Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Beyond Lonely Towns and Mysterious Caves: Shadows over Innsmouth

H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936) has always been a personal favorite of mine, since the protagonist and I both attended Oberlin College, although post-graduation our life-paths followed different trajectories.

This volume edited by Stephen Jones collects Lovecraft’s novella and adds to it sixteen other short stories it inspired. Some of these stories take place shortly after the end of Lovecraft’s original, others much later. Jones arranged the stories in chronological order. So immediately after Lovecraft’s original comes Basil Copper’s “Beyond the Reef,” set four years later in the near-by town of Arkham, the home of Miskatonic University. Built on Lovecraft’s suggestion that the destruction of Innsmouth wasn’t complete, Copper’s story follows the attempts by local authorities to rid the world of Dagon and its fishy followers.

The theme of the ongoing battle against Dagon, its minions, and other supernatural horrors is the basis for many of these stories. The location shifts -- from New England to the West Coast to Old England -- but the main plot of many stories is similar: the protagonist explores mysterious caves, lonely towns, or the like, encounters monsters and destroys them (or tries to).

Some authors successfully incorporate other ideas to vary this trope. I’m a noir fan, so I enjoyed Jack Yeovil’s “The Big Fish,” which echoes both Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940). Unlike Chandler’s original, the protagonist finds the boat moored in international waters home to more than just gamblers.

The date of many of the other stories is unclear, but closer to modernity. Kim Newman’s “A Quarter to Three,” is one of these. The shortest story in the collection, it does not strive for the Gothic horror atmosphere of many of the other stories. Rather, it is humorous, concluding with a joke.

A longer example of comedy-horror is David Langford’s “Deepnet.” It posits a nefarious Innsmouth software company, whose products (re)shape their users. The humor in this story is mainly exhibited in its advertising slogans, which sound authentic and, once their double meaning is understood, quiet disquieting.

Many of the authors are British and have set their stories in England or Ireland, which allows them to posit much longer histories of human conflict with the Old Ones. Being interested in Roman archeology, one story in this category that I particularly enjoyed was Brian Mooney’s “The Tomb of Priscus.” It is set in Sussex, England, where a Roman soldier’s tomb is being excavated.

The last story in the collection is Neil Gaiman’s “Only the End of the World Again.” His protagonist, a werewolf, visits Innsmouth and encounters its bizarre inhabitants first hand.

Lovecraft’s mythos provides a wide (and weird) world in which to write, and many of the authors in this collection hew closely to the Innsmouth story. This is, perhaps, understandable and, presumably, the goal of the collection. Yet reading the stories straight through, I found this theme repetitive; it may be better to dip into this anthology over a month or so.

For me, the most successful stories were those that moved beyond Lovecraft’s story of genetic determinism, recovered journals or diaries, and rundown towns populated by fishy folks. I imagine that some purists may find these non-Lovecraftian elements irritating. For me, these stories’ mixing of different genres and mythic systems was what made them appealing.

By Adam Porter

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