A few weeks ago I mentioned that my girlfriend, Marcy, and I were going on a vacation, touring several towns and sites that Lovecraft used in his stories. We returned from that trip this past Sunday, and I've uploaded some of our pictures to my facebook site. You can find the link here:http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-Massaro/1493627603
I've separated the pics by the four main places we visited: Marblehead, Salem, Danvers and Providence. We wanted to visit a few others, but our vacation was a short one, so we chose places that were relatively close to one another, save Providence, which was about an hour and half drive from Salem. We passed a few minor Lovecraft places, such as Woonsocket, which is several miles outside Boston, on our way to Providence. For those kicking around their own ideas for visiting Lovecraft country, I'm going to give a very brief review of our own experience.
Marcy and I spent our stay in the sleepy seaside town of Marblehead, which Lovecraft used as the model for Kingsport. Lovecraft was really crazy about Marblehead, and once said taht if he wasn't so attached to Providence, he'd have moved there. This was Marcy's first visit, and my second. She loved Marblehead and cannot say enough about the town. We stayed in the section called "Old Town," which consisted of exclusively historic buildings dating back as far as the 1600's. Among all of Lovecraft's towns, Marblehead has probably seen the least change. It's truly a step back in time. You can see Lovecraft's description of narrow streets, tall gambrel roofs and rising cupolas. The town is a yachting destination during the summer. During the off seasons, it's a sleepy seaside town with friendly people (we discovered that most of the people did NOT lock their doors!), interesting shops, quaint historic New England architecture and excellent food (we visited Stowaway Sweets, a family chocolatier that has been making exclusive chocolates for presidents and movie stars since the 1920's). If you decide to visit Marblehead, stay in one of the many historic bed and breakfast locations in "Old Town." They are very reasonably priced at $75-100 a night. We stayed in the Brimblecomb, run by Gene Arnould, who runs his art gallery and framing store across the street. In addition to the wealth of Lovecraft locations, Marblehead is a beautiful example of a preserved old New England town. Great place to relax and take in the beautiful sites.
Salem, about five minutes drive from Marblehead, was the first place we visited outside Marblehead. Salem, to put it bluntly, is a tourist trap. The town leaders decided a long time ago that they were going to cash in on the witch hysteria and cater to the tourist trade. This is ironic, given that the bulk of the witch hysteria took place in Salem Village (now Danvers) and not Salem Town. Never-the-less, the witch theme is heavily exploited all year round, but particularly in October. I first visited Salem around Halloween and it was a madhouse! The historic preservation employed by Marblehead is largely absent, with historic building scattered on various streets, and garishly seated next to modern structures, such as parking garages. That said, Salem can be a fun visit if you enjoy kitsch. The shops are fun, the tours are silly and the food is good. You can enjoy the Lovecraft sites as you visit shops (lots of Wiccan, costume and Halloween themed, and even an incrediblely huge comic book shop worth a visit by any comic fan), and try your hand at some of the MANY tours and museums, such as: The Pirate Museum, Witch Museum, Dracula's Museum, The Night Tour, Peabody Essex Museum (if you want to sprinkle some high culture into your kitsch..great art museum), Remember Salem Tour and our personal favorite, Count Orlock's Nightmare Gallery. Orlock's is especially worth visiting, and rated the #1 attraction in Salem. It's devoted to life size models of horror movie icons ranging from old Universal movies to Hammer Horror to Aliens. They even have the Lovecraft monster from "The Unnameable." The models are made by special effects artists, and look incredible! All in all, Salem is a fun contrast to quiet, seaside Marblehead.
Our next visit was to Danvers. Formerly Salem Village, Danvers, unlike Salem Town, has tried to distance itself from the witch hysteria. It changed it's name in 1775 and has very little tourist fair. Lovecraft mentioned Danvers several times in his stories, but one location was definitely worth a visit: Danvers State Asylum for the Insane. Sadly, not much is left of the Asylum. It lasted, in it's relatively intact thirteen or so structures, until around 2006 when all but the main "castle" or Kirkbride building were demolished to make way for condominiums. The main castle was renovated and is used as the greeting building for the condominium management. The architecture is still intact, and definitely worth the twenty minute trip from Salem. You can really see creepy in the architecture, and it's easy to see why Lovecraft used it as a model for Arkham Asylum, which would later be borrowed in the 1970's by Batman writer, Denny O'Neil. Down the sidewalk is a small, nondescript memorial to the former inmates. You wouldn't know it's a memorial unless you looked on the map outside the main castle building. Again, Danvers trying to distance itself from it's unpleasant past? Down the hill, along a short path, is a wooded area with the recently uncovered and restored Asylum cemetery. Circled by forest, an opening with scattered stone benches and original numbered grave markers can be found. A large marble stone in the middle of the opening pays quiet memory to those buried in the cemetery. It's quiet, largely unvisited, and worth seeing. These two locations, right on top of each other, rounded out our visit to Danvers.
The final visit of our trip was to Lovecraft's own home town of Providence. Again, because of time, we kept our visit to College Hill, where Lovecraft grew up. Like Marblehead's "Old Town," a great deal of College Hill has been incredibly preserved. Off Main street, you can find many of the locations that Lovecraft mentioned in his stories and letters. On a side note, many attribute Lovecraft's gaunt, thin frame to his lack of nutrition. We can say that this is not the case. It was all the blasted hills, some of which were so steep that they have signs saying: "best walked down than up!" So there you have it. Lovecraft was a thin boy because he burned so many calories on those hills. Traveling the streets, it was really interesting to see the actual buildings and homes that he described in his stories. That said, we were left largely disappointed by Providence. We both attributed it to the "energy." Lovecraft's old haunt is largely a stereotypical college town. Those old historic buildings, many undoubtedly owned by the University, are populated heavily by college students. There were a lot of parties going on as well as drinking or college students heading to one or both. Now, I was a college student, as was Marcy. Neither of us have anything against college kids or college towns, but I think most will agree, no one goes to a college town for a vacation unless they are A) visiting a child or friend or B) looking to party. The college town energy really clashed with the old architecture. Times and attitudes change, and I suspect that the College Hill of today would not sit well with Lovecraft. He might very well have picked up and moved to Marblehead. Again, all in all, an interesting visit, but really a one time thing.
So, that was our trip. We really had a lot of fun, and recommend folks make a similar trip. There are many other locations that we did not visit: Ipswich, Newburyport and others along the Essex Coast. You can see a ton of Lovecraft interests, as well enjoy some of the very cool sites that the area has to offer. Definitely worth making a trip at some point in your life.