“There is a style of Japanese calligraphy called zuihitsu, which translates literally as ‘follow the brush.’ In zuihitsu the calligrapher surrenders to the brush rather than consciously trying to control it, allowing the brush to tell its own story. Inevitably, the brushwork becomes both the journey and the destination.” Elyssa East, DOGTOWN: DEATH AND ENCHANTMENT IN A NEW ENGLAND GHOST TOWN
Elyssa East’s DOGTOWN was published in 2009 and is 304 pages. I heard about the book on Twitter. Because October evokes a Poe sensibility in me, I find myself gravitating toward darker reads this time of year. DOGTOWN satisfied that urge and much more than I could have anticipated.
Set in the past and present in a wood just outside of Gloucester, Massachusetts, DOGTOWN tells the history of a strange and haunted forest where centuries of unusual and downright awful incidents–from witchcraft, to suicides, to murder–have stained the rocky landscape. In spite of the dark past of Dogtown, however, there remains a wild beauty and almost mythic energy present in the land that has inspired painters, poets, and conservationists for generations.
Elyssa East tells of her initial sojourn to Dogtown as the explorations of an art student interested in finding creative stimulation in the landscape that was the subject of a series of paintings by Marsden Hartley. Like the Japanese calligrapher’s brush, a warning on a book shop map and the foreboding comments of a waitress lead East to the stories trying to claw their way out of the rocky, shadowed paths of that strange forest and into places she never could have expected to venture.
DOGTOWN is one of those rare books that can be read on many levels and enjoyed by many kinds of readers. For those looking for a true crime story, East delivers a riveting and chilling story of the 1984 murder of a local woman that forever taints the footpaths of Dogtown. For lovers of history, East reports on centuries of the social and political development of Dogtown and the surrounding areas. For artists and writers, East presents a thought-provoking narrative on the influence of place and time, what draws us to other artists, and how art begets art.
What is most impressive about DOGTOWN is how well East balances detail and story, and weaves together all of the aspects of the book with seamless balance and transition. Her elegance of language and the way she moves from history to the present day kept me turning pages long into the night, even when I was frightened by what I was reading.
If you enjoy intense narrative nonfiction, I give DOGTOWN my highest recommendation. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you think.