I brought up at Mo’s birthday celebration that in ‘the Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ the government illegally destroys half the town and places many residents in concentration camps. This is what passes for suitable birthday conversation in our circle, though to be fair, Mo was talking to her sister. It was Julian, our mutual friend Pat, and I having the discussion.
Julian’s brow furrowed.
“Yeah, man. They put the Innsmouthers in literal detainment camps. They bomb Y’ha-nthlei.”
“I… I don’t remember that.”
And upon closer inspection, I realized that I couldn’t remember exactly where it happened in the story. I knew it did, though, knew it bone-deep with the zealous fervor that all people willing to read Lovecraft’s canon more than once must have. I just couldn’t recall exactly when. Did I make it up? Was this social justice run rampant through my childhood once more? I was so certain they put the fish people in camps!
Upon returning home, I pulled out my Necronomicon, flipped frantically to the story, and started reading. I didn’t have to read very long.
The very first two paragraphs are the ones about concentration camps.
How the fuck did I forget that?
‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ is a triumph of personal horror. Not just for the protagonist, though that’s often the focus, but for every major character. Every person who moves the story has their own personal horror story, from Obed’s greed-fueled embrace of heathenry that leads to the total dissolution of his figurative humanity and his bloodline’s literal humanity, to the protagonist’s uncle who has watched so much of his family descend into madness.
But it is Zadok Allen who truly embodies the depths of personal horror.
“Hey, yew, why dun’t ye say somethin’? Haow’d ye like to be livin’ in a taown 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!”
Zadok was really screaming now, and the mad frenzy of his voice disturbed me more than I care to own.
His weeping, booze-fueled monologue is the real emotional centerpiece of the story. My eyes frankly glaze over by the time we get to the climactic flight from the town. Normally info-dumps like this are death to tension and to investment, but its placement in the narrative, after pages of unsettling, inexplicable details, keep it from being mere exposition. It ties together everything we’ve seen before, and adds more hints that the protagonist is a Marsh.
Most importantly, though, it gives us a valid reason to be afraid of what’s happening in Innsmouth, something beyond Lovecraft’s terror of miscegenation. The Deep Ones’ involvement in the town’s affairs has destroyed it. There’s nothing there except for what they choose to grant, and they have precious little care for the needs of their human supplicants. They proved that they are capable of atrocity and destruction in the night raid that killed Zadok’s father. But mostly they don’t feel like it (nearly verbatim the explanation), and are content to do little things in exchange for their stream of sacrifices, since it’s really no bother to them. The apathy of the Elder Gods in microcosm.
Zadok’s monologue shows the emotional cost of dealing with things beyond man’s ken. His ruined life is symbolic of the ruination of the town as a whole. Even the ones who don’t want to mate with fishes and worship Dagon are forced to go along for their survival—at this point in time, the Deep Ones have so throughly ravaged Innsmouth that without them, everyone is doomed to starve. Rumor and their forced subterfuge has ensured that normal people will never be able to reintegrate, and those more deeply embroiled in the conspiracy have no reason to. They’re happy right where they are. After all, all the people for whom the cost of mating with fish was too great killed themselves, so it’s hardly their problem anymore.
It’s weird that constant reference is made to the almost lazy apathy of the Deep Ones, when apparently they will go nuts with industry for the promise of sex with short-lived land creatures. What is it about human-Deep One hybrids that makes them so desirable? It seems so risky, since such drastic measures must be taken to ensure things move along smoothly once the cult is established. A mob of Deep Ones rallies to capture the protagonist when they realize Zadok has spilled the truth to him. The entire population was enlisted in the whisper campaign that keeps most people out and ensures that those who stay feel unwelcome. People are getting murdered on the reg and that’s no little thing.
They don’t even seem very upset when the town is nearly wiped out. The protagonist will have to pay a penance, but apparently ‘that would not be heavy.’ They’ll bring near-apocalyptic terror to the world of man, if they remember. They could wipe out the whole race of men, they just don’t feel like it.
All this, and they’re still willing to bend over backwards to breed with humans. Why?
Oh, wait, wait, this is racism again, isn’t it? This is the fevered terror of racial mixing, which is never motivated by love or desire or anything like that, only a compulsion by the ‘lesser races’ to ‘pollute’ precious white genes. Oh, okay. Phew. I was so busy getting emotional over the pathos in Zadok’s story that I nearly forgot Lovecraft truly is my Problematic(TM) Fave.
Deep Ones and their human-blooded relatives are a popular topic of the Lovecraftian fiction of today. Portrayals run the gamut from alien and monstrous, like the old lad intended, to sympathetic, like I prefer. One wonders how an author with a more, ahem, nuanced idea of race relations would have changed the base story. Surely the Deep Ones aren’t actively stopping the Innsmouthers from pursuing other industries, since they can’t seem to muster the energy to do anything else productive. A town that thrives despite its inner rot, while the rest of the region starves, is just as frightening a story.
Imagine how much harder people would cling to the Deep Ones in that case. The coercive element could be played down while carrying the exact same stakes, and increasing the emotional horror of it. Is it gross, mating with fish, worshiping weird gods? Yes. But if you make them go away, everything falls apart. An abusive, toxic relationship made more believable by the idea that more than just the three dissolute rich families have everything to lose. A reason for the people to be protective of their monstrous fellow villagers aside from ‘once an obvious lunatic told me to do so, and then fishmen murdered my neighbor’. Though that’s a valid, and terrifying, story, nothing is scarier than the depths we’ll sink on our own accord, for what we are willing to convince ourselves is the right thing.
I guess that’s not very cosmic. But I’m not sure ‘the Shadow’ is a very good cosmic horror story. Is it scary? Sure. But sex is hardly an alien, inscrutable motivation. It’s kinda base, actually. The Deep Ones aren’t cosmic, for all they are monstrous and weird. Maybe that’s the point, that they’re just weird, since they in turn are the supplicants of Great Cthulhu, who is himself just a priest to the real movers and shakers. One man’s nightmare is another eldritch creature’s low-level bureaucracy, I suppose.
It’s never been my favorite, but I did reread it recently for my short ‘Light the Sea,’ and was struck by how much I enjoyed the lead up, and Zadok’s part. My attachment to the story is mostly an attachment to the idea of fish people that are Dee Tee Eff, though now that I’m older the idea of a dissolving, isolated small town is closer to my heart. The idea of being stuck in a terrible situation where everyone around you has bought in entirely to the monstrosity and you feel you have no choice but to the take the Oaths of Dagon (or whatever other dreadful thing the system forces you to do) to live, all the while eaten alive by your guilt, that’s also something that’s approaching critical mass as far as ‘topics guaranteed to buy my complete attention’ go.
I’m fascinated by the idea of what the relationship between the Deep Ones and their human mates must have been. Do you have to deal with them long term? Is it ritualized? Or does ol’ Gha’kya’thi-lier show up when he’s got nothing else to do to splurt fertilizers all over you, then wander off to your kitchen for fish flakes while you mop up the mess?
How did Pth’thya-l’yi feel about Obed? She stayed with him until he passed away. How does she really feel about her human-blooded descendants—especially the ones who failed to take to the water? She speaks directly to the protagonist, her great-great-grandson, though compared to her he is less than a mote, not even a fully-developed Deep One yet.
There’s more questions raised by the story than Lovecraft has answers for, and the answers would probably only detract from the horror. It would definitely detract from what little cosmicism was present. Personal horror is still my favorite kind, though, and so these topics of feelings, these topics of how it effected the every day, the minutia of the inner lives of the Innsmouthers, is very interesting to me.
And, uh, the monsters are so into humans they’ll swim countless leagues to Get Some when they can’t even muster up the energy to do what their Extremely Real God tells them to do??? You know me. There had to be a baser reason for my fascination.