Dec 9 2009 2:00pm

12 Days of Lovecraft: “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”

Today we visit scenic Innsmouth, Massachusetts, where the men are men...well, sort of, anyway, for “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

The Story:

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!

What’s awesome:

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.

What’s horrible:

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.

Andrew Foss
1. alfoss1540
Yes it was long, the chase scared the piss out of me. As it meanders along, you wonder constantly where you will run into the enemy in dreary/creepy Innsmouth, until you realize it is everything.

You may be right in HP beefing up his word count - I believe this was one of his longest. Trying to graduate from Short Stories to novels. It smacked of him not being able to figure out a fitting ending he hadn't already used for f---ed up New England towns that he hadn't already nuked.

Again, much of the action is passive, making it hard to follow.
R. Emrys
2. R. Emrys
The thing I noticed about this story...

The narrator never actually sees anything scary, except for the fish people looking for him. Everything else is, essentially, gossip from people who aren't from Innsmouth and don't like the people there. And then he transforms and lives in glory forever, which, as you point out, is not so scary after all.
Chris Long
3. radynski
I have to disagree about the ending.

The tension that builds through the entire chase finally abates when he gets free from the town. The reader feels a sense of relief that the guy got out unharmed. And then wham! You suddenly find out that no, everything did not work out okay for him.

I found his choice to go live in the sea, desperate and sad. You live through the character's eyes, and I certainly felt the impotence the narrator must feel when confronted with the idea that there's no way to stop what's happening.

In fact, the idea that there's nothing you can do about it is pretty central to Lovecraft's Mythos, and I thought the story ended very satisfactorily.
jon meltzer
4. jmeltzer
If Lovecraft were to return today to the real Massachusetts North Shore towns that he based "Innsmouth" on, he'd find far worse horrors than shambling degenerate fishmen.

David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
While there is an underlying genetic theme here, it really has more to do with insanity running in families, than racial purity. IIRC, there was some mental illness in Lovecraft's family and according to the theory of the day that meant it could crop up in anyone descended from the mad person. (Actually, this comes up a lot in HPL's work.) That makes the ending all the more terrifying. Something the narrator has no control over will tear him out of the normal world and make him into something the world despises/hates.

I first read this when I was 12 and it scared the crap out of me so bad that I wouldn't even touch the book again for years, not even to reshelve it or throw it away. A couple other stories in the collection got to me, too (like the one he ghost wrote for Houdini), but this one was the kicker.
Maiane Bakroeva
6. Isilel
I have to say that I just can't empathise with the protagonist's horror of people choosing to become immortal fish-frogs, who, oh horror! speak in languages other than English. If not for human sacrifices that may or may not have been taking place, I'd have said that the protagonist is just a close-minded bigot ;).
Also, he is a hypocrite who got the Innsmouthians locked up in concentration camps and asylums, but is going to his native sea in the end, to live forever in underwater palaces.

Frankly, I am not frightened by Lovecraftian stories so far - neither by "Call of Chutlhu" (Chutlhu turning out to be just a big slimy figure that can be ridden down by a yacht), nor by this.

Poe is _much_ more terrifying, IMHO.

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