The Pequod Review:
Published in 1936, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most frightening stories. It is told in the first person by a young man (Robert Olmstead) who describes an earlier sightseeing trip he took through New England, where he came across a decaying coastal town (Innsmouth) that is the subject of ominous rumors. Innsmouth was once a prosperous shipping port but a deep recession in the early 1800s and a deadly epidemic in 1845 led to a prolonged decline. The town has barely recovered since then — its buildings are mostly abandoned and the remaining townspeople seem to have odd physical traits (“the Innsmouth look”) which have led those in neighboring villages to mostly stay away. Olmstead nonetheless finds his curiosity aroused and decides to take a day trip by bus to Innsmouth, where he eventually discovers a much more terrifying history.
Throughout his career, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) carved out an entirely unique genre of fiction that incorporated elements of mystery, horror and science fiction (often lumped under the catch-all category “weird tales”). But at its core, Lovecraft’s work considered the insignificance of the human race in the wider universe. As he put it in a 1927 letter to his editor:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large... To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown — the shadow-haunted Outside — we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.
The Shadow over Innsmouth includes many of these themes, from its contemplation of a newly dominant species on Earth to its essential amorality. But it’s the book's atmospheric setting that is most memorable, as Lovecraft incorporates imagery that suggests much deeper horrors in Innsmouth than merely economic decline:
It was a town of wide extent and dense construction, yet one with a portentous dearth of visible life... The decay was worst close to the waterfront, though in its very midst I could spy the white belfry of a fairly well-preserved brick structure which looked like a small factory. The harbor, long clogged with sand, was enclosed by an ancient stone breakwater; on which I could begin to discern the minute forms of a few seated fishermen, and at whose end were what looked like the foundations of a bygone lighthouse. A sandy tongue had formed inside this barrier, and upon it I saw a few decrepit cabins, moored dories, and scattered lobster-pots. The only deep water seemed to be where the river poured out past the belfried structure and turned southward to join the ocean at the breakwater’s end.
Here and there the ruins of wharves jutted out from the shore to end in indeterminate rottenness, those farthest south seeming the most decayed. And far out at sea, despite a high tide, I glimpsed a long, black line scarcely rising above the water yet carrying a suggestion of odd latent malignancy. This, I knew, must be Devil Reef. As I looked, a subtle, curious sense of beckoning seemed superadded to the grim repulsion; and oddly enough, I found this overtone more disturbing than the primary impression.
Even Lovecraft's dialogue is infused with a threatening quality. At one point, Olmstead has a long conversation about Innsmouth’s history with an elderly man (Zadok Allen) who speaks in a menacing syntax:
“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!”
A key reason for the story's success is the grounded nature of the narrator Olmstead, a university student from Ohio who is as horrified and unsettled by his findings as we imagine we would be. The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami does this to excellent effect too, as his typically bemused and passive protagonists witness a series of surreal events with growing astonishment. However, in Olmstead’s case, he doesn’t just witness these events; he becomes engulfed by them.
The Shadow over Innsmouth is an excellent book, and one that is much more than a horror story. It is tragic, mysterious, and even suspenseful (with a gripping chase sequence mid-way through the story). And it concludes on an especially frightening note, as it hints at the possible end of the human race. Lovecraft’s prose is sometimes needlessly wordy and his story is not always well-told — the long monologue from Zadok Allen that takes up an entire chapter becomes a little tiresome — but this is otherwise an awesome achievement of atmosphere and dread.