Intersecting Trails: History, Lovecraft and Epoch-Driven Fiction

By Sean Malone

In November 2016, during a stretch of those gray and windy evenings typical of Wisconsin’s fall season, I wrote a short story about a search for Haunchyville—an obscure piece of folklore about a mythical village near the Waukesha area. Over the next year and a half, I returned to it with ramping frequency, encountering new ideas, locations, or confluences that expanded the story and cast of characters. By early 2018 I had something of a short novel and decided to pursue publication. Upon receiving the acceptance letter from my publisher, the experience resonated to the coursework completed and skills instilled during my studies at Marquette. The process was flowing and organic, yet measured and checked by consulting maps, articles, and sources. The craft of the historian was in play in an unconventional sense.

I wondered who the book’s audience would be. Historians are accustomed to preparing thoroughly researched monographs or surveys intended for an academic community. I wanted to share a spirit that I believe defined the twilight of the long-gone Fountain Spring House in Waukesha, and conversely, the emerging grandeur of new construction such as St. Josaphat’s Basillica, which remains a distnctive landmark of Milwaukee’s south side to this day. A poignant reminder was given of the transience of such monuments in the sudden blaze that consumed Trinity Lutheran Church Milwaukee this past May. Whereas time or reconstruction may alter the original state of these structures, something of their interesting pasts may be shared with wider audiences through the art of storytelling.  In the journey of writing the book, these locales became connected in an unexpected but satisfying way that hearkened back to the prologue’s search for elusive Haunchyville. The novel planted one foot in the camp of historical fiction, and the other in the opaque suspense and period pulp of Lovecraftian fiction.

P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) placed his short stories and novellas in both real and fictitious locations in his native New England, and largely set them contemporary to his own times. In the loosely-defined genre of cosmic horror, successive authors have been inexorably drawn to his model. Concurrent to Lovecraft and in the following decades, magazines such as Weird Talesand Fantastic Magazinemaintained the genre’s vitality with newcomers, and the marque artwork inspired the cover design of Spring City Terror. Non-coincidentally, new genre entries persist in favoring the period that corresponds to Lovecraft’s life, which spanned the Edwardian period/Progressive era through the waning of the Interwar Years. It is a well-suited timeline for the genre; the ever-present subtext presents humanity’s budding hubris from early 20th-century scientific and societal achievements checked by inexplicable human conflicts and terrifying astral entities. Lovecraft imbued such entities with abstract, inter-dimensional and impossibly ancient characteristics — directly confronting the progress represented by astrophysicss and other observational sciences of his time. The essence of this theme is communicated in this exceprt from Lovecraft’s most famous work, detailing the perspective of the protagonist:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity . . . The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality . . . that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Today, this setting imbues a charming, costumed filter to fans, and countless varieties of handsomely-packaged “complete editions” of Lovecraft’s works can be found in national bookstores. It is apparent that Lovecraftian fiction has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. I recalled a design depicting the titular Cthulhu winning the Raynor Library pumpkin-carving contest on campus in 2015. Its influence also permeates some of the nations’ largest pop-culture conventions; I conquered Lovecraft-themed escape rooms, mingled at the H.P. Lovecraft Historic Society’s booth, and enjoyed tabletop games and other related media at the 51st Gencon in Indianapolis this August. Being drawn to the classics alongside this new wave, I perceived an opportunity to represent elements of Wisconsin folklore in a supernatural lens with care to establish a setting grounded in the period’s identity.

Spring City Terror 1903 is a new entry respecting the tradition of Lovecraftian fiction, but with more emphasis on world-building that stems from the habits, skills, and craft that SpringCityTerror_front (1).jpghistorians apply to their impassioned interests. The book brings a Chicago Tribune reporter to Waukesha as he investigates the reasons for the decline of the regional tourist hub–the Fountain Spring House. As the title suggests, the book applies a filter of suspense and horror-fantasy to fictional and historic characters and settings, ranging from obscure Chicago Cubs players to prominent local clergyman. From the lead character’s exploration of the area, Wisconsinite readers will be familiar with many of the references embedded in the story, which may also introduce new bits of folklore or drafts of beer to wider audiences. It remains my hope that the process that guided this effort finds further fertile ground for future entries . . . from the earthquake-ravaged streets of San Francisco to delirious, snowblind visions of the Great Lakes Storm of 1913.

Spring City Terror 1903is set to release on October 17th.

Sean Malone currently resides in West Allis, Wisconsin, with his wife Athena. He is fortunate to maintain contact and friendships with many of his Marquette colleagues and professors. In addition to writing, he currently works at Summer Snow Art in Waukesha and as an adjunct professor of history at Marian University, Fond du Lac.

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