Friday, July 4, 2014

Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Re-reading At the Mountains of Madness recently has inspired me to revisit some other H. P. Lovecraft stories, in particular his novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth (written in 1931 and published in 1936).

The Shadow Over Innsmouth includes virtually all of the elements most characteristic of Lovecraft’s fiction. It deals with cultural decay, racial degeneration, madness, forbidden knowledge, malevolent cults and inherited evil.

An impoverished student is making a tour through New England. Finding that travel by rail will soon exhaust his meagre financial resources he rather unwisely allows himself to be persuaded to make the journey to Arkham by means of a bus service stopping at Innsmouth. The bus service is run by a native of Innsmouth. The inhabitants of Innsmouth are shunned by the citizens of other nearby towns. They are evasive as to the reasons they hold the denizens of Innsmouth in such abhorrence although it appears to have something to do with a catastrophic plague that decimated the population of the town in the 1840s, and to be due to an greater extent by the vaguely disturbing oddness of the natives of that town.

The student is rather fascinated by all this and decides to break his journey and spend a day in Innsmouth. He has a keen interest in architecture and is something of an amateur antiquarian and Innsmouth has much to interest such a man. He finds the locals to be secretive to an extraordinary degree but he finds a very old man who can be persuaded, by being plied with large quantities of whiskey, to tell him the town’s history. 

A certain Captain Obed Marsh, during his trading trips to the South Seas, had encountered  a native tribe who had struck a bargain with mysterious creatures from beneath the sea. The natives were rewarded by fabulously rich hauls of fish and gold artifacts, but at the price of making human sacrifices to these strange fish-like amphibian creatures. An even greater reward was on offer - immortality. The price for this was an agreement to interbreed with the sea-creatures. Captain Marsh had learnt that these sea-creatures could be summoned in many places and rather rashly summons them to Innsmouth. The strange and vaguely repellant appearance of the inhabitants of Innsmouth is the result of interbreeding with these amphibian creatures. The student soon discovers that the horrors of Innsmouth are not confined to the distant past - they are very much alive in the present day. Like many another Lovecraft protagonist he finds that the search for knowledge about things best left undiscovered leaves him tottering on the brink of insanity. This borderline insanity has other far more personal and horrifying causes however.

Lovecraft’s stylistic quirks and love for purple prose are on full display here. While conventionally minded critics have seen these things as weaknesses they are in fact part of a carefully considered and very deliberate technique. Lovecraft wants to create an atmosphere of near-hysteria. A less overheated and overwrought prose style would not have served his purposes.

In this novella Lovecraft also uses his favourite technique of having the narrator reveal the full extent of the horrors he has witnessed in a gradual manner, throwing out plenty of hints but being reluctant to give the full facts until he is forced to do so. The reader, especially one familiar with Lovecraft’s work, will connect the dots long before the narrator does so (and will be quite unsurprised when Cthulhu puts in an appearance). This again is a deliberate strategy on Lovecraft’s part. His narrators simply do not want to connect all the dots, partly from a fear for their own sanity, partly through a fear of being thought insane, and perhaps most of all from a reluctance to admit to themselves the full and horrific ramifications of what they have witnessed. They want to imagine that perhaps they are mistaken, that perhaps there might be a rational explanation, even when they know that there can be no rational explanation.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth has been regarded as expressing Lovecraft’s horror of miscegenation. In fact the overriding theme in Lovecraft’s fiction is the danger of civilisation collapse and racial degeneration. These were widely accepted at the time as very real threats. The descent of once great and powerful civilisations such as China and the Ottoman Empire into chaos, corruption and eventual collapse had demonstrated that civilisations could indeed collapse. The fear of racial degeneration was shared by a large number of contemporary thinkers including many who were firmly in the “enlightened” and “progressive” camps. Many contemporary socialists such as H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Bernard Shaw saw eugenics as essential for the survival of civilisation. Lovecraft’s views on these subjects were absolutely mainstream at the time.

The novella also illustrates the extent to which Lovecraft saw the sea as a source of horror, harbouring a variety of malevolent entities and races. The combination of the sea and remote communities provides the quintessence of Lovecraftian horror.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a major work in the Lovecraft canon and a wonderfully effective example of his horror technique. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent and perceptive review! "Shadow over Innsmouth" was the first major HPL story I ever read, so it holds a particularly special place in my heart of horror.