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Tag Archives: The Shadow Over Innsmouth

I would like to begin this post with the story of a shirt.

I tend not to buy clothes very much, but a few years ago, I decided to treat myself to a new t-shirt.  And, as everyone knows, one of the few perks of being a graduate student is the complete lack of anything resembling a dress code.  Hello yoga pants, hello shirts that may or may not have been washed in the recent past, and (most importantly), hello nerdy t-shirts that most everyone stops wearing mid-college!

I have a very, very large soft spot for nerdy t-shirts.  So, it was with great delight that I happened upon This, the Funniest T-Shirt in Existence.

innsmouth

So, of course I bought it.  And I put it on, knowing full well that it would go unnoticed by most people but knowing (in the cockles of my weird little heart) that surely, at least a handful of people would greet me with a giggle, a nod, or a “Fhtagn!”.  I mentally reminded myself not to be put off by random strangers interacting with me, because that’s a well-accepted risk of wearing a T-shirt that was, to be frank, unbelievably hysterical.

Well.

99.9% of people either did not comment or asked me about being on the swim team in high school.

.1% of people, and by .1% I mean one very specific person, thought it was a blow job joke.  When I asked him to explain, he told me it was like, you know, Innsmouth–in your mouth, right?

And it was instances like this that led to the creation of this blog, because A) my thoughts and feelings about Lovecraft tend to fall on baffled ears in everyday life, and I needed an outlet and B) Lovecraft is clearly dangerously under-appreciated in modern society, and this is my two cents toward rectifying that.

But anyway.  Why Innsmouth?

I just got back from two much-needed trips, and am now feeling about as refreshed and relaxed as a grad student can ever hope to feel.  I’m almost finished with Shadows over Innsmouth and Weird Shadows over Innsmouth, both edited by Stephen Jones. It’s a standard Lovecraft mythos mix: some very by-the-book and traditional, a handful that made you scratch your head and wonder if the authors had read beyond the first few paragraphs of the original*, a few that were deeply unusual and inspired.

The first volume contained the complete The Shadow over Innsmouth, and the second contained unpublished notes from an initial version.  I hadn’t read the original in years, so I was eager for the chance to go over it again.  On the whole, I have to say…not super-impressing.  Spoilers ahead, but it was published in 1931, so I think the statute of limitations is up:

-I was deeply entertained by the regional clerk who describes the residents of Innsmouth for the first time: he explains that everyone’s negative reaction to the Innsmouth natives is mostly borne of “race prejudice”, but that’s totally okay, because he shares the same feeling.

-My favorite part of the story was definitely Zadok Allen’s narration of the legends of Captain Marsh.  It was the most effective part of the story: original, creepy, and a nice resolution to the mystery of the blight that had fallen on the city half a century before.

-That being said, I was not ready for that little “Have you ever seen a Shoggoth?” throwaway line.  Although–interestingly enough, The Shadow over Innsmouth predates At the Mountains of Madness by 6 or 7 months…I wonder if he wanted to make the shoggoths a regular addition to his cannon, but never really wound up exploring it beyond that.  I suppose it was supposed to fill me with a feeling of mystery and horror, but instead I just kind of wound up wondering where in the name of everything unholy the Deep Ones had acquired a shoggoth, and for what purpose.  (Apparently, modern mythos writers think as I do: there was nary a shoggoth to be found in either volume.)

-Wikipedia describes The Shadow over Innsmouth as being unusual for Lovecraft, as it contains a lengthy and effective action sequence.  I would describe the “unusual” and “lengthy” descriptors as accurate, but effective?…goddamn, his escape from from the Gilman House and Innsmouth seemed like it took years to explain.  I found myself unintentionally skimming, because (like all first-person narrations written down after the fact), I mean, come on…there’s no way he’s not making it out alive.  And every interminable scene was very methodical, and no directional detail got lost in his re-telling.

-One thing that struck me as (unintentionally) off-putting and weird: by the end of the narration, he’s come to the conclusion that someday, he will join his ancestors in Y’ha-nthlei.  But from the very beginning of his tale, he admits that he’s the one responsible for bringing about the genocide and dynamiting of Devil’s Reef–and in his revelation, he shows no remorse or shame in his actions.  There’s no real internal conflict (apart from some initial horror and waffling over the transformation), just a dream in which one of his ancestors notes that he will have to be punished for his misdeed, but it’ll be okay.  The character development lags behind the plot development, and it’s kind of strange to consider it as a whole.

So, on the whole–I wouldn’t say it’s one of his most astounding works.  But I do definitely have a new appreciation for why Lovecraftian writers have seized on the setting and characters he outlines: between ritualistic metamorphoses, strange oaths, decrepit backwater (but American!) coastal cities, and a genocide and cover-up ordered by the federal government, Lovecraft created a remarkably fertile weird environment for the modern writer.

The Cultist

*I’m thinking mainly of the one that described Deep Ones as having a lizard head and a translucent, worm-like body.

 

Despite the issues I raised in the last post, Innsmouth and Deep One mythos fiction can be done extraordinarily well.  Some of my favorite mythos fiction revolves around that strange, backwater town, and I’ll mention a few of them here.  No cuts, because I’ll try to avoid spoilers as best I can.  (The stories I’ll reference today come from a handful of anthologies, but if you’re looking for one to try out, The Book of Cthulhu is extraordinary.  I haven’t read Shadows over Innsmouth yet, but it makes me hopeful and is probably next on my list.)

“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, by John Hornor Jacobs: Like the ukiyo-e print that inspired its name (no, I will not link to it here, and if you choose to Google that at work be prepared to explain to your boss that it’s a valid and extremely historically significant piece of art rather than the frank depiction of bestiality that it appears to be), this extremely brief story, set in a modern tourist-oriented beach town, combines the erotic and the disturbing in the most alluring way possible.  (And it’s one of the most interesting takes on the sacred Oaths of the Esoteric Order of Dagon that I’ve ever encountered.)

“Boojum” and “Mongoose”, by Elizabeth Bear:  I know Elizabeth Bear like the lepidopterists of yore probably felt they knew Vladimir Nabokov: they applauded him for a handful of highly specific, specialized exploits (he was only an amateur entomologist, but was dedicated and knowledgeable to the point where he described several new species of butterfly), while being only vaguely aware that he did something else for his main line of work, something about novels?  Didn’t he write something about a young girl that got him a lot of attention?  Which is to say, I’m kind of…sort of…aware that Elizabeth Bear is kind of a big deal in the land of sci-fi…or something…did she win a Hugo or something like that?  Those are important, right?

http://www.catherynnemvalente.com/sf-squeecast-wins-2013-hugo/

Those things that they’re holding are Hugo awards, right?

But anyway, I only know her from the Lovecraftian-inspired universe she created in “Boojum” and “Mongoose” (and also the alternate-history narrative of “Shoggoths in Bloom”, HOLY CRAP is that one good).  The former is a sci-fi take on the Mi-Go, the latter deals with the Hounds of Tindaloos.  But the incorporation of the traditional Lovecraft characters into the realm of space travel is seamless and endlessly interesting.  They’re never at the forefront of the action, just another inhabitant of deep space occasionally , but the bulging-eyed, vaguely amphibious Gillies are a far cry from the stereotyped fishy residents of Innsmouth.

So…this Elizabeth Bear, she’s pretty darn good at modern weird fiction.  Did she write anything else worth reading?

“The Doom that Came to Innsmouth”, by Brian McNaughton: “The Doom that Came to Innsmouth” is definitely my favorite Deep One piece of all time.  That may change as I read more, you never know, but it’s extremely hard to top.  The narrator is a descendant of the Innsmouth inhabitants come back to visit his old town, now a hollowed-out shell due to government intervention.  There are whispers of a holocaust, whispers of research-related atrocities…and now, to make amends, the government is offering reparations to anyone who can prove they share Innsmouth blood.  With his bald head and bulging eyes, the protagonist assumes he’s a shoe-in, and makes his way to an outlying research station.  Because it’s known that the narrator is a member of the clan, seasoned readers are stripped of their expectations and are forced to enter an alternative Lovecraft existence without any preparation whatsoever.  The ending kicked me in the gut, and, having read as much mythos fiction as I have, that’s rare to the point of being remarkable anymore.

The Cultist

 

First of all, sorry about missing the Monday post.  I have no excuses.  But I’m back now!  And I’m here to whine about stuff again!

Specifically, I’m here to kick off my new series: Problems in Lovecraftian fiction!  (Or, more informally, Things in mythos fiction that drive me up the fucking wall, and what can be done about them.)

I’m not trying to be a total jerk about it. World-building in fantasy and sci-fi is hard, but on some level, I think that utilizing the world and characters of another writer can be harder. Creating something new within pre-established boundaries results in numerous pitfalls that can (and do) trap even the best writers. So, in this series, I’ll be discussing a handful of what I think are the most common issues that reduce the appeal of modern Lovecraftian fiction—by highlighting both stories that fall prey to these problems as well as stories that blaze new paths to avoid them, my goal is to ultimately come to a better understanding of what makes good horror.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that I am highly specialized in modern weird fiction.  And, to be sure, specialization has many rewards, but I’ve found that with the rewards come unexpected trade-offs. As I read more and more Lovecraft/Lovecraft-inspired anthologies, I began to realize that stories that I would have loved unreservedly in the past were now inspiring a kind of dull frustration. To highlight what I mean, I ask you to examine the following phrases:

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

If you haven’t read much Lovecraft, you’ve probably sussed out that these traits are all describing a very specific, probably somewhat moist and amphibious character, but you don’t really see a problem beyond that (and thus you think I’m a huge snob). If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s works but don’t’ read a lot of mythos fiction, you’ve probably recognized these qualifiers as a way of characterizing an inhabitant of Innsmouth, but again, you don’t see what the big deal is (but here I am making a fuss, and therefore I am a huge snob). So, to be completely fair, I should clarify—I don’t mind these descriptors in and of themselves, but they can be easily problematic.

I feel a little guilty pointing this out, because the stories themselves are often fantastic and beautifully written—and it is truly a problem on the part of a very specific class of reader who knows too much through experience.  For example, take a few of the stories from The Book of Cthulhu. Here’s a line from the beginning of “Bad Sushi”, by Cherie Priest, as a chef catches a glimpse of the new delivery boy bringing a shipment of fish from a mysterious new seafood company:

He walked like a sea lion, with a gently lumbering gait—as if he might be more comfortable swimming than walking. His big, round eyes stared straight ahead as he made his deliveries.

So, while we’re surely intended to recognize the delivery boy as weird or off, he’s juuuust a little too familiar to the experienced mythos reader. And sometimes that’s okay, depending on where the story will go.  For example, if it takes place in Innsmouth, I think all bets are off, and it’s okay to describe the inhabitants as they are.  But if the story relies on surprise, like in the case of “Bad Sushi” (just who is behind this mysterious seafood company, anyway?), the punch is completely gone, and the dramatic buildup suffers terribly.

IMG_7018Innsmouth Bus Driver, by Casey Love

But herein lies one of the catch-22s of Lovecraft mythos fiction. Here I am whining about a rather blatant application of dramatic irony (*I* know these people aren’t fully human, but our fearless protagonist hasn’t got a clue! WHOA!) and, at worst, a complete spoiling of a surprise.

But can you really write mythos stories about Innsmouth that don’t involve a few of these qualifiers?  I can only imagine the tone my complaints would take then.  WTF, you know, this is Innsmouth, why is everyone just trotting around like everything is normal.  How were we supposed to know those were Deep Ones?  You can’t just spring that shit on us.   To be fair, this is a problem with short fiction in general, summarized neatly by Chekov’s gun, which I will write more about later: if you don’t drop enough hints at the beginning, the ending will be surprising in the most unsatisfying way possible. A crappy deus ex machina.

A prime example of Chekhov’s gun.  Except for not really.  Mostly I just love this sketch and was waiting for an opportunity to post it.

So, what can be done?  How can Innsmouth mythos fiction be written in a way that it’s approachable for the newcomer and yet still surprising and frightening to someone familiar with Lovecraft’s universe?  It is difficult, but by no means impossible.  And, more importantly, it’s unbelievably fantastic when the subject is handled well.  A handful of weird fiction authors have succeeded masterfully, and I’ll write about a few of my favorite examples on Friday.  Stay tuned!  (And if you have any personal favorites, feel free to add them to the comments!)

The Cultist

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I read both The Andromeda Strain (purchased, if I recall correctly, at a book fair) and The Hot Zone (brought to a family reunion and abandoned by a unknown relative). Now, don’t get me wrong: I was not a brilliant child. HUGE swathes of both books completely evaded me—I think I just unconsciously skipped over everything I didn’t understand. But, to this day, I can’t quite pry either book out of my brain:

The Andromeda Strain: A perturbed 10-year-old’s summary

  1. All your blood will clot instantly.
  2. Everyone in the small town where it originates either dies in seconds or kills themselves in bizarrely elaborate ways.
  3. They cut into one guy’s heart and chunks of spongy blood fell out.
  4. I don’t see why this couldn’t happen in real life.

 

The Hot Zone: An increasingly terrified and despondent 10-year-old’s summary

  1. It’s real. This really happened
  2. The guy on the plane threw up what looked like coffee grounds and then his intestinal lining sloughs off.
  3. Sometimes your testicles swell up and get rotten.
  4. We are all going to die of Ebola.

(Yes, during the Great U.S. Ebola Panic of 2014-15, my parents did congratulate me for being ahead of my time.)

So, this exposure (har!) had three major consequences:

  • It turned me into a life-long hypochondriac
  • It kick-started my interest in medicine and health (although try working that seamlessly that into a graduate or medical school essay)
  • It sowed the seeds that would become my full-blown love of body horror*

 

I would define body horror rather loosely (“Anything that really squicks you out”), although I’m sure there are much better and much more formal definitions**. And, for reasons that may be at least somewhat obvious, I particularly like the horror of contagion. (If you want a fantastic example of this, check out The Best Horror of the Year Vol 2, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s an amazing anthology, and one of the first stories—and neither Google nor Amazon is particularly helping me out here with title or author—is a very modern take on the Masque of the Red Death in the most satisfying possible way.)

Initially, when I started to write this post, I didn’t think that it would be possible to find good examples of body horror in Lovecraft’s work. I could only think of the gray and brittle wasting of the farmer in “The Colour out of Space”. But there are indeed some good examples if you broaden your definition beyond illness, and I may touch on these in a future post:

  • The devolution of man to pale, maggot-like humanoids of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls”.
  • The metamorphosis of Innsmouth residents in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
  • The monstrous appearance of the Whateley twins in “The Dunwich Horror”

But on the whole, I’d say that these examples take a backseat to the cosmic, indifferent horror that plagued and intrigued Lovecraft to no end. But never fear, lovers of body horror—mythos writers have taken up the torch, and taken it up handily since the 1930’s. Here are a couple of prime examples:

  • “The Hour of the Tortoise”, Molly Tanzer: Excellent depiction of unwilling metamorphosis, plus the only Lovecraft fiction I can think of that makes liberal use of Victorian smut. (Think Fanny Hill.) The smut alone would probably make it worth reading, but it’s an excellent story in its own right.
  • “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee”, Christopher Reynaga: An excellent re-telling of Moby Dick: much shorter than the original, and guess how Ahab lost his leg!

But in terms of contagion/disease horror, I can only think of a handful of mythos stories:

Even if you’re not as disease-oriented as I am, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this story, both for its detective-like story arc, as well as the sheer joy the enthusiastic narrator takes in the unusual biology of the Tibetan plains.

“[We arrived]…in the midst of the Summer Grass Festival, which celebrates the harvest of Cordyceps sinenis, the prized caterpillar fungus…Phupten led me several blocks to the café—and what a walk it was! Sidewalks covered with cordyceps!   Thousands of them laid out to dry on tarps and blankets, the withered little hyphae-riddled worms with their dark fungal stalks outthrust like black mono-antennae, capped with tiny spores…never have I seen so many mushrooms in one place, let alone the rare cordyceps; never have I visited a culture where mushrooms were of such great ethnic and economic importance.”

cordyceps100% not made up, for the record: You can find tons of references to cordyceps on alternative health websites.  You eat them.  For your kidneys, apparently.

Let me know if you know of other examples of fear of disease in Lovecraftian works—I desperately want to read more!

The Cultist

 

*Although, for completion’s sake, I’d throw in the original “Violet Beauregarde turns into a gigantic blueberry” from the original Gene-Wilder-as-Willy-Wonka movie. To this day, I’m still faintly amazed they show that to children.

**“Horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Such works may deal with disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation. Other types of body horror include unnatural movements, or the anatomically incorrect placement of limbs to create ‘monsters’ out of human body parts.” Thank you, Wikipedia!

Foreshadowing a turn toward more oceanic themes this coming week, please enjoy one of my favorite Lovecraft-inspired songs of all times!

The Cultist