Since it’s H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday, I wanted to write about one of my favorite Lovecraft stories “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” I remember reading – but I can’t remember where – that Lovecraft didn’t like the story. Now, I’ve written a few things that I don’t like myself, and moreover, who I am to disagree with an artist’s opinion of their own work? But, I’m going to do it anyway.
True, it does have its problems. One of the story’s underpinnings is a fear of miscegenation. This mixed with Lovecraft’s common use of non-Europeans as suspicious and/or villainous characters makes me feel that there’s more than a little racism and xenophobia at the story’s core. We will never know if Lovecraft had some agenda in mind beyond a desire to write a good weird tale when he sat down to write the story. So I’m going set this aside for the moment. The topic of whether we should avoid Lovecraft’s stories because of their racism and xenophobia deserves its own post (and many others who know Lovecraft’s work better than me have already addressed it before).
So let me talk about why “Shadow” is a wonderful example of an effective horror story. It starts out with a government cover-up, and quickly moves to a first-person confession promising the truth behind the cover-up. The reader is then treated to slowly built tension, as the narrator enters the decaying city of Innsmouth, and meets an old drunk who becomes an unreliable narrator to the story’s unreliable narrator (now that’s a nice trick). The tale climaxes with a chase where the narrator never sees his pursuers. Lovecraft shows real talent here, only hinting at the horrifying appearance of the horde that pursues the narrator through the streets of Innsmouth. We never see the monsters. We only hear them. This, to my mind, is key for once we see a monster it loses some of its ability to induce fear. It was Lovecraft himself who said that the greatest fear was fear of the unknown.
The best part of the story is the ending. I think it’s fair to say that most of Lovecraft’s endings induce a shudder. As readers, we find ourselves seeing the horror that is coming, even though the protagonist does not. And he rarely disappoints. Now in “Shadow,” Lovecraft does…well, I can’t say more without giving away important details. All I will say is that of all of the Lovecraft stories I’ve read, I like the ending of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” the best.