Thursday, 20 August 2015
The first book of H. P. Lovecraft’s work I owned was The Lurking Fear and Other Stories. I had purchased it because my friend had told me “The Lurking Fear” was absolutely terrifying (he was right). But this slim volume also contained “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and this story has become one of my favorites. With Lovecraft’s 125th birthday shambling towards us today, August 20th (happy birthday, you Gothic weirdo), I asked myself why I liked this story so much. Of all of his stories, why does “Innsmouth” give me such a horrid thrill?
I suppose some of it is my personal background. I grew up in Detroit where Prohibition-era bootlegging is a part our communal folklore, and on the very first page the narrator reveals that the government’s story about federal agents battling bootleggers in Innsmouth was fabricated to hide a darker secret. Moreover, my childhood in Detroit afforded me the opportunity to experience the smell of dead, rotting fish washed up under a pier. While I don’t have the extreme dislike of the sea and its denizens that Lovecraft had, it is true that I rarely eat fish unless it comes deep fried and drowned in lemon juice.
Perhaps my childhood memories of watching Hammer horror films with my older brothers and later reading Poe are also factors. For “Innsmouth" is one of Lovecraft’s most Gothic stories. Now if I was to say, “Lovecraft and Gothic,” the first story that would come to mind would probably be “The Rats in the Wall.” That “Innsmouth” does not come to mind first, makes it also, I would argue, one of his best.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What makes “Innsmouth” so Gothic? The curious narrator visits the town of Innsmouth and finds it in a state of moldering decay that is the equal to any ruin found in Radcliffe. The Innsmouth locals are standoffish until he comes across a superstitious and chatty servant – I mean the superstitious town drunk, Zadok Allen. Once plied with bootleg alcohol, Zadok reveals – in great detail – the cursed history of the town. It all began when the sea captain Obed March brought back a strange object – and stranger ideas – from a remote island in the South Pacific. Eventually, Captain March took a second wife. While she may not have been locked in an attic like the first Mrs. Rochester, Obed’s second wife was never seen outside of the house. I don’t want to give too much away in case anyone hasn’t read it, but the curse involves sex and immortality (but no vampires). Like many Gothic heroines before him, the narrator flees through Innsmouth’s dark, labyrinthine ruins and swoons when he cannot help but look at a horrid scene.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list, but it gives an idea of how steeped in Gothic tropes the story is. And yet, “Innsmouth” is much more than a collection of borrowed effects. It is also a very modern story. Obed March did not make his Faustian deal with the devil. Rather, he made his deal with an alien species making the story just as much science fiction as Gothic horror.
As modern as it seems given the above, the story is almost a hundred yeas old. Has it aged well? The answer is another part of why I like it so much. Someone with modern sensibilities (and not just a fan of old-fashioned Gothic horror) can still be unnerved by it because the most chilling part of the tale is not the traffic with an alien species. Rather, it is that at any moment this species could take over the planet. Simply put “Innsmouth” creates a world in which humans are neither masters and possessors of nature, nor chosen and protected by a benevolent God. Humans are just one of many species and certainly not the most powerful.
Moreover, Lovecraft makes this powerlessness very personal. If there is a moral in Lewis’ The Monk, it might be that one should be moral, but also worldly enough to avoid the snares laid by the devil. The tragic fall of Ambrosio might have been avoided if he was a little less virtuous, if he had been raised in a more open, worldly home, instead of a monastery. However, the final fate of the narrator in “Innsmouth” could not have been avoided, which changes his dramatic escape from being heroic to tragic and ironic. That humans are doomed and there is no way to avoid it makes “Innsmouth" is a wonderful allegory of the twentieth century existential crisis.
It is a true testament to Lovecraft’s talent that he was able to so seamlessly blend an old genre with modern fears and anxieties.
T. G. Rivard is a guest blogger. His love of the Gothic started with watching Hammer horror films which in turn lead to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Walpole and Radcliffe. He writes Gothic and weird tales and posts them on his blog, A Weird Miscellany.