, and I really don’t mean to pick on those poor folks. But that’s part of the local lore, which Lovecraft channeled so brilliantly.
Then there’s Innsmouth: “a queer kind of a town down at the mouth of the Manuxet. Used to be almost a city—quite a port before the War of 1812—but all gone to pieces in the last hundred years or so. No railroad now—B. & M. never went through, and the branch line from Rowley was given up years ago. More empty houses than there are people, I guess, and no business to speak of except fishing and lobstering. Once they had quite a few mills, but nothing’s left now…”
Lovecraft scholars can’t decide whether the Innsmouth is based on Newburyport (where I was born) or Gloucester. Honestly, it doesn’t resemble either town these days. Maybe it did once upon a time, before the gentrification set in.
But “Innsmouth” could be any number of spots along the Merrimack River. At one point, half the East Coast was dying mill-towns where a couple of fishermen eked out a living on small boats.
Swamp Yankees can’t afford to live in those towns anymore. They’ve been driven inland by yuppies with Irish and Italian names. The few remaining lobstermen struggle to make ends meet; manufacturing has disappeared completely. But you do still get the sense that they were prosperous once, and then died out, and then were brought back to life. The gorgeous old houses all look like they were built by solid middle-class folk before falling into disrepair, only to be “restored” by new-money types with garish stucco and koi ponds.
But there’s something more fundamental that makes Lovecraft a quintessentially New England author, at least to my mind. Like the old Puritans, Lovecraft saw the natural world as fundamentally hostile—a force of almost unfathomable evil.
As I wrote in my last post, “the Puritans back in Blighty talked a good game about Creation having fallen with man and being utterly in Satan’s thrall. But when our Pilgrim Fathers arrived in the New England—when they gazed into those endless, darkening woods; when they tried (and failed) to feed themselves off the frozen, rocky soil—nature must’ve really felt like enemy territory.”
Lovecraft was an atheist. He didn’t believe in the Puritan’s God. But he still believed in their Devil.
How could he not? That’s just the kind of place New England is. It’s beautiful; it’s enchanted; it’s the only place I could ever live and be really happy. But it’s haunted. Every Yankee author has known that, from Nathaniel Hawthorne down to Stephen King. Whether the Puritans found it this way, or whether their sense of doom seeped into the soil, I don’t know. But it’s here to stay.
This might be what I love most about Lovecraft. He was, in many ways, the last Puritan. Like a good modernist, he scorned any notions of God or grace. Yet believing in the Devil was almost second nature. That’s got nothing to do with faith. It’s just the way things are here.
H.P. Lovecraft was haunted. I think we all are.