“Re-crossing the gorge on the Main Street bridge, I struck a region of utter desertion which somehow made me shudder. Collapsing huddles of gambrel roofs formed a jagged and fantastic skyline, above which rose the ghoulish, decapitated steeple of an ancient church. Some houses along Main Street were tenanted, but most were tightly boarded up. Down unpaved side streets I saw the black, gaping windows of deserted hovels, many of which leaned at perilous and incredible angles through the sinking of part of the foundations. Those windows stared so spectrally that it took courage to turn eastward toward the waterfront. Certainly, the terror of a deserted house swells in geometrical rather than arithmetical progression as houses multiply to form a city of stark desolation. The sight of such endless avenues of fishy-eyed vacancy and death, and the thought of such linked infinities of black, brooding compartments given over to cobwebs and memories and the conqueror worm, start up vestigial fears and aversions that not even the stoutest philosophy can disperse.”
There’s something sublimely creepy about Innsmouth. Perhaps more so than most other settings in his mythos. Lovecraft fans pored through the extended excuse for a lore-dump that constitutes The Mountains of Madness. Arkham is always described in theatrical gothic tones, all sharp steeples and dark alleys where learned men guard vaults of mind-shattering knowledge in the concealed corners of university archives by day, and unknowable things stalk the shadows in the night. And don’t discount Dunwich; a quaint forgotten backwater where inbred rustics tend to themselves and attempt to avoid having their homes flattened by the offspring of cooped up farmers daughters with tentacle fetishes, and outer gods with too much to say on the subject of gates and keys and so on.
Innsmouth’s decaying tangle of gambrel roofs stands out even amongst these – because every roof in a Lovecraft story is a gambrel roof and Lovecraft was entirely unaware of any other style of roof existing in the known world. Moreover, were anybody to suggest anything to the contrary within his earshot he would jam his fingers into his ears, squeeze his eyes shut, and start singing The Cardigans’ 1996 bubble-gum pop hit ‘Lovefool‘ at an obnoxious volume.
Various interpretations of the rotted sea town have helped to cement and refine the idea of it in the public consciousness. Though not all all backwater fishing ports are Innsmouth, the Shadow Over Innsmouth looms large over them. The village has become more than another dingy locale for astro-oceanic things to go bump in the night. He wasn’t much of a fan of the story while he was alive and rewrote the manuscript in a number of different styles. While the connection to Dagon is so obvious it may as well be painted onto the side of a gambrel roof, Zadok Allen references Asenath Waite, antagonist of The Thing on the Doorstep, written in 1933 – 2 years after Lovecraft had written Shadow Over Innsmouth, but 3 years before he would publish it. I love interconnectivity so I’m biased, but in-universe continuity like this can, whether deliberate or not, serve a greater purpose than simply being a fun little easter egg. They give the audience the impression that the world you have built is being lived in. You get a sense of history and persistence to the events taking place.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth, written somewhere around the end of 1931, but wasn’t published until ’36, takes it influences from two short stories: Robert W. Chambers’ The Harbor-Master and Irvin S. Cobb’s Fishhead, both of which are worth reading, and you can find readings of both for free. That and a trip to Newburyport, Massachusetts, which gets a name drop in the story. I guess he enjoyed it there…?
Had Innsmouth not been reimagined and riffed on time and time again, would it have become such an iconic setting? Perhaps not. Alternately, perhaps it’s such an attention-grabbing setting that it’s been reused so often. It’s difficult to crowbar attention into something and make that attention stick, and there obviously hasn’t been a marketing conspiracy to do so. So something in the setting must be the source of the draw.
The draw of Innsmouth as a setting isn’t just the fact of the setting in itself. The devil(reef) is in the details. Which is to say that there is a great deal of it in what is otherwise a fairly throwaway setting. I don’t mean that in a disparaging manner, just the opposite – there’s no shortage of ‘small backwards town full of non-specific danger that is nebulously connected to a cult yada yada yada’ settings. It’s a good base for horror, but much like haunted houses and the like, it needs some thorough consideration before it starts to look like anything more than no-effort fodder.
Look at titles like the Wrong Turn reboot in 2021. If you need a hillbilly-cult-by-numbers story, you needn’t look further. It’s about as cookie cutter as they come, to the point that nothing makes any sense and the whole tedious charade exists to set up some cheap gore porn. It’s a shrug from me, but it’s also emblematic of a whole strain of thought in horror writing. Sense can piss off out of a window because blood, guts, and boobs.
Innsmouth reflects a fear of social decay. That theme seems to run through a great deal of ‘small town’ horror. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, in Lovecraft’s case, his definition of social decay was rooted in ‘miscegenation’ – also known as ‘backwards insecurity about interracial couples’. So fish people are metaphorical immigrants and people of ‘low breeding’, and the ‘Innsmouth look’ is a metaphor for anyone that isn’t white. Usually the kind of thing spouted by those guys who look 7th-generation inbred, think anything beyond a ten-mile radius of home is exotic, and like to complain that they don’t ‘recognise their country anymore’ at any and every opportunity. There’s some speculation as to whether, as he got older, he started to mellow on the racism, and whether he might have been a tad embarrassed by The Shadow Over Innsmouth’s none-too-subtle themes. While I’d like to give the bloke the benefit of the doubt, I also can’t help wondering if that’s wishful thinking and we might be trying to collectively reconcile the fact that the writing is good and effectively founded an entire subgenre but, as is so often the case, the artist is unambiguously vile.
Regardless, the way Lovecraft sets up Innsmouth is effective. He clearly understood that suggestion does the heavy lifting. The opening to the story dealing with government and national involvement with the town doesn’t state anything outright, but from the silent newspapers to the ‘reticent’ humanitarian organisations, the audience, from the outset, understands that if whatever was in Innsmouth was bad enough to shut up the tabloids, it must be pretty extreme. Of course, then the narrator walks into the world’s foremost Innsmouth scholar posing as a train station information agent who seems to have an itemised history of the town, including economic and hereditary genealogies, that he’s capable of regurgitating at the drop of a hat. Ok, so not all suggestion. So far so Lovecraft.
The story sets up a series of information sources, a mixture of facts and gossip and a brief glimpse of a bit of jewellery that suggests an unknown. All the while we’ve been getting an undertone that something isn’t quite adding up – we keep hearing about the ‘Innsmouth look’ and a widespread skin condition, an unexplained lack of old people, and an unspecified plague that killed half the population. There’s a lot of dots that are laid out and the outline of a pattern in what isn’t said starts to emerge.
Innsmouth itself is similar. It’s full of boarded up houses that still have noises coming from inside, there’s no fish anywhere and other fishing villages are getting desperate, but Innsmouth is inexplicably fine. All of this has apparently happened in other places. The audience has enough information to put two and two together and understand that there’s something coming from the sea and there’s some kind of Faustian bargain going on. The details remain elusive, and this builds the atmosphere. Even when the audience has a reasonable, though incomplete, idea of the problem, Lovecraft lets the audience get on with filling in the blanks themselves. Zadok Allen gives a fuller history of the town in exchange for some bootleg alcohol. It’s very Lovecraft, but crucially it doesn’t answer everything. You still don’t know what’s banging around behind all the boarded-up houses, or where the tunnels are or what’s going on with the refinery. The Esoteric Order of Dagon, apart from having a series of oaths, is a blank.
Neither the threats nor the narrator are stupid. That counts for a lot. The hotel arc is the foremost example of this. All the time the narrator has been banging on about how they like architecture and alluding to scholarly interests, and that’s easy enough to do. But when he notices that the bolt on his door is missing and uses another bolt from a piece of furniture to replace it, we get a practical demonstration of this character’s thinking, and it proves that the narrator isn’t just overcompensating with the constant nattering about architecture and so on. But the Innsmouth residents, though they are set up to seem pretty stupid, demonstrate a similar pragmatic intelligence. Realising the protagonist has locked the first door they try the other two and when they figure out that he’s moving through the rooms, they’re not just blindly following behind him, they’re trying to get ahead of him and cut him off. It’s a simple thing, it’s not MENSA-level strategy, but it demonstrates a level of on-the-spot forethought that tells the audience they aren’t just there to be harassment-oriented cut-outs. It’s a little bit of extra life to throwaway characters that are ultimately there to serve a purpose. And that adds to the threat. An intelligent enemy is an enemy you can’t take for granted.
At the end of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, we’ve only dipped our toes in the surf. We have a general idea that there is something wrong with Innsmouth and it involve fish people, but it amounts to, at best, a rough impression. The strength in the setup of Innsmouth as a setting is that Lovecraft provides enough dots in enough different places and themes that the audience is left to draw the rest for themselves. Suddenly everyone’s all string and corkboard trying to figure out if there’s enough detail to nail something down.
There’s a lot of dots that feed into making the town of Innsmouth as unsettling as it is. If Lovecraft had just started freaking out about gambrel roofs and fish people, it wouldn’t have been effective. The fact that, despite the omnipresent decrepitude of the environment, the fact that the town is still going is not the only thing that drives the mystique. Even when Zadok Allen elaborates on the history of the town, the audience is still left with questions. There are still figures lurking in the background. What happened to Obed Marsh? What’s going on with all the half-humans shuffling about in the boarded-up houses? Can we get a closer look at the Esoteric Order of Dagon? What about those hidden tunnels beneath the houses? What about the refinery? What’s going on with the bootleg liquor?
The main story illustrated by Allen, answers a few plot-relevant questions and gives us a good overview of what, precisely we’re wandering around it. Lovecraft points to a lot of suggestive detail that adds another layer to the setting, and in doing so Innsmouth escapes the fate of being just another vector for a relatively standard horror plot. When the plot is done, there’s still several ragged ends in the background to feed the audience’s curiosity. That, ultimately, is why Innsmouth is as effective as it is – because there’s a sense that it didn’t have just one story to tell.