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I haven't read any of H.P. Lovecraft's works, but lately I've been intrigued by these fictional locations in my state of Massachusetts.

This is how Wikipedia describes the location.

The Miskatonic seems to follow a west-to-east path across Massachusetts, originating from springs in the hills west of Dunwich. It runs eastward past Dunwich, turns southeast, and flows through Arkham. The river empties into the sea two miles to the south near Kingsport, which lies just to the northeast.

I don't know how much of the above is literally stated in Lovecraft's writings, and I don't know how much detail he went into on the locations of these towns, so I'm relying on you to help me determine where the Miskatonic River is.

Do any rivers match Lovecraft's description, or does more than one match?

Fans seem to place these maps near the North Coastal river basin, which isn't big enough to stretch very far west. I wouldn't be surprised if canon says that the Saugus River is too far south, the Ipswich River is too far north, and all the rivers in between are too short.

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    Does Miskatonic University count as a landmark for your purposes? Many say that school is inspired by Brown since Lovecraft lived in Providence. – krb Aug 9 at 3:37
  • @krb, thanks for your interest! I should clarify the question. I wouldn't accept Miskatonic U as evidence, and a prestigious college could have been built anywhere. When I was researching this, I saw a lot of people looked into towns and institutions inspired Lovecraft's towns and institutions, but that's a different question than where they are located. For example, I've read that Kingsport is inspired by Marblehead, but I wouldn't say it's located there unless he explicitly wrote something like "Kingsport is east of Salem across the bay" – Jetpack Aug 9 at 17:24
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    The short answer is, no, there is no real river with all the characteristics of the Miskatonic. (This is prefigured by the fact that the river's name was inspired by the Mystic, which flows far too close to Boston to work.) I will try to write up a properly detailed answer when I get the chance. – Buzz Aug 9 at 17:48
  • I put up a couple answers. I'm not satisfied with them, but they might provide puzzle pieces that are helpful to someone else. Can anyone make a better answer? @Buzz? – Jetpack Aug 18 at 22:35
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I think that the Saugus River is the best choice considering the description in the original post. Other reasonable choices are the Merrimack River, Crane Brook plus Crane River, and Mystic River. That doesn't mean that any of these are compatible with canon. In particular, I don't know how far north any of these towns are, or how far west Dunwich is.

I spent enough time staring at maps to bring myself to madness. Here's a list of rivers in Massachusetts, sorted based on where they drain into the sea from north to south.

Merrimack River

Length: 117 mi. I estimate 49 of those are in Massachusetts.

Direction: South through New Hampshire, then Northeast through Massachusetts, with a little southern turn at the end.

Location: From Franklin NH to Nashua NH. Then Tyngsborough, Chelmsford, Lowell, Dracut, Tweksbury, Andover, Methuen, Lawrence, North Andover, Haverhill, Groveland, West Newbury, Merrimac, Amewbury, between Newburyport and Salisbury

Ipswich River

Length: 35 miles. Long enough.

Direction: Northeast. Wrong way.

Location: From Burlington to Ipswitch

Essex River

Length: 4.6 mi estimate. Too short.

Direction: North. Wrong way.

Location: Entirely in Essex. Definitely starts in hill country.

Bass River

Length: 3.7 mi estimate. Too short.

Direction: South east. Right way.

Location: Entirely in Beverly

Crane Brook plus Crane River (Two rivers together makes it a stretch)

Length: 5.5 mi estimate. Hard to squeeze the towns we need in there.

Direction: South southeast.

Location: Danvers, then between Beverly and Salem.

North River

Length: 3.1 mi estimate. Too short.

Direction: SE then NE (wrong turn)

Location: Peabody, Salem

Forest River

Length: 3.1 mi estimate. Too short.

Direction: South then east then northeast .(wrong turn).

Location: Entirely in Salem, but ends along Marblehead

Saugus River

Length: 13 mi. Long enough for 3 towns.

Direction: South south east

Location: Wakefield, Lynnfield, Saugus, Lynn

Pines River / Rumney Marsh

Length: 5 mi estimate. Hard to fit the towns we need in there.

Direction: East then north. (Wrong turn.)

Location: Malden, between Revere and Saugus, ending at Lynn border

Mystic River

Length: 7 mi. Long enough for 3 towns.

Direction: Southeast

Location: Arlington, Medford, Somerville, Everett, Chelsea, Boston (Charlestown neighborhood)

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    As a resident of Haverhill, MA on the banks of the Merrimac River, my head cannon is that this is the river that is identified as the Miskatonic. A) a lot of the people here certainly seem like they belong in an HPL story. B) we got things like this: newenglandfolklore.blogspot.com/2009/03/… C) really, have you SEEN the people that live in Haverhill?!? – Kevin Milner Aug 19 at 17:04
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    Wow, what a cool piece of lore! As someone who lives in the area, can you imagine someone referring to Tyngsborough (or anyplace on the Merrimack) as "north central Mass"? That can shed light over whether the other answer is realistic. By the way, I wouldn't say the people in Haverhill are weird, except for this guy named Kevin. – Jetpack Aug 20 at 3:50
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No

The Miskatonic River starts in north central Massachusetts and flows into the sea in Massachusetts. No river matches that description.

Supporting quotes

All quotes are from Lovecraft's works online.

  1. The Miskatonic starts in north central Massachusetts

    When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country. ... The thin, shining line of the Miskatonic’s upper reaches has an oddly serpent-like suggestion as it winds close to the feet of the domed hills among which it rises. -- The Dunwich Horror

  2. The Miskatonic's mouth is near Kingsport

    South of him the frightful precipice above Kingsport, north of him the vertical drop of nearly a mile to the river’s mouth.  -- The Strange High House in the Mist

  3. Kingsport is in Massachusetts

    it was in truth the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, of which he had heard such monstrous things whispered some years previously after the exposure of nameless rites at the strange little fishing village of Kingsport, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay. -- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

  4. Kingsport is on the sea

    The sea-folk in Kingsport -- The Strange High House in the Mist

Geographical Information

According to this watershed map, there is no river that flows from north central Massachusetts to the sea in Massachusetts. The map is drawn so that rivers don't cross watershed area boundaries, although some rivers do feed into other rivers at the boundaries. The map shows one little bit of the Merrimack River watershed in north central Massachusetts, but that is not the Merrimack River itself. That is the much smaller Souhegan River that flows north and joins the Merrimack River in New Hampshire.

But can't we define our rivers differently?

You can imagine that there's a certain arbitrariness in defining which branches count as the same river and which ones count as just tributaries. I think that the people who name rivers try to follow rigorous rules, but if they don't, can we make this work?

The answer is that it's too much of a stretch. You can imagine, for example, the Nashua River and the downstream part of the Merrimack River being considered the Miskatonic River, the upstream part of the Merrimack River being something else. That would not be a plausible map, because of the difference in size and direction between the Nashua River and the Merrimack River.

You can also imagine defining the Miskatonic River as beginning where the Merrimack River meets the Nashua River or the Concord River. In that case, Dunwich is somewhere around Lowell, which is too far east to be called north central Massachusetts.

Other oddities

As Buzz so helpfully pointed out, Bolton is is described as a town that neighbors Arkham. That's impossible because the real town of Bolton is about 40 mi from anything that matches the description of Arkham in the stories.

The crags north of Kingsport are described as almost one vertical mile above the mouth of the river. According to this source of elevation information, the highest point in Essex County is about 0.08 mi above sea level and the highest point in Massachusetts is 0.66 mi above sea level.

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The Miskatonic probably does not accurately represent any real New England river. (The name itself is suggestive both of the real Mystic River as well as a Iroquoian origin.) However, I rediscovered today that Lovecraft does actually trace its course through (or near) the emphatically real town of Bolton, Massachusetts.

In "Herbert West—Reanimator," some of the action takes place in Bolton. This was a relatively early story (serialized in an amateur magazine in 1921), probably before Lovecraft decided to make the geography of the Miskatonic region entirely fictional. In the story, Lovecraft characterizes the Bolton as

a factory town near Arkham, the seat of the college. The Bolton Worsted Mills are the largest in the Miskatonic Valley....

Bolton is part of the Nashua River drainage, with one branch of the river running through the northwest corner of Bolton, where the Bolton Flats Wildlife Management Area is located. This information would appear to identify the Miskatonic with the Nashua.

However, Lovecraft's descriptions of Bolton, circa 1910—as a fairly industrialized community with a large immigrant population working in the factories—seems to bear little resemblance to the actual conditions in Bolton at the time. His descriptions really seem much more accurate as descriptions of larger mill towns like Lowell. In contrast, the older Bolton in the Northwest of England was a famous Industrial Revolution mill town. It seems unlikely to me that an inveterate New Englander like Lovecraft would not know of the existence of Bolton, Massachusetts, but Lovecraft's particular version of Bolton seems largely invented, based more on conditions in other towns in New England and perhaps Britain.

In light of this, Lovecraft may never have intended to Miskatonic River to be the Nashua. As I alluded to above, the Nashua River has two main branches (which merge just west of Bolton, in fact), but I do not think Lovecraft ever wrote of the Miskatonic as having two separate courses. Perhaps the Miskatonic only represents the East Nashua River, which passes closer to Bolton.

  • Thanks for the excellent answer, Buzz. And thanks for the full story link! I had no idea there was an online collection of his stories, and it's so helpful for this question. Is this a good summary: "Arkham is near Bolton for some definition of the word 'near', so the Miskatonic River must be near Bolton"? That's really hard to reconcile with the conjecture that Arkham is a few miles from the sea. – Jetpack Sep 9 at 1:32

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