“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
Here are some brief notions prompted by my re-reading of this story, which I had not returned to for perhaps fifteen years. It is one of those held in lower esteem by me. I remember on my first reading not liking the ending, that it seemed tacked on, the “twist” forced. Sam Moskowitz wrote, “the story suffers from an ending of dreamlike fantasy that does not fit the projected mood” (p. 257, Explorers of the Infinite (World Publishing Company, 1963). Also, the aliens lack the requisite horror throughout, and the tale just didn’t engage me.
On my re-reading it, my attitude has changed, or my field of appreciation, perhaps. Since I knew what was coming, I found that the narrator’s self-discovery at the end is frequently foreshadowed. Here are two examples. During his revelatory narrative, Zadok Allen has an outburst and tells the narrator "Curse ye, dun't set thar a'starin' at me with them eyes.” We have already been introduced to “the staring ‘Innsmouth look,’” so the remark is a clue. Later, to escape his pursuers the narrator starts “imitating the typical shamble of the Innsmouth folk as best I could,” which is a success in part, ironically, because unknown to himself he is an Innsmouth folk.
When during his escape from those who might identify him, the narrator states that he is “once more in shadow.” The use of “shadow” is both literal and ironically figurative (and perhaps even punning; he determines that a key is furtively trying a door’s lock “without the least shadow of a doubt”). The word “shadow” and its variants appear twenty times, and I liked how it accumulated meanings. It is usually in a metaphoric sense, as in “The ancient spires and roofs of decaying Innsmouth gleamed lovely and ethereal in the magic yellow moonlight, and I thought of how they must have looked in the old days before the shadow fell.” The word frequently appears in hyphenated form, as with “evil-shadowed Innsmouth.” The sinister associations are transformed at the end, however, when the community becomes “marvel-shadowed Innsmouth.”
This is neither the first nor the last time that a title-word accumulates senses, sometimes the opposite of an apparent meaning. “Pickman’s Model” is both the model (“a vision that makes models”) of the thing itself, and the thing itself (“the model he was using”), while “The Dreams in the Witch-House” are not dreams, reflections of reality, but a hyper-reality.
In the section of the story where the Innsmouth protagonist is trapped in his room in the Gilman House, I was reminded for some reason of a private eye story, such as that in the contemporary pulp, Black Mask. Perhaps it was the idea of a single person, beset by bad guys and a mystery, relying on himself to physically escape through forcing a door. Much of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is a chase in which there is an obsessive interest in relative location. First, when the narrator is trapped in the room he spends much verbiage in the layout of the other rooms and the means of egress; compare this to the Philo Vance mystery, The Canary Murder Case (Grosset & Dunlap, 1927), where the layout of the rooms is important enough to be illustrated in the text. At any rate, when the hero does get outside, he is fascinated with what street goes into another, where they meet, etc. Why should this take so much detail in the telling?
Maybe there is something going on here in the minute workings of horror
that simply eludes this reader. One critic (John McGinnis, The Maze and the
Minotaur) wrote of the importance of the maze in Lovecraft’s
writing, and perhaps here is a major example.
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” has some resemblance to At the Mountains of Madness, I think, in that there is a static history given–in the former through the garrulous Zadok Allen and in the latter through the carvings about the Old Ones. In both instances I felt like I was receiving exposition without the advantage of dramatization.
However, I now appreciate the story’s ending for its poetry, its Biblical resonance, and am no longer disappointed by its tone, nor does it seem so at odds with the bulk of the story.
Many readers list this story as one of their favorites, but while I appreciate it more, still not me. In the review of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (The Guardian, 29 July 2000), Nicholas Lezard notes the Lovecraftian formula includes escape from a frightening town, a mind on the verge of crumbling, a hideous artifact, mass insanity, a cult, and a threat to the planet. With the exception of mass insanity, all the qualities that he mentioned appear in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which he favorably comments on in the next paragraph. It is arguable that this story is the most formulaic of all Lovecraft’s, and perhaps as a result it supplies the most successful “peg” on which other fantasy writers can hang their stories (e.g., Shadows Over Innsmouth). Maybe that is the chief reason I rate the story on a lower level.
Monsters vs. Aliens
I had a correspondence with Timothy H. Evans, who wrote "A Last Defense Against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H.P. Lovecraft" (Journal of Folklore Research 42 (2005): 99‑135). During it, I was drawn to think what made a Lovecraft monster as opposed to an alien.
The former more likely arises in tales of supernatural horror (which I prefer), the latter in science fiction, though a Lovecraft tale may very well have a foot in both camps, as in having a good entity (the Great Race in “The Shadow out of Time”) and the bad (the whistling things), or having the alien a mixture of good and bad (“The Whisperer in Darkness”). The Great Race and the Old Ones (At the Mountains of Madness) are both aliens, though monstrous in appearance. They turn out not to be monsters because they have a culture or civilization, plus superior minds. The same is true, I think, for the Deep Ones (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”). In a way they are a tribe of South Seas islanders that are coincidentally non-human. The result is to replace much of the horror with anthropological romance.
To the degree that a monster is understood, it becomes less monstrous. Cthulhu and the beings in “The Dunwich Horror” are true monsters. They are outlandish–if not repulsive–in appearance, yet what ensures they are monsters is their intent and purpose, irrational and inimical. Moreover, good aliens are after knowledge, bad after domination.
The most problematic of the aliens or monsters are the fungi from Yuggoth (“The Whisperer in Darkness”). Not described too exactingly, they have minds that are self-interested, pitiless, and amoral, in some ways the dark side of the Great Race. So “The Whisperer in Darkness” melds horror and science fiction more closely, perhaps, than any other story. Here knowledge opens up vistas of horror along with the threat of medical experiments. It is more what these aliens do rather than what they are which makes them real monsters.
A debut novel, Monkey Man by Stephen Price, has a character named Lee Lovecraft. *** A “Theodore Lovecraft” has self-published Last Flight of the Fallen Valkyrie, about a ghost town in Michigan.
“Cthulhu” and “Springtime in Arkham” are the names of two scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.
Chris J. Karr has “A Report on the Copyright Renewals of the Works of H.P. Lovecraft.” He reports on renewal records from 1950 to 1972.
The Bismarck Tribune carries an article about Troy Sterling Nies, the composer for the silent movie adaptation, The Call of Cthulhu (see more about it under “Movies”). *** Besides including HPL, the group Bloodhag plays short death-metal songs about such science fiction authors as Bradbury and Asimov. *** An article ties in No-Neck Blues Band with HPL (who once was quoted on the band’s website), Blackwood, and Dunsany.
Comic Books and Strips
As a result of the Masters of Horror Showtime series, a limited edition comic book will appear. Issues three and four are to be an adaptation of "Dreams in the Witch House," written by Ivan Brandon and illustrated by Dennis Calero. *** The drawings are from the vigorously wholesome The Family Circus, but the captions are from HPL. Darn funny. *** HPL is one of the authors in Horror Classics, volume 10 of Eureka Productions black-and-white Graphic Classics series. *** “H. P. Lovecraft in the Comics” includes covers of comic books his tales have appeared in. Others will know better if there are omissions. *** In his genre collection Apocris 1 Michael Vance has the parody "At the Mohills of Madness," which is from a syndicated comic strip.
A pornographic version of Re-Animator is Re-Penetrator. *** Among the print-to-screen suggestions made by an MSNBC writer in an article addressed to Peter Jackson (director of King Kong and Lord of the Rings) are the works of HPL, notably “The Dunwich Horror.” *** According to a producer quoted in The Hollywood Reporter, a potential At the Mountains of Madness is budgeted at $70 million and would be helmed by Guillermo del Toro, whose notebook of drawings was photocopied for Steven Spielberg. *** The Call of Cthulhu (2005) is in competition at the Slamdance (and Sundance?) 2006 Film Festival and has gotten enviable reviews, e.g. "Wired News" states it is “pulpy, eerie, fantastical and bound for cult status.”
Of the 100 productions by Seattle’s Open Circle Theater, those based on Lovecraft have been by far the most successful.
The Sickly Taper is a website dedicated to the Gothic. It notes the appearance this year of The Guide to the Gothic III by the website’s author Fred Frank. There is a link to a short piece about HPL.
“The Lovecraft Syndrome” has been encoded for the iPod. There’s also an audio interview with the writer-director David Schmidt. *** Though not yet in existence, it seems a Lovecraft map mashup is a natural. This would present an online map (of Providence or New England) with sites identifying biographical or fictional associations. Currently there are such mashup map examples as locations of public libraries in the U. S., but author worlds should appear with time. To get an idea of what is available, see googlemapsmania.blogspot.com.
The Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations in 1976 quoted Robert Bloch upon receiving the 1975 World Fantasy life achievement award: “I haven’t had so much fun since the rats ate my baby sister.” *** The online “Dictionary of Wisconsin History” has entries for August Derleth. *** In an interview, author Paul L. Bates lists as favorite writers Kafka, Borges, and HPL. *** Russell Hoban states HPL was “not too much an influence, I just love him"; and read him to his children when they were small.
Nostalgia’s The House on the Borderland is a cd based on the William Hope Hodgson novel. *** Collecting Edgar Rice Burroughs (Schiffer Pub., 2000) by Glenn Erardi includes Burroughs’ pulp appearances.
Ju-On (aka The Grudge)
I was impressed by this movie’s creepiness. It is not Lovecraftian, save that it takes place in its own horror-world where atmosphere and implication is strong. In it people disappear after involvement in supernatural events. The things that are there are not seen, or are just glimpsed. I was especially fond of a thing like black smoke that appears in a restroom and when it comes out of the doorway is captured on videotape.
The director of this movie, Shinya Tsukamoto, has originated another, Marebito, which according to one critic makes a definite allusion to At the Mountains of Madness. There is a collection of links to be found about it at “Unfilmable.”