More on the Isles of Shoals being a suitable inspiration for Lovecraft’s Devil Reef in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”. Firstly, they were suitably bleak, something that one might not know today — in the era of bright cheerful chocolate-box paintings of the islands made in high summer.

“the Isles of Shoals, eight bleak little rocks in the pounding Atlantic, ten miles off Portsmouth” (LIFE magazine, Sept 1940)

“the dark volcanic crags and melancholy beaches [of Herman Melville’s Enchanted Islands] can hardly seem more desolate than do the low bleached rocks of the Isles of Shoals to eyes that behold them for the first time.” (Atlantic Monthly, 1869)

“Swept by every wind that blows, and beaten by the bitter brine for unknown ages, well may the Isles of Shoals be barren, bleak, and bare.” (the local poet, Celia Thaxter)

“Were those the desired Isles of Shoals? Lois felt deep disappointment. Little bits of bare rock in the midst of the sea; nothing more. No trees, she was sure; as the light fell she could even see no green.” (Susan Warner, the novel Nobody, 1882)

“With a total area of barely six hundred acres, the Isles of Shoals are about the most desolate, barren and forbidding bit of real estate in all New England.” … “Yet barren, desolate, almost worthless as the islands were [until the hotels on Appledore and Star], with their only denizens rough, illiterate and somewhat degenerate fisherfolk, smugglers and worse” (Early Star Island History)

Lovecraft might just have read Hawthorne’s American Notebooks. Although the slim evidence for that, when you start digging into it, falls apart. There are 10,000 words of sporadic diary for Hawthorne’s stay on the Isles of Shoals. Hawthorne visited in the highest of high summer, to get his Tanglewood Tales book (a junior HPL favorite) underway in a suitably Mediterranean light. But his descriptions of the place get bleaker and bleaker as he remained there into the early Autumn (Fall) and saw the fogs and storms start rolling in. He finally got off quick before winter began, but in early September of his visit he wrote…

“We walked to the farthest point of the island, and I have never seen a more dismal place than it was on this sunless and east-windy day, being the farthest point out into the melancholy sea which was in no very agreeable mood, and roared sullenly against the wilderness of rocks. One mass of rock, more than twelve feet square, was thrown up out of the sea in a storm, not many years since, and now lies athwart-wise, never to be moved unless another omnipotent wave shall give it another toss.”

“It is quite impossible to give an idea of these rocky shores,—how confusedly they are tossed together, lying in all directions; what solid ledges, what great fragments thrown out from the rest. Often the rocks are broken, square and angular, so as to form a kind of staircase; though, for the most part, such as would require a giant stride to ascend them. Sometimes a black trap-rock runs through the bed of granite; sometimes the sea has eaten this away, leaving a long, irregular fissure. In some places, owing to the same cause perhaps, there is a great hollow place excavated into the ledge, and forming a harbor, into which the sea flows; and, while there is foam and fury at the entrance, it is comparatively calm within. Some parts of the crag are as much as fifty feet of perpendicular height, down which you look over a bare and smooth descent, at the base of which is a shaggy margin of seaweed. But it is vain to try to express this confusion. As much as anything else, it seems as if some of the massive materials of the world remained superfluous, after the Creator had finished, and were carelessly thrown down here, where the millionth part of them emerge from the sea, and in the course of thousands of years have become partially bestrewn with a little soil.”

“The old inhabitants lived in the centre or towards the south of the island, and avoided the north and east because the latter were so much bleaker in winter.”

(The description of the rocks here is also somewhat similar to the madly confused island rocks scene in “The Call of Cthulhu”)


I further wonder if the young Lovecraft, scanning his maps and alighting on the only really interesting islands off New England (apart from Matinicus, way up near Rockland), once spotted the tantalising similarity of the name to a name from antiquity…

“Hesiod calls the Western Islands [Atlantis] the Isles of Souls” and “Proclus says, on the authority of Marcellus, that there were seven Atlantic islands [in Atlantis]” (Legends and superstitions of the sea and of sailors, 1885, reprinted 1892).

“Souls” was a slight fabulation or misconstruing (the usual translation of Hesiod is “The Isles of the Blessed” or “Blest”, from makarôn nêsoi, μακάρων νῆσοι) from the East Coast navy man who wrote the book, but one can then imagine the young Lovecraft’s imagination flaring with the thought that the Isles of Shoals could be the mountaintops of the sunken Atlantis. And what lies miles below Lovecraft’s Devil Reef? A fabulous anti-Atlantis of immortals.

seabook

Difficult to believe that Lovecraft didn’t come across this in folklore sections of the New York used bookshops, or at the Providence Public Library (which had a good folklore section c.1900). Its highly coloured tone and breathless pace made it quite popular, despite a scathing review in the London Spectator, and it went to a second printing in 1892. Although it wasn’t listed as being in his library at his death.

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