A New England Odyssey

Sunday, August 20, 1995

     Miracles of miracles, I was the first of the three of us to get up today. My “alarm” (I wrote a little program in FoxPro to wake me up) went off at 8:30 a.m. and again at 9:00, which is when I got up. By 9:45 I was downstairs for the first panel of the day.
     The title of this panel was “Lovecraft’s Letters” and was headed up by S.T. Joshi, Steve Mariconda, and Dave Schultz. Since there was so much to mention and discuss, this panel was 2 hours long, as opposed to the usual one hour. All three had amusing anecdotes to share, some of them relating to unpublished letters. I also got this panel on videotape and now have a total of 4 hours of panels on tape.
     Dave Schultz and S.T. had talked about visiting the Rebecca Nurse Homestead (the home of an elderly woman who was hanged as a witch in 1692), and I had offered to direct them there. They couldn’t go until 2 p.m. when Perry Grayson was done with the Frank Belknap Long panel, so I decided to finally visit the dealer’s room. At the Necronomicon Press table, I spent almost $90 on back issues of Lovecraft Studies, along with a couple of other books. Amongst them was S.T. and Dave’s edition of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which includes illustrations by Jason Eckhardt, Lovecraft’s notes in preparation for the story, his discarded draft, notes on textual differences in publication, and the publication history of the tale. I highly recommend this to fans of this story.
     Before I could do any more shopping, I bumped into Bob Cannard (a regular on the alt.horror.cthulhu newsgroup), who I’d chatted with before briefly. He mentioned that he’d be staying in New England the next week and didn’t really have any plans. So, I suggested that he visit many of the places Lovecraft based his tales on, and made certain he had a copy of Jason Eckhardt’s “Off the Ancient Track: A Lovecraftian Guide to New-England & Adjacent New York.” I also gave him a very rough draft copy of my own version of Jason’s work that I hope to convince Marc Michaud (founder of Necronomicon Press) and Jason to go ahead with.
     I went through the rest of the dealer’s rooms (there were two adjacent rooms), but the only other thing I found of interest was Chaosium’s latest collection of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, Made in Goatswood. This is a group of tales set in Ramsey Campbell’s mythical Severn Valley, and includes only one tale by Campbell himself. Also at the Chaosium table I found their press release which states that, yes, they are working on a Call of Cthulhu collectible card game, tentatively entitled, “Mythos.” It’s due out in March of ’96, so don’t expect it any time soon.
     After scouring the dealer’s rooms and not turning up much outside of Necronomicon Press’ stuff, we decided to wait for Dave, S.T., and Perry in the Frank Belknap Long panel, where they all were. Since we hadn’t attended the panel from its’ start and there wasn’t much left of it, we sat in the back and cut up quite a bit. Pam got the giggles pretty bad and I was afraid we’d irritate someone. After all, the panel was in honor of a man who’s died in only the last few years...
     When the panel let out, the bunch of us went out for lunch. And I do mean a bunch. Our crew included Dave and Gayle Schultz, S.T. Joshi, Hubert Van Calenburgh, Scott Briggs, Perry Grayson, George, Pam, and myself. With such a big group, it took us a while to get coordinated, but eventually we headed out in two cars. Down the highway we stopped at Jake’s, which turned out to be closed for a large group. So, we instead went down the street to Chili’s. For those who are interested (Brent), I had the country fried steak with gravy, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob. It was pretty darn good!
     We had a very entertaining and rowdy lunch that lasted far too long, due in part to the slow service. When we were finally done, we drove out to the Rebecca Nurse Homestead where we got the full tour. I had written several months earlier asking if the guest register from 1923 could be located, since Lovecraft had signed it. The gentleman there said that he recalled my letter and had made a diligent search for the register but had not unearthed it and that it was probably lost. Our tour began in the Nurse home which Lovecraft describes in a letter to Frank Belknap Long and Alfred Galpin:
Like all old farmhouses of the region, the Nurse cottage faces the warm south and slopes low toward the north. It fronts an ancient garden, where in their season gay blossoms flaunt themselves against the grim nail-studded door and the vertical sundial above it.... I was the first visitor of the 1923 season, and took pride in signing my name at the top of the register.... After exploring the ground floor I crept up the black crooked stairs and examin’d the bleak chambers above.... I saw old Rebekah’s favourite chair, where she used to sit and spin before the Salem magistrates dragged her to the galllows.... Though it was not suppos’d to be open to the publick, I persuaded the caretaker to let me ascend to that hideous garret of century’d secrets.
     We saw the sundial over the door, and George sneaked up to the “hideous garret” and proceeded to raise quite a racket by knocking over the enormous television antenna that was precariously balanced on a school desk. After he skulked back down again, our guide took us to the nearby meeting house, which was actually a modern reconstruction based on the original. There, we saw a slide presentation about the history of witchcraft in Salem as it applied to the Nurse homestead. I was getting concerned about the length of the presentation since S.T. had to get to Providence to pick up his girlfriend at the train station.
     But, when the presentation was over, he mentioned that he’d like to visit the small graveyard down the hill behind the house where Rebecca Nurse is buried. The bunch of us trekked out there and back and then said our goodbyes until tomorrow, when we’ll be meeting up again in Providence. Pam, George, and I then headed off in the direction of the Captain Samuel Fowler House which Lovecraft also visited in 1923, but which is now a private home:
Inform’d by the sign that this was the Capt. Samuel Fowler house, built 1809, accessible for eightpence, and the property of the Society for the Preservation of New-England Antiquities, I loudly sounded the knocker and awaited developments.... Led by the Sibylline wraiths of decay’d gentry, I explor’d the house from cellar to attick. Its decorations are of unrivall’d beauty, and its furniture, ornaments, china, and silver, are beyond description. Fine ancestral portraits, old garments of great richness, priceless laces and other Colonial remnants of domesticity – all these recall uncannily a bygone prosperity which the present mocks. I was allow’d to don a cap which Captain Fowler wore in the War of 1812, and a civilian swallow-tail coat of the same period – a cream-colour’d dress garment which fitted me finely, and shew’d that the good captain was as stout an old gentleman as your grandpa.
     I had also tried to locate these last two items through SPNEA, but they had not located them by the time I had left on the trip. By now it was nearing sundown and we didn’t have anything planned for the remainder of the day, so we thought we’d try to go up to the Danvers State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and take a look around. Please note that the hospital is no longer used as such and was, to the best of our knowledge, unoccupied.
     The road to the top of the hill that the asylum stands on has a single road leading up to a large oval road that circles the main building. It was marked as “State Property - No Trespassing,” so we chose to park at the bottom, away from the sign, hike up, and plead ignorance if caught. The north side of the hill has a stairway/sidewalk that leads up to the back of the asylum, near the top of which is a covered stair (imagine a covered bridge that goes up at an angle and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about).
     At the top is an enormous, Gothick, red-brick building with tall towers and iron bars on the windows – a very eerie and atmospheric location, particularly near sundown. We walked around the entire building (it’s huge), and got some pictures of it and the outlying buildings. At the present, Twentieth-Century Fox is working on a big-budget version of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” and are using the asylum as a staging area. Signs here and there said “Prod. Office,” “Set Construction,” and “Extras Parking,” although there was little activity at the time. Eventually, some toughs in a plain-looking sedan drove up to us, asked if we were involved with the film, and then told us politely to leave the grounds. At that point, we were opposite from where we entered, so continued around to see the rest of the site before we left. It was really fantastic looking!
     With the sun still barely in the sky, we decided to drive in to Salem and drive past some sights for George’s sake, since he had arrived just two days before. We stopped at the Charter Street Burial Ground, and I showed him around to some gravestones of historical interest. By now it was about 8:30 and we weren’t sure what to do next. We considered driving out to Gloucester, but I was concerned that we’d spend too much time out there and get back too late to get a good night’s sleep. On a whim, I decided that we should go out to Salem Willows Park, which is an area on the Salem peninsula that looks out into the harbour and has a boardwalk area.
     On the way, we noticed that the traffic and number of people on the streets was getting thicker and thicker. George stuck his head out the window to ask someone what was going on tonight, and they responded, “Fireworks.” Not ones to turn down free entertainment, we threaded our way through the narrow streets and ever-thickening traffic out to the end of the peninsula. Sure enough, a large sign stated, “Fireworks - Sunday, August 20th - 9:00 p.m.” With about 15 minutes to spare, we walked up the boardwalk and through some of the arcades. I tried out a funhouse mirror for the first time in my life, appearing to make my arms nearly as long as my body. We then stopped in an arcade where we got engrossed in some video and pinball games. They had some real classics there like Gottlieb’s “Haunted House,” Atari’s “Asteroids,” and even “Space Invaders.” In fact, we got so engrossed in the games that we forgot about the fireworks and didn’t get back outside until they were already under way!
     The fireworks were being sent up from a pier that jutted out into the harbour, and you could see the reflections of the fireworks which were bursting almost directly overhead. It was easily the most impressive display I’d ever seen, and went on for quite some time (30 minutes?). One of the more spectacular fireworks was a red star that appeared in the center of a white circle – I’m surprised at the capabilities of aerial pyrotechnics! We also saw 50-foot columns of white “flame” out on the pier, and could feel the concussion from the overhead displays.
     When the fireworks finally concluded, we headed back to the arcade to play some more. Much of our time was spent playing Sega’s “Virtua Racing,” which allows up to 4 players to race Formula 1 cars head-to-head. We really enjoyed ourselves, with me winning all three races, but Pam managing to come in second (beating George) in one of the three. Despite sitting side-by-side and interacting through the computer, there wasn’t any true player interaction. Nevertheless, the game was a real blast to play and did involve plenty of competition.
     On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a Cumberland Farms convenience store to get some munchies. George was finally introduced to Funny Bones, but didn’t seem too impressed with them. At the hotel, we stayed up late chatting again, and are hoping to get up (at all!) tomorrow. We’ll be heading out to Providence first thing and meeting up with Dave and S.T. at the John Hay Library at Brown University.
     Lastly, it occurred to me that our bed and breakfast in Providence may not have phones in the rooms, so we’ll see if I keep in touch. Wish us luck!