Reflections on Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth

20130820-190430.jpgSince 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.

Writing that Pops: Neil Gaiman

The more I think about it, the more I think that what separates a good writer from a great writer is how they put together a sentence. That is, it’s not the story, but how they tell it. Many have argued that there are only so many story structures or patterns. Robert Heinlein wrote that there were three: 1) boy-meets-girl, 2) The Little Tailor (that is, the man who succeeds against great odds, or its converse, the great man brought low), and 3) the-man-who-learns-better. The blog Murderati has a different list – and a nice discussion on the structures of stories here. If there are only a limited number of story structures, then how the story is told is what makes each version of the story unique.

With this in mind, I’m going to do something new. I’m going to pick out a specific passage by one of my favorite writers and talk about why it’s an exceptional piece of writing. For me, these passages are inspirational. Hopefully they will be for you as well…

To begin, if humanity is still around 100 years from now, the general consensus will be that Neil Gaiman was one of the greatest writers of the late 2oth/early 21st century, regardless of genre. The passage of time will let prejudices against comic book writers and genre fiction* fade, and Gaiman’s beautiful prose will remain.

To illustrate Gaiman’s talent, I will first rewrite one of my favorite passages from Neverwhere. I’ll strip it down to its essential content and  summarize what Gaiman wrote in the plainest way I can. Then I’ll show the original passage…

When it rains it pours. Or, everything always seems to happen at once.

And now Gaiman:

Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.

This is just brilliant. First, it uses a very nice personification. Who hasn’t felt that “events” are sentient — that they get together at the corner bar and decide how they can really mess up your life in one fell swoop? I know I have.

Second is its style. I find that Gaiman’s stories, even the most modern, have a fairy-tale feel. Not simply because of the supernatural or fantastical elements they contain, but also because they give a sense that the reader is sitting by a fire, with a time-worn elder telling the tale. The sentence is a perfect example. Gaiman sets out a truism, and then proceeds in the following pages to provide a superlative example of that truism. Now, one could edit out the sentence and the following pages would make perfect sense. The plot would still be sound and the characters would still be themselves, but it would take out that “something” that makes the story special. Gaiman has a unique voice; it would be hard to mistake one of his stories for some other author’s. And that is why his writing pops.

*In my not so humble opinion, literary fiction is a genre, just like mystery, romance, or science fiction; it has its own rules and conventions that must be followed. I won’t mention any names, but seriously how many times in literary fiction do we meet middle-aged white men who have lost their passion for their wives, feel their jobs are soul-crushing, and that They. Must. Do. Something…Someday, I’ll have to write a full post on this topic.