Monday, April 18, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shadow over Innsmouth

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been simultaneously reading (or, rather, re-reading) S.T. Joshi's magisterial, two-volume biography of the Old Gent, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft and Michel Houellebecq's brief but oddly compelling H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. While the two authors don't agree about much where Lovecraft is concerned, they both regard the novella, The Shadow over Innsmouth, as very close to the pinnacle of HPL's literary output. 

There are multiple historical ironies to this assessment, starting with the fact that Lovecraft himself didn't think much of the story. In a 1931 letter to August Derleth, he claimed it "has all the defects I deplore" and that, as a result, he didn't intend to offer it for publication "for it would stand no chance of acceptance." In this, Lovecraft was at least partly correct. When Derleth surreptitiously sent a copy of Innsmouth to Weird Tales – something he had done before – editor Farnsworth Wright did indeed reject it, largely on the grounds that it was "too long to run complete in one part." 

Later, a correspondent of Lovecraft, William L. Crawford, had founded a small press through which he hoped to publish the works of some of the best writers of Weird Tales, including HPL. Crawford was very interested in The Shadow over Innsmouth, because it had not yet appeared in print anywhere else. Were he to publish it himself, it would be quite the literary coup, or so Crawford hoped. Though the book appeared in 1936 – the only book bearing Lovecraft's byline to appear while he was still alive – it sold poorly and Crawford ultimately withdrew from his grandiose publishing plans for nearly a decade afterwards.

Nevertheless, The Shadow over Innsmouth remains one of Lovecraft's most well known and celebrated works and justifiably so. The novella tells the story of an unnamed narrator who had decided to celebrate his coming of age by taking a tour of New England for "sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical" purposes. His ultimate destination is Arkham "whence [his] mother's family derived." However, because he cannot afford to take a train directly to Arkham, he elects instead to take a bus to Innsmouth, a town to the north and one previously unknown to him.

While waiting for the bus to arrive, the narrator learns a little of the history of Innsmouth and its people. Prior to the middle of 19th century, Innsmouth had been a thriving seaport. Then, an epidemic of mysterious origin killed half of its inhabitants and it entered into decline. Now, the main business that thrives is the Marsh refinery, run by "Old Man Marsh," grandson of Captain Obed Marsh, who had traveled extensively in the Pacific and married "some kind of foreigner – they say a South Sea islander." Innsmouth also boasts some fishermen as well, who ply their trade near the Devil's Reef off the coast.

The narrator also learns that outsiders avoid not just Innsmouth itself but its inhabitants on account of their strange appearance.

There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today – I don't know how to explain it, but it sort of makes you crawl … Some of 'em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain't quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of their necks are all shrivelled and creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows looks the worst – fact is, I don't believe I've ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Guess they must die of looking in the glass! Animals hate 'em – they used to have lots of horse trouble before autos came in.

Despite this, the narrator takes the bus to Innsmouth and begins exploring the seaside town. He soon discovers it to be a place in the process of slow decay, its buildings poorly maintained and dilapidated and its people, most of whom match the description cited above, appearing even more degenerate to his eyes. Worse, the local eye him with suspicion and he begins to think it might be best if he were to leave Innsmouth sooner rather than later. 

It's at this point that he stumbles upon Zadok Allen, who was "ninety-six years old and touched in the head." Allen, he had been told by one of the few friendly people he'd met in Innsmouth, was a useful font of information about the place and its history and "was unable to resist any offer of his favorite poison; and once drunk would furnish the most astonishing fragments of whispered reminiscence." And so he does. Plied with liquor, Allen tells the narrator about Captain Obed Marsh and his dealings with the Kanak islanders.

"Wal, Sir, Obed he larnt that they's things on this arth as most folks never heerd about – an' wouldn't believe ef they did hear. It seems these Kanakys was sacrificin' heaps o' their young men an' maidens to some kind o' god-things that lived under the sea, an' gettin' all kinds o' favours in return. They met the things in the little islet with queer ruins, an' it seems them awful picters o' frog-fish monsters was supposed to be picters o' these things. Mebbe they was the kind o' critters as got all the mermaid stories started. They had all kinds o' cities on the sea-bottom, an' this island was heaved up from thar.

These are the Deep Ones, one of Lovecraft's most famous creations and, according to Allen, Captain Marsh had made a deal with them. He would provide them with a steady supply of human sacrifices and they would provide him – and Innsmouth – with an equally study supply of fish and gold dredged up from the sea. In addition, by mating with them, the people of Innsmouth would slowly acquire the characteristics of the Deep Ones and "wouldn't never die," in Allen's words. To this, he adds

"Git aout o' here! Git aout o' here! They seen us – git aout fer your life! Dun't wait fer nothin' – they know naow – Run fer it – quick – aout o' this taown –"

Though the narrator is not wholly convinced by Allen's hysterical warning, he is nevertheless unnerved by what he has heard. He resolves to leave Innsmouth as soon as possible, just as he had planned before meeting the drunken old man. It's then that the final act of the novella begins, as the narrator comes to understand just how much Allen had told him is true – and how immediately relevant it is to his recent desire to travel to New England and see the places from which his mother's family came …

The Shadow over Innsmouth is indeed one of Lovecraft's greatest works, just as Innsmouth itself is one of his most frightfully realized locales. The aura of decay and decline is palpable. More than that, the story, though ostensibly focused solely on the experiences of the unnamed narrator, expertly conveys the connection between the mundane and the cosmic. What the narrator learns over the course of the novella is extremely personal and yer that knowledge has larger implications that are, in my opinion, among the most chilling in all of Lovecraft's works. The Shadow over Innsmouth is a masterpiece; anyone with even the slightest interest in HPL should take the time to read it, if they haven't already done so – and those who already have should consider doing so again.


  1. Lovecraft liked only two of his own stories: "The Music of Erich Zann" (which he regarded as "not bad") and "The Colour out of Space" (which he held to be pretty good, but not great).

    Lovecraft said that he was not even in the same league as his four favorite weird authors: Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, and Arthur Machen.

    1. Proving, I suppose, that artists are generally poor judges of their own work.

  2. I have some sharp criticisms of Lovecraft, but he really captured the unease of being in a small town full of judgmental locals.

    1. I very much believe he had a lot of cognitive dissonance going on; it's no coincidence that Innsmouth is effectively a Sundown Town for air-breathers.

  3. My favorite Lovecraft tale, read many years ago while on vacation, but not on vacation in the northeast.

  4. One thing I like about the story is that it has a genuinely happy ending!

  5. I have to say I didn't enjoy "Innsmouth" nearly as much as I did "Call of Cthulhu" and "Colour Out of Space."

  6. A most delightful modern "sequel" is Elizabeth Bear's _On Safari in R'leyh and Carcosa, with Gun and Camera_.