I am providence the life.., p.119
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 119
And yet I saw them in a limitless stream—flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating—surging inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare. And some of them had tall tiaras of that nameless whitish-gold metal . . . and some were strangely robed . . . and one, who led the way, was clad in a ghoulishly humped black coat and striped trousers, and had a man’s felt hat perched on the shapeless thing that answered for a head. . . .
Olmstead escapes, but his tale is not over. After a much-needed rest, he continues to pursue genealogical research, and finds appalling evidence that he may himself be related to the Marsh family in a fairly direct way. He learns of a cousin locked in a madhouse in Canton, and an uncle who committed suicide because he learned something nameless about himself. Strange dreams of swimming underwater begin to afflict him, and gradually he breaks down. Then one morning he awakes to learn that he has acquired “the Innsmouth look.” He thinks of shooting himself, but “certain dreams deterred me.” Later he comes to his decision: “I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.”
This masterful tale of insidious regional horror requires volumes of commentary, but we can only touch upon a few notable features here. To begin most mundanely, let us specify the location of Innsmouth. The name had been invented in so early a tale as “Celephaïs” (1920), but was clearly located in England; Lovecraft resurrected the name for the eighth sonnet (“The Port”) of the Fungi from Yuggoth (1929–30), where the setting is not entirely clear, although a New England locale is likely. In any event, it is plain that Newburyport is the basic setting for Innsmouth, even if today it has been substantially renovated into a yuppie resort town and is no longer the decaying backwater that Lovecraft saw. Robert D. Marten has soundly refuted Will Murray’s contention that some aspects of the topography of Innsmouth derive from other towns, such as Gloucester.
“The Shadow over Innsmouth” is Lovecraft’s greatest tale of degeneration; but the causes for that degeneration here are quite different from what we have seen earlier. In such tales as “The Lurking Fear” and “The Dunwich Horror,” unwholesome inbreeding within a homogeneous community has caused a descent upon the evolutionary scale; in “The Horror at Red Hook” it is merely said that “modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery,” and all we can perhaps infer is that the breeding of foreigners amongst themselves has resulted in the wholesale squalor we now see in Red Hook. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is, however, clearly a cautionary tale on the ill effects of miscegenation, or the sexual union of different races, and as such may well be considered a vast expansion and subtilisation of the plot of “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1920). It is, accordingly, difficult to deny a suggestion of racism running all through the story. By means of his protagonist, Lovecraft occasionally betrays his own paranoia: during his escape from Innsmouth, Olmstead hears “horrible croaking voices exchanging low cries in what was certainly not English,” as if a foreign language were in itself a sign of aberration. All through the tale the narrator expresses—and expects us to share—his revulsion at the physical grotesqueness of the Innsmouth people, just as in his own life Lovecraft frequently comments on the “peculiar” appearance of all races but his own.
This racist interpretation is not refuted by the suggestion made by Zadok Allen that human beings are ultimately related to the fish-frogs; for this has an entirely different implication. Zadok declares: “Seems that human folks has got a kind o’ relation to sech water-beasts—that everything alive come aout o’ the water onct, an’ only needs a little change to go back agin.” Forget for the nonce that Lovecraft had, in At the Mountains of Madness, supplied an entirely different account of the emergence of humanity: the intent here and in that story is the same—the denigration of human importance by the suggestion of a contemptible and degrading origin of our species.
An examination of the literary influences upon the story can clarify how Lovecraft has vastly enriched a conception that was by no means his own invention. There is little doubt that the use of hybrid fishlike entities was derived from at least two prior works for which Lovecraft always retained a fondness: Irvin S. Cobb’s “Fishhead” (which Lovecraft read in the Cavalier in 1913 and praised in a letter to the editor, and which was also reprinted in Harré’s Beware After Dark!, where Lovecraft surely reread it) and Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master,” a short story later included as the first five chapters of the episodic novel In Search of the Unknown (1904). (Derleth had given a copy of this book to Lovecraft in the fall of 1930.) But in both these stories we are dealing with a single case of hybridism, not an entire community or civilisation; this latter feature is, however, found in Algernon Blackwood’s masterful novelette “Ancient Sorceries” (in John Silence—Physician Extraordinary ), where the inhabitants of a small French town appear, through witchcraft, to transform themselves at night into cats. Lovecraft vastly expands on this conception to create the sense of worldwide menace that we find in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” What is more, there is no guarantee that human beings will prevail in any future conflict with the fish-frogs; for, loathsome as they are, they nevertheless possess—as do the fungi from Yuggoth and the Old Ones—qualities that raise them in many ways above our species. Aside from their near-immortality (Olmstead in a dream meets his great-great-grandmother, who has lived for 80,000 years), they clearly possess aesthetic skills of a high order (that tiara “belonged to some settled technique of infinite maturity and perfection”), and in fact are allowing human beings to dwell on the earth on their sufferance: as Zadok says, “they cud wipe aout the hull brood o’ humans ef they was willin’ to bother.” And, although they are damaged by the destruction of the town in 1927–28 when Olmstead calls in Federal authorities after his experience, they are by no means extirpated; Olmstead ponders ominously at the very end: “For the present they would rest; but some day, if they remembered, they would rise again for the tribute Great Cthulhu craved. It would be a city greater than Innsmouth next time.”
The lengthy chase scene that occupies the fourth chapter of the story is certainly engaging enough reading, if only because we witness the customarily staid and mild-mannered Lovecraftian protagonist battering through doors, leaping out windows, and fleeing along streets or railway tracks. It is, of course, typical that he does not engage in any actual fisticuffs (he is far outnumbered by his enemies), and he reverts to the Lovecraftian norm by fainting as he cowers in a railway cut and watches the loathsome phalanx of hybrids rush by him. More seriously, this notion of seeing horrors go by is of some significance in augmenting the atmosphere of nightmarish terror Lovecraft is clearly wishing to achieve; as he wrote in a letter: “I believe that—because of the foundation of most weird concepts in dream-phenomena—the best weird tales are those in which the narrator or central figure remains (as in actual dreams) largely passive, & witnesses or experiences a stream of bizarre events which—as the case may be—flows past him, just touches him, or engulfs him utterly.”
As for Zadok Allen’s monologue—which occupies nearly the entirety of the third chapter—it has been criticised for excessive length, but Lovecraft was writing at a time when the use of dialect for long stretches was much commoner than now. The dialogue portions of John Buchan’s enormously long novel Witch Wood (1927) are almost entirely in Scots dialect, as is the whole of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet.” Zadok’s speech is undeniably effective in both supplying the necessary historical backdrop of the tale and in creating a sense of insidious horror. Zadok occupies a structurally important place in the narrative: because he has witnessed, at first hand, the successive generations of Innsmout
“Hey, yew, why dun’t ye say somethin’? Haow’d ye like to be livin’ in a town like this, with everything a-rottin’ an’ a-dyin’, an’ boarded-up monsters crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ araoun’ black cellars an’ attics every way ye turn? Hey? Haow’d ye like to hear the haowlin’ night arter night from the churches an’ Order o’ Dagon Hall, an’ know what’s doin’ part o’ the haowlin’? Haow’d ye like to hear what comes from that awful reef every May-Eve an’ Hallowmass? Hey? Think the old man’s crazy, eh? Wal, Sir, let me tell ye that ain’t the wust!”
There seem to be two dominant influences upon the creation of Zadok Allen, one real and the other fictional. The life dates of Lovecraft’s aged amateur friend, Jonathan E. Hoag (1831–1927), coincide exactly with those of Zadok. More substantially, Zadok seems loosely based upon the figure of Humphrey Lathrop, an elderly doctor in Herbert Gorman’s The Place Called Dagon (1927), which Lovecraft read in March 1928. Like Zadok, Lathrop is the repository for the secret history of the Massachusetts town in which he resides (Leominster, in the north-central part of Massachusetts); and, like Zadok, he is partial to spirits—in this case apple-jack!
But it is Olmstead around whom the entire story revolves—unusually so for the cosmically oriented Lovecraft; and yet, in this tale Lovecraft succeeds brilliantly both in making Olmstead’s plight inexpressibly tragic and also in hinting at the awesome horrors that threaten the entire planet. It is his greatest union of internal and external horror. The many mundane details that lend substance and reality to Olmstead’s character are in large part derived from Lovecraft’s own temperament and, especially, from his habits as a frugal antiquarian traveller. Olmstead always “seek[s] the cheapest possible route,” and this is usually—for Olmstead as for Lovecraft—by bus. His reading up on Innsmouth in the library, and his systematic exploration of the town by way of the map and instructions given him by the grocery youth, parallel Lovecraft’s own thorough researches into the history and topography of the places he wished to visit and his frequent trips to libraries, chambers of commerce, and elsewhere for maps, guidebooks, and historical background.
Even the ascetic meal Olmstead eats at a restaurant—“A bowl of vegetable soup with crackers was enough for me”—echoes Lovecraft’s parsimonious diet both at home and on his travels. But it does more than that. Lovecraft’s characters have frequently but inanely been criticised for their failure to eat, go to the bathroom, or indulge in long-winded conversation; but it should be evident by now that this type of mundane realism was not to his purpose. Even in his novelettes and short novels, Lovecraft’s prime concern—beyond even verisimilitude and topographical realism—was a rigid adherence to Poe’s theory of unity of effect; that is, the elimination of any words, sentences, or whole incidents that do not have a direct bearing on the story. Accordingly, a character’s eating habits are wholly dispensed with because they are inessential to the denouement of a tale and will only dilute that air of tensity and inevitability which Lovecraft is seeking to establish. It is significant that virtually the only two characters in Lovecraft who do eat—Olmstead and Wilmarth (in “The Whisperer in Darkness”)—do so for reasons that are critical to the development of the plot: Wilmarth because Lovecraft wishes to hint at the unsuccessful attempt to drug him with coffee, and Olmstead because he is forced to spend the evening in Innsmouth and this frugal meal contributes to the psychological portrait of a tourist increasingly agitated by his sinister surroundings.
But it is Olmstead’s spectacular conversion at the end—where he not merely becomes reconciled to his fate as a nameless hybrid but actually embraces it—that is the most controversial point of the tale. Does this mean that Lovecraft, as in At the Mountains of Madness, wishes to transform the Deep Ones from objects of horror to objects of sympathy or identification? Or rather, are we to imagine Olmstead’s change of heart as an augmentation of the horror? I can only believe that the latter is intended. There is no gradual “reformation” of the Deep Ones as there is of the Old Ones in the earlier novel: our revulsion at their physical hideousness is not mollified or tempered by any subsequent appreciation of their intelligence, courage, or nobility. Olmstead’s transformation is the climax of the story and the pinnacle of its horrific scenario: it shows that not merely his physical body but also his mind has been ineluctably corrupted.
This transformation is achieved in many ways, subtle and obvious; one of the most subtle is in the simple use of descriptives. The title, “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” is not chosen by accident; for throughout the tale it is used with provocative variations. We first encounter it when Olmstead, after hearing the account of the ticket agent, states: “That was the first I ever heard of shadowed Innsmouth.” This mildly ominous usage then successively becomes “rumour-shadowed Innsmouth,” “evil-shadowed Innsmouth,” and other coinages that bespeak Olmstead’s increasing sense of loathing at the town and its inhabitants; but then, as he undergoes his “conversion,” we read at the very end of “marvel-shadowed Innsmouth” and the even greater marvels of Y’ha-nthlei, where he shall “dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever”—an utterance that, in its hideous parody of the 23rd Psalm (“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”), ineffably unites Olmstead’s sense of triumph and the reader’s sense of utter horror.
In the end, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about the inexorable call of heredity; it is one more meditation on that poignant utterance, “The past is real—it is all there is.” For Lovecraft, the future was essentially unknown in its unpredictability; the present, conversely, was nothing but the inevitable result of all antecedent and circumjacent events of the past, whether we are aware of them or not. Throughout the story Olmstead is secretly guided by his heredity, but is entirely oblivious of the fact. His ambivalent utterance when he sees Zadok Allen and decides to question him—“It must have been some imp of the perverse—or some sardonic pull from dark, hidden sources”—neatly conveys this point, for that “sardonic pull” is nothing other than the past, embodied by his own heredity, that is ineluctably leading him to Innsmouth and causing him to undergo what he believes to be a merely fortuitous series of unrelated events.
Lovecraft never achieved a greater atmosphere of insidious decay than in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”: one can almost smell the overwhelming stench of fish, see the physical anomalies of the inhabitants, and perceive the century-long dilapidation of an entire town in the story’s evocative prose. And once again he has produced a narrative that progresses from first word to last without a false note to a cataclysmic conclusion—a conclusion, as noted before, that simultaneously focuses on the pitiable fate of a single human being and hints tantalisingly of the future destruction of the entire race. The cosmic and the local, the past and the present, the internal and the external, and self and the other are all fused into an inextricable unity. It is something that Lovecraft had never achieved before and would never achieve again save—in a very different way—in his last major story, “The Shadow out of Time.”
And yet, Lovecraft was profoundly dissatisfied with the story. A week after finishing it on December 3, he wrote lugubriously to Derleth:
I don’t think the experimenting came to very much. The result, 68 pages long, has all the defects I deplore—especially in point of style, where hackneyed phrases & rhythms have crept in despite all precautions. Use of any other style was like working in a foreign language—hence I was left high & dry. Possibly I shall try experimenting with another plot—of as widely different nature as I can think of—but I think an hiatus like that of 1908 is
Given this statement, is it nevertheless possible that Lovecraft was, even subconsciously, thinking of a specific market in mind when writing the story? Will Murray, largely on the strength of the chase scene in the fourth chapter, has conjectured that Lovecraft may have had Strange Tales in mind; but the theory must remain unproven in the entire absence of any documentary evidence to this effect. We have seen that Strange Tales not only paid better than Weird Tales, but that Harry Bates wished “action” stories, and the chase scene is otherwise uncharacteristic of Lovecraft; but if Strange Tales was the contemplated market, it is odd that Lovecraft did not actually submit the tale there (or anywhere), forcing Murray to conclude that Lovecraft was so dissatisfied with the story when he finished it that he did not wish to submit it to a professional market. This makes Murray’s theory incapable either of proof or refutation—barring, of course, the unlikely emergence of a statement by Lovecraft in a letter during the writing of the tale that Strange Tales was the market he had in mind.
August Derleth had, in the meantime, developed a sort of frantic interest in the story—or, more specifically, in its sale to a pulp market. After hearing of Lovecraft’s discouragement about the tale, Derleth offered to type it himself; this at least prodded Lovecraft to prepare a typescript, which he completed around the middle of January 1932. Derleth read and evidently liked the story, for by late January he was already asking his new artist protégé Frank Utpatel to prepare some illustrations for it, even though it had not been accepted or even submitted anywhere. Derleth had, however, suggested some changes—specifically, he felt that the narrator’s “taint” had not been sufficiently prepared for in the early part of the story (Clark Ashton Smith echoed this view) and thought Lovecraft should drop a few more hints at the beginning. Lovecraft was, however, “so thoroughly sick of the tale from repeated re-revisions that it would be out of the question to touch it for years.” At this point Derleth himself offered to make the revisions! Lovecraft naturally rejected this idea, but did allow Derleth to keep a permanent copy of one of the two carbons.
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