An Ancient Megalith in New York

A dolmen is a type of Neolithic tomb architecture found in Western Europe. So what would one be doing in a small town in the Hudson Valley? Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York is a unique example of (what appears to be) a European megalith in North America, long predating recorded transatlantic contact.

I filmed a short video about the structure and the question of its origin which you can watch below, or at YouTube.

Nantucket Scrimshaw

If you watched my experiment with a whale oil lamp, you know that I have an interest in nineteenth century whaling. There are two fine museums dedicated to that bygone industry, located in the Massachusetts coastal towns that feature in Melville’s novel, Moby Dick: New Bedford and Nantucket. Having sailed out to Nantucket recently, I visited the museum on the island.

Pictured below are examples of scrimshaw from the collection—in this case whale teeth—laboriously engraved by sailors, as well as the once ubiquitous whalebone corset.

Salt Pond and the Sea

“When he descended the earth-cliff at some point a little north of Eastham village and its ‘salt pond,’ Thoreau found what he had come to see,” wrote Henry Beston in his introduction to the 1951 edition of Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau. “There lay the unbroken miles which had stirred his interest when he had seen them on the map, there stood the outer beach.”

What Thoreau first called The Great Beach in Eastham, Massachussetts is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. I have been summering on the Cape and walking a great deal, a little ways in Thoreau’s footsteps. Below: Salt Pond and the Atlantic.

Edward Gorey on Cape Cod

In my opinion the high point of television as a medium—even an artform—was the British detective programming of the 1980s through the mid-1990s. I am thinking obviously of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, but also programs that ran for only one or two series like Campion with Peter Davison and A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.

In the United States these programs were broadcast on public television as part of the Mystery! anthology produced by WGBH in Boston. The episodes were introduced in a wrap-around segment by host Vincent Prince, and later Diana Rigg. Anyone who watched Mystery!—especially if they were growing at the time, like me—will inevitably remember the opening credit sequence designed by illustrator Edward Gorey.

At the time that Mystery! premiered in 1980 Gorey was coming off of his greatest commercial success, the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which he designed. (I was born three days after it closed in 1980, but my parents saw it.) 

In 1979 Gorey bought a 200-year old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He had been living in Manhattan where he attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. After the death of NYCB founder and choreographer George Balanchine in 1983, Gorey moved permanently to Cape Cod. He lived the last seventeen years of his life there and it remains a museum and gallery of his art.

His work on Mystery! is represented in a collection of storyboards and animation cells from the title sequence and a poster for the tenth anniversary in 1990. I think Joan Hickson and Edward Hardwicke appear surprisingly recognizable in the artist’s style.

The Edward Gorey House is open April through December at 8 Strawberry Lane, Yarmouth Port Common.

Lovecraft and the Inklings

In the December 2018 issue of Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, Dale Nelson considers tentative connections between H. P. Lovecraft and the Oxford Inklings.

Devotees of fantastic fiction have wondered if the Ink-lings knew the work of the Lovecraft circle, and vice versa. Several points of likely or certain awareness may be sum-marized as follows:

[1] By sometime late in his life, Clark Ashton Smith, short story writer, poet, and artist, had read The Hobbit and some of The Fellowship of the Ring, according to a posting by “calonlan” on 30 Nov. 2011, in an Eldritch Dark discussion thread. “Calonlan” appears to have known CAS personally.

[2] Lovecraft himself had read more than one of Charles Williams’s spiritual thrillers. Their orthodoxy spoiled them for HPL. He wrote:

“Essentially, they are not horror literature at all, but philosophical allegory in fictional form. Direct reproduction of the texture of life & the substance of moods is not the author’s object. He is trying to illustrate human nature through symbols & turns of idea which possess significance for those taking a traditional or orthodox view of man’s cosmic bearings. There is no true attempt to express the indefinable feelings experienced by man in confronting the unknown . . . To get a full-sized kick from this stuff one must take seriously the orthodox view of cosmic organisation—which is rather impossible today.” (as quoted in S. T. Joshi, I Am Providence, page 878; I’m indebted to a 21 April 2016 posting by John Rateliff on his Sacnoth’s Scriptorium blog for this reference)

Lovecraft could not have read Descent into Hell and All Hallows’ Eve, which contain perhaps the most “Lovecraft-ian” sequences in Williams’s seven novels.

[3] Lewis almost certainly not only read, but was influ-enced by, a story by Lovecraft correspondent and Arkham House co-founder Donald Wandrei. On one of the last pages in his short novel The Great Divorce, Lewis acknowl-edges his indebtedness to an American science fiction story, the title and author of which he has forgotten. This appears to be “Colossus,” which appeared in the January 1934 issue of Astounding. Wandrei’s story plays with the idea of our universe being of subatomic tininess as com-pared to a super-universe; the hero journeys from the one to the other. Lewis’s novel involves a bus trip from hell to heaven. In the fiction, “‘All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world; but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.’”

[4] Tolkien evidently read a 1963 paperback anthology called Swords and Sorcery, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, who gave him a copy. The anthology contains Lovecraft’s tale in the manner of Lord Dunsany, “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” Smith’s “The Testament of Athammaus,” and Howard’s Conan story “Shadows in the Moonlight.” According to de Camp, who visited Tolkien in 1967, Tolkien liked the Conan story. Tolkien’s own copy of de Camp’s anthology was offered for bids on ebay a few years ago. http://www.tolkienlibrary.com/tolkien-book-store/000971.htm

[5] It is reasonably likely that Lewis read Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow Out of Time” in Astounding. His reading of American pulp magazines is certain. Below, I’ll say something about possible influ-ence of Mountains on Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet and of “Shadow” on Lewis’s Dark Tower fragment.

All that doesn’t come to a lot, but it’s more than might have been expected.

Tolkien reading Conan is obviously the most satisfying of these nebulous associations. Nelson addresses Lovecraft’s partially formed mythopoeic imagination in greater detail. The essay can be read at the link above.

Silence at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The UK government has given final approval to a development plan that will convert the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a hotel with drastic architectural changes. The foundry operated on Whitechapel Road from 1739 until it was sold in 2017. Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were cast on the premises. Heritage groups attempted to intervene. In 2018 I covered a proposal by the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust to acquire the foundry and continue manufacturing bells.

All efforts have come to naught. Campaigners for Save The Whitechapel Bell Foundry wrote on social media that this decision “destroys the possibility of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry ever having a future as a fully working foundry.”

The Ghost of a Leaf

In the Greco-Roman collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art there are frescoed wall panels from the villa of Fannius Synistor which stood in the countryside outside of Pompeii. These were painted sometime between 40 and 30 B.C. and were recovered from the ruins of the villa which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

One panel from a small bedroom or sitting room has an unusual adornment. The curators write, “A grape leaf sillhouetted against the vertical porphyry surface appears to have blown in mysteriously, bringing a touch of whimsy to the otherwise severely ordered architectural decoration.”

Napoleon’s March

Napoleon Bonaparte died two hundred years ago today. It is worth revisiting the amusing headlines that accompanied the Emperor’s return to France in 1815, following his first exile on Elba.

As reported in The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume XVIII,

The French newspapers which, in 1815, were subject to the censor, announced the departure of Bonaparte from Elba, his progress through France, and his entry into Paris in the following ingenious manner:

— 9th March, the Anthropophagus has quitted his den

— 10th, the Corsican Ogre has landed at Cape Juan

— 11th, the Tiger has arrived at Gap

— 12th, the Monster slept at Grenoble

— 13th, the Tyrant has passed through Lyons

— 14th, the Usurper is directing his steps towards Dijon, but the brave and loyal Burgundians have risen en masse and surrounded him on all sides

— 18th, Bonaparte is only sixty leagues from the capital; he has been fortunate enough to escape the hands of his pursuers

— 19th, Bonaparte is advancing with rapid steps, but he will never enter Paris

— 20th, Napoleon will, tomorrow, be under our ramparts

— 21st, the Emperor is at Fontainbleau

— 22nd, His Imperial and Royal Majesty, yesterday evening, arrived at the Tuileries, amidst the joyful acclamations of his devoted and faithful subjects.

Whale Oil from the 1890s

In Moby-Dick, Melville wrote, “But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”

This weekend I opened up a 125-year old bottle of whale oil and used the oil to light a lamp. I filmed a short video of the process which you can watch below, or at YouTube.

A Letter in ‘Fortean Times’

Last year I posted anecdotes about Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt encountering gnomes.

As I had never seen these stories discussed elsewhere I sent them in a letter to the editor of Fortean Times, the British periodical about strange phenomena, for the consideration of readers.

The letter is published in issue #402 (February 2021) which has just reached me on the American side of the Atlantic.