What are you doing in Innsmouth?

by Ashley Lister

This is not a question anyone has asked me, but it is one that needs answering. More importantly, it is a question that needs answering in the language of formal academia, because I like to think I have been pursuing the task of writing these novellas with a level of academic gravitas.

It might be enough to say that I am in the process of writing a series of novellas that are loosely based on locations, characters and ideas originally created by HP Lovecraft. I have given each of my novellas the subtitle: a dark tale from Innsmouth.

By way of introducing Lovecraft, his entry on biography.com says:

H.P. Lovecraft was born in 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. The horror magazine Weird Tales bought some of his stories in 1923. His story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ came out in 1928 in Weird Tales. Elements of this story would reappear in other related tales. In his final years, he took editing and ghost-writing work to try to make ends meet. He died on March 15, 1937, in Providence, Rhode Island.

biography.com

This succinct summary describes the life of one of the twentieth century’s most influential horror writers. As horror writer Stephen King explained to American Heritage magazine, “Now that time has given us some perspective on his work, I think it is beyond doubt that H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale” (ibid).

Personally, for this series of novellas, I have taken inspiration from Lovecraft’s Herbert West and the location of Innsmouth and I shall discuss each of those below.

Herbert West is the central character of ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’. This story was written between October 1921 and June 1922. It was first serialized in February through July 1922 in the amateur publication Home Brew (lovecraft.fandom, n/d). The story narrates the career of Herbert West, a medical student, who has a fascination with the concept of restoring life to the recently deceased. Over six instalments, West develops his treatment. This means the story’s main horrific elements come from semantic content, such as death, dead bodies and graverobbing, although much of the narrative tension comes from the worry that West will either fail or be successful.

It is worth noting that Science Fiction-The Early Years calls ‘Herbert West–Reanimator’ “wretched work” and Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi claims that ‘Herbert West–Reanimator’ is “universally acknowledged as Lovecraft’s poorest work” (ibid). However, whilst I feel sure that these detractors have good reason for their scathing assessments, and I understand Lovecraft was unhappy with writing this series to suit the specific demands of his friend and editor George Julian Houtain, and it is acknowledged that writers seldom produce their best work when they are unhappy with the writing process, I find the Herbert West stories to be accessible. They present a satisfying character-driven horror yarn. Further, they have clearly pleased other readers and audiences as evidenced by adaptations such as those that appeared in the 1950’s editions of EC’s Weird Science magazine, the series of films that started with Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), and the serial from Crypt of Cthullu (1989) entitled ‘Herbert West Reanimated’.

The history of Innsmouth is a little less straightforward. Lovecraft first used the name of Innsmouth in a short story, ‘Celephaïs’ (1920), when the location was a fictional village in England. However, in ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth’ (1936), Innsmouth is located in Massachusetts, America. In subsequent references in Lovecraft’s work, Innsmouth remains in Massachusetts and this is how Lovecraft first describes the location:

It was a town of wide extent and dense construction, yet one with a portentous dearth of visible life. From the tangle of chimney-pots scarcely a wisp of smoke came, and the three tall steeples loomed stark and unpainted against the seaward horizon. One of them was crumbling down at the top, and in that and another there were only black gaping holes where clock-dials should have been. The vast huddle of sagging gambrel roofs and peaked gables conveyed with offensive clearness the idea of wormy decay, and as we approached along the now descending road I could see that many roofs had wholly caved in. There were some large square Georgian houses, too, with hipped roofs, cupolas, and railed “widow’s walks”.

Lovecraft, Shadow Over Innsmouth

Despite this grim description, which makes Innsmouth appear like something stricken by entropy and the decay of neglect, the main source of horror in ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth’ comes from the idea that this coastal location is home to a dark and dirty secret. The people of Innsmouth are something other than human. They share physical similarities that show a common heritage and, as the story plays out, we learn that the locals are the progeny of an unholy union. As explained in the summary at bookstldr.com:

The narrator meets Zadok, who explains that an Innsmouth merchant named Obed Marsh discovered a race of fish-like humanoids known as the Deep Ones. When hard times fell on the town, Obed established a cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon, which offered human sacrifices to the Deep Ones in exchange for wealth in the form of large fish hauls and unique jewelry. When Obed and his followers were arrested, the Deep Ones attacked the town and killed more than half of its population, leaving the survivors with no other choice than to continue Obed’s practices. Male and female inhabitants were forced to breed with the Deep Ones, producing hybrid offspring which have the appearance of normal humans in early life but, in adulthood, slowly transform into Deep Ones themselves and leave the surface to live in ancient undersea cities for eternity. He further explains that these ocean-dwellers have designs on the surface world and have been planning the use of shoggoths to conquer or transform it.

(bookstldr.com, n/d)

Nowadays it is easy to see this story as indicative of Lovecraft’s fears of ethnic diversity and his sanctioning of racial purity. The dangers of wholesome European-Americans breeding with someone from an ‘other’ culture is like a warning to early twentieth century man about what happens when eugenics are ignored. It is also well-documented that racism is overtly foregrounded in his poetry and letters. According to The Atlantic, “This is a man who, in a 1934 letter, described “extra-legal measures such as lynching & intimidation” in Mississippi and Alabama as “ingenious”” (Eil, 2015).

However, the stories I wanted to write sidestepped Lovecraft’s obscene notions of racial purity and focused on the genuinely unsettling content of the two stories. I wanted to write about a Herbert West-esque character who was tampering with human lives, oblivious to the harm and upset he was causing. I also wanted to set the story in a location similar to Innsmouth in that it would be somewhere where the uncanny and the supernatural were commonplace.

TO BE CONTINUED

Bibliography

biography.com (ed), 2020, H.P. Lovecraft Biography, Available at: https://www.biography.com/writer/hp-lovecraft, (Accessed: 24th May 2021)

bookstldr.com (ed), 2021, The Shadow Over Innsmouth Summary, Available at: https://www.bookstldr.com/book/the_shadow_over_innsmouth, (Accessed: 25th May 2021)

Eil, P., 2015, The Unlikely Reanimation of H P Lovecraft, The Atlantic, Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/hp-lovecraft-125/401471/, (Accessed 25th May 2021)

lovecraft.fandom (ed) n/d, Herbert West-Reanimator, Available at: https://lovecraft.fandom.com/wiki/Herbert_West–Reanimator#Plot_summary, (Accessed: 24th May 2021)

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