The Sage of Milford: Remembering Andrew Rothovius

Autumn is, for me anyway, an acutely nostalgic time. I think of the New England and New York of my childhood, of cool crisp weather and falling coloured leaves — and these memories are all the more vibrant when faced with the reality of the 101 degree weather here in Los Angeles to-day. Friends and relatives who have died are much on my mind during this part of the year, and I revel in the approach and accomplishment of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the inevitable onslaught of snow and Christmas, as they came when I was young. It is a pleasant nostalgia — and if it is tinged with melancholy, then even that melancholy is pleasant. There is, in short, a dreaminess to the season, of pipe smoke and memory.

Even the uncanny edge of Autumn, thanks to Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls, is a source of quiet joy. My father’s family is French Canadian, and early on I was told stories of the lutin and the loup-garou, the feu-follet and the chasse-gallerie. Ghosts and the Second sight figured alongside Indians, voyageurs, and heroes like the Jesuit Martyrs, Maisonneuve, Dollard des Ormeaux, Frontenac, Montcalm, and de Salaberry in the tales I heard. But being in New York, I came to love the stories of Washington Irving — the Headless Horseman, Rip Van Winkle, and the Hudson Valley Dutch folklore which he borrowed from and transfigured. New England too, where we had family on both sides, contributed its share, with its dark lore of witchcraft. Having moved to Hollywood, California in the 1960s, we were daily bombarded with Lost Continents, UFOs, ESP, Bigfoot, and much else besides — to say nothing of our landlord, Criswell. The sense of wonder that all of this engendered made far easier the sense that our religion and above all our wondrous Sacraments are simply and objectively true. Preternatural evil and supernatural good were, as a result, easy to accept.

My parents were not simply religious and tale-tellers, however. They were prodigious and omnivorous readers and from their library I harvested not just Irving, but Hawthorne, Poe, Trollope, M.R. James, Machen, Kipling, Burroughs, Frost, Longfellow, and a host of others whose work ranged from the whimsical to the horrific — and sometimes in the same story or poem! On my own, I discovered Bradbury, Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien. As with my parents — and especially my father — I developed a great and simultaneous interest in religion, history, folklore, myth, old houses and customs, and literature; in short (although this was unknown to me) I had become and remain to this day — an antiquarian.

In high school I discovered H.P. Lovecraft — an antiquarian’s fiction writer if ever there was one. His poems were beautiful — even when dark; his prose was uncanny, and dealt primarily with strange “things” from “outside” ever attempting to regain entrance to our reality, from whence they had been driven eons before. Personally, HPL was one of that strange breed peculiar to the Anglosphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — an unbelieving conservative. Typical of the breed were Mencken, Santayana, Eliot (before his conversion), Henry Adams, and the like. These folk tended not to believe in God or religion and embraced such things as evolution wholeheartedly, while constantly mourning the death of the civilisation and customs that such belief had created. In Lovecraft’s view, the universe was uncaring about or hostile to mankind, and in his stories the “Great Old Ones” symbolised that indifference and hostility — this was what made them so frightening to so many. Personally, he was quite approachable, and carried on a huge correspondence with many younger writers upon whom he had a tremendous influence — in style, if not belief: August Derleth; Fritz Leiber (whom I came to know); Robert Bloch (whom I met once); Frank Belknap Long; and a host of others.

But the pleasure I derived from Lovecraft’s work was not the frisson of terror (indeed, although a lifelong reader of horror fiction, the only such book that has ever scared me was Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, in which a New England town similar to many I have known is vampirised and the local priest has to wrestle with the post-Vatican II blues). His atheistic view of reality seemed a mere fairy tale to me, and still does (if lacking the kernel of truth that lurks behind many such a tale!). What caught me was his mastery of atmosphere in the towns he created for his hapless characters to dwell in. “Legend-haunted Arkham” (which was really Salem); Kingsport (Marblehead); Insmouth (most of whose populace had interbred with strange sea creatures); and Dunwich (out in western Massachusetts somewhere). He gave these curious places a strange life.

While Lovecraft had written a limited number of pieces, he had spawned an army of continuators and commentators. August Derleth — his close friend and famous Catholic writer distinguished in his own right — had founded a publishing company, Arkham House, to keep HPL’s work in print and publish other weird fiction. In those palmy days of the late 70s, I read as many AH books as I could get my hands on. One of these was called The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces, and was billed as being by “H.P. Lovecraft and divers hands.” In truth, it was an anthology, with short stories, poetry, and essays about various aspects of Lovecraft’s work. One of these was entitled “Lovecraft and the New England Megaliths,” by one Andrew R. Rothovius. It was to be a revelation to me.

Part of the essay explained the significance of the mysterious megaliths that are to be found in a number of parts of New England, most famously at Mystery Hill, New Hampshire and Groton, Connecticut, and speculated about their relation to those mentioned in HPL’s story, The Dunwich Horror. The actual location of the Dunwich country, which Derleth had speculated was the area around Wilbraham, Monson, and Hampden, Rothovius asserted was actually the drowned towns under the Quabbin reservoir, sections of which had been known for inbreeding and strange cults. All most peculiar, to be sure. But, though I did not know it, he mentioned a town that would play a part in my own future: Harvard, Massachusetts. The first settler thereof, Major Simon Willard, had an unsavoury reputation among whites and Indians alike as a wizard. Over a century later, Shadrach Ireland and his New Light cult settled in the town — their doctrines were quite Lovecraftian indeed. Suffice it to say that Ireland was convinced of his immortality, and forbade his followers at the “Square House” — their communal residence — to bury him when he appeared to die. Initially they agreed; but after some months, the condition of the body required it. At this juncture, Mother Ann Lee, foundress of the Shakers arrived, received the survivors into her flock, and — as she put it — banished the evil spirit of Ireland to hell. Of course, she believed in communicating with the dead, so Harvard’s weird day did not end there! At any rate, combining together as it did literature, folklore, history, archaeology, and the arcane, the essay was a tour-de-force. Indeed, it was one of the inspirations for me to become a writer — though there were many others.

Two decades passed, and I was now a published author and working freelance writer. One of the magazines I wrote for in those days was FATE, which carried the subtitle “True Reports of the Strange and Unknown.” Its pages were and are filled with the peculiar and bizarre, and it was a lot of fun to write for. But upon receiving an issue one day, I realised that another article had been written by — Andrew E. Rothovius! I prevailed upon the editor to put us in touch, and soon found myself speaking on the phone to the man himself.

His Lovecraft essay was our first topic of conversation; he revealed that his brother-in-law, Warren Doubleday, had been in charge of transporting the contents of the cemeteries of the drowned towns. “A number of the skeletons showed signs of the degeneration brought on by inbreeding!” he declared in an oddly accented voice — which clinched for us both the identification of Dunwich with that region. He agreed with my surmise that while the location of the eponymous town in HPL’s The Shadow over Innsmouth was probably Newbury Old Town, the odd look of the inhabitants therein appeared to be borrowed from that of the inbred section of a town in coastal New Hampshire we were both familiar with. The conversation then ranged over an extremely wide area of topics. Rothovius mentioned that his parents were Finnish, and his father was a direct descendant of the Lutheran Bishop Isaacus Rothovius, who had zealously purged all remaining Catholic customs from the Finnish Lutheran Church. “Ironic,” he said, “because a few years back I converted to Catholicism myself!”

It transpired that he had been in a local store when a group of sisters in full habit entered and began trying to sell Catholic books to the manager and staff. One of these engaged him in conversation, and their chat went on through various religious and other topics, until at last she said, “Well, I don’t really have to tell you that you have to become a Catholic to save your soul, do I? You know that!” “She was right, of course,” he told me. “And so I did. But just think, it was a sister from St. Benedict Centre in Harvard that did it!” 1 Nothing would do but that I meet him; and so during my next trip to New England I arranged to go to Milford, New Hampshire. When I did finally did get to see him, I brought a copy of Lovecraft’s Providence and Adjacent Parts by Henry L. P. Beckwith, Jr. One hesitated to visit a lore master without some lore!

I did not know really what to expect. What I found was a wizened old gentleman of diminutive size and a perpetual-if-quiet demeanour of happiness. Living in the house in which he was born in Milford, he was surrounded by books and papers (though he apologised for having donated the bulk of his collection to the town library a short time before). We talked. And talked. And talked. It seemed that there was nothing in the vast farrago of interests — historical, cultural, literary, folkloric, or religious, and all unbounded by geography or time — bequeathed me by my parents that he had not explored. He favoured Monarchy, the Jacobites, and the Tories, hated the French Revolution, and loved the Bourbons and Habsburgs, as did I. French-Canadian, Hudson Dutch, and New England folklore were brought up and examined, and a wealth of lesser-known writers, from Harold Sherman to Colonel Churchward and Arthur Guiterman were discussed — the last quoted:

STEENDAM the Poet (whom all men know)
Cuddled his fiddle and poised the bow;
Quoth’a, ‘True lovers of tales of sprites,
Goblins and phantoms that walk o’ nights,
Battles and pirates and pleasant nooks,
Quaint, homely legends from musty books,
Hear! for I carol in lilting rhymes
Rollicking lays of the Good Old Times!”

Fitting lines for antiquarians to know and enjoy!

In time, the broad outlines of his remarkable if sedentary life were revealed. Andrew had been struck by pulmonary TB when quite young, and spent his childhood in quarantine. He had never attended school of any kind, but his elder sister, Sigrid (who would go on to marry Warren Doubleday) taught him English and all the basics that she had learned in the local public school. All else was his own work, the result of reading voraciously in any field — and there were many — that interested him. Unlike the ones we had in common, some of his interests allowed him a real income; his encyclopedic knowledge of stamps, for instance, gave him employment with a local stamp shop; Andrew’s grasp of technology earned him a job with a defence contractor in Nashua running their data storage and retrieval department. He was also a longtime consultant on economic affairs — especially Chinese — and was employed to write about them by several high-powered financial newsletters. His knowledge of meteorology won him a 50-year gig as a volunteer observer for the U.S. Weather service.

These sources of income allowed Andrew Rothovius to write what he wanted to for such small local outlets as The Milford Cabinet and The Peterborough Transcript. Indeed, he wrote over 4000 columns for such papers, a small selection of which may be found in his own archived website and a tribute site. As the wondering author of the latter put it: “They range over the widest array of topics imaginable, from medieval saints to the Nazi invasion of Norway to the tempestuous affairs of the pre-Raphaelites to the mysteries of Lovecraft to the early Celtic visits to the New World. They are filled with his remarkable, and probably correct theories about the real stories behind the scenes.”

But bemused locals were not the only recipients of his wisdom in these areas. He was a member of a large number of learned and literary societies, ranging from the Medieval Academy of America to the New Hampshire Historical Society to the Gungywamp Society (which looks after the megaliths near Groton, Connnecticut), and devoured as well as occasionally contributed to their periodicals and proceedings. Rothovius co-wrote a history of hypnotism, and was a regular writer not only for FATE, but for Yankee and the Old Farmer’s Almanac as well. As with any true antiquarian, he was deeply rooted in his own town, his own people (he remained fluent in Finnish, and was one of the two scholars in that language I have known — the other being a native of Portland, Oregon!), his region, his country, Europe, and the World — I have not even touched upon his knowledge of Asia and Africa.

It was both this enormous store of knowledge and deep love of the human condition that made his conversion so easy, once its necessity was pointed out to him. Everything he knew roared the truth of the Catholic Faith — whether it was science or literature. He was a lover of the Latin Mass, although he had seen it only a few times — and those in his non-Catholic days. Andrew became a zealous supporter of the Coalition in Support of Ecclesia Dei in Chicago, sending its Mass listings out to Catholic friends in regions where it was available. Sadly for him, in those benighted days, it was not offered in his near vicinity, and he never learned to drive. But he was a faithful member of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Merrimack (and became an amateur expert on the parish’s patron saint, not surprisingly). “I’d rather it were in Latin,” he told me, “but I need the Sacraments to save my soul, so I’ll take what I can get.” Andrew had the convert’s gratitude just to be able to receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord.

A few years before he died in 2009, he went into a nursing home, and I lost touch with him. I only found out about his death in the Old Farmers’ Almanac. But somehow, I believe he would have thought that appropriate. Andrew died on October 28, in the midst of his favourite season. Of your charity, please pray for the repose of his soul; for him, I have no doubt that one of the many joys the Beatific Vision would bring is getting answers to all the many questions that incredible mind of his constantly generated. In autumn, in particular, his memory comes back to me by way of a few lines by that quintessentially New England poet, Edward Arlington Robinson:

We cannot know how much we learn
From those who never will return,
Until a flash of unforeseen
Remembrance falls on what has been.

  1. Editors note: These are the good Sisters of Saint Ann’s House, in Still River (township of Harvard), Massachusetts, and are part of the same M.I.C.M. religious family as we who publish Catholicism.org.
  • Eleonore villarrubia

    This piece is one of Charles’ BEST! So interesting. Rothovius must have been an amazing genius – a true Renaissance man. Charles brought back some memories of my Southern past – I read to kindergartners about the Loup-Garou in the Louisiana swamps, had a friend named Des Ormeaux, and remember seeing the very odd Criswell on TV in my younger days (Jack Paar, I suppose). I even helped a favorite student research his English Lit paper on JP Lovecraft! Creepy stuff – “The Rats in the Wall.” That was more than thirty years ago. Thanks for a wonderful read, Charles.

  • Charles A. Coulombe

    Ma plaisir, cherie!

  • Carl Phillips

    Sounds like he was a fascinating man, Charles; interesting that the sisters who converted him were from St. Benedict center, too!