Dave Goudsward, a historian and Lovecraftian writer, will be presenting at the upcoming NecronomiCon in Providence, a paper on Lovecraft and the “Great Altar Stones” of New England, most of which are colonial-era cider presses, but which may have inspired the stones of Sentinel Hill in The Dunwich Horror. The most famous of these rocks is America’s Stonehenge (a.k.a. Mystery Hill), which writers other than Goudsward have linked with Lovecraft. I should probably be a little miffed that the theme of the convention is the intersection of science, pseudoscience, and art in Lovecraft’s Mythos, which is pretty much my thing, and no one invited me!
Regular readers will recall that the story of Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, and his alleged voyage to North America around 1398 is a modern myth, one derived from a willful misreading of the Italian-language Zeno Narrative, itself a Renaissance-era hoax. (I am still working on getting out a reprint of the definitive 1898 debunking of this hoax.) In that hoax narrative, plagiarized shamelessly from sources such as Olaus Magnus’ History of the Northern Peoples, a fellow named Zichmni, king of the imaginary island of Frisland, sailed to what the author explicitly identifies as Greenland. Later writers (in 1784, 1873, and 1959) have fabricated from this sole source a legend that Zichmni was really Henry Sinclair (based on the alleged inability of Italians to read Scottish handwriting) and that Greenland was really Nova Scotia (based on a willful misreading of the Zeno story’s fictitious Greenland volcanoes—based on those in Iceland—as referring to a coal mine in Canada). From this imaginary scenario, many authors have concocted a completely evidence-free itinerary for Sinclair, taking him all the way to Westford, Massachusetts, where an almost certainly hoax carving of a medieval knight has become a monument to Sinclair himself, sometimes identified as the earl’s own tomb. Goudsward describes how this myth-making process occurred.
Goudsward’s Westford book is where I first encountered Frederick J. Pohl’s parallels between Henry Sinclair and Glooscap, the Mi’kmaq god, which I comprehensively debunked here through the simple expedient of actually checking Pohl’s acknowledged source to show that he didn’t bother even to copy correctly.
Anyway, H. P. Lovecraft almost certainly never visited Mystery Hill, which was not a tourist attraction at the time Lovecraft lived. It was private land in those days. The site did not open to the public until 1937, when William Goodwin purchased it, rebuilt it to resemble a European megalithic site, and gave it its longtime name. (It was renamed America’s Stonehenge in 1982 to differentiate itfrom other attractions with the same name.) Lovecraft was dying of intestinal cancer in 1937 and would not have been able to visit before passing in March. As I’ve reported before, many authors claim Lovecraft based the standing stones of The Dunwich Horror (1928) on Mystery Hill, but there is no evidence that he ever visited the site at all, let alone prior to 1928, when it was just some rocks in the woods. The only evidence is the much later testimony of H. Warner Munn, who decades after the fact thought that he “must” have brought Lovecraft to the sites sometime in the 1930s. No evidence exists in any of Lovecraft’s surviving letters, but at any rate, it would have been well after Lovecraft had written of standing stones.
That said, in 1966 Andrew E. Rothovius published an influential, if wrong, essay called “Lovecraft and the New England Megaliths” in The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces (Arkham House) that apparently tried to trace the influence of alleged prehistoric megaliths in New England on Lovecraft’s conception of Arkham country. (I have not read this piece.) S. T. Joshi, however, correctly notes that there is no evidence of Lovecraft visiting such sites prior to 1928, and they apparently made so little impression that he did not mention them at all in his letters or by allusion in his fiction—strange for a man who liked to mix fact and fantasy promiscuously to create his literary effects. Consider how he talks of them in Dunwich Horror:
Oldest of all are the great rings of rough-hewn stone columns on the hilltops, but these are more generally attributed to the Indians than to the settlers. Deposits of skulls and bones, found within these circles and around the sizeable table-like rock on Sentinel Hill, sustain the popular belief that such spots were once the burial-places of the Pocumtucks; even though many ethnologists, disregarding the absurd improbability of such a theory, persist in believing the remains Caucasian.
It should be fairly obvious from their description, usage, and placement that Lovecraft’s stone circles were modeled on Old World examples, particularly in the romantic drawings that filled his eighteenth and nineteenth century book collections, when illustrations of stone-topped hills were quite en vogue. Lovecraft even describes them using British megalithic terminology (“cromlech”), revealing their true inspiration.
By contrast, we can make a very good case for the influence of the Newport Tower on the fragmentary description of a prehistoric tower in Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, later incorporated in August Derleth’s Lurker at the Threshold. The details align clearly, and we know from Clifford M. Eddy that he took Lovecraft for a tour of the site during one of their “scenic walks.” We also know from a letter to Robert E. Howard that Lovecraft visited Dighton Rock, the boulder with mysterious carvings, which Lovecraft also mentions in his letters. Goudsward, of course, is working on a book about this rock and its connection to an alleged 1511 Portuguese voyage to America.
Special thanks to Jeb J. Card for bringing this to my attention.