Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lovecraft Visits a Witch House

I struck out along the roads and across the fields toward the lone farmhouse built by Townsend Bishop in 1636, and in 1692 inhabited by the worthy and inoffensive old widow Rebekah Nurse, who was seventy years of age and wished no one harm. Accused by the superstitious West Indian slave woman Tituba (who belonged to the Reverend Samuel Parris and who caused the entire wave of delusion) of bewitching children, and denounced blindly by some of the hysterical children in question, Goodwife Nurse was arrested amd brought to trial. Thirty-nine persons signed a paper attesting to her blameless conduct, and a jury rendered a verdict of "not guilty"; but popular clamour led the judges to reverse the verdict (as was then possible), and on 19 July 1692 the poor grandam was hanged on Gallows Hill in Salem for a mythological crime. Her remains were brought back from Salem and interred in the family burying-ground -- a ghoulish place shadowed by huge pines and at some distance from the house. In 1885 a monument was erected to her memory, bearing an inscription by the poet Whittier.

As I approached the spot to which I had been directed, after passing through the hamlet of Tapleyville, the afternoon sun was very low. Soon the houses thinned out; so that on my right were only the hilly fields of stubble, and occasional crooked trees clawing at the sky. Beyond a low crest a thick group of spectral boughs bespoke some kind of grove or orchard -- and in the midst of this group I suddenly descried the rising outline of a massive and ancient chimney. Presently, as I advanced, I saw the top of a grey, drear, sloping roof -- sinister in its distant setting of bleak hillside and leafless grove, and unmistakably belonging to the haunted edifice I sought. Another turn -- a gradual ascent -- and I beheld in full view the sprawling, tree-shadowed house which had for nearly three hundred years brooded over those hills and held such secrets as men may only guess. Like all old farmhouses of the region, the Nurse cottage faces the warm south and slopes low toward the north. It fronts on an ancient garden, where in their seasons gay blossoms flaunt themselves against the grim, nail-studded door and the vertical sundial above it. That sundial was long, concealed by the overlaid clapboards of Gothic generations, but came to light when the house was restored to original form by the memorial society which owns it. Everything about the place is ancient -- even to the tiny-paned lattice windows which open outwards on hinges. The atmosphere of witchcraft days broods heavily upon that low hilltop.

My rap at the ancient door brought the caretaker's wife, an elderly unimaginative person with no appreciation of the dark glamour of the ancient scene. This family live in a lean-to west of the main structure -- an addition probably one hundred years less ancient than the parent edifice. I was the first visitor of the 1923 season, and took pride in signing my name at the top of the register. Entering, I found myself in a low, dark passage whose massive beams almost touched my head; and passing on, I traversed the two immense rooms on the ground floor -- sombre, barren, panelled apartments with colossal fireplaces in the vast central chimney, and with occasional pieces of the plain, heavy furniture and primitive farm and domestic utensils of the ancient yemanry. In these wide, low-pitched rooms a spectral menace broods -- for to my imagination the seventeenth century is a full of macabre mystery, repression and ghoulish adumbrations as the eighteenth century is full of taste, gaiety, grace and beauty. This was a typical Puritan abode; where amidst the bare, ugly necessities of life, and without learning, beauty, culture, freedom or ornament, terrible stern-faced folk in conical hats or poke-bonnets dwelt 250 and more years ago -- close to the soil and all its hideous whisperings; warped in mentality by isolation and unnatural thoughts, and shivering in fear of the Devil on autumn nights when the wind howled through the twisted orchard trees or rustled the hideous corpse-nourished pines in the graveyard at the foot of the hill. There is eldritch fascination -- horrible buried evil -- in these archaic farmhouses. After seeing them, and smelling the odour of centuries in their walls, one hesitates to read certain passages in Cotton Mather's strange old Magnalia after dark. After exploring the ground floor I crept up the black crooked stairs and examined the bleak chambers above. The furniture was as ugly as that below, and included a small trundle-bed in which infant Puritans were lulled to sleep with meaningless prayers and morbid hints of daemons riding the nightwind outside the small-paned lattice windows. I saw old Rebekah's favourite chair, where she used to sit and spin before the Salem magistrates dragged her to the gallows. And the sunset wind whistled in the colossal chimney, and the ghouls rattled ghastly skeletons from unseen attic rafters overhead. Though it was not supposed to be open to the public, I persuaded the caretaker to let me ascend to that hideous garret of centuried secrets. Thick dust covered everything, and unnatural shapes loomed on everyhand as the evening twilight oozed through the little bleared panes of the ancient windows. I saw something hanging from the wormy ridge-pole -- something that swayed as if in unison with the vesper breeze outside, though that breeze had no access to this funereal and forgotten place -- shadows...shadows...shadows... And I descended from that accursed garret of paleogene arcana, and left that portentous abode of aniquity; left it and went down the hill to the graveyard under the shocking pines, where twilight showed sinister slabs and rusty bits of fallen iron fence, and where something squatted in shadow on a monument -- something that made me climb the hill again, hurry shudderingly past the venerable house and descend the opposite slope to Tapleyville as night came.

{1923 Letter to Alfred Galpin and Frank Belknap Long}

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