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Shadows Over Innsmouth

Review by: 
Black Gloves
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This anthology collection of short stories was originally commissioned in 1994 by the British editor Stephen Jones, in order to bring British horror writers old and new together in tribute to one of the most influential and inspiring figures in the history of weird fiction: the American author and essayist H.P. Lovecraft. More particularly, this volume (now re-published by Titan Books), takes as its inspiration one specific work by this native son of Providence, Rhode Island – an evocative piece of writing which, at 26,000 words, constitutes one of Lovecraft’s most substantial offerings: “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” -- a novella length piece, written in 1931 but not published until 1936, when it appeared as a slim, stand-alone volume distrbuted by William L. Crawford, a friend from Lovecraft’s early days of amateur self-publishing who made the work the basis of his new imprint, Visionary Publishing. The venture was, however, somewhat unsuccessful and the book sold a mere 150 copies, while leaving Lovecraft dissatisfied at the number of uncorrected misprints that made it through the proof reading stages.

 Lovecraft lived most of his reclusive life in reduced circumstances, and achieved the major part of his current fame and influence over the horror genre posthumously, through the efforts of a substantial network of correspondents who he built up and maintained during the course of a hand-to-mouth writing career in which his many short stories, essays and poems regularly appeared in popular pulp magazines of the 1920s, such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories. According to his Wikipedia entry his writings can be divided roughly into three categories: those early works greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe; a dream cycle middle period mimicking the fantastical output of Irish author Lord Dunsany; and the group of stories which together constitute what came to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos: tales of cosmic terror and madness which develop a pantheon of monstrous ancient gods and a complex system of lore attached to them as background to the author’s chilling, atheistic evocation of man as a physical and morally insignificant being … a cosmic speck, adrift on the outer edges of a timeless and vastly indifferent universe.

After his death, key figures from among the many correspondents whom Lovecraft sometimes encouraged to add to their own writings with ideas and themes taken from his own, continued to promote his name and expand upon the loose but highly involved mythology he’d by then established across the totality of his work. Many continued to write their own Lovecraftian stories set in the Cthulhu universe, in particular the author and editor August Derleth – one of the key members of ‘The Lovecraft Circle’ -- who controversially first named and then developed the Cthulhu Mythos, founding the publishing house Arkham House in order to continue promoting his own cycle of Cthulhu related stories, as well as commissioning, publishing and editing many other up-and-coming writers who felt similarly inclined to keep the Lovecraftian flame alight .

Derleth’s activities both rescued Lovecraft from literary obscurity and fostered early buds of new writing talent in the genre; well-known and hugely successful authors such as Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King started out writing stories that took much of their style and many of their ideas and inspirations from Derleth’s assiduous fostering of Lovecraft’s unique fictional world and its eldritch contents. The current volume is Stephen Jones’ attempt to follow in Derleth’s footsteps, taking one of Lovecraft’s most involved and interesting tales of weird fiction and setting his British contributors the creative task of expanding and building upon the ideas it so diligently evokes, with their own particular skein of imaginative embroidery.

The original Lovecraft story itself appears here at the head of this compilation, after Jones’ introduction, and reveals immediately why it is the perfect choice for such a project: “The Shadow Over Insmouth”, like many of Lovecraft’s stories, but perhaps more so than most of them, makes convincing descriptive use of its imagined topography and of the town’s odd pagan/Masonic architecture, in order to better relate the involved history which is made central to the horror behind this fictional New England location. But in doing so it also opens up a host of narrative strands that can be pursued separately by those wishing to elaborate further on the mythology already incorporated into a story which revolves around the uncovering of a dark secret history relating to a once flouring port that hosted a wealth-bringing gold refinery and a successful fishing industry in the 19th century – but which is now portrayed as being sunk mysteriously in decay, poverty and degeneration.

The steady accumulation of authentic sounding detail, obtained as a result of the author’s vivid descriptions of the layout of the town and its marshy surroundings, add veracity to the background of occult worship and human sacrifice which Lovecraft weaves into his story of the founding of Innsmouth. History, occult artefacts and rituals are unveiled gradually until the whole legend of the region’s ignoble history is told in full to the story’s protagonist by an elderly town drunkard while exploring the eerie, semi-abandoned streets: generations ago, we learn, one of Innsmouth’s seafaring founders, Captain Obed Marsh, discovered an island in the South Seas where a hideous, slimy race of amphibious beings known as The Deep Ones were worshipped as gods by the natives, apparently bringing prosperous fishing to the region in return for regular human sacrifices. Captain Obed Marsh took up the arcane practices of this religion while abroad, and, having been made familiar with its obscure incantations and rituals, was able to make a pact with these obscene creatures, offering them a new home off the coast of Innsmouth, on the rocky outcrop that came to be known as Devil Reef. After promising to take his new religion back home with him, he eventually started a cult in the town called the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Based on the native pagan system of belief, it was at first unsuccessfully resisted by the town’s inhabitants for its sanction of human sacrifices to these Deep Ones, in return for gold and plentiful fish being brought to local waters in order to create wealth and abundance in an otherwise depressed region, making the town prosperous and the Obed family its rich overlords.

The main body of the story details the personal recollections of a New England sightseer who, recalling recent police raids in the area -- ostensibly to curtail the activities of prohibition-busting moonshine brewers -- relates how his stopping off in what has now, many generations later, become a forgotten, tumbledown, poverty-stricken coastal town that has long since fallen off the map, leads to the above mentioned intervention by the authorities after he finds himself hunted by the malevolent nocturnal residents who still inhabit the town’s dilapidated remains. For these inhabitants, racially despised by the people of the surrounding areas for their ugly looks, still worship the ancient, wriggling, amphibious ‘gods’ from their echoing temple lodge in the centre of the town square. These locals turn out to be the result of generations of interbreeding between the creatures and the indigenous population, which has led to what is  euphemistically called ‘the Innsmouth look’ predominating among the shambling, oddly featured inhabitants of this now dying region. Descriptions of the pagan religion’s strange temples (impeccably maintained in the midst of otherwise tottering ruins), odd rituals and toad-like alien ornaments of a distinctly tentacled variety that were brought back from Obed Marsh’s travels and which are now kept in local museums, pepper the narrative -- but this is also one of Lovecraft’s most suspenseful tales, with its description of the central protagonist’s attempts to escape sacrifice at the fishy hands of his pursuers after they lay siege to his hotel room in the  middle of the night and then hunt him through deserted streets, heralding a sustained nightmare middle section of escalating horrors.

Often problematic for many interested in the undeniably influential work of this unusual genius of the horror fiction genre is the author’s implied racism, which is expressed in the subtext of a tale that highlights how social decay follows from moral and physical disintegration, themselves the products of the pollution of the insular town’s gene pool as a result of the intermarriage between the creatures from the deep and local inhabitants of the town, producing misshapen, morally degenerate monsters several generations down the line -- even though the offspring of these unions at first appear human, their odd features only developing later on during full adulthood. But the main fears the story expresses so potently had their roots perhaps a great deal closer to home: both the author’s parents died in mental institutions and the prospect of such mental and physical maladies being passed from one’s ancestors down the generational line is a fear which adds an extra frisson to the latter half of this tale, as hints dropped earlier on are cashed in to reveal the protagonist himself is unwittingly the product of this bizarre, fantastical history of occult influenced in-breeding. The Innsmouth taint is revealed in dreams that gradually unhinge the mind by bringing their victims into contact with a race memory of such an alien nature that is is impossible – as per Lovecraft’s philosophy -- to assimilate it without going insane.

This satisfyingly thick volume contains sixteen tales of varying lengths from a group of British authors who take a variety of approaches to their treatment of the mythology developed by this most quintessentially American of authors -- a provincial homebody for most of his life, who only rarely left his New England hometown. The most straightforward and traditional of the stories assembled here is also the longest, and is positioned to follow Lovecraft’s original in the anthology. The Late Basil Copper’s “Beyond the Reef” is a novella set some years after the events related in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, after an earthquake and heavy storms disturb the slimy inhabitants of some newly discovered underground tunnels found running underneath the grounds of Akrham’s Miskatonic University to the outer depths of Devil Reef -- a discovery that occurs contemporaneously with the theft of arcane volumes from the university library. Both events herald another attempt by the denizens of the deep to invade the surrounding coastal region, and from there the world. Capturing the period atmosphere of Lovecraft’s original story but without succumbing to the temptation to copy his over-ripe prose style, the story features many memorably squirm-inducing set-pieces as it builds up to what turns out eventually to be quite a disappointingly prosaic climax. For the most part though the tale is a gripping one; particularly memorable is the moment when one of the protagonists is attacked in his bed by loathsome squid-like creatures. Cooper’s descriptions of such episodes, and of the slippery, undulating aquatic creatures themselves, are expertly written to produce a fair quotient of physical disgust as the small band of protagonists who discover the alien network of ancient, sculpted tunnels below ground, gradually face up against creatures who seem to exert strange hypnotic powers over the subconscious minds of those humans they come into direct contact with.

Although managing to avoid the dangers of outright pastiche, this work, like several other stories here, involves its British author attempting to imagine an environment they’ve only encountered through Lovecraft’s own descriptions of the fictional Innsmouth region. Several other authors in this collection also stick to re-imagining the geography and layout of Lovecraft’s invented seaport town (which was influenced in any case by the real-life New England town of Newburyport) while finding other means to inject their own interests into the subject matter. Kim Newman has one story here that does this: “A Quarter to Three”, which is almost a “Tales from the Crypt” influenced comic-book jest with a Robert Bloch style punch-line that exploits the fishy inbreeding theme for joke effect. “Night of the Crabs” author Guy N. Smith meanwhile, executes a passable attempt to emulate the original in his “Return to Innsmouth” – a story that manages to assimilate the technique and feel of Lovecraft’s by adopting the style of his dream quest narratives for a tale in which a protagonist with only a distant ancestral connection to the town is drawn there anyway, despite having experienced nightmarish dreams about the place all his life. Smith’s story becomes essentially a re-write of the middle portion of Lovecraft’s narrative, but it creates a fatalistic pall of inevitability just the same. Birmingham based horror writer David A. Sutton also contributes a suspenseful variation on the chase sequence from Lovecraft’s tale in his story of a man foolishly tempted to camp on the outskirts of the town in search of hidden gold, after convincing himself that the FBI raids of the 1920s (related in the original story) were merely a cover for an attempt by crooked authorities to retrieve hidden stocks of gold loot from the now abandoned refinery, left behind after the earlier riots. Of course, this really was just a cover story -- as the reader already knows -- but a cover story for something much more monstrous, as the narrator soon discovers for himself at great cost.

D. F. Lewis’s “Down to the Boots” is more of an atmospheric vignette than a full-blown story, which effectively and poetically conjures for some of the town’s remaining, benighted inhabitants, the life of hardship on the salty muddy planes of Innsmouth’s marshes. Brian Stableford’s  “The Innsmouth Heritage” takes a modern scientific approach to the grim mutant inhabitants, described as still sparsely populating the region in Lovecraft’s tale, when a geneticist who is invited by a colleague to Innsmouth in order to take samples for a genetic study, finds the physical abnormalities of his subjects are just the tip of the iceberg of an inheritance that extends well beneath the skin, right into the tortured souls of those  who have continued to be afflicted down the generations into the present day. Award winning fantasy writer Neil Gaiman takes the most original approach of those writers who choose to set their tales within the purview of Lovecraft’s town, effectively ensuring his “Only the End of the World Again” becomes as much a tribute to Universal Horror classics as it is to Lovecraft, by making his central character the werewolf fugitive Lawrence Talbot -- the protagonist played by Lon Chaney in “The Wolf Man” and its series of 1940s sequels -- who now seeks refuge in Innsmouth but finds himself becoming an object of great interest for its Masonic sacrificial cultists.

Using other, contrasting genre elements to make a mash-up with the distinctive and powerful ideas that dominate Lovecraft’s stories, as Gaiman does here, is another approach taken by other contributors who doubtless seek to escape the trap of merely recapitulating the author's overpowering worldview. Kim Newman’s literary alias Jack Yeovil adopts a method that will be slightly more familiar to fans of the author’s Anno Dracula series, combining the motifs of Lovecraft’s “Shadows Over Innsmouth” and Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely” to make a particular type of hard-boiled detective pastiche that relocates the Dagon cult’s activities to Chandler’s Bay City setting, but makes the protagonist’s investigation turn up all sorts of esoteric cultist lore cribbed from Lovecraft, while also including a Chandler-esque femme fatale in the mix whose hometown is revealed to be a certain New England port with an underworld made up of some luridly fish-featured inhabitants. Devon based Adrian Cole’s “The Crossing” appears to ditch the fictional Innsmouth altogether for the very real Appledore, North Devon – a quaint fishing village setting which the author feels to be very similar in look and tone to the description which is given for Innsmouth in Lovecraft’s  tale (not to cast aspirations on the area’s inhabitants!); Cole’s narrator is drawn there when a cryptically scrawled Devonshire postcard with a picture of Appledore’s quayside cluster of houses on the front, reminds him that this is also the region the father he has never known is still thought to reside in. It turns out that Appledore is twinned with Innsmouth much more profoundly than the mere superficialities of descriptive appearance might suggest, and that the Deep Ones are not just reliant on local New England inhabitants for their procurement of followers and/or mating material.

A device used by Lovecraft to suggest his pantheon’s god-like nature from the perspective of human consciousness, by giving them a state of existence that is coterminous throughout all time and space, inside and outside our universe, is also used by some of the authors to connect locations hundreds or thousands of miles away with the particular locale and lore of Innsmouth. In this case, the story’s narrator ends up actually trapped in Innsmouth itself after stumbling through a hidden portal that connects the two regions in time and space, discovering in the process how decisions made by a father he has never known threaten to bind  him and his own son to a legacy of inherited terror. Similar ideas tie the high concept “The Homecoming” by Nicholas Royle, which uses Lovecraftian Innsmouth lore as an allegory for the legacy of Eastern European despots, still lingering after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Some of the best of the other stories in the anthology also extend the horrors of Innsmouth beyond the immediate vicinity of the crumbling New England ghost town, by imagining Lovecraft’s folkloric pantheon of alien gods have their origins in ancient myths and beliefs whose inscrutable echo can be found to persist in the transformations of landscape and the remains of pagan structures that dot the British Isles. Ramsey Campbell makes a fictional Cotswold town called Temphill the location of his own variant of Lovecraft’s mythos in the tale “The Church in the High Street”, an early story of his written under Lovecraft’s influence but subsequently rewritten with an English setting at the suggestion of August Derleth, who advised Campbell against attempting to set his work in Massachusetts. The underground temple at the heart of the story, though, full of dark underground vaults that form a dwelling place for loathsome creatures, is still dedicated to the worship of the Lovecraftian entity Yog-Sothoth. Peter Tremayne connects Irish folklore with the legend of the Deep Ones in “Daoine Domhain” -- his complex generation-spanning tale in which the author unveils a community still dedicated to the practices of the Esoteric Order of Dagon active in the 1920s off the coast of Ireland, where one of the marines previously sent to lay depth charges at Devil Reef, as related during Lovecraft’s story, falls victim to a deadly plot of revenge while on leave, that will continue to reverberate decades later for his ancestors. “To See the Sea” by Michael Marshall Smith is perhaps the most nightmarish of the longer stories included in this volume, imagining a macabre Wicker Man scenario in an off-season English village on the South west coast of England, where the inhabitants have occult reasons for preying on Susan, the girlfriend of the puzzled protagonist, after he takes her for a weekend break to an apparently docile seafront village as part of an attempt to lay some ghosts from the past, the village having previously held unhappy associations for her that relate back to an incident from her mother’s past.

A troubling legacy from the past that one can do nothing about or, indeed, about which one might not even be aware, is a persistent theme which many of the current crop of writers expand upon, perhaps influenced by the modern breakthroughs in recent times that relate to the field of genetic studies, whose discoveries can reveal genetic time bombs ticking away in our make-up, waiting to ambush us in later life. “Deepnet” by David Langford cleverly makes use of the fact that “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” has already been made the subject of a video game, and combines the idea with fears about the effects of VDU radiation in order to persuasively imagine the prospect of Innsmouth spreading its mutagenic contagion as the result of of becoming a Silicon Valley-style software industry, using the derelict town as a hub for distributing’ the Innsmouth look’ across the world. “Dagon’s Bell” by Brian Lumley sees an entrance-way to a network of underground caverns that play host to the slimy attendants of Dagon himself, uncovered in the North East of England after a newlywed couple move into a farm whose previous occupant disappeared in mysterious circumstances. The farm plays host to strange ruins from Roman times, with alien octopi-like hieroglyphics across the lintel heralding the coming of a terrifying cross-species attempt to invade the world above ground by a vile subterranean brood. Finally and in a similar vein, Brian Mooney’s enjoyable entry “The Tomb of Priscus” reads like a cross between Conan Doyle and a Dennis Wheatley occult potboiler modelled on Nigel Kneale’s “Quatermass and the Pit”. Mooney’s rotund hero, Reuben Calloway, and his Watsonian assistant Father Roderick Shea, stumble upon an occult site dedicated to the Deep Ones unwittingly uncovered by archaeologists investigating an ancient Roman tomb near a circle of standing stones in a rural Sussex village. A world of satanic possession by cosmic entities, human sacrifice and strange cults dedicated to the toad-like denizens who inhabit coastal regions of the sea, make for an entertaining piece of pulp folk-horror fiction to round off a diverse and well-judged collection now handsomely reprinted by Titan Books in a nice paperback edition, which includes some excellent pen and ink illustrations by Dave Carson, Jim Pitts and Martin McKenna. This is a deliciously fishy read for all lovers of weird fiction who will doubtless enjoy grasping this re-print in their clammy tentacles.


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