I had the pleasure of attending an excellent lecture last week on New Haven poet and short story author Joseph Payne Brennan. Focusing on horror, mysteries and the combination of the two, Brennan was a regular contributor to Weird Tales in the 1950s until publishing his own literary magazine called Macabre. His most well-known short story, “Slime”, was the inspiration for the classic B-horror flick The Blob. Later in life, Brennan ended up working at Sterling Library at Yale, where the largest collection of the author’s works is still housed. The lecturer, local arts reporter Christopher Arnott, is a huge Brennan fan and is on a crusade to re-introduce the late author to new audiences.
What struck me is Brennan’s use of place in his writings. A lot of horror authors set their stories in real locations because the “realness” adds a bit of titillation for the reader through recognizable details. I’ve mentioned before that a story about a vampire is much more exciting if the vampire hunts in an area that is recognizable to the reader or close to the reader’s heart.
What’s fascinating about Brennan is that the villain in his stories is often the misguided urban renewal policies that were rampant in cities throughout the country in the Fifties and Sixties and especially in his hometown of New Haven. Many of his stories lament the loss of charming neighborhoods and historic homes that are being razed for redevelopment, gentrification and highway construction. Often, a character or apparition crumbles to dust as a cherished building is demolished. Scary stuff, indeed!
Brennan’s poems and stories rely on the spiritual connection that people have to places—whether it’s a colonial home on historic State Street where multiple generations of the same families have grown up or public spaces like the New Haven Green that have seen communities spawned and evolved around them. And he uses real places in an effort to make a political statement about the loss of these places around him—he’s talking directly to the politicians that are making these policies.
The connection between literature and place goes both ways in Brennan’s writings. The stories give us a greater appreciation for places he writes about, and the places give his stories a realistic component that helps send chills up the reader’s spine. A master craftsman, Brennan knew that this connection is vital to both communities.
Check out a place that Arnott mapped for Brennan’s short story, The House at 1248.