Salem, Arkham, and H. P. Lovecraft

Essex Street mall, with construction workers from the Peabody Essex Museum expansion walking to the job site.

What Bourbon Street is to New Orleans’ French Quarter, Essex Street is to Salem, Mass. When it’s party time (October), this is where the party happens. Otherwise, it is the chief tourist-commercial street, whether you want the Peabody Essex Museum, Christian Day’s witch shop, or The Witch House, which was actually the upscale home of one of the 1692 trial judges.

Witch Tees, a large-ish T-shirt shop, is on the pedestrian mall too. I went in and asked if they had any Miskatonic University shirts or hats. “No,” she said, “Just Harvard.” The straight and unaffected way she spoke made me wonder if she took “Miskatonic University” to be a real school somewhere in New England, instead of a fictional school right there in Salem — or rather in Arkham, Mass., if you accept the idea that H. P. Lovecraft’s Arkham is based on Salem.

One hundred fifty years after the famous witchcraft trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne turned to them for inspiration — and because they haunted his imagination — and put Salem back on track to being the “Witch City” that it is today.

Another century on, H. P. Lovecraft, who is usually identified with his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, also connected with Hawthorne and Salem. While Lovecraft is usually placed in a lineage with Edgar Allan Poe, Dan Harms, university librarian, scholar of esotericism, and author of The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, has this to say:

Even though Hawthorne died over a quarter century before Lovecraft’s birth, Lovecraft found considerable inspiration and commonality with the Salem author. At the age of seven, Lovecraft read Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, both introductions to Classical mythology, that would lead Lovecraft to a fascination with Greek and Rome and their gods that may have been one of the inspirations for his own uncaring “gods.” The two men also shared a love of New England history and geography that drove their creativity. For example, Hawthorne met his wife Sophia Peabody at her father’s house on Salem’s Charter Street; the building stood next to the Burying Ground, which served as the inspiration for Lovecraft’s “The Unnamable.” The witch trials were of special fascination to both men, with the plots for both Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables and Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” finding their roots in Salem. Lovecraft lacked Hawthorne’s ancestral connection to the witch trials, however, and although the most famous of both authors’ works are steeped in weird influences seeping down from the past, Lovecraft’s stories partake of cosmic dimensions that Hawthorne leaves untouched.

Arkham, then, is a fictional city used by both Lovecraft and other writers who worked with the Chthulhu Mythos. It includes a “Hangman’s Haill” (compare Gallows Hill in Salem) and one street is named Saltonstall Street, which is the name of a prominent Massachusetts family that included one witch-trial judge. (Map of Arkham) (Map of “Lovecraft Country.”)

Arkham’s most notable characteristics are its gambrel roofs and the dark legends that have surrounded the city for centuries. The disappearance of children (presumably murdered in ritual sacrifices) at May Eve and other “bad doings” are accepted as a part of life for the poorer citizens of the city.

Lovecraft, however, showed less interest in witchcraft than in ancestral curses, ancient god-like creatures, and — as a result of too much contact with those two —insanity.

Donna Seeger of the Salem State University history department comments,

The fictional Arkham does indeed have a lot of Salem features, but Lovecraft’s Miskatonic U. is a lot more ivy-covered than our concrete Salem State: most experts assert that is modeled after Bradford College, a now-defunct college up in Haverhill, or perhaps even Brown University, located in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. . . . The Arkham/Salem connection seems so well-established that I’ve always been curious that Lovecraft has not been assimilated more comprehensively into the relentless Witch City campaign, but that seems to be changing now.

In our reality, the Salem State U. bookstore sells only its branded apparel (Go Vikings!). So if I want that cap or shirt to show my allegiance to Miskatonic’s ivy-covered halls, I will have to shop online at one of the competing “Miskatonic University” stores (Go Squids!), perhaps this one or this one or that one.