Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Shadow Over Innsmouth

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth", first published as a booklet with limited distribution in 1936, and subsequently in Weird Tales, Janaury 1942.

This is the the twenty-eighth entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

If I had to choose a single story that shows the very best of HPL, it would have to be this one. In The Shadow Over Innsmouth, all his various quirks and ticks combine to produce a story of sublime rising horror, and where all the individual elements come together to a genuinely disturbing climax. It features some of his finest evocative writing and focuses on his favourite themes of xenophobia, degeneration, superstition and the spectre of madness that hangs over all HPL's first person narrators.

More than any of the other stories, the (unnamed, again) narrator is a distinctly autobiographical figure. The travelling antiquarian with a dilettante's knowledge of local history and architecture and boundless curiosity instantly brings to mind HPL's own frugal travels around the north-eastern USA; Joshi points out in A Life how he used his own observations and real locations as a basis for the fictional coastal town of Innsmouth.

The narrator's particular interests provide him with a clear motivation throughout the story, unlike a few otherwise effective tales – like The Shunned House or The Lurking Fear – where one is forever wondering what suicidal instinct it is that keeps the protagonists in the midsts of the action. In fact, there's an element of tragedy here, and his need to know is a fatal flaw that leads inevitably to his undoing.

The narrator's interests give HPL a great opportunity to play with the sort of fictional history and geography that he clearly loves so much, and he does a particularly good job in this story of building up weird details. From the start, before he even gets to Innsmouth, HPL tempts us with dark hints and local gossip. All the locals know enough to keep away, but the narrator is drawn irresistibly towards the mysterious town:
“Any reference to a town not shewn on common maps or listed in recent guide-books would have interested me, and the agent’s odd manner of allusion roused something like real curiosity. A town able to inspire such dislike in its neighbours, I thought, must be at least rather unusual, and worthy of a tourist’s attention.”
His curiosity is particularly piqued by the queer jewellery associated with Captain Obed Marsh, an example of which he sees the Newburyport Historical Society museum, and has an intense emotional reaction. He “literally gasp[s]” when he sees it and the longer he stares at it the more fascinated he becomes. However, the tiara's exquisite alieness soon begins to disturb him, not least the horrible pictorial motifs:
“Among these reliefs were fabulous monsters of abhorrent grotesqueness and malignity—half ichthyic and half batrachian in suggestion—which one could not dissociate from a certain haunting and uncomfortable sense of pseudo-memory, as if they called up some image from deep cells and tissues whose retentive functions are wholly primal and awesomely ancestral. At times I fancied that every contour of these blasphemous fish-frogs was overflowing with the ultimate quintessence of unknown and inhuman evil."
This immediately brings to mind the descriptions of the bas releifs found by the (unnamed!) narrator of Dagon - “human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and other features less pleasant to recall.” – but is far more detailed and nuanced. It's the work of a writer with twenty-five years' experience imagining and describing the creations of his imagination behind him, almost clinically precise while dripping with malevolent atmosphere.

This sense of evil and wrongness suffuses the descriptions of the “Innsmouth look” as we come to know it, which we first meet in the person of the bus driver Joe Sargent:
“a narrow head, bulging, watery blue eyes that seemed never to wink, a flat nose, a receding forehead and chin, and singularly undeveloped ears. … long, thick lip and coarse-pored, greyish cheeks seemed almost beardless except for some sparse yellow hairs that straggled and curled in irregular patches; and in places the surface seemed queerly irregular, as if peeling from some cutaneous disease.”
As the bus approaches Innsmouth, HPL really pours on the atmosphere:
“We met no one on the road, but presently began to pass deserted farms in varying stages of ruin. Then I noticed a few inhabited houses with rags stuffed in the broken windows and shells and dead fish lying about the littered yards. Once or twice I saw listless-looking people working in barren gardens or digging clams on the fishy-smelling beach below, and groups of dirty, simian-visaged children playing around weed-grown doorsteps. Somehow these people seemed more disquieting than the dismal buildings, for almost every one had certain peculiarities of face and motions which I instinctively disliked without being able to define or comprehend them.”
Innsmouth is one of HPL's most vividly imagined settings, with a detailed and consistent geography that HPL describes with febrile precision. It's the narrator's inquisitiveness that leads us through this: another sort of character might just travel from A to B, but here the narrator wants to observe the town with scholarly interest, and his intense observations are what make the surroundings so convincing.

The character's desire to know is also what drives him to get a detailed description of the town and a map from the clerk in the local store (an out-of-towner), who leads him to the town drunk and bean-spiller in chief, Zadok Allen. I suppose the loquacious local dipsomaniac was something of a cliché, even in HPL's day; such figures turn up in Dracula, for example, and Allen's not a million miles from Ammi Pierce, who relates the story of the Gardners in The Colour Out of Space. It must be said that Allen's willingness to tell all, and the detail in which he does so, strains credibility somewhat, not helped by the thick yokel patois that HPL furnishes him with. But once again, the narrator's intense interest in local history provides at least a fig-leaf of context to matters, and more importantly the detailed and disturbing history he relates is amongst the most chilling in HPL's canon.

These are not just weird creatures with an eccentric perception of time and space, but horrible things with an unnatural interest in human beings. After a group of concerned citizens try and stop Obed Marsh and his pagan worship, the creatures invade the town and murder anyone who stands against them. At this point, things take an unsavoury turn: “Obed he kinder takes charge an’ says things is goin’ to be changed ... others’ll worship with us at meetin’-time, an’ sarten haouses hez got to entertain guests ... they wanted to mix like they done with the Kanakys, an’ he fer one didn’t feel baound to stop ’em.” HPL's too much of a prude to spell it out, but it's surely clear what's happening now: “It wuss araound Civil War time, when children born senct ’forty-six begun to grow up.” 

In other stories, I think, the idea of cosmic horror can be a little abstract. While both The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness have some personal danger, and in The Call of Cthulhu a bloody great monster, HPL's views of cosmic horror – the black gulfs nihilism, or the triviality of individual existence in the face of abyssal time – seem a little remote in comparison to raping, murderous monsters.

It's a such a clear retelling of the racist myth of primitive lubricity and pollution of the blood, that HPL must surely have been drawing, perhaps not consciously, on the racist narratives of his times. I don't think this necessarily means that HPL intends this story to have a racist message, but that it explores an element of horror that exists beyond mundane racism, even if that is the expression of it with which we're most familiar. Even today, when we can easily recognise the hatefulness of the racist undertone, this story of sexual aggression and degeneration has a disconcerting power. Alan Moore brings this aspect of it up to date in his brilliantly nasty horror comic Neonomicon (the cover of which I have used for the image this time around), where all that's implicit in HPL's tale is made horribly explicit.

This revelation is the story's first shock, but it's one we've been prepared for. The jewellery, the weird look of the locals, the mysterious hints of dark deals made – these all established the elements that are brought together here in classic HPL style. In other stories, HPL struggles to get past this stage: The Whisperer in Darkness and At the Mountains of Madness both suffer a little because HPL feels obliged to deliver more conventional chills than these types of existential horror. Here, though, he totally excels himself by taking the story to not one, but two more terrific horror climaxes.

The first is the chase. This is a handy bit of action writing, the best we've seen since The Dunwich Horror, definitely and perhaps as far back as Under the Pyramids. There's great short-term suspense and dread as he escapes from the hotel, franticly turning keys and smashing in doors, and when he's trying to keep to the shadows as he escapes from the town, pursued by half-glimpsed monstrosities. The time spent earlier in the story establishing the strong presence of Innsmouth pays dividends here as the shadows and streets are maddeningly believable. It climaxes with the narrator's first clear glimpse of the Deep Ones, another great passage worth quoting:
“And yet I saw them in a limitless stream—flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating—surging inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare. And some of them had tall tiaras of that nameless whitish-gold metal ... and some were strangely robed ... and one, who led the way, was clad in a ghoulishly humped black coat and striped trousers, and had a man’s felt hat perched on the shapeless thing that answered for a head... .”
The second climax comes at the end, when the narrator learns of his true identity. In this case, it's the historical background that gives the horror its profound effect. Here he matches a second fictional history not just with real history, but with the fictional history of Innsmouth, which bolsters all three. When the final reveal comes, we have all we need to know to underline the horror: we know the twisted history, we have been to decaying Innsmouth, we have seen the degenerate people and we have fled from the bestial inhuman creatures that he is destined to become.

It's easy to miss at the beginning the narrator is also engaged in genealogical research on his travels, and so this sudden swerve into his family history can seem a bit odd, but it actually puts a great deal of his actions in a different light. His fascination with Innsmouth, and the affect that the jewellery has on him are suddenly understood in the context of his being a Deep One himself. There's an inner conflict going on is the story: his escape from Innsmouth is an attempt to outrun the corruption within himself, even as he is drawn to his own kind.

The final lines are all the more chilling for their suggestion of blissful contentment:
"I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever."
I'm reminded of the Dagon again, where the narrator almost seems to relish the return of the ancient deep sea creatures, or Castro's ardent description of the world to come when the stars are right in The Call of Cthulhu. More than these, though these lines make me think of the final lines of Clark Ashton Smith's Necromancy in Naat:
“But in the gardens of Vacharn the dead people still labored, heedless of Uldulla's passing; and they still kept the goats and cattle, and dived for pearls in the dark, torrent And Yadar, being with Dalili in that state now common to them both, was drawn to her with a ghostly yearning; and he felt a ghostly comfort in her nearness. The quick despair that had racked him aforetime, and the long torments of desire and separation, were as things faced and forgot; and he shared with Dalili a shadowy love and a dim contentment.”
There is a kind of joy here, a dark delight that gives a final, deliciously perverse twist, the driest possible flourish of black humour.As in all great horror, the natural order is left broken and evil is victorious. The final horror is the last act of corruption, a denial of humanity and an embrace of all that is morbid, bestial and depraved.

Next: The Shadow Out of Time.


  1. A BBC radio adaptation of this was re-broadcast just last week, if you're quick you can catch the climax :

  2. Aha, thanks for that link. I admit, I didn't know about the 7th dimension, but will add it to my listening list. I'd be interested to hear the rest.

    There are rather cool audio versions of The Dunwich Horror and The Colour Out of Space read by David McCallum floating about internet as an mp3 that are well worth a listen! Dubious legality, but not hard to find.


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