At the Corner of the Real and the Imagined: On Literary Geography -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

When I was three-quarters of the way into Agatha Christie’s Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun, I put the book down and tried to see if I could guess who the killer was. I was eleven or twelve, a hungry and rapt reader, and I often attempted to solve the mysteries I read about. My predictions were invariably wrong, but I enjoyed mucking around in the details of the books and eager for the facts from these fictional worlds to bleed into my own. I’d scribble notes, make diagrams of the characters’ relationships, and try to find telling inconsistencies in their alibis. I became especially invested in Evil Under the Sun, partly because the island setting is so carefully described, so enticing and full of morbid possibility. In addition to my amateur detective work, I drew a detailed map of the island, which featured the grand hotel, the long beach, the tidal sandbar, the winding footpaths, and the hidden cove. Seventeen years later, I can’t remember which character committed the murder, but I can still picture the island as if I had spent a week lounging in that hotel myself.

As it turns out, for around 450£ a night, I could spend a week in that hotel, or at least a close approximation of it. I recently discovered that Christie modeled her island after Burgh Island, a small tidal island off the coast of South Devon. Discouraged by the cost of flights and hotel reservations, I resorted to some avid Google Image and Street View searching. I daydreamed of visiting Burgh Island and walking its footpaths and bright beaches. The prospect of wandering a real place that shimmers with an overlay of a fictional world, especially a world I already felt so intimately connected to, delighted me.

I’m not alone in this strange desire. Academics, readers, and fans have spent countless hours mapping out fictional universes and trying to pinpoint the exact locations that inspired these settings. For example, thanks to the work of Professor Joseph Nugent, of the Boston College Department of English, people can map out and then walk the exact paths taken by the characters in Ulysses, imagining themselves in Joyce’s turn-of-the-century Dublin. The creators claim that the interactive online map, featuring descriptions of the various characters encountered and buildings seen, is intended to help readers gain understanding of Joyce’s difficult book.

In a slightly different yet no less ambitious vein, a UCLA geophysics and geology professor attempted to map Tolkien’s Middle-earth onto a map of Europe. The professor, Peter Bird, based his investigations on Tolkien’s claim that “the North-West of ‘Middle-earth’” is “equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean … If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence.” Bird’s map is full of approximations and admitted conjecture, but it’s alluringly convincing, matching up bodies of water (the Sea of Rhun with the Black Sea), mountain ranges (Ered Nimrais with the Alps), and plains (Gondor with the northern Italian plains). I was thrilled to discover that Bird situates Mordor, that dark and perilous realm, in Transylvania — a land whose cultural identity is already so strongly associated with eerie literary territory, notorious for being the home of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

A more encompassing attempt at tackling the task of mapping the literary universe onto existing geography is Placing Literature. Co-founded by a novelist and a geography doctoral student, this online project allows readers to add literary landmarks onto a digital map of the world. Users can plot any location that shows up in a published book, along with short descriptions and quotations or notes. Users have plotted places as specific as particular buildings, street corners or businesses, and as general as cities, regions or islands. Originally intended to include just three locations (U.S. cities where the founders had lived), the project expanded when the site attracted global attention and enthusiasm. The map is peppered with small black books, which reveal varying amounts of information when clicked. The website is still relatively underdeveloped, with large parts of the map lacking any entries, and other areas clearly dominated by a few users. Duluth, Minnesota is covered in landmarks placed by an avid Brian Freeman fan (or perhaps a handful of avid Brian Freeman fans). When marking a location from Freeman’s The Burying Place, a user notes, “I visited on a bitter, rainy day… water dropping through the holes in the roof… the perfect, scary locale.” In another entry, the user simply states that The Black Woods Restaurant, which appears in Freeman’s The Cold Nowhere, is “one of [his] favorite Duluth restaurants,” and advises, “Get the barbecue-crusted meat loaf.”

On Placing Literature I’ve added in the literary spots I know so well, especially in the places I live or have lived: The Columbus, Ohio home of James Thurber, which was the location of his comical ghost story, “The Night the Ghost Got In”; East Rock Park in New Haven, Connecticut where two of my favorite Amy Bloom characters carried out an affair; the Cambridge, Massachusetts locations from Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories.

Perhaps stranger still are places where the existing world has been changed to match a fictive world. The inspiration for Nathanial Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables is a popular Salem, Massachusetts tourist attraction. On tours of this spooky colonial mansion, visitors can admire the austere architecture, count the seven gables, and imagine searching the shadowed corners for lost wills and family secrets. But the house did not always so closely resemble the mansion of Hawthorne’s invention. When the original house was turned into a museum in the early 1900s, it was renovated to more closely resemble Hawthorne’s vision and readers’ expectations. The owners added a secret passageway up to the attic where the mysterious Hosgrove would have lived. The house, which had belonged to a cousin of Hawthorne, never featured an adjoined store, but one was added so visitors could envision Hepzibah Pyncheon working behind the counter.

In 1996, the small village of North Tarrytown, New York officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow, strengthening its connection to the Washington Irving story. The Tarrytown Cemetery, where Irving is buried, had already been re-christened The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery many years before. The village’s official website celebrates how the town was “immortalized in Washington Irving’s famous tale, and their school sports teams are “The Horsemen.” The banner for their website reads, “Visit Sleepy Hollow, Where the Legend Lives.”

Sleepy Hollow is not the only place using its literary associations to attract visitors. Norman Island, in the British Virgin Islands, is rumored to be the location after which Robert Louis Stevenson modeled his pirate-infested adventure tale, Treasure Island. Tourists are invited to search Norman Island’s beaches and darkened coves for real-life treasure. But the question of which island inspired Stevenson has been the subject of a lively debate. Aside from Norman Island, a handful of other islands vie for this peculiar honor, with residents and fans of the novel pointing out this one’s pine-tree lined beaches or that one’s oddly shaped shoreline. No one is arguing that the events of Treasure Island actually transpired, so it’s an unusual historical claim to fight over: “This thing that never actually happened, happened here.”

Growing up in Massachusetts, in a small town just north of Boston, I had plenty of opportunity to explore the nexus of real and imagined places. A disproportionate number of writers have called Massachusetts home, providing the state with a rich literary landscape. My childhood home is twenty minutes from Walden Pond and the town where Louisa May Alcott set Little Women. Esther Greenwood, Plath’s heroine in The Bell Jar, felt stuck in suburbs whose culture I recognized. When we read Ethan Frome in high school, my friends and I used Wharton’s dramatic descriptions of Starkfield’s harsh winters to jokingly refer to our December drives to school. On a miserable whale-watching trip off the coast of Nantucket, I thought, “Moby-Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” as I sat, green with nausea, on the open deck. Reading Denis Lehane’s Mystic River, I kept thinking, “Yes, yes, I know that place!” as if Lehane and I were two expatriates comparing notes in a distant land.

As a lover of horror, my understanding of small-town New England has been shaped by the way it’s been rendered in literature. Stephen King’s depictions of small Maine towns hiding dark secrets hang heavy in my consciousness, and King’s shadowed woods and craggy coastlines is the narrative I most associated with this landscape. When I think of New England, of its culture and character, I think of ghost stories and foggy lakes and winding, uneven roads, even though I have a life of ordinary, not-even-a-little-bit-supernatural memories and experiences to draw from. New England’s cultural identity has been shaped in countless ways by the works of Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson, and, of course, HP Lovecraft.

Perhaps one of the most explored and discussed fictional universes is the region that fans and critics have described as “Lovecraft Country” or “Miskatonic County.” This shared territory includes the towns, woods and rivers that many of Lovecraft’s works are set in, and it matches up geographically with Essex County in northeast Massachusetts. Fan fiction, role-playing games, and online communities have explored the mythos and geography of this area. Although Lovecraft’s towns and rivers have invented names and the geography is slightly altered, Lovecraft is adamant about the importance of his rural New England locations. He nestled his fictional towns, such as Arkham and Dunwhich, in between real places, such as Newburyport and Plum Island. In his story “The Picture in the House,” Lovecraft describes the ghastly spell of the “ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England,” and the “elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance” which skulk there.

Setting was foremost in Lovecraft’s mind as he wrote, and his stories exist in a lovingly detailed universe. In a letter to a friend, Lovecraft explains, “It is the night-black Massachusetts legendary which packs the really macabre ‘kick.’” And while Lovecraft’s universe is inhabited by mutants, half-humans, and cults that worship mysterious gods, many Lovecraft fans are heavily invested in locating the “real” places in which these monsters live. Lovecraft described the fictional town of Innsmouth as a “considerably twisted version of Newburyport,” but Will Murray, a novelist and comic-book writer, has written several articles insisting that Innsmouth is actually located in Gloucester. Fans and readers have created detailed maps of Lovecraft Country by revising and reshaping maps of the Massachusetts North Shore, and each invented town has its own Wikipedia page.

Lovecraft Country isn’t the only fictional region so extensively explored by readers and fans. William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County has been mapped twice by Faulkner and many more times by his readers. This region, too, has its own Wikipedia page, which explains the etymology of the county name and reports on the (fictional) history of the (fictional) area in extensive detail. Stephen Railton, an English professor at the University of Virginia, is in the process of creating a digital map of the county. Although the exact details and geography of the county are invented, they correspond closely to historical accounts of Lafayette County, Mississippi, Faulkner’s inspiration for his apocryphal region.

Unlike Lovecraft’s Massachusetts North Shore or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Boston suburbs, which I’ve visited in person many times, Lafayette County fits into a repository of places I feel acquainted with solely from the literature set there. This peculiar collection of places consists of regions I’ve never seen, but which my favorite writers have made their own and defined: Stuart Dybeck’s immigrant neighborhoods of 1950s Chicago, viewed through the dreamy lens of childhood and teenage nostalgia; Charles Baxter’s desperate Minnesota suburbs; Flannery O’Connor’s gothic rural South; Louise Erdrich’s richly and thoroughly explored fictional North Dakota reservation and the apocryphal town of Argus; Daniel Woodrell’s stark and lonely Ozark mountain landscapes; Khaled Hosseini’s tumultuous and constantly changing Kabul; Alice Munro’s small, Southern Ontario towns; Junot Diaz’s dual worlds of a vibrant, corrupt Dominican Republic and a stagnating, stifling New Jersey. I have an uncomfortable relationship with my understanding of these places. Although I feel as if I know them well, I understand that the depictions of the cities are stylized, seen through lenses that strain out the parts of places that don’t serve the narrative’s purpose. Having lived in New Haven for two years, I know there’s much more to the city than Amy Bloom’s portrayal of professors and young professionals walking the elm-lined streets, living in the lofty colonials on Orange Street. She depicts the world of her characters faithfully, but leaves out the experiences of most people in the city, one of the most economically depressed in the northeast.

Perhaps this is why authors such as Faulkner, Erdrich, Wharton, and Lovecraft created apocryphal communities, avoiding accusations of misrepresentation by claiming liberties to a fictional place. Faulkner, in an interview with Jean Stein, revealed, “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about … and by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.” So, I wonder, why try to get it “right” at all? Why capture, in such careful detail, the real social, political and cultural conflicts that gripped Lafayette County? Why not take more liberties, adjust the culture or the people, instead of simply exaggerating an anecdote here or shaping a family history there?

When Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson visited Ontario to interview Alice Munro for the Paris Review, they noted, with what seems like delight, that the comfortable, small-town hotel they stayed in “would seem to lodge a librarian or a frontier schoolteacher in one of Munro’s stories.” When they observed a small plane resting in a field, they told Munro which stories of hers this sight reminded them of.

These observations strike me as similar to fandom, and to what I’m sure my reaction would have been. I can imagine sitting on the twin bed in that hotel and gleefully thinking, ‘It’s like I’m in one of Munro’s stories.’ And, unlike the beautiful tourist-destination island of Agatha Christie’s mystery, this is not an area of the world that I would normally feel a pressing desire to visit. The only pull the place carries for me is that it is an embodiment of something I love fiercely: the wonder of Munro’s narratives and the beauty of her writing. I think of that hotel, that lone plane in the wide-open field, as momentary portals into other words that could previously only be entered through the page. Munro is on the other end of that, offering readers a glimpse into the way she experiences the world, allowing readers into her small corner of the universe, her bit of native soil.

When an interviewer mentioned how Edward P. Jones doesn’t like to write about his own life in his stories, Jones insisted, “Well, all the places that I write about are real.” Place is the point at which Jones’ invented universes overlap with the real world. Jones seems to take it for granted that this would be true, as if it is the most obvious literary move. And, for the most part, it seems that readers are invested in faithful representations. We want to be able to count the seven gables, walk through the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, locate the port that Captain Ahab sailed from, and verify whether the author got it right, whether the storyworld resembles our own.

I suspect this impulse comes from the way that we already conceive of place as a collective experience, something shared and part of the public consciousness. We live our individual lives, believe in our own private truths, but we share an environment; we’re already inclined to interpret the world in this way. Perhaps we want to share our world—our real world—with invented characters, because that’s how we relate to the real people in our lives.

I no longer scribble in notebooks when I read mysteries, nor run my fingers over fictional maps while daydreaming about buried treasure or solving crimes. I’ve at least partially outgrown that unselfconscious, mooning type of fandom. But, still, when I read something I really love, I become absorbed and completely lost. For a time, it all feels real: Lovecraft’s monstrous gods and Bloom’s wry professors and Hawthorne’s mysterious strangers. And I want nothing more than to fall completely into the illusion and share a world with these characters. Or at least to stand, for a moment, in the place where their world meets mine.

Rebecca is a graduate of the Ohio State MFA program in creative writing, and her humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker. She teaches high school humanities in Freeport, Maine.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again