New England Narratives: Space and Place in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

Article excerpt

Work on regionalist writers has emphasised the use of a specified geographical location and the deep authorial, emotional connection to that region--its physical environment, local characteristics, customs and idiosyncrasies (Inness and Royer, 1997: 4). Barton Levi St. Armand (1977) has described H. P. Lovecraft as a writer of weird fiction whose work takes on such "local-color significance" because of its use of specific locales in developing an atmosphere of malevolence (38). Alan Lloyd-Smith (2004), writing on modern adaptations of American Gothic fiction, has observed that some of Lovecraft's work could usefully be compared to William Faulkner's Southern Gothic in terms of their mutual focus on local customs and mindsets (117).

I seek to explore these ideas more fully by directly examining two of Lovecraft's stories within a regionalist framework, arguing that the intricate blending of a personal experience of these real-life locations with a detailed fictional geography is fundamental to the success of his work. It supplies a degree of authenticity conducive to sustaining a convincing supernatural narrative.

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Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse have specifically identified regionalist writing as a women-centred genre (Zagarell, 1998: 640). Other theorists have seen it rather as a style incorporating authentic geographic locations with a focus on 'local-color' through the use of vernacular and other distinctive attributes. Richard Brodhead has downplayed the tradition of regionalist literature being seen as a product of female writers. Instead, he has described it more broadly as a literature that fashions "an alternative stable, if imaginary, geographic-cultural space" (Zagarell, 1998: 641).

Louis A. Renza (1984) has described how regionalist writer Sarah Orne Jewett's works feature characters from rural New England communities and the countryside which surrounds them, drawing on their "idiosyncratic mannerisms, dialect, social customs and homespun moral dramas" (44). This gives a voice to the local people, venerating their disappearing way of life and allowing Americans to indulge in a nostalgic longing for a simpler time (55). Such writing, sometimes seen as a peculiarity set apart from the mainstream of American literature, has been used to understand changes in sociological circumstances in a post-Civil War United States, struggling to make the shift from rural, agrarian living to industrialisation and increased urbanisation. Renza argues that Jewett's "A White Heron" (1886), is one such example of a work conveying the "reactionary wish to deny the 'revolutionary' implications of America's postbellum industrial capitalism" (1984: 44).

What these definitions have in common is an emphasis on the ways in which regionalist fiction builds up the identity of a rural area such as New England by utilising local geography and landmarks, embracing local values, establishing local ideas about identity and so on. In her work on New England post-bellum regionalist writers, such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sandra Zagarell (1998) has highlighted a number of elements that make up this style. These include such features as endowing the fictional community with ethnic homogeneity, a clear class hierarchy, a self-sustaining economy and a clear contrast between it and the developing 'modern' world beyond (643-645). Often, such communities are given concomitant conservative political views to espouse, such as nativism. To this can be added the literary device of contrasting urban-dwellers with locals in order to make more explicit the particular characteristics of this latter group (Renza, 1984: 47). This may take the form of employing vernacular, highlighting different behaviours, attitudes and personality traits.

I would argue that such hallmarks of regionalism can readily be applied to H. P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" (1927). (2) This story is of particular interest because of the way in which Lovecraft has used a plausibly fictional setting, embedded within an authentic Massachusetts-based geography, to create a regionalised supernatural horror tale. …