Today we visit scenic Innsmouth, Massachusetts, where the men are men...well, sort of, anyway, for “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
Our narrator, displaying the near-fatal lack of common sense that afflicts so many horror protagonists, decides to ignore the advice of the locals and go explore Innsmouth, Massachusetts, an isolated seaside town accessible only by a single rickety bus. The town and its funny-looking inhabitants are described in excruciating detail, and our hero is surprised, though we of course are not, when his plan to get out of town before dark is foiled and he’s forced to spend the night in this increasingly creepy setting.
An attempted kidnapping and chase scene follow, and our hero figures out that the locals have been inbreeding with malevolent fish gods that they worship in disgusting ceremonies. And then he discovers that he himself is descended from such interbred stock, and he figures he'll go live beneath the waves and live happily ever after like Henry Limpet. Cthulhu F’tagn!
H.P. does a great job of building up dread. The town features lots of boarded-up houses, repurposed churches and other signs of dereliction, and for most of the story, the really creepy stuff is only glimpsed briefly out of the corner of the eye. As the narrator gets increasingly creeped out, so do we. The climactic chase scene is both thrilling and scary, and what’s really good is that we are never explicitly told exactly what the fishy guys want with our hero.
Also, this story is a clear influence on the cheeseball b-movie classic Humanoids from the Deep.
And I like the fact that the sea is the source of horror here. I think the sea is underutilized in horror fiction. It’s dark, largely unexplored, and teeming with strange creatures, many of whom would be delighted to feast upon our flesh.
Well, the story is just way, way, way too long. The description of Innsmouth and some clumsy exposition at the hand of the town drunk take up 25 pages of dense small print in the edition I have. I wonder if this story is responsible for the term “cut to the chase.”
As in “The Call of Cthulhu,” we recognize evildoers by their non-whiteness. It’s clear that the Innsmouth residents are suspect because of their “mixed blood.” Though characters speculate about which of the inferior races the Innsmouth residents have interbred with,(Asiatic? Polynesian? Levantine? Negroid?) it does turn out that it's evil fish, which I suppose makes the racism slightly more palatable. Still it’s clear to me after just two stories that racial purity, or the lack thereof, is kind of an obsession of Uncle Howard’s.
The ending is anti-climactic and feels tacked-on. (Actually, the whole story reads like Howard was trying to beef up his word count at the expense of storytelling) After escaping from Innsmouth, our narrator reveals, pretty much out of nowhere, that he too has a funny look about him and, oh yeah, was actually descended from the original fish-lover of Innsmouth. I guess his final decision to go join his grandmother beneath the waves is supposed to be horrifying, but it just reminded me of that old ad for sea monkeys that used to run on the back of comic books, where the happy sea monkey monarchs lounge in front of their undersea castle. Given that the narrator has no attachment to the surface world, this ending is no more horrifying than the end of Splash, when Tom Hanks dives into the water to spend the rest of his life with a topless Daryl Hannah.
Next time, we travel to scenic Dunwich, Massachusetts, where something horrifying lurks. (Hint: It has to do with crossbreeding! Again!)
Illustration by Scott Altmann.
Seamus Cooper is the author of The Mall of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books, 2009). He lives in Boston, where he, being of degraded and decadent bloodline, engages in strange rituals clad in hideous robes and tiaras of unearthly origin.