Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” written in November-December 1931 and first published as a bound booklet by Visionary Publishing in April 1936. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
Summary: During the winter of 1927-1928, the government raided Innsmouth, MA. Afterwards there were no trials, only rumors of concentration camps. Innsmouth’s neighbors didn’t complain: they’d never liked the place. It’s our narrator whose reports led to the crackdown. Now he wants to tell his story, as he makes up his mind about a terrible step that lies ahead of him.
During an on-the-cheap coming-of-age tour of New England, he finds the train from Newburyport to his ancestral Arkham too pricy. The ticket agent suggests the Innsmouth-run equivalent of the Chinatown bus.
The agent gossips about the obscure town: Innsmouth’s half-deserted, and gets by on its unusually abundant fishing grounds. The last remnant of industry is Old Man Marsh’s gold refinery. A mysterious epidemic killed half the town in 1846. “Bad blood” gives them a strange look: narrow heads, scabby skin, bulging eyes that never seem to shut. No one sees them old, and there are rumors of degenerative disease. They’ve replaced ordinary churches with the “Esoteric Order of Dagon,” and view outsiders with suspicion.
Innsmouth also produces occasional pieces of exotic gold jewelry. The local historic society’s specimen disturbs the narrator: its extraordinary workmanship, its otherworldly style.
The bus driver has the features the agent described, and smells overwhelmingly of fish. The narrator feels instant revulsion.
In Innsmouth he finds a chain grocery. There an affable young Arkham man, transferred by his employers, eagerly shares his dislike for the town’s people. He says they won’t talk, but Zadok Allen will—when he’s drunk. The clerk draws a map and warns of areas where strangers have disappeared.
The narrator resolves to spend the time before the bus looking at architecture, and speaking only with out-of-towners. Eventually he finds Zadok. Reasoning that even mad stories may reveal a core of historical truth, he buys bootleg whiskey and leads the old drunkard to where they can talk unobserved.
Those were hard times, during Zadok’s childhood, but Obed Marsh still traded in the South Seas, including on an island where the natives wore strangely carved gold jewelry. Marsh learned that they’d made deals with amphibious frog-fish monsters: human sacrifice in return for fish and gold. The natives and monsters interbred, producing children who changed and became immortal. All living things come from the water, and it only takes a little push for them to go back.
Neighboring tribes wiped out the islanders. Without the gold trade, Innsmouth’s economy faltered. Under Obed’s leadership some townspeople found gods living deep under nearby Devil Reef who would answer their prayers. Young people disappeared. Innsmouth started to prosper again.
Then a party followed Obed’s people out to the reef and jailed them. Two weeks later, hordes of monsters emerged from the water. They left no one alive but those who’d go along with Obed or keep quiet.
Obed made everyone take the Oath of Dagon, and “mix” whether they liked it or not. He promised rewards, but also threatened: the Deep Ones don’t want to start wiping out humanity, but if they have to…
Obed was forced to take a second, unseen wife. They had three children—including one normal-looking girl who was secretly married to an Arkham man.
It gets worse: the Deep Ones have been bringing things up through hidden tunnels, hiding them in town. “Ever hear tell of a Shoggoth?”
But here Zadok breaks off, looks at the ocean in terror, and runs. The narrator sees nothing. When he gets back inland, the man has disappeared.
The bus for Arkham arrives. After a whispered conversation the driver reports engine trouble. Dazed, the narrator rents a hotel room for the night. There’s no bolt on the door, apparently a recent removal. The narrator uses his multitool to transfer a bolt from the clothes press.
In the dark, he hears someone try his lock, then go into the next room and try the connecting door. The bolts hold, but vague fear becomes specific threat. The power cuts off. From below come inhuman barks and croaks.
Neighboring roofs—too far to reach from the narrator’s room—offer a way out. Someone knocks on his outer door, loudly and repeatedly. He forces the connecting door, hears people trying to enter all the rooms, escapes using curtains as a ladder.
He flees through town, hiding in doorways and mimicking the locals’ shambling gait. Every group of pursuers looks less human. Signal lights flash in the hotel and out on the reef, and he sees inhuman figures swimming toward town.
At last he escapes over the railroad bridge. Hiding in a railroad cut, he finally sees his pursuers clearly: flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating figures with grayish green skin, fish-like heads, and long webbed claws.
The next day he speaks with government officials in Arkham, then Boston. The aftermath of those conversations is well-known, and he wishes that was all he had to tell.
He cuts short his planned travel, but continues his genealogical research. He learns to his horror that his great-grandmother was a Marsh—and probably not of New Hampshire as she claimed. His family tree is marred by asylum and suicide, and some of his relatives’ strange features now look all too familiar. An uncle shows him a safety deposit box full of his great-grandmother’s jewelry—likewise familiar.
Then the dreams begin. Dreams of cyclopean underwater cities, with denizens that horrify him when he wakes, but don’t horrify him in the dreams—for in the dreams he’s one of them.
His health and appearance worsen. Sometimes, he’s unable to shut his eyes. He dreams that his grandmother hasn’t died, and that she shows him the underwater city of Y’ha-nthlei—his eventual and inevitable home.
So far he hasn’t shot himself. The dreams have deterred him, and now he wakes in exaltation as much as horror. No, he cannot be made to shoot himself. He’ll break his cousin out of the sanitarium, and take him down to the ocean. And in the lair of the Deep Ones they’ll dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.
What’s Cyclopean: The narrator dreams of “weedy cyclopean walls” in “cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei.” Lovecraft’s stock architecture descriptions are contrasted here: decrepit Innsmouth with its gambreled roofs versus sunken, cyclopean Y’ha-nthlei.
The Degenerate Dutch: Where to start? With the specific epithets, like Zadok Allen calling Obed Marsh’s South Seas informer a “yeller devil?” With the ticket agent who speaks, disgusted, of sailors breeding with Chinese and Fiji women? With the repetitive horror that Innsmouth’s residents don’t speak English—and the comparison of their language to animal noises (a comparison racists often make about real languages). Or with the overriding concern with “alienage,” with inhuman foreigners forcing or tricking people into interbreeding, with having the other turn out to be part of you?
Mythos Making: The Deep Ones are held off by the signs of the Old Ones, pay tribute to Cthulhu, and are doing… something… with a Shoggoth. While the Esoteric Order of Dagon talks about Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, it does in fact appear to be thinly-veiled Cthulhu-worship.
Libronomicon: Does a very detailed map of Innsmouth count?
Madness Takes Its Toll: The narrator’s cousin ends up in an asylum when he starts to turn into a Deep One. And the narrator—like many Lovecraft narrators—wonders whether what he saw was hallucination. (Rule 1: It’s never a hallucination.) On a meta level, the whole story may be Lovecraft coming to terms, in his own inimitable way, with the mental illness in his own family tree.
I was amazed, reading reviews of Litany, how many people congratulated me (or accused me of politics) for my cleverness in having the government put the Deep Ones in concentration camps. That had very different connotations in 1936, as did the swastika left by those who wiped out the South Sea islanders. But it still struck me with enough force, on first read, that I read on with a jaundiced eye. And there’s a lot to be jaundiced about.
What jumped out at me then, and still does, is how much of this story is second-hand rumor—facilitated by the fact that the narrator refuses conversation with anyone from Innsmouth. We get a bit from two outsiders who despise the townsfolk—and a great deal from a 96-year-old drunk guy whose manner of speaking suggests delusion. The only thing the narrator sees for himself is that the town is half-abandoned, and townsfolk aren’t fully human. Which… isn’t actually an atrocity. They try to get into his room and to stop him from leaving town—given that he’s one of their lost children and has just heard all manner of horror from Zadok, that’s actually kind of understandable.
Thing is—these are all things that disliked minorities have been accused of historically. Human sacrifice? Demonic deals? Plague and murder? Check, check, check. Can’t you be more original with your blood libel? And it’s preserved by a combination that Lovecraft portrays perfectly: fantastic, sordid rumor encourages people to avoid direct contact, and shards of ambiguous experience are used to shore up rumor.
So I’m a Deep One apologist, which you already knew. And I’m well aware that many readers take Zadok as a reliable narrator—as he was clearly intended to be. What do I get if I look at the faces instead of the vase? Mene, mene, tekel uparsin is from the Book of Daniel, foretelling the fall of empires. And Zadok’s the name of the first priest in Solomon’s temple. Innsmouth’s got itself a prophet—though whether he’s warning against the fall of the town, or of humanity, is left wide open.
While Lovecraft probably intended the narrator’s physical and mental transformation to be a horror, it doesn’t entirely come across that way. His movement from fear to ecstasy is too seductive. The language used to portray the change is clever, even subtle. Innsmouth’s described as “fear-shadowed” throughout, “marvel-shadowed” at the end. And while I used it throughout the summary for convenience, the name “Deep Ones” doesn’t actually appear until the dreams start. When the narrator acknowledges his kinship, they get a name; until then they’re “fish-frog monsters” and similar.
Even then, though, nothing in the story ever takes Zadok, or the grocery clerk or ticket agent, at anything less than face value—ultimately, until the narrator becomes an insider, the outsider views are only the only ones that can be heard, and must absolutely be believed. The former changes with the narrator’s transformation; the latter doesn’t.
In closing, I’ll note while the narrator’s a Marsh on one side of his family, he’s an Orne on the other. Anne, our characters are related! [Anne: That’s right! I’d forgotten about Eliza Orne, the narrator’s grandmother. I was originally thinking of Lovecraft’s wizard, Simon Orne, who appears in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Small cosmos.]
Lovecraft and happy endings? No common association, but I can think of a few cheerful-ish closes. There’s the Finally-Realized-The-Place-Of-Heart’s-Desire ending, as in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. There’s the Catastrophe-Averted ending, as in “The Dunwich Horror.” And then there’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which ends in a manic, even ecstatic, surrender to the weird.
I love this one. Written in 1931, “Innsmouth” shows Lovecraft at the height of his Mythos-making powers. The town is the most fully described of his invented cities, a masterly mash-up of the regionally authentic and fantastic. Having grown up in a northeast town where the glory days of manufacturing were long past, I recognize the fading splendor of Innsmouth’s mansions and the seedy grime of its slums. I’ve played in the abandoned houses and explored the overgrown railroads and eaten in diners where canned soup was indeed the best bet. There’s a glamour in such things for the young. The adults around me, on the other hand, must have felt some of the desperation that drove Innsmouth into a new religion. I’m not saying that my neighbors would have dropped Deep One lures into the Hudson. Still, despair’s a dangerous force both on the individual and the social level, as are greed and power and the lure of immortality.
“Innsmouth” also boasts a structure better balanced among world building, action and denouement than, say, “The Mound.” The unnamed narrator is at the center of events and a precipitator of consequences. I sense poignant similarities between him and Lovecraft: the antiquarian and genealogical bents, the tight budget, the shadow of family illness. Lovecraft’s parents both died at Providence’s Butler Hospital, an early pioneer in the humane treatment of the mentally ill. The narrator’s strange maternal grandmother disappears, his uncle commits suicide, his cousin is confined to a sanitarium. It’s interesting, and arguably clunky, that we don’t know about them until late in the story. If his uncle killed himself after a trip to New England, wouldn’t the narrator recall this while he was on an increasingly traumatic visit? Wouldn’t he associate his grandmother’s unsettling stare with the Innsmouth look sooner? A valid quibble, though less so with a retrospective account than with a real-time narrative. We do get early hints in the familiarity of the Newburyport tiara and in Zadok Allen’s assertion that the narrator has Obed Marsh’s “sharp-reading” eyes.
During this Lovecraft re-read, for example in “Shadow Out of Time,” I’ve noticed frequent use of the words “normal” and “abnormal.” “ Innsmouth” gives us this thematic pair as well as the related “wholesome” and “unwholesome.” Other stressed words are “repulsion,” “degeneration,” “plague,” “contagion/contagious,” “taint.” The narrator comes to see Innsmouth as an example not of alienage but of insidious disease, possibly hereditary. In fact, the whole city seems diseased and rotting from within! Ironically, though, alienage is the right answer, after a fashion. The Innsmouth folk aren’t sick; they’re just not totally human anymore.
Phew. I was worried there.
Because a disease that leaves you looking like Joe Sargent? Nasty. A process that would render you amphibious, immortal and heir to deep-sea cyclopean wonders? Wow. As with Yith brain transfer, sign me up! Or have the Yith convince my father or mother to sign up, so I get the genetic benefits. No wonder, once the narrator gets over his initial fainting spells, he can’t wait to visit his Y’ha-nthlei relatives.
Except, what about that interspecies sex thing? Lovecraft’s not going there apart from hints about “mingling” and wives never seen in public. A definite squick factor, even for the most liberal and adventurous? (Interesting aside: The narrator notes that “liberal organizations” protested the confinement of Innsmouthers. That was, until they saw the detainees. Blatant speciesism, but with the real-life confinements and exterminations soon to follow, so utterly believable a response.)
But their desire to fraternize with humans isn’t the worst thing about the Deep Ones. I had forgotten two things before my recent re-read. One, the Deep Ones are supposed to have a tropey pagan liking for human sacrifice. Two, they’re planning to expand their land operations. In fact, they may be plotting WORLD DOMINATION VIA SHOGGOTH! If that’s not teh ebil, what is?
It is only derelict Zadok Allen who brings up human sacrifice. I think his reminiscences are reliable with regard to what he himself has seen (which doesn’t include actual sacrifices), even as whiskey plunges him into escalating feats of dialect. The government takes the Deep One threat seriously enough to destroy the waterfront where they’re supposedly collecting weapons of mass destruction We know the US government is never wrong about weapons of mass destruction, right? And in the narrator’s dreams, his relatives admit to the world domination plan.
Inebriated narrative mixed with hearsay. Government. Dreams. With these providing the chief testimony against Deep Ones, my jury remains out; in the meantime, they’re cool by me.
Join us next week for a not-so-pleasant evening “In the Vault.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. Her alma mater’s water comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, and she now needs a new excuse for being so weird.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.