The Shadow over Innsmouth is a horror novella written by H.P. Lovecraft. It is part of the Cthulhu Mythos for which the author is famous, making numerous references to recurring places, creatures, and other shared elements. It was originally written in late 1931, though the story did not see publication until April 1936 as a complete book by Visionary Publishing Company. It was first rejected by the magazine Weird Tales for being too long to publish in its entirety yet structured in such a way that it could not be cleanly cut into two parts. I read this story in the Necronomicon published by Gollancz in 2008, which is an extensive collection of the author’s “Best Weird Tales.”
The story follows a student taking a tour through New England to see the sights and appreciate the architecture of some of its older towns. The nearby town of Innsmouth is suggested to him as a curiosity and a cheaper stop on his journey. Upon arrival he learns of some locations of interest, witnesses and interacts with strange people, and eventually bears witness to the horrifying truth of the town’s dark and sordid history.
This tale is for the most part told retrospectively, the frame being the narrator’s choice to commit his experiences to writing. The story opens with him informing the reader that he instigated government investigation of the town of Innsmouth, which resulted in multiple raids, demolition of properties, and mysterious arrests with little to no records of the prisoners. He then proceeds to explain the nature of his trip and his growing interest in visiting the town after people in neighbouring areas supply him with superstitious rumours.
I really enjoyed much of the early portions of the story for how well they established atmosphere. Innsmouth isn’t a town that’s completely off limits or considered definitively dangerous, but there’s a consistent air that something simply isn’t right with the place. An effective way this is built upon is with the pieces of jewellery that have made their way out of the town, believed to have been found in a secret treasure hoard, which are described as being disquietingly alien in design. The narrator’s chance to look upon one before first setting foot in the town itself is a compelling sequence thanks to the feelings of unease it evokes in the narrator. There is enough foreboding intrigue and questionable hearsay tied to simple mundane degradation that makes his decision understandable, despite the impending horror. His dismissal of gossip feels believable.
When he eventually arrives, he finds that at first glance Innsmouth isn’t much more than a decrepit fishing town that has been largely abandoned. There are some ordinary people who live and/or work there whom he is able to get some information from, while others are unusual in appearance and keep to themselves, often walking with a shambling gait. Certain people like this strike him with uncanny fear, such as a glimpse he has of a priest in an archway, but he manages to keep himself well-composed for a while.
Things got a little too much for me when he encounters Zadok Allen, the town drunk. There is nothing misshapen about him, but the narrator seeks him out to hear tell of Innsmouth’s history that others don’t know or won’t say. While the yarn he slurs at him would sound like the ravings of a drunk under normal circumstances, the way the novella pans out means you must take his tale pretty much as read. It’s not a bad story in and of itself, but it ultimately amounts to a dump of exposition explaining a lot of precise details about the town and what is afflicting it, which stripped away a little too much of the veil of mystery for me.
Following this is a wonderful sequence of anxious terror, as the narrator is forced to spend the night the Gilman House, a musty local hotel, due to engine trouble with the bus out of town. To his discomfort he finds the door to his room does not have a lock, but he manages to refasten one from clothes-press in his room. To his terror, someone begins trying to enter his room in the middle of the night, quietly trying the hallway door before trying the doors in the adjoining rooms on either side. This sequence did a great job of capturing the tension of being cornered in a threatening, unfamiliar place, with no choice but to flee as best as one can.
The forces at play physically casting a shadow over Innsmouth and warping its residents are revealed in a fairly straightforward manner, while the nature of all their strange cult’s practices are left largely in the dark. I thought this struck a nice balance as the story escalates on the horror of the narrator’s situation but sheds very little light on why these things are happening or the meaning of the references to other things in the Cthulhu Mythos like Shoggoths, or why Cthulhu himself and the lost city R’lyeh are mentioned in otherwise incomprehensible dialogue.
The Shadow over Innsmouth is a brooding tale of intrigue, urban decay, and the insidious take-over of malevolent forces one should never bargain with. It does show its hand a little too much with some details, but also does plenty more to evoke feelings of uncanny discomfort and inspire warped imagination. It’s a well-written, accessible place to start if you’re just getting into the mythos.
My rating: 4 out of 5