Autumn leaves deepen in hue as we traverse Connecticut; when we cut north, the foliage turns to death and dying.
We wind our way first around Providence, Rhode Island and then Boston, until, at precisely 3:33, an exit dumps us into the outskirts of spooky Salem.
On the approach to its historic center, traffic thickens to a near standstill; a large statue heralding this hub is coupled, ironically, with this dominant street sign:
DO NOT ENTER.
But we do, and we get nowhere, snarled in an atrocious traffic jam that moves at less than one mile an hour.
Not knowing how to reach our waterfront hotel, I plead with a whistleblowing traffic cop.
“Turn right on Church Street,” he growls tersely between whistles.
Fifteen further minutes of inching forward lands us at a barricade protecting some kind of parade involving hundreds of motorcycles, blocking access to the waterfront.
Around us, a sea of cars and rivers of people, many of whom are costumed as witches and ghouls—a nightmare and madness rolled into one.
Exasperated, I pull over, fully intending to dump the Red Beast and bail.
I walk over to a firemen crew manning the barricade.
“How the hell am I supposed to get to my hotel?”
Exasperated, I point at the inaccessible Salem Waterfront Hotel, about five hundred yards away.
“Parade’s ending in a couple minutes,” says one. “We’ll be opening the roads.”
Another evil vanquished as the barricade parts and we zip into the hotel’s forecourt.
Inside, the lobby is decorated for Halloween, Salem’s month-long tourist attraction.
Rooms are drab, perhaps to reflect the grimness of what took place here over 300 years ago when two girls were able to convince the town burghers that witches had infiltrated their pious community.
We check into a two-bedroom suite and immediately set out on foot into the carnival atmosphere, finding ourselves, within two minutes, at the graveyard where Salem’s earliest settlers lay buried.
It is Disneyesque, cannot possibly be real, with hordes of tourists traipsing over graves.
But, in fact, this is the genuine article, which means the perpetrators of the witch trials do not rest in peace, but are trampled daily—an inadvertent but poetic punishment for their sins.
Onward to Essex Street, historic Salem’s main drag, very haunted according to local lore, and on this day especially haunted by several drag queens and macabre mimes entertaining thousands of spirited day-trippers.
Add witchy street vendors and souvenir shops chock-a-block with replica occult objects made in China: broomsticks and capes and magic wands, trinkets and trash.
But with a ruptured economy, tourists come for beer and buzz, hold the merchandise, so takings—we are told—are down 30 percent.
We are not here to shop.
We are here to scavenge.
But only talismans and artifacts possessed of genuine power.
Hex and Omen—classic witchcraft shops, owned by real witches—do not accommodate.
We know, instinctually, that to search out Sam Hain we must explore Salem’s shadowy cobblestoned alleys.
These days, older things of quality, one-offs, can be found only in antique shops, and we find such a gallery of dealers on the waterfront.
Van Stein is on the prowl for Witch Spoons crafted in sterling silver by a local jeweler named David Low the late 1800s. (Low’s old factory is now a reputedly haunted restaurant called Rockafella’s.)
The story goes that Low, on a trip to Germany, discovered local merchants selling souvenir spoons to tourists hungry for a memento.
Taken by this idea, Low returned home and designed his own spoon featuring a witch on a broomstick and the word Salem.
“Got any?” Van Stein asks the lone clerk. (Though Salem booms, we are the gallery’s only customers.)
“I think so.” She strolls to a glass display case and reaches into a mug containing several silver spoons. A quick inspection confirms D. Low stamped in tiny letters.
Carousing the aisles, I hone in on a small brass owl with sparkling green eyes.
It is a gem, forlorn and neglected among cheap bric-a-brac.
It hoots at me.
“May I see something in this display case?” I call out, alarmed and excited.
A few moments later the owl fits into my left palm—the nest it has been craving.
This unusual talisman was crafted in brass well over a century ago as a tool to hold matches.
I don’t buy it yet.
I like to think about possible purchases, let objects nag at me to assess the attraction between us.
A few minutes later, mulling through shelves of antiquarian books, I uncover a first edition of The Exorcist signed by the author, William Peter Blatty.
On it’s own, rather spooky.
But found in Salem…?
On the heels of visiting the famed stairway in Georgetown…!?
Still, I do not buy.
We need to see everything.
We need to feel what we cannot do without.