I have a complex relationship with H.P. Lovecraft.
I love the quietly brooding and tremulous fear that pervades the Lovecraftian world, which allows me to tolerate his dense and often impenetrable language. Like much of his work, there is a simmering horror in the background of this story. It’s barely glimpsed in the beginning, and swells throughout. Like the best of his works, there’s something unsettling that slowly envelops the reader in its darkness. Lovecraft doesn’t knock you over the head with terror, he builds it up around you so that you don’t notice until it’s too late. The Shadow over Innsmouth is a great example of this.
The town of Innsmouth is haunted by a mysterious and terrible tragedy that beset the small community in the mid-1800s. The narrator comes to the community on a tour of New England. His interest in architecture and antiquities reveals the dark past of the town to him, sparking an investigation into what really happened. The town is rundown and vacant feeling. The people have a mysterious look about them, and speak with a queer intonation. The whole place just feels…off.
Lovecraft shines, here.
But it’s impossible to read Lovecraft without thinking about how he was a racist who believed in the superiority of whites (especially of the Anglo-Saxon variety), and The Shadow over Innsmouth exemplifies this aspect of his worldview. The undercurrent of dread that underscores this story is that the inhabitants of Innsmouth are the product of forced miscegenation between the good New Englanders and a race of foreign monstrosities called the Old Ones. What’s left behind is a race of half-breeds with flat noses, wide mouths, and bulging eyes whose appearance has a queasy effect on the narrator. But that’s not the worst part. The culmination of the story sees the narrator discover that he, himself, is a half-breed, and it’s described in a way that we, the reader, are supposed to be horrified by this revelation.
Look, this is a 100 year old story. I like to think that most people can read this and not think, “holy shit, Lovecraft clearly has turned his own racist fears about the encroachment of black Americans into New England communities and the diluting racial purity brought about by miscegenation into the allegory of monsters from the unfathomable oceanic depths populating a town with hybrid humanoids”. You can read this story as it is without knowing anything about Lovecraft’s views, or the racial history of America. On its face, this is a compelling story of revulsion by one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
But it’s impossible for me to read it divorced from who Lovecraft was, and what he thought. Which, again, is why I have a complex relationship with him. I love this story, and I wish I was fourteen and naive so I could enjoy it fully. That’s why I can’t give it more than 3 stars.