User login

Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Publication Date: 
Bottom Line: 

Titan Books has in recent years been busy in keeping fans of the macabre ‘weird’ fictional world of early-twentieth century New England’s most enigmatic son, the author, essayist and prodigious correspondent H.P. Lovecraft, copiously supplied with a bounty of modern Lovecraftian-flavoured anthology collections, bringing together rich and fruitful examples of recent work by many of today’s living practitioners of the weird tale format of a kind indicative of the stories this troubled, obsessive soul (who so rarely left his native Providence, Rhode Island during his brief forty-six year stay on Earth) pioneered throughout the 1920s and ‘30s in the pages of little-regarded pulp fiction magazines such as ‘Weird Tales’ and ‘Astounding Fiction’. Lovecraft’s devoted biographer S.T. Joshi has edited several satisfyingly chunky volumes in the “Black Wings of Cthulhu” series (the third due out in the UK in early March) and recently also oversaw a collection inspired by Lovecraft’s insidiously creepy novel “At the Mountains of Madness” with the publication of what will hopefully become the first of several volumes in “The Madness of Cthulhu” range. Equally as erudite and scholarly in his explication of all things eldritch is Robert M. Price, whose “Acolytes of Cthulhu” anthology collection ranges widely through the annals of latter-day fantasy/horror writing to collect examples of Lovecraft’s influence that can be found percolating through the works of such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, Neil Gaiman, and S.T. Joshi himself.

Lovecraft continues to be as divisive and problematic a figure today as his work is justly influential in the field of weird literature. He undoubtedly exemplified some of the worst prejudices, phobias, and the pinched social conservatism of his white protestant class during a period when American society was undergoing huge change and great social upheaval; from today’s perspective, a good deal of Lovecraft’s work unmistakably holds a mirror to some of his more unpleasant attitudes regarding race and interracial mixing, as well as the depressing tendency to associate immigration with social degeneration, etc. But the author was also writing at a time when science was increasingly challenging, in more and more convincing detail, the orthodox metaphysical view of man’s position in the Universe, and no-one reflected the underlying tension created by this revolution in understanding more acutely than Lovecraft, with his misanthropic vision of humanity as an unknowingly insignificant speck of organic flotsam in a cosmos once dominated -- and, it is implied, soon to be so again -- by his pantheon of awesome pan-dimensional tentacled beings and their hierarchy of monstrous, fishy underlings. The fact that Lovecraft may have shared the contemporary racist conviction that the human race itself was arranged in an ‘evolutionary ladder’ of importance, only lends added bite to the view implied by most everything he wrote outside of the ‘dream quest’ stories, that even those races he considered to be at the top of the heap where, in fact, on a cosmic scale, utterly insignificant and worthless, and intrinsically incapable of understanding the true nature of the reality they were born into without succumbing to a gibbering form of absolute madness.

Perhaps the reason ultimately why Lovecraft’s 1931 novella-length tale “The Shadow over Innsmouth” -- first published in 1936 for a small-press publication -- is still so evocative a piece of writing (despite the author himself, interestingly, not rating it as worthy of publication at all), comes down to the way in which it brings together all of Lovecraft’s most potent themes and their underlying concerns in such a way as to take the story beyond any simple interpretation of it as a cringe-worthy metaphorical screed against miscegenation. Lovecraft’s beliefs about genetic pollution and degeneration must have secretly haunted him when his own immediate family’s history of mental illness is taken into consideration (both his father and mother died in mental institutions) and this underlying unease finds its way into the story’s very bones: it tells how a young traveller learns of the tainted history of the seaport town of Innsmouth, once a thriving hub thanks to the gold refinery and fishing industry that got established soon after the seafaring Captain Obed Marsh returned from his voyages in the South Seas. The Captain is said to have brought back strange gold trinkets and returned with tales about the sacrificial cult of a tribe of natives with whom he’d traded while exploring the islands of the region.

These natives worship strange, fish-like humanoid beings known as ‘The Deep Ones’. However, local folklore relates how the social decay and rioting which later occurs in the town, and leaves the region a decaying wasteland of derelict buildings inhabited by an impoverished and despised underclass all displaying the same half-fish, half-frog-like features which become euphemistically known as ‘the Innsmouth Look’, did so after the town became gradually swamped by a population of creatures who were secretly brought back with Marsh to live offshore on the nearby Devil Reef. The creatures demand human sacrifices to their god and begin to interbreed with the inhabitants of Innsmouth. Only those residents prepared to tolerate such practices are allowed to survive and, pretty soon, all Christian churches fall into disuse and The Esoteric Order of Dagon is founded in their place as the only practicing local pagan religion. The story ends with the traveller discovering the truth of this outlandish folklore after encountering some transformed residents at the local inn, who then pursue him across town during the night. He escapes and manages to persuade the authorities to intervene, resulting in a naval attack on the town and on Devil Reef; but the twist in the tale is that the narrator also discovers that he shares ancestry with some Innsmouth residents and so is destined to one day himself transform into one of the town's terrible deep sea hybrids!      

With its detailed folklore and mythical history, its detailing of strange and monstrous secret cults, and its hierarchy of monsters and their lost undersea city of R'lyeh, combined with just the sheer 'body horror' disgust it expresses at the thought of physical and mental transformation, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” has so many Lovecraftian elements that make it the perfect vehicle for allowing other authors to return to it's subject matter in order to expand & enlarge the tale with their own different perspectives and approaches. Stephen Jones’ first anthology collection, “Shadows over Innsmouth”, included the full text of Lovecraft’s novella, but appended a diverse selection of new short stories that concentrated attention on the various themes and elements of the original in often ingenious and evocative ways -- it’s most notable feature being that all of the new tales were by British authors who often added the traditions of British ghost storytelling by the likes of M.R. James, etc., to their juggling of Lovecraftian lore. For the second volume, Jones expanded the remit and included tales by other American authors also; but for this third volume, “Weirder Shadows over Innsmouth”, although there are American and Australian contributors included, the overwhelming majority of stories come once again from British sci-fi and horror authors who are both widely steeped in the Lovecraftian universe and appreciative of the British traditions of the classic ghost story.

There are many approaches featured here, and they all work satisfyingly together to make a wide-ranging tour of Lovecraft’s universe, sometimes seeking merely to flesh out the details of the original story by expanding on the lore already alluded to, as does John Glasby’s “Innsmouth Bane”, for instance, which operates simply as a flashback to the period in question, during which Captain Marsh is said to have first returned to Innsmouth with his secret horde of Deep Ones, who -- it turns out -- also bring their evil god with them, too. The story attempts to convey through its narrator the full horror of having one’s community invaded and overrun by forces beyond comprehension.

Others stories pick up on some passing detail mentioned in brief during Lovecraft’s text, and use it as a seed to build up a richer variant of lore about the original story, sometimes influenced by pressing contemporary issues. Noteworthy in this regard is one of the anthology’s longer stories, “The Same Deep Waters as You” by American author Brian Hodge, which picks up on brief references in the original story to prisoners being taken during the 1928 raids launched by the FBI as a result of the narrator’s intervention, and imagines those fish-like humanoid prisoners still being held in secret by the military in a Guantanamo-style facility sixty-years later, awaiting the signal to stage a revolt. A marine expert with the ability to communicate with sea creatures is brought in to attempt communication with one of the Marsh clan, now fully transformed into a gill creature, in order to discern the secrets of the humanoids’ secret language, but discovers that they are playing a very long game that their human captors cannot begin to understand. Also making use of the passing detail mentioned in Lovecraft's text is August Derleth’s “Innsmouth Clay”, written in collaboration with Lovecraft himself before the author’s untimely death. This tale picks up on the fact, mentioned by the Lovecraft story, of the navy sending submarines to bomb Devil Reef with depth charges, and goes on to tell the story of a sculptor who finds out it is he who is being moulded and reshaped in strange, unfathomable ways by his work rather than the other way round, after he starts using clay from the bombed reef in his sculptures, found washed up on the Innsmouth beach after the submarine attack. Derleth was one of the correspondents who did most to keep Lovecraft’s work in print after his death, and this is the closest to an outright pastiche of the author’s own prose style included in this volume.

The pastiche format does provide a popular approach to integrating the rather recondite concerns of Lovecraft’s world with other popular genre writing, though, creating interesting, sometimes amusing parallels and juxtapositions. In this collection we have three examples: Kim Newman takes a playful approach to bringing Innsmouth lore in to the world of children’s adventure literature in “Richard Riddle, Boy Detective in ‘The Case of the French Spy’” which spoofs the worlds of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallow and Amazons” and Erich Kastner’s “Emil and the Detectives” in a story set in the bay of Lyme Regis, Dorset, and that takes the legend of the Hartlepool Money as its inspiration – a real urban legend based on the claim that the residents of Hartlepool once mistook a monkey in a sailor’s suit for a Frenchman during the Napoleonic Wars when Englishmen feared imminent invasion from across the channel. Adrian Cole’s “You Don’t Want to Know” brings Innsmouth lore and Lovecraftian Mythos into the world of hard-boiled detective fiction: Nick Nightmare is the Chandler-esque private dick who finds his latest clients are distinctly fishy … literally! Finally, Reggie Oliver gives us a pitch perfect classic M.R. James-styled tale with “The Archbishop’s Well”, in which an academic expert in Medieval architecture investigates a sealed-off 10th century well at the ecclesiastical site in the fictional West-Country Cathedral town of Morchester, only to be confronted with the emissaries of Dagon, in a story that reads like a Lovecraftian re-write of “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”.                

Given the previously mentioned unwholesome attitudes to race and the mixing of races through sexual union implied by the Innsmouth story in particular, it’s interesting to see how this element of Lovecraft’s tale is dealt with by modern authors. The contributor most concerned with re-evaluating and further exploring notions of genetic purity and attitudes to bodily transformation in this collection is Dublin-born author Caitlin R Kiernan, who has no less than three of her stories included in the anthology. The best of them is “The Transition of Elizabeth Haskings”, a very Lovecraftian title for a story that certainly evokes the terror of extreme bodily transformation, but is shorn of the judgemental puritanism that underpins Lovecraft’s attitude to this theme. Also notable is the story “Fish Bride”, which doesn’t mention Innsmouth or its inhabitants by name, but certainly seems to be set in an equivalent region where Kiernan inverts Lovecraft’s disgust at miscegenation in what is essentially a poetically wistful and emotional ode to the sexual love between human kind and fish beings. “On the Reef” is an even more intensely poetic invocation, calling up the beliefs and ritual practices of the Esoteric Order of Dagon,  imagined still flourishing in secret in the modern world, waiting for its time to rise once again. Covering similar ground but in more conventional weird tale format is Australian dark fantasy writer Angelia Slatter’s “The Song of Sighs” which paints a vivid picture of an amnesiac gradually discovering her own past is not what she had assumed it to be while working as a lecturer in an academy for orphans that also turns out to have its own disturbing secret history. Slatter also contributes the poetically abstract “Rising, Not Dreaming”.

Stand out original tales in this volume include Michael Marshall Smith’s dreamlike “The Chain” about a disgruntled Californian artist struggling to find inspiration in a bland and unassuming town on the West Coast, but who ends up unwittingly courting disturbing horrors from the deep; the futuristic apocalyptic tale “The Long Last Night” by Brian Lumley, which takes place in a London almost completely flooded and ravaged by The Deep Ones and their great telepathic God, and features an old man whose entire family has been enslaved or worse, plotting a ‘terrorism-style’ revenge attack on his underwater persecutors. Recent unseasonal flooding in the UK and fears about Global Warming form the basis of the inspiration for Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “Into the Water”: some local news reporters and photographers stake out the town of Grovehill as it faces inundation after countless Summer months of constant rainfall, but something even more deadly is flooding through the waterlogged fields and overflowing rives, heralding far more of a disaster than the local families recently flooded out of their houses might have anticipated encountering. Ramsey Campbell, meanwhile, contributes one of his quintessential black comic horror tales, this time about the unfriendly denizens of a pub whose patrons are intent on initiating unwary strangers into their deep sea cult of tentacled horrors. Finally, my favourite story of this collection is Conrad Williams's “The Hag Stone”, in which a widower’s holiday on one of the outer Channel Islands of Alderney, finds himself embroiled in a series of incidents that ratchet up a sense of increasing unease throughout, while a serial killer apparently stalks the rugged landscape, killing young women.

Randy Broeacker’s fine ink sketches add plenty of grotesque, fishy, humorous accompaniment to these diverse proceedings, and this entertaining third volume continues to demonstrate the enormous range of styles and interests that the Lovecraft oeuvre can accommodate when talented writers take up the cause. Judging from editor Stephen Jones’ introduction, bringing these three volumes to press has been no easy task, but here’s hoping these recent Titan re-prints have found enough of an audience to merit a fourth volume eventually making its slithery way to shore … For you just never know where the Innsmouth taint might show up next!


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

Your rating: None