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.
Edar Allan Poe is one of my favorite writers. His use of first-person narration and lurid Gothic imagery gives him a unique voice. There’s nothing like reading “The Raven” on a cold, gray afternoon. Whenever I read Poe, the images in my mind’s eye possess almost no color. To use an analogy, I don’t see Poe’s stories as black and white films. Rather, I see them as color movies shot using a blue film stock. I’m not sure why – it’s just the picture that formed in my head when I first started reading Poe.
Detroit-born Roger Corman clearly visualized Poe’s work differently. Between 1959 and 1964, Corman made eight adaptations of Poe’s work (actually “The Haunted Palace” only takes its name from Poe – it’s actually based on H. P. Lovecraft’s The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but I’m willing it count it). These eight movies, sometimes called Corman’s Poe Cycle, were filmed in vivid color and often had few dark shadows.
While Corman’s bright palette is jarring for me, there’s something fun about his adaptations. Perhaps it’s Vincent Price chewing the scenery or perhaps it’s how he incorporated Poe’s “Hop-Frog” into “The Masque of the Red Death.” Perhaps it’s that Corman hewed closely to Poe’s themes, if not his imagery.
Regardless, Poe’s birthday is a good excuse to watch one of Corman’s cult classics. And to whet your appetite here’s a trailer: From 1960, starring Vincent Price…”House of Usher”
I’ve been working my way through Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and came across a very nice bit of description:
The ship was about to pass over the weedy walls and broken columns of a sunken city too old for memory.
It made me think of all the sunken cities in literature and myth. In addition to the sunken city Randolf Carter sails over in Unknown Kadath, Lovecraft also created R’lyeh, an alien city submerged in the South Pacific, which is home of an ancient malevolent being. R’lyeh will someday rise to the surface and humanity will be doomed. Tolkien, inspired by the story of Atlantis, created the story of Numenor. The Numenorians were not satisfied with what they had; they wanted immortality too. The Valar punished them by drowning the island.
Recently, I stumbled across another sunken city story: The Legend of Ys. It is a part of Breton folklore, and tells the tale of a sinful city swallowed by the sea. The king’s daughter, Dahut, had engaged in orgies and murder. Lucifer appeared in the guise of a Red Knight and tricked Dahut into opening the dikes that held back the sea. Doesn’t make much sense to me. Wouldn’t Lucifer want the orgies and murder to continue? The legend we have today is probably a jumble of a pagan myth that was rewritten with an added Christian moral by some medieval monk. Since Ys is below sea level, Dahut may represents a chthonic goddess. I think the story needs a retelling to sort things out.
Indeed, while I haven’t read any of them, the legend has inspired stories by Robert W. Chambers, Poul Anderson, and Jack Vance. It even inspired Claude Debussy to write some music for piano (listen below).
If you were to rewrite the Legend of Ys (or a new sunken city story), why did Ys really fall? Perhaps Dahut was really a hero. Would you write it from the perspective of someone who witnessed the city’s fall, or would you write it from the perspective of someone finding the ruins years or ages after the fall?
Penguin Classic Ed.
UPDATE: I wrote this post before the movie John Carter came out. In retrospect, it has more meaning now since many movie-goers complained that John Carter was just a re-hash of other sci-fi movies – especially Avitar. It a way, it’s the other way around.
I love to practice “literary archeology.” That is, I love to dig down to find out who inspired and influenced the writers I like. For example, one of my favorite writers is H. P. Lovecraft. A friend of mine introduced me to Lovecraft’s storis when I was a teenager and I’ve been hooked ever since (I’ll save the full story of my introduction to Lovecraft for a separate post). As I got older, I started to explore the authors that Lovecraft grew up reading and those that influenced him: Edgar A. Poe, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. By doing this, I’ve discovered some wonderful stories, and, in the case of Poe, I’ve read an author with fresh eyes.
Recently, I’ve started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary romance A Princess of Mars (which incidentally was the last book I bought from Borders). I read that it was a model for Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, as well as countless other science fiction/fantasy stories, so I put it on my “to read” list.
I’ve only read the first couple chapters, but from what I’ve read, it seems that Princess was also very influential on the work of Robert E. Howard, in particular his Conan stories. Both have a “barbarian” warrior coming into contact with an ancient and dying civilization, which itself is built on the ruins of an even more ancient civilization. It’s wonderful to find these “hidden” gems.
Have you read the works that have influenced your favorite author? Did you like them? Did reading them add to your appreciation of your favorite writer?