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Shadows Over Innsmouth
edited by Stephen Jones
Del Rey, 468 pages

Shadows Over Innsmouth
Stephen Jones
Stephen Jones is the winner of 2 World Fantasy Awards, the Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award and 2 International Horror Guild Awards, as well as being an 11-time recipient of the British Fantasy Award and a Hugo Award nominee. A full-time columnist, television producer/director and genre movie publicist and consultant, Stephen Jones is also one of Britain's most acclaimed anthologists of horror and dark fantasy. He has edited and written more than 50 books, including: Shadows Over Innsmouth; Exorcisms and Ecstasies, a Karl Edward Wagner collection; and Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror. He is co-editor of a number of series including Best New Horror, Dark Terrors and Dark Voices. He lives in London, England

Stephen Jones Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dark Terrors 5
SF Site Review: White of the Moon
SF Site Review: Dark of the Night

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Stephen M. Davis

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"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear," Lovecraft once wrote, "and the oldest and strongest fear is fear of the unknown." In Lovecraft's case, the unknown pulled itself up out of his inner stew -- beings both shaped and shapeless, tentacled, cone-shaped, or, like the shoggoth, shaped by their creators for the task at hand. Lovecraft was a prim, proper gentleman with a proper, English diction whose father had been a prim, proper gentleman from Rochester who purportedly spoke with a bit of an English accent: small wonder, we imagine, that when the father died in a sanitorium from syphilis-induced brain damage, the son might well have carried the scars of it for the remainder of his life; for him to have absorbed so many of his father's outward trappings, though, is a pure Freudian delight for anyone trying to make sense of Lovecraft's life and fiction.

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" brings forth one of the concerns that weaves its way through much of his writing -- degeneracy. Lovecraft occasionally wrote stories about towns like Dunwich, where the population had inbred to a level of relatively benign stupidity, but the degeneracy found in Innsmouth is of the sort that Lovecraft was most worried by -- consciously or unconsciously: Lovecraft was terrified by degeneracy that occurs not over generations, but within individual life-spans. Biographers may claim that Lovecraft never learned the true state of his father's condition, but his stories certainly seem to show a man obsessed with the worry that what happened to his father could one day happen to him.

Innsmouth is a town that was once prosperous, once important, but that gradually became irrelevant to the world around it. Mistakes were made by the original settlers that led to the sea's encroachment onto the land, and the widening of salt marshes surrounding the town, leading to isolation from the settlements around it, like Arkham. At some point in the 19th century, a deal was struck between the members of the town and the Deep Ones, a race of sea-dwelling, amphibious, vaguely humanoid creatures who worshipped Dagon. As "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" opens, the narrator has decided to travel to Innsmouth to see examples of the colonial architecture that can still be seen in many of the houses there, but as his one-day excursion unfolds, he becomes more and more discomfited by what he observes there:

"The door of the church basement was open, revealing a rectangle of blackness inside. And as I looked, a certain object crossed or seemed to cross that dark rectangle; burning into my brain a momentary conception of nightmare which was all the more maddening because analysis could not show a single nightmarish quality to it" (20).
What the narrator will learn, of course, is that Innsmouth has made a pact for gold and fish that includes the inter-breeding between species and the worship of the sea creatures' god in temples dedicated to the Esoteric Order of Dagon.

Late in the evening, the narrator realizes that the citizens of Innsmouth have decided to add him to the list of those who have disappeared after learning too much about the town, and he makes a tense escape from Innsmouth by crawling down a disused section of railroad track that takes him back to Arkham. And while there is a certain delight in pointing out that Lovecraft, himself a shining example of Scientific Man, has his protagonist escape from chaos, madness, murder, and degeneracy by making use of the only spur of civilization and technology in the town, there is even more to the story than that. For we learn, at the end, that the narrator is being called back to Innsmouth by an irresistible force calling subtly, voicelessly, to his blood. The narrator, in fact, has a female ancestor from Innsmouth, as he learns to his horror -- one who was married out of the town by duping the husband as to her origins. And her blood is strong in the protagonist, blood that will not be denied. Surely Lovecraft, even in 1927 when this story was set, is still struggling with the blood of an ancestor, and still worrying that his father's blood within him will call him to commit the same unspeakable acts the father had.

All of the stories that are anthologized along with this flagship piece by Lovecraft concern the Deep Ones, at least, and several use Innsmouth to good effect. In "Innsmouth Gold," for instance, the narrator travels to the town because of rumors of buried treasure, but winds up spending the kind of night in the swamp that almost everyone who has ever gone camping has experienced at least once. Those readers who have ever spent a sleepless night wondering what the large creature was that just brushed by the tent can readily appreciate the narrator's state of mind when he tells us,

"I sat, shivering, the sleeping-bag around my waist, my ears attuned to the slightest auditory clue. I slowly reached out and switched off the lamp. Black night fell upon me and my eyes tried to compensate by sending flares and sparks across my retina. I held my jaw hard shut to stop my teeth from chattering. The frogs had ceased their barking and I didn't want to be the first to break the silence. I could imagine the fog outside sliding through the forest, lying like a heavy gas over the waters of the nearby swamp, hiding whatever had made that splash" (231).
And in the story "The Big Fish," author Jack Yeovil writes in the style of Raymond Chandler and produces a piece about a private investigator's search for a missing man and child, culminating in a trip to a supposedly deserted ship casino in the city harbor. Most Chandler parodies fail because the writer forgets that, even when Chandler is being most Chandleresque, his writing is extraordinarily good. Yeovil mostly succeeds with this one, because he walks that fine line between parody and burlesque, and has a main character who gives us such truisms as "Money can buy you love but can't even put down a deposit on good taste."

There are other stories in this anthology that succeed mainly because their authors aren't trying too hard to bow down before H.P.L., with those odes to pulp that always seem to include a diary being found behind a chimney brick, or a character who insists on starting a tale off with lines like "No, I am not mad, gentlemen, though I have seen and heard things enough to unhinge the strongest mind these past weeks": lines that have caused more than one editor to slosh out yet another finger of bourbon into the dirty glass that all editors have secreted behind the antique ditto machine in the corner of the office.

In "The Innsmouth Heritage," for instance, Brian Stableford does a fully competent job of updating the Innsmouth story, with a researcher in genetics arriving to try and collect some DNA samples from Innsmouth residents who have that "Innsmouth taint" about them. He finds that those he takes samples from are dying off, and he has, for form's sake, taken a sample from the Innsmouth woman he wishes to marry -- Ann. We may not be that surprised by the ending, but the conception is original.

Arguably the most original story in the collection is Nicholas Royle's "The Homecoming," which transports the Deep Ones to Romania, shortly after Ceausescu's overthrow, but manages to make use of them without being heavy-handed about it.

Brian Lumley makes an appearance, with "Dagon's Bell," but one of the problems with a Lumley story is you never know which Lumley you're going to be treated to: the one who wrote those early, really enjoyable Wampyri novels, or the one who gave us Titus Crow. Here, we're treated to moments like this: "I know, I know!" he answered, his expression tortured. He gripped my arm. "But I'm not finished yet. I don't know it all, not yet. It lures me, Bill. I have to know..."

I would argue that the good in this collection outweighs the bad, and that fans of Lovecraft's Mythos will enjoy the stories. In some ways, this collection is particularly valuable because it gives aspiring writers a chance to see really well plotted, well written stories side-by-side with those broken pieces that should have gotten thrown back in for another firing in the kiln.

Copyright © 2001 Stephen M. Davis

Steve Davis teaches at the University of New Orleans as an Instructor of English. He enjoys chess, strong black coffee, and books by authors who care enough to work at their craft.


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