Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town
By Elyssa East
(Free Press, Hardcover, 9781416587040, 304pp.)
Publication Date: December 1, 2009
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In rich first-person narrative, Dogtown tells the strange, dark story of a wilderness ghost town that has enthralled artists, writers, and eccentrics—and of a brutal murder committed there. Documenting its history and lore, East explores the possibility that certain landscapes wield their own unique power.
The area known as Dogtown—an isolated colonial ruin and the surrounding 3,600-acre woodland in historic seaside Gloucester, Massachusetts—has always exerted a powerful influence over artists, writers, eccentrics, and nature lovers. But its history is woven through with tales of hallucinations, pirates, ghost sightings, witches, drifters, and violence. A 1984 murder there continues to loom large in Gloucester’s collective psyche: a mentally disturbed local man crushed the skull of a schoolteacher as she walked the woods.
In alternating chapters, East interlaces the story of this murder with Dogtown’s bizarre history. The colonial settlement was a haven for former slaves, prostitutes, and witches until it was abandoned 180 years ago. Since then, Dogtown has inspired various people, including a millionaire who carved Protestant precepts into its boulders; the Modernist painter Marsden Hartley, whom Dogtown saved from a crippling depression; the drug-addled poet Charles Olson; a coven of witches that still holds ceremonies there today; and the murderer, who spent much of his life in Dogtown’s woods.
The murder tapped a vein of thinking that has quietly endured in Gloucester for centuries: some people rallied around Dogtown protectively, but others blamed it for the tragedy.
In luminous, insightful prose, Dogtown tells an evocative tale of a community both haunted and bound together by its love of this strange, forgotten place and its denizens.
Elyssa East’s writing has appeared in numerous New England regional magazines. She received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and lives in New York City.