Ancient Nantucket

The second half of my outing, though, was the real climax—since this was nothing more or less than a trip to ancient Nantucket, which I had never seen before, though it lies only 90 miles (6 hrs. by coach & boat) from my own doorstep.

The folder I sent has probably given you some idea of the place. And what a place! Nowhere else—Charleston, Quebec, Salem, or Newport—has the past survived so perfectly. The old town is exactly as it was a century ago—cobblestoned streets with colonial houses, windmill, hitching-posts, horse-blocks, & silver doorplates, picturesque lanes & wharves—everything pertaining to the bygone days of whaling prosperity. The island was settled in 1660, & formed part of New York till 1692, since then it has belonged to Massachusetts. Whaling made it great, & the decline of that industry caused its decline. Summer vacationists have preserved & restored it. I explored all the old streets, museums, windmill, &c. minutely, & saw Saturn & his ring through the glass of the Maria Mitchell observatory. A bus trip around the island took me to the quaint former fishing village of Siasconset. In covering the suburbs of the town I used a hired bicycle—the first time I’d ridden a wheel in 20 years. It quite rejuvenated me! I had a 3d floor room during my week’s stay—with a fine view of town, harbour, & sea.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a fellow writer and poet who was one of his closest friends, Lovecraft describes his recent trip to the island of Nantucket, one of many places along the Eastern Seaboard he visited in search of Colonial relics.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 8 Sept. 1934. Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 565-7.

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The Past Is Real

The past is real—it is all there is. The present is only a trivial and momentary boundary-line—whilst the future, though wholly determinate, is too essentially unknown and landmarkless to possess any hold upon our sense of concrete aesthetic imagery. It is, too, liable to involve shifts and contrasts repugnant to our emotions and fancy; since we cannot study it as a unified whole and become accustomed to its internal variations as we can study and grow accustomed to the vary’d past. There is nothing in the future to tie one’s loyalties and affections to—it can mean nothing to us, because it involves noe of those mnemonic association-links upon which the illusion of meaning is based. So I, for one, prefer Old New England and Old Virginia to the unknown mechanised barbarism that stretches out ahead of us—as meaningless and alien to men of our heritage and memories as the cultures of China or Abyssinia or ancient Carthage or the planet Saturn.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend James F. Morton, Lovecraft defends his attachment to the past and his dismissal of the future.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To James F. Morton.” 19 Oct. 1929. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 31-5.

The Perfection of the Hideous

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.


DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the short story “The Picture in the House” (1920), Lovecraft claims that rural New England can be far more frightening than the castles and catacombs of Gothic literature.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Picture in the House.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 34-42.

The Puritan Imagination

It is the night-black Massachusetts legendry which packs the really macabre ‘kick’. Here is material for a really profound study in group-neuroticism; for certainly, no one can deny the existence of a profoundly morbid streak in the Puritan imagination.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft claims that Puritan Massachusetts is the ideal setting for a weird tale.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Robert E. Howard.” 4 Oct. 1930. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 174-84.

A Monstrous Aftermath

They told me not to take the Briggs’ Hill path
That used to be the highroad through to Zoar,
For Goody Watkins, hanged in seventeen-four,
Had left a certain monstrous aftermath.
Yet when I disobeyed, and had in view
The vine-hung cottage by the great rock slope,
I could not think of elms or hempen rope,
But wondered why the house still seemed so new.

Stopping a while to watch the fading day,
I heard faint howls, as from a room upstairs,
When through the ivied panes one sunset ray
Struck in, and caught the howler unawares.
I glimpsed—and ran in frenzy from the place,
And from a four-pawed thing with human face.


DESCRIPTION: In his poem “The Howler,” Lovecraft describes a mysterious cottage and the howling monstrosity that inhabits it.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Howler.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, p. 85.

 

Silent, Sleepy, Staring Houses

In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen. Seized with a gloomy and fanatical belief which exiled them from their kind, their ancestors sought the wilderness for freedom. There the scions of a conquering race indeed flourished free from the restrictions of their fellows, but cowered in an appalling slavery to the dismal phantasms of their own minds. Divorced from the enlightenment of civilisation, the strength of these Puritans turned into singular channels; and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage. By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folks were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed. Only the silent, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods can tell all that has lain hidden since the early days; and they are not communicative, being loath to shake off the drowsiness which helps them forget. Sometimes one feels that it would be merciful to tear down these houses, for they must often dream.


DESCRIPTION: In this passage from the short story “The Picture in the House” (1920), Lovecraft describes his impressions of the Puritans who settled New England.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Picture in the House.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 34-42.

Thy Sacred Ground

My Providence! What airy hosts
Turn still thy gilded vanes;
What winds of elf that with grey ghosts
People thine ancient lanes!

The chimes of evening as of old
Above thy valleys sound,
While thy stern fathers ‘neath the mould
Make blest thy sacred ground.

Thou dream’st beside the waters there,
Unchang’d by cruel years;
A spirit from an age more fair
That shines behind our tears.

Thy twinkling lights each night I see,
Tho’ time and space divide;
For thou art of the soul of me,
And always at my side!


DESCRIPTION: In his poem “Providence,” Lovecraft describes his lifelong attachment to Providence, a place which he felt transcended time.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Providence.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 303-5.

A Typical Puritan Abode

Entering, I found myself in a low, dark passage whose massive beams almost touched my head; and passing on, I travers’d two immense rooms on the ground floor—sombre, barren, panell’d apartments with colossal fireplaces in the vast central chimney, and with occasional pieces of the plain, heavy furniture and primitive farm and domestick utensils of the ancient yeomanry. In these wide, low-pitch’d rooms a spectral menace broods—for to my imagination the seventeenth century is as full of macabre mystery, repression, and ghoulish adumbrations as the eighteenth century is full of taste, gayety, grace, and beauty. This was a typical Puritan abode; where admist the bare, ugly necessities of life, and without learning, beauty, culture, freedom, or ornament, terrible stern-fac’d folk in conical hats or poke-bonnets dwelt two hundred and fifty and more years ago …


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friends Frank Belknap Long and Alfred Galpin, Lovecraft describes his visit to the Rebekah Nurse House in Massachusetts.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long and Alfred Galpin.” 1 May 1923. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 218-25.

Don’t Git Skeert

“As I says, ’tis queer haow picters sets ye thinkin’. D’ye know, young Sir, I’m right sot on this un here. Arter I got the book off Eb I uster look at it a lot, especial when I’d heerd Passon Clark rant o’ Sundays in his big wig. Onct I tried suthin’ funny—here, young Sir, don’t git skeert—all I done was ter look at the picter afore I kilt the sheep for market—killin’ sheep was kinder more fun arter lookin’ at it—”


DESCRIPTION: In this passage from the short story “The Picture in the House” (1920), a sinister old man describes his growing desire for human flesh.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Picture in the House.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 34-42.

The Spires of Providence

Where bay and river tranquil blend,
And leafy hillsides rise,
The spires of Providence ascend
Against the ancient skies.

Here centuried domes of shining gold
Salute the morning’s glare,
While slanting gables, odd and old,
Are scatter’d here and there.

And in the narrow winding ways
That climb o’er slope and crest,
The magic of forgotten days
May still be found to rest.


DESCRIPTION: In his poem “Providence,” Lovecraft describes the timeless appeal of his beloved hometown.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Providence.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 303-5.