Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft

This is my favorite of the Lovecraft stories we’ve read this tern. Again, Lovecraft uses the device of the evil place, “that ill-rumored and evilly-shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. While he is out travelling, our young narrator becomes intrigued by stories about a town called Innsmouth.

Lovecraft uses the word “queer” about 666 times in describing Innsmouth. The town is queer, the odd-angled buildings are queer and lord knows the people are queer. It was thought that the town founder, old Captain Marsh, made a pact with the devil. The inhabitants have “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right.” They seem to some kind of aliens, but not of the South Sea or Asian variety as they would like you to believe. He also describes that strange jewelry they leave behind. “…it was the queer otherworldly quality of the art which made me uneasy.”

Lovecraft does a splendid job of describing the utterly alien feel of the town, how all of the houses are boarded up but he can sense a strange life force behind the seemingly empty buildings. He talks about the Masons and the “Esoteric Order of the Dragon.” When the narrator is riding the bus into town he sees a stone church with a rectangle of blackness at the basement. He gets a shiver as he sees the pastor pass back and forth with one of the alien tiaras on his head. We feel the shudder, too. I grew fascinated with his use of odd angled architecture to indicate that the narrator had passed over into another dimension, as though somehow that passage was dependent upon mathmatics.

The narrator finds an old timer in town who tells him the true story of the town, including that fact that they kidnap people for human sacrifices to their god who lived under the sea. He plans to spend the day there and leave at eight o’clock at night, but the bus he is supposed to ride out of town becomes disabled. He is forced to stay at the Gilman hotel in town, a grim, horrible, dangerous place. As the sun sets, out narrator’s dread increases. His door has no lock so he removes a lock from one of the internal doors and replaces it. In the night he hears someone rattling the lock. When they don’t succeed they go to his side door.

In this scene Lovecraft instills a perfect sense of blood curdling dread in us. We feel this man’s plight in no uncertain terms. He builds the suspense gradually, along with the fact that we know that they collect human sacrifices, which gives the reader a definite sense of the creeps. The descriptions are so good you feel as though you are there and wonder what you would do in his shoes. “Then the lock of the connecting door to my room was tried softly.” This subtle action is more creepy to me than all of the ghosts crashing into people’s rooms in Hell House.”

The one thing that makes this not as scary is that we know from the beginning that the narrator lived and told the authorities about his experience. I wonder why Lovecraft used the device of a frame story to tell this tale? I think that lessens some of the tension. He may have dibe it to give credence to his story and make it seem like a real person giving an account.

One thing that helps is that we know that the narrator is scared and that makes us more scared. “A wave of almost abnormal horror swept over me.”

He does manage to get away from the evil monsters and goes to the authorities who actually do believe him. This is unusual for the conventions we’re used to in horror stories. We’re used to people keeping these kinds of things to themselves so no one thinks they are crazy. If they did go to the authorities, they would never believe them.

The twist ending is excellent, and you can see how Lovecraft set up the fact that the viewpoint character is actually one if them with the fact that the half-breed aliens don’t start to look really alien until later in life.

To me this is an entirely successful story. No wonder it spawned generation of admirers of the Cthulhu myth.

1 comment:

  1. First off, I really like the tone that you write your blogs in :) I especially like "The town is queer, the odd-angled buildings are queer and lord knows the people are queer!" hahaha

    I also think that you make a really good point here when you talk about how certain descriptions of the people, the oddly shaped architecture, etc. physically affect the reader; the imagery in this story is so well portrayed that at time we DO get chills or shudder a little... and heaven knows the whole time we read this we smelled that gross fishy smell!!