Month: September 2018

Writers’ Houses: Seven Surprises from the House of Seven Gables

Salem, MA is not the tiny, forest-choked hamlet I’d always imagined. It’s a breezy harbor town of mazy streets lined with roomy mansions. Like Concord, MA there is a cosmopolitan feel that overlays the small town charm. The elegance and deep quiet of the place withstand the kitschy occultism of Essex Street and the downtown, which have been cashing in on the witch trials of 1692 for at least 150 years (more on that in a later post).

At the far end of town on some prime land overlooking the harbor is The House of the Seven Gables. The tour guides call it the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, but the signs and everybody else call it by the name that Hawthorne gave it, also the title of his great novel.

I’ll confess haven’t read the novel, but I have been on the tour, and here are seven things that surprised me.

1. The house did not have seven gables when Hawthorne saw it. He was having dinner with his cousin Susannah Ingersoll, lady of the house, when she mentioned that she remembered the place with seven gables in her youth. By the late 1840s, when she and Hawthorne met, her father Captain Ingersoll had long ago demolished three of the gables (triangular extensions of the roofline) to give the mansion a more streamlined modern feel. After learning of the house’s old appearance, Hawthorne raced to the attic to puzzle out where the gables had been. Today, because of the novel he wrote, the gables and the house have been restored.

2. The pine floorboards in the attic are no wider than 32-inches, because all trees that afforded any larger planks had to be shipped back to England by edict of the King, to form the hulls of ships in the Royal Navy.

3. At one point, three slaves lived in the attic. We know they lived in the attic because an inventory lists the slaves along with the other “property” that was stored there. The museum staff are looking through plantation records in Barbados, where they think the slaves may have been sold, to learn more about them, but for now they are only three names on a list.

4. The cent shop on the ground floor is not original to the house, but an early 20th-Century recreation of the one that appears in Hawthorne’s novel. Families built cent shops into their homes to sell what the industrious mothers and children of the house made by hand—baskets, dried herbs, tallow candles, etc. Both the Turners and the Ingersolls were too wealthy to need a cent shop, but one was added in the house’s restoration to satisfy the romantic expectations of museum goers.

5. Behind a panel in the dining room is a secret passage that leads to the attic. It’s a claustrophobic climb up two and a half stories through the undulating brick tube that used to be the chimney. Like the cent shop, it was built for charm over function.

6. Susannah Ingersoll, Hawthorne’s cousin and frequent entertainer, whom he nicknamed “The Duchess,” never married, likely because she didn’t want to be forced to hand over her family’s considerable fortune to her husband. So she went into business for herself and made an additional family fortune trading real estate in the Salem area.

7. Hawthorne’s childhood home is just across the garden, but it was originally down the street. It was moved to its current location in the 1950s to avoid being demolished. I like to think that it was in the kitchen near the massive brick fireplace that would’ve warmed the house 365-days a year, that Hawthorne heard and read the tales which first kindled his own genius. I started tapping the words of this post in the very same kitchen.

I’m heading to Concord later this autumn and maybe to Sleepy Hollow, too so more writer’s houses to come. And more on Salem later this week.

Me, with the House of Seven Gables. The new sections were added after a record string of storms last winter, which the 350-year old house withstood better than the 20th-Century visitors’ center.

The hearth that warmed Hawthorne’s childhood.

The Ha(w)thorne House.

Quote from Joss Whedon on the use of creative writing

I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I am afraid of. -Joss Whedon

After about an hour of reading, I slip into a trance in which the revelations of the story are capable of thrilling me. One of the unexpected joys of writing for me is that, after an hour or two of it, I get the same thrills but from my own mind. This happens whenever I am working on a complex project, whether it’s for a client or for me. After solitary work, I am a bit more the master of my subject, my mind, and myself.

The view from my keyboard, Sept. 28, 2018

It seems the only days I end up working at the Providence Athenaeum, where Poe and Lovecraft wrote, are days which could be the start of one of their stories. There is rain skittering over the skylights, the leaves brushing the windowpanes are just turning color, the sky is darkening, and it’s a too cold for the light jacket I brought. It’s cozy, but with a coming chill I’m not quite ready for.



H.P. Lovecraft bust in the Athenaeum, funded in part by Guillermo del Toro.

Movie Review: The House with a Clock In Its Walls

The books of John Bellairs cast a spell over my childhood. The first one I read was The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which I chose from a shelf filled with Goosebumps titles solely because the cover was illustrated by Edward Gorey. I knew Gorey’s style from the opening credits of Mystery! on PBS. Along with the Bellairs books and the Sherlock Holmes stories, Mystery! was my window onto a world that was stranger, older, and darker than suburban Northern California in the early 1990s. It was somewhere a chubby kid—one whose idea of fun invariably seemed to alienate his fellow students—could see himself going places in. Maybe solving mysteries or digging up lost cities. Or even learning to practice magic himself.

The House with a Clock in its Walls was Bellairs’s first and best supernatural story for middle grade readers. Its shadows are darker than in all his subsequent tales, perhaps because it was adapted from a version he wrote for a grown-up audience, rejected by his publishers in favor of the juvenile rewrite they suggested. My twelve-year old self is happy Bellairs’s first efforts were retailored to young readers, but my present self longs to read the original manuscript.

The plot of the film is different from the book, but it gets the weirdness right, and more explicitly offers permission to kids to just go ahead and be as weird as they like, because it might just be their ticket to powerful magic. The visuals and the reworked storyline are just a little too clean and silly, more Disney’s Haunted Mansion than the dusty, chilly realism of Bellairs’s sentences. But the film’s heart is in the right place, and as it is for the spellcasters in the story, that grants access to a deep well of dark, weird, delightful magic.

The View from the Front Seat, Vegas Edition

Cab drivers talk to me. I’ve had one tell me he was the last direct descendent of the tribal chieftains of Haiti. I’ve had another tell me about his family’s struggles during Jim Crow. Another once told me point blank with no context that I had “the face of a writer — so people must tell you their stories a lot, right?” I could only nod and wait for the story to follow.

Last week, the man who drove me from the Las Vegas airport to my hotel on the strip told me he was a second-generation native, his father having moved west to help build the Hoover Dam. So we got to talking about generational differences and he brought up sports and civility. Sports, he said, was something he could no longer enjoy because it was all about “taking the knee” and race politics. Obama, he said, had divided the country and didn’t I agree?

In my skinny jeans with my skinny tie, having already mentioned I was from New York City, I’m not sure why he made the assumption that I would agree Obama had divided black from white. Perhaps it was my white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. Perhaps it was because Obama’s guilt is as obvious a fact in his universe as Trump’s guilt is in mine.

Perhaps the racial division had been there before, I suggested, and the same forces that have made us coarser or more candid in the last two years have also led us to talk about race more openly. Surely Trump had divided the country as much as his predecessor?

As we slowed in the approach to my hotel, he looked me in the eye via the rear view mirror and asked me honestly, “But can’t you feel it? The lack of civility? The way everything just feels different?” I told him that, yes, it seemed like we’ve forgotten how to disagree with civility and, more than that, even how to talk to each other. Then I checked into the hotel for my work conference and he went back to his work. But I’d have preferred to buy the guy a beer and keep talking.

Not to get all Tom Friedman about it, but I’ve since felt that I actually gained some insight into the state of the nation from that particular cab driver conversation, a deeper insight from the opinion pieces I spend so much time reading, written from either the right or the left.

To many white guys outside big cities, it probably feels like black and white are at more at odds now. Where once things were calm (easy to mistake as peaceful from a place of privilege) now they are stirred up. And the major difference between today and the events of Ferguson is the black guy who was in the The White House for eight years.

To me, the current tumult is the cost of taking more steps toward justice. To him, the same thing seems like a wanton step back from civil society, from a better America where his kids could expect a better measure of peace than they can now. It’s a scary place to be either way.

Annals of Very Long-Term Thinking — The Silurian Hypothesis

As a child I was captivated by the sentient, prehistoric Sleestaks, their older cousins A. W. Merritt’s Silent Ones, and the far more famous Silurians from Doctor Who. So I’m delighted that the idea that humans are not the first sentient species the earth has produced has graduated from science fiction to serious scientific consideration.

Climatoligist Gavin Schmidt and physicist Adam Frank coined The Silurian Hypothesis in the International Journal of Astrobiology last year, whose most haunting conclusion is that a previous industrial civilization, even one advanced enough to nuke itself out of existence, is unlikely to have left any physical trace that remains today:

“It’s unlikely that any massive telltale structures would remain preserved through tens of millions of years of geological activity—that holds true for both human civilization and any potential “Silurian” precursors on Earth.”

If there is ever a way to prove that previous climatic fluctuations in the earth’s geological record are the same as our own early onset anthropocene, it’ll be as significant a discovery as life on other planets, and a challenge to thinkers who are trying to find a way for humans to make collective decisions for the very long term.

(Hat tip to Motherboard)

Less than 10 percent

The amount of the earth’s surface that has been explored, according to “space archeologist” Sarah Parcak, who used satellite photos to discover the lost city of Tanis, familiar as the final resting place of the Ark in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I also read somewhere that the number of archeological sites that have been excavated are likely less than 1% of what previous civilizations have left behind. So think of those stats the next time you worry that the world has no hidden wonders left.

On Writing – Rudyard Kipling’s Writing Table

As somebody who has worked his entire professional life on small screens with inconstant tools, I read with envy this description from “Working Tools,” by Rudyard Kipling:

“Like most men who ply one trade in one place for any while, I always kept certain gadgets on my work table, which was ten feet long from North to South and badly congested. One was a long, lacquer, canoe-shaped pen-tray full of brushes and dead “fountains”; a wooden box held clips and bands; another, a tin one, pins; yet another, a bottle slider, kept all manner of unneeded essentials from emery-paper to small screw drivers; a paper weight, said to have been Warren Hastings’; a tiny, weighted fur-seal and a leather crocodile sat on some of the papers; an inky foot-rule and a Father of Penwipers which a much loved housemaid of ours presented yearly, made up the main-guard of these little fetishes … Left and right of the table were two big globes, on one of which a great airman had once outlined in white paint those air-routes to the East and Australia which were well in use before my death.”


I don’t know what Kipling means by the ominous “before my death,” but the rest of the passage has a delightfully antediluvian feel. It is a vision of a lost world where men could “ply one trade in one place for any while,” the opposite of the digital, big city working life in which we carry our tools with us everywhere as tablets and computers, and we are hurried from desk to desk even in our own offices in the course of a single day.

In my experience, creative types like rituals and privacy. There’s something of the private treehouse about the sort of environment I like to work in best. To transport me to another place, I need to be safe from interruption and sterility, and computers are safe from neither. People accuse me of being cranky or reactionary when I bemoan the endless treadmill of software updates, but to me they are the equivalent of somebody coming in and tidying up a working room without asking and with no warning. The creative part of the mind hates this. It is more like the mind of a child or a dog — it can’t play unless it has consistency and comfort to go back to; it likes its toys and its familiar places.

(image credit, kiwibird: