Witch House

3-05

Halloween

October 26, 2017

NICHOLAS MILLER (M.Arch I, ‘19)

Introducing H.P. Lovecraft

Growing up in Providence with an interest in things obscure and daemonic, it was not long before I was introduced to H.P. Lovecraft. From Lovecraft, I arrived at other passions that have haunted me to this day, of which architecture is but one.
Architecture plays no small role in Lovecraft’s work. From the canted walls and bizarre angles of the Witch House to the cyclopean masonry of the Mountains of Madness and non-Euclidean geometries of R’lyeh, perverse buildings fill the dreaded landscapes of Lovecraft’s callous universe. He described with decadent vocabulary the horrors of an unutterable architecture occupied by captive behemoths and surrounded by an impossible glowing darkness. These immemorial constructions were spawned of Lovecraft’s terror-filled dreams, and in them I saw reflections of my own childhood nightmares.

But it was not these loathsome dreamscapes that drew me to our discipline. And duly so, because, as Michel Houellebecq warns in his literary criticism of Lovecraft, Against the World, Against Life, the young man who enthusiastically attempts to translate the scribe’s nondimensional stygian dreamscapes into the realm of architecture will surely be met “with disappointment and defeat.”[1] Instead, it was the more earthly places of Lovecraft’s fiction that brought me here—those places whose lurking spectres are not seen but sensed, places that we recall, but barely. They are the places that Lovecraft’s protagonists find themselves in before they begin their descent into the unnamable; the places that beckon us towards the hideous undergrounds that man was never meant to see. These portals are familiar places, that in their stillness hide lives undead and memories of generations lost. Here the borders are thin and illusions of time begin to dissolve.

In 1923, Lovecraft traveled to Salem to visit one such place. He arrived on an autumn afternoon to find the sprawling, tree-shadowed old farmhouse of Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged for witchcraft in 1692. What follows is his account of that trip:

“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 Rebecca’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 antiquity; 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 Salem as night came….”[2]

 

October 26, 2017

[1] Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life. (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2005), 17.

[2] Howard Phillips Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long and Alfred Galpin, 1923, in Selected Letters: 1911-1924, ed. August Derleth (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1965), 222-223.