H. P. Lovecraft’s letter on Dark Swamp

On November 8, 1923, H. P. Lovecraft wrote a long letter to his friend, Frank Belknap Long, in which he recounted his walk the previous Sunday with fellow horror writer Clifford M. Eddy, Jr. The following extract presents a lively if ostentatious account of their search for Dark Swamp:

. . . My next trip, on which I had as a companion my new adopted son Clifford Martin Eddy, Jr., was on Sunday, Novr. 4; and led thro’ much the same territory as did my trip of Septr. 19 with our amiable confrere Mortonius. It was a quest of the grotesque and the terrible—a search for Dark Swamp, in northwestern Rhode-Island, of which Eddy had heard sinister whispers among the rusticks. They whisper that it is very remote and very strange, and that no one has ever been completely thro’ it because of the treacherous and unfathomable potholes, and the antient trees whose thick boles grow so closely together that passage is difficult and darkness omnipresent even at noon, and other things, of which bobcats—whose half-human howls are heard in the night by peasants near the edge—are the very least. It is a very peculiar place, and no house was ever built within two miles of it. The rural swains refer to it with much evasiveness, and not one of them can be induc’d to guide a traveller through it; although a few intrepid hunters and woodcutters have plied their vocations on its fringes. It lyes in a natural bowl surrounded by low ranges of beautiful hills; far from any frequented road, and known to scarce a dozen persons outside the immediate country. Even in Chepachet, the nearest village, there are but two men who ever heard of it. Eddy discover’d its rumour at the Chepachet post office one bleak autumn evening when huntsmen gather’d about the fire and told tales and exprest wonder why all the squirrels and rabbits had left the hills and fled across the plain into Connecticut. One very antient man with a flintlock said that IT had mov’d in Dark Swamp, and had cran’d ITS neck out of the abysmal pothole beneath which IT had ITS immemorial lair. And he said his grandfather had told him in 1849, when he was a very little boy, that IT had been there when the first settlers came, and that the Indians believed IT had always been there. This antient man with the flintlock was the only one present who had ever heard of Dark Swamp.

So on that Sunday my son and I took the stage for Chepachet, and in due time alighted before the tavern. In the tap-room they had never heard of Dark Swamp, but the landlord told us to ask the Town Clerk, two houses down the road beyond the White Church, who knows everything in the parish. Upon knocking at this gentleman’s pillar’d colonial house, we were greeted by the genial owner him self; a perfect rural magnate and Knight of the Shire, than whom Sir Roger himself cou’d not be more oddly humoursome. He told us, that the Dark Swamp had a very queer reputation, and that men had gone in who never came out; but confest he knew little of it, and had never been near it. At his suggestion we went across the road to the cottage of a very intelligent yeoman nam’d Sprague, whom he reported to have guided a party of gentlemen from Brown University thro parts of the swamp in quest of botanick specimens, some twelve years gone. Sprague dwells in a trim colonial cottage with pleasing doorway and good interior mantles and panelling; and tho’ it turn’d out that ’twas not he who guided the gentlemen, he prov’d uncommon genial and drew us a map by which we might reach the house of Fred Barnes, who did guide them. At this point my fountain pen went dry, and Sprague let me fill it from his bottle of ink—a rustick fluid whose pallid farewell you may behold at the beginning of this ponderous epistle. After a long walk over the same highroad travers’d by Mortonius and me, we came to Goodman Barnes’ place; and found him after waiting all of thirty-five minutes in his squalid kitchen. When he did arrive, he had not much to say; but told us to find ‘Squire James Reynolds, who dwells at the fork of the back road beyond the great reservoir, south of the turnpike. Again in motion, we stopt not till we came to Cody’s [sic] Tavern, built in 1683 and still affording best entertainment for man and beast. Tho’ Eddy much fear’d that coach passengers wou’d engross all the landlord’s attention, in preference to mere foot-travellers, we were receiv’d with proper civility and given excellent food. This circumstance is the more to our good innkeeper’s credit, by reason of the anxiety with which his whole household was just then distracted: a very considerable brush fire in a neighbouring field, set from the pipe of a passing coach party, which threaten’d not only the good man’s timber land, but even his antient inn itself. Had so venerable a landmark been fated to suffer destruction directly upon my first sight of it, I shou’d have been very much distrest; but before we left, a company of fire-men from Chepachet arriv’d, and quickly extinguisht the menacing flames. The tavern lyes on the main Putnam Pike; but shortly after quitting it and passing the reservoir we turn’d south into the backwoods, coming in proper season to Squire Reynolds’ estate. We found the gentleman in his yard; a man well on in years, and having a very markt rural speech which we thought extinct save in stage plays. He told us, we had better take the right fork of the road, over the hills to Ernest Law’s farm; declaring, that Mr. Law owns Dark Swamp, and that it was his son who had cut wood at the edge of it. Following the Squire’s directions, we ascended a narrow rutted road betwixt picturesque woods and stone walls; coming at last to a crest that stood mysteriously limned against the fire and gold of a late afternoon sky. Another moment and we had spy’d what stretcht beyond it: to the right the antient farmhouse of Mr. Law, and to the left the most gorgeous and spectacular agrestic panorama that either of us had beheld or indeed conceiv’d to exist. I can not, I vow, give any notion of it without dropping into verse:

Far as the Eye can see, behold outspread
The serried Hills that own no Traveller’s Tread;
Dome beyond Dome, and on each flaming Side
The hanging Forests in their virgin Pride.
Here dips a Vale, and here a Mead extends,
Whilst thro’ the piny Strath a Brooklet bends:
Yon farther Slopes to violet Æther fade,
And sunset Splendour gilds the nearer Glade:
Rude Walls of Stone in pleasing Zig-zag run
Where well-plac’d Trees salute the parting Sun;
Vext with the Arts that puny Men proclaim,
Nature speaks once, and puts them all to Shame!

Were this prodigious prospect anywhere within easie reach and knowledge of the town, ‘twou’d be flockt with noisy revellers on every Sunday and bank-holiday; but obscurity hath effected that unsully’d preservation which design is impotent to achieve, this region being far south of any great road, and north of a district very flat and notable for its want of pleasing scenes. I doubt if ten men in Providence are sensible it is on the globe. Here, surely, is the inmost spirit of antient New-England; that vivid wood of Mother Earth which our forefathers, and the Indian savages before them, knew and understood so well. We found Mr. Law, whose venerable farmhouse is very curious and engaging, to be of the small country gentry; an handsome blue-eyed man of the middle size, about sixty years old, and having a quaint rustick speech. He inform’d us, that Dark Swamp lyes in the distant bowl betwixt two of the hills we saw; and that ’tis two miles from his house to the nearest part of it, but a winding road and a cart-path. He said, the peasants have a little exaggerated its fearful singularities, tho’ it is yet a very odd place, and ill to visit by night. We thank’d him greatly for the civilities he had shewn us, and having complimented him on the fine location of his seat, set out to return to town with the information we shall use upon our next trip. We now know how to reach the swamp most expeditiously, and will not again lose time in devious inquiries. It will be a pleasing day’s trip, and even tho’ we discover no unsuspected horror, we shall surely behold enough of the darkly picturesque to furnish out a dozen tales apiece. We now walkt back to Chepachet under the onyx and powder’d gold of a rural night sky, having cover’d full seventeen miles afoot, in all. I was monstrous weary, and cou’d scarce stand.

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2 comments

  1. […] reached by Lovecraft that day, although he and his “newly adoped son” C.M. Eddy hoped for another trip in summer 1924 that seemingly never […]

  2. Wonderful description of my grandfather’s grandfather, Ernest Law! He must have had very strong genes; the description sounds like my uncles! I love that folks are still writing about Dark Swamp and my family history. Thank you.

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