Eerie setting fits this true crime tale
Elyssa East fell in love with Dogtown, the desolate, thickly forested highlands shared by Gloucester and Rockport, from afar. While living in Portland, Maine, the Georgia native became entranced by Marsden Hartley’s stark paintings of Dogtown’s enormous glacial rocks. To the writer, the boulders in Hartley’s paintings looked like “colossal macaroons’’ or “giant chewed fingernails.’’
But it was more than simply the odd beauty of Hartley’s paintings that drew the young writer to the middle of Cape Ann. Dogtown was said to have offered Hartley, who had been struggling with depression when he created the works, great comfort. East came to hope that somehow Dogtown might also help her “better endure that lost, lonely feeling that I had carried around with me for most of my life.’’ “It was,’’ she writes “an altogether naïve yearning, but it was mine.’’
After she arrived she learned that the area’s history included tales of witches and supernatural events and that it was also the scene of the gruesome 1984 murder of Anne Natti, a young schoolteacher who was out for a rainy-day hike with her dog. These discoveries only fueled her fascination with the place and compelled her to write “Dogtown,’’ an engrossing hybrid of equal parts true crime tale, local history lesson, and personal inquiry into fear, solitude, and our relationships with our surroundings.
East is at her best when she describes her own encounters with Dogtown’s eerie expanse. On her first trek, she gets lost. Despite herself, she begins to panic, imagining that someone is stalking her as she hurries through the leaves and thicket. When she finally finds the gateway back to civilization, she turns for a last look. “Blackness was seeping into the woods like freshly drawn India ink,’’ she writes, “bleeding from the outlines of the trees. I could no longer see the edges of things.’’
As our guide learns, Dogtown had inspired irrational fears dating back to the time of the Puritans, when Ebenezer Babson and his fellow settlers experienced a collective delusion that they were under attack by French and Native American warriors. At the time, King William’s War, pitting the English against the French, was being waged in Canada and New England. The author bogs down a bit as she recounts the rise and fall of the Commons, a remote cluster of Colonial homes that was deserted by the 1840s, and Dogtown’s subsequent return to wilderness.
Dogtown’s eeriness comes to life most vividly in the form of Peter Hodgkins, the troubled son of Gloucester who killed Natti by crushing her skull with a stone. Freakishly tall and socially inept, Hodgkins was considered a poor lost soul deserving of the town’s sympathy - until, that is, he was convicted of Natti’s murder. From childhood, his closest companion had been the woods of Dogtown. Ironically, the murder he committed there made many residents feel the place had been irretrievably stolen from them.
East, the outsider, knows she can’t reclaim it on their behalf and understands their sense of loss. “There is something especially disturbing about a murder in a natural setting,’’ she suggests. “It shatters our illusion that nature is our protector, a force that inspires goodness.’’ Yet her wonder at Dogtown’s magnetic pull never wanes.
James Sullivan is an author and a regular Globe contributor.