Strange Flesh: The Use Of Lovecraftian Archetypes In Queer Fiction – The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931)

Authors Note: This is Part 3 of an ongoing series.

Perhaps his most famous work next to “The Call of Cthulhu” “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is the only one of Lovecraft’s stories to be published as a standalone book in his life time. Written in 1931 it follows a student narrator who is traveling around New England on an antiquarian and genealogical tour. Intending to pass through “ancient Newburyport to Arkham” to visit the place his mother’s family was derived from, he learns of the mysterious and disliked seaport of Innsmouth, a place that seemingly does not exist on any of the maps and is subject to all kinds of horrific rumours:

“They’ve been telling things about Innsmouth – whispering ‘em, mostly – for the last hundred years, I guess, and I gather they’re more scared than anything else. Some of the stories would make you laugh – about old Captain Marsh driving bargains with the devil and bringing imps out of hell to live in Innsmouth, or about some kind of devil-worship and awful sacrifices in some place near the wharves…” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p. 506)

As well as these rumours, the narrator is made aware of the “Innsmouth look.” A racial trait carried by the inhabitants of the town that sets them apart from the rest of the neighbouring societies. It is described as: “(having) queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin aint quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of their necks are all shrivelled or creased up.” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p. 507) Spurred on by the mystique of this infamous seaport, the narrator soon discovers a piece of strange jewellery being housed in the Newburyport Historical Society that has some connection with Innsmouth.

“(a) sort of tiara, as the description had said. It was tall in front, and with a very large and curiously irregular periphery, as if designed for a head of almost freakishly elliptical outline.” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p. 510)

Combined with newly revealed knowledge about a sinister cult that has taken root in the town – The Esoteric Order of Dagon – the narrator is eventually lead to catch a bus into Innsmouth and satisfy his curiosity. It is here, that the nightmare truly begins.

Upon arriving in the township, the narrator comes across another outsider, a young boy from Arkham who has been relocated to Innsmouth by the grocery chain that he works for. The boy reveals to the narrator that outsiders are not welcome, and have been known to disappear when hanging around certain more dangerous areas in the town. He also reveals this important piece of exposition regarding the locals:

“They were very fond of the water, and swam a great deal in both river and harbour. Swimming races out to Devil Reef were very common, and everyone in sight seemed well able to share in this arduous sport. When one came to think of it, it was generally only rather young people who were seen about in public, and of these the oldest were apt to be the most tainted-looking. When exceptions did occur, they were mostly persons with no trace of aberrancy, like the old clerk at the hotel. One wondered what became of the bulk of the older folk, and whether the ‘Innsmouth look’ were not a strange and insidious disease-phenomenon which increased its hold as years advanced......The youth was certain that many specimens even worse than the worst visible ones were kept locked indoors in some places. People sometimes heard the queerest kind of sounds. The tottering waterfront hovels north of the river were reputedly connected by hidden tunnels, being thus a veritable warren of unseen abnormalities. What kind of foreign blood – if any – these beings had, it was impossible to tell. They sometimes kept certain especially repulsive characters out of sight when government agents and others from the outside world came to town.” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p. 518)

Tension begins to grow around him as the narrator proceeds to explore the town: “There were creaking’s, scurrying’s, and hoarse doubtful noises; and I thought uncomfortably about the hidden tunnels suggested by the grocery boy.” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p.521)

Just as the township is beginning to get to him and the narrator is considering catching the next bus out of town, he comes across a pivotal character in the story. The old drunk named Zadok Allen, who was mentioned to him prior by the grocery boy as a person of interest. Curious, once again to hear the true story of the town, the narrator supplies this man with a quart of whiskey in order to loosen his tongue and get him to talk about the strange goings on in the town. Zadok Allen begins to describe the background of the town, and of its leader, Captain Obed Marsh who discovered a nearby island tribe with a supernatural abundance of fish:

“Wal, sir, Obed he larnt that they’s things on this arth as most folks never heerd about – an’ wouldn’t believe ef they did hear. It seems these Kanakys was sacrificin’ heaps o’ their young men an’ maidens to some kind o’ god-things that lived under the sea, an’ gittin’ all kinds o’ favour in return. They met the things on the little islet with the queer ruins, an’ it seems them awful picters o’ frog-fish monsters was supposed to be picters o’ these things. Mebbe they was the kind o’ critters as got all the mermaid stories an’ sech started. They had all kinds o’ cities on the sea-bottom, an’ this island was heaved up from thar. Seems they was some of the things alive in the stone buildin’s when the island come up sudden to the surface. That’s haow the Kanakys got wind they was daown thar. Made sign-talk as soon as they got over bein’ skeert, an’ pieced up a bargain afore long. Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had ‘em ages afore, but lost track o’ the upper world arter a time… …They give a sarten number o’ young folks to the sea-things twice every year – May-Eve an’ Hallowe’en – reg’lar as cud be. Also give some o’ the carved knick-knacks they made. What the things agreed to give in return was plenty o’ fish – they druv’em in from all over the sea – an’ a few gold-like things naow an’ then. At fust the things didn’t never go on to the main island, but arter a time they come to want to. Seems they hankered arter mixin’ with the folks, an’ havin’ j’int ceremonies on the big days – May-Eve an’ Hallowe’en. Ye see, they was able to live both in an’ aout’ o’ water… … ‘When it come to matin’ with them toad-lookin’ fishes, the Kanakys kind o’ balked, but finally the larnt something as put a new face on the matter. Seems that human folks has got a kind o’ relation to sech water-beasts – that everything alive come aout o’ the water once, an’ only needs a little change to go back again. Them things told the Kanakys that of they mixed bloods theyre’d be children as ud look human at fust, but later turn more’n more like the things, till finally they’d take to the water an’ jine the main lot o’ things daown thar. An’ this is the important part, young feller – them as turned into fish things an’ went into the water wouldn’t never die. Them things never died excep’ they was kilt violent.” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p. 525-526)

It is here that the plot of the story is revealed, these creatures which soon become known as “Deep Ones” are interbreeding with the people of Innsmouth for some unclear purpose, and the degradation the narrator has observed in the locals is a kind of evolution of sorts, culminating in becoming Deep Ones themselves, ready to return to the sea. This pact with the Deep Ones, which was struck by Captain Obed Marsh and kept active by the Esoteric Order of Dagon, allows Innsmouth an abundance of fish in exchange for the interbreeding already mentioned.

Returning from his eventful encounter with the old drunk, the narrator discovers, much to his dismay that the bus out of town is broken down and won’t be ready to leave until the morning. He is forced to take up lodgings for the night in the Gilman Hotel.

From here, the story continues by detailing the narrator’s feverish escape from the town at midnight after several locals break into his hotel room and chase him across the roof tops and into the streets below.

“Instantly the outside knocking became a violent battering, while keys sounded ominously in the hall doors of the rooms on both sides of me. Rushing through the newly opened connection, I succeeded in bolting the northerly hall door before the lock could be turned; but even as I did so I heard the hall door of the third room – the one from whose window I had hoped to reach the roof below – being tried with a pass key” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p. 538 – 539)

The narrator barely escapes with his life and eventually finds his way to Arkham where to his dismay; he discovers an ancestral connection between his grandmother’s family and Captain Obed Marsh.

Nearly a year later, the narrator, plagued by nightmares of underwater cities and fish-like beings becomes overwhelmed with a desire to return to the sea. He begins to develop the Innsmouth look and concludes his narrative with the final lines: “We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p.554)

Although this basic synopsis of the story does not do it full justice, it is sufficient for our discussion on the text regarding what makes up Lovecraftian horror and how these aspects can work within the context of queer horror.

Brian Stableford writes in his essay “The Cosmic Horror”:

“Lovecraftian fiction is, in essence, a kind of fiction in which horror arises from knowledge that is too much to bear; the ultimate knowledge of that kind is, indeed, related to “unplumbed space” rather than the shallows of human evil, and to “assaults of chaos” rather than the pedestrian traffic of commonplace apparitions and curses.” (Stableford, 2007, p.66)

This component of Lovecraftian fiction – that is to say – the forbidden knowledge is possibly the most important aspect of cosmic horror, the philosophy by which Lovecraft and his contemporaries hold to in their writings.

When looking at this component within “The Shadow over Innsmouth” we see that for the narrator, the ultimate, forbidden knowledge is to do with his very own ancestry. The narrator in TSOI seeks out the forbidden knowledge of the town and eventually of himself, quite willingly, despite everything around him warning him to turn back and drift down into wilful ignorance. This adds a kind of eroticism to this theme, an enticement towards the overwhelming truths of the universe, like the Sirens of Greek Myth, forbidden knowledge in a Lovecraftian tale, puts on the mask of beauty, of allegorical arousal, causing the narrators to fall head over heels in lust with the forbidden truths, no matter how dangerous discovering them may be.

A second important aspect of Lovecraftian horror, which is once again quite obviously spotted in TSOI, is that of the Outsider archetype. We have touched on this earlier, but now will look at the archetype itself.

In Stefan Dziemianowicz’s essay “Outsiders and Aliens: The use of Isolation in Lovecraft’s fiction” he writes:

“In “The Tomb” we meet a character-type that appears in much of Lovecraft’s early fiction: the person who is by nature an outsider. Whether presented as a dreamer or a madman, he is generally so withdrawn that it is no easier for the reader to distinguish the point where the internal landscape of the character’s imagination gives way to the external landscape of the “real” world than it is for the character himself.” (Dziemianowicz, 2011)

Over the years, Lovecraft’s archetypal Outsider would change and evolve into a fully-fledged character type as he became influenced by more and more in his writings. The next big movement in the creation of his Outsider Archetype came in the story “The Call of Cthulhu” Dziemianowicz writes again:

“ “The Call of Cthulhu” stands as a watershed story that synthesizes many of the elements of Lovecraft’s previous tales. First, it revives the figure of the narrator-as-outsider, although the narrator is not a psychological deviant but a man among men, alienated by his knowledge rather than his nature. Second, it suggests portents that go unrecognized and horrors that lurk beneath banal facades in much the same way as Lovecraft’s early New England stories did. Third, it proposes horrors of the same magnitude as those found in exotic and faraway settings where such monstrosities are expected to grow out of proportion… …“The Call of Cthulhu” might be called “an unholy marriage of inside and outside,” a joining together of the alienated perspective of the solitary character with the alienating perspective of the earth’s irrelevance in the gulfs of space and time to create an integrated image of mankind’s isolation in the universe.” (Dziemianowicz, 2011)

From this point in Lovecraft’s writing history, his Outsider characters were no longer outsiders because they were mad or neurotic, but because of the burden of knowledge upon them, or because of the environment they found themselves in. It is at this point where we can look at TSOI and how the narrator of it fits the Outsider archetype perfectly.

Initially, the narrator is isolated from his friends, his family, his walk of society:

“I was celebrating my coming of age by a tour of New England – sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p. 505)

The narrator’s tale begins with him being away from home and traveling on his own in areas not known to him. The next clue to the narrator being an outsider in the text is the environment he finds himself in: Innsmouth is described as “Shadowed Innsmouth” and “a town able to inspire such dislike in its neighbours” (Lovecraft & Jones, 2008, p. 506).

Upon arriving in Innsmouth, the narrator is treated stiffly by locals, and warned that strangers are not welcome, that some have been known to go missing in certain parts of town. This of course eventuates in the chase scene, where the narrator is juxtaposed against the entire township as they chase him through the streets with intentions to kill him.

Finally, Lovecraft does something stunning. He flips his narrators’ archetype on its head as the allowing the character to become not an outsider any longer, but one with the fish-people of Innsmouth, an insider. This is a stroke of brilliance as Dziemianowicz explains:

“Ironically, Lovecraft creates an extraordinarily alienating climax through a conclusion that shows the narrator’s lack of alienation. As Maurice Lévy says, “The reader is left adrift, disoriented in the most material sense of the term. Amid the multiple constituents that make up the impossible definition of the fantastic event, nothing is, we believe, more basic than this ultimate questioning of what has remained so long uncontested: the adherence of the narrator, the ‘witness,’ to the norm.”[119] With its appalling conversion of the narrator into the very thing he has inspired the reader to fear, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” stands as the Lovecraft story that comes closest to bringing the reader into contact with the conceptual horrors that only Lovecraft’s characters come to know.” (Dziemianowicz, 2011)

In the end, TSOI is a prime example of different aspects of Lovecraftian horror marrying together. It is a story most likely carrying the author’s fears of racial mixing and his own genealogy. However, it is a prime example of what Lovecraftian horror can be – the perfect mix of forbidden knowledge, genealogical horror, isolation, miscegenation and physical atavism.

Although not overtly sexual in nature, The Shadow over Innsmouth is all about sex and Lovecraft’s fears of it. The story itself is open to interpretation. It has been suggested that on another level this story could be about closeted homosexuality, or even sexually transmitted infections:

“Consider a simple allegorical interpretation of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” as a journey of self-discovery for a closeted homosexual, exposed for the first time to a homosexual community fearful of persecution, asserting his heterosexuality by exposing them, and then discovering and finally embracing his own sexuality. Of course, a more negative reading of the same story may combine it with suggestions of sexually transmitted disease and degeneration.” (Derie, 2014)

Whichever the case, TSOI acts as a strong template for us as we go forward in analysing queer horror through the lens of Lovecraft and cosmicism.

References:

Derie, B. (2014). Sex and Lovecraft. In Sex and the Cthulhu mythos [Kindle 6 version]. Retrieved from http://www.hippocampuspress.com/h.p-lovecraft/about-hp-lovecraft/sex-and-the-cthulhu-mythos

Dziemianowicz, S. (2011). Outsiders and aliens: The uses of isolation in Lovecraft’s fiction. In D. E. Schultz & S. T. Joshi (Eds.), An epicure in the terrible: A centennial anthology of essays in honor of H. P. Lovecraft [Kindle 6]. Retrieved from http://www.hippocampuspress.com/h.p-lovecraft/about-hp-lovecraft/epicure-in-the-terrible-centennial-anthology-of-essays-in-honor-of-h.-p.-lovecraft

Lovecraft, H. P., & Jones, S. (2008). The shadow over Innsmouth. In Necronomicon: The best weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft (p. 506). London, United Kingdom: Gollancz.

Stableford, B. (2007). Cosmic horror. In S. T. Joshi (Ed.), Icons of horror and the supernatural: An encyclopedia of our worst nightmares (p. 66). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.