Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town
By Elyssa East
Free Press, Hardcover, 9781416587040, 304pp.
Publication Date: December 1, 2009
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.
"A MESMERIZING FUGUE of knife-edge true crime, deviant Yankee Americana, and historical evildoings. With an insider's authenticity, East commands a haunted haven where renowned American thinkers and artists seek hideout, and finds the brilliant pin dot on a mysterious American murder map, charting a community's bouts of wickedness for generations toward a spellbinding modern homicide. No other book captures our colonial ghost history with such chilly quirks, intimate lore, and fireworks. A pure original, East guides us through stunning supernatural gates into a bountiful wilderness." -- MARIA FLOOK, author of Invisible Eden
"This book is a wonder. I fell completely under its spell -- Elyssa East does not merely reupholster the old bones of Dogtown, she plunges you headlong into the green mystery of this place; I loved the looking-glass chill of opening her book and finding myself in another world entirely. Dogtown is true literary sorcery, a portal to one of the strangest places in America." -- KAREN RUSSELL, author of St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
"Beautifully written, deftly told, and suspenseful to the very end -- a stunning work of reportage. A keenly observant writer with a painter's eye for detail, East explores the strange, hypnotic spell that Dogtown seems to cast upon all -- including herself -- who enter its woods. The result is a riveting and very personal book that both dazzles and unnerves." -- JULIE OTSUKA, author of When the Emperor Was Divine
"Elyssa East's narrative history of Dogtown, Massachusetts, is a fascinating book, sometimes strange, sometimes mystical, but always gripping. Her exploration of its dark, eccentric past begs the question: do certain mythic landscapes influence its inhabitants to do great good and, at times, to do great evil?" -- KATHLEEN KENT, author of The Heretic's Daughter