Impossible Spaces: Innsmouth

Posted by jessicageorge on October 09, 2013 in Guest Blog, Jessica George tagged with ,

During September, you’ll have seen a series of interesting blog posts by Tracy Fahey, on the subject of Gothic intersections. Tracy is a fellow contributor to the Hic Dragones Impossible Spaces anthology, published in July of this year. You can find a little more information about the collection here: http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/news/press-release-impossible-spaces-anthology-now-available/. Many thanks, before I begin, to editor Hannah Kate, for organising the blog tour of which this post forms part—and to Dale Townshend, for inviting us to guest blog here.

As this month’s Impossible Spaces blogger, I’m going to take a slightly less imaginative tack, and discuss the use of place—and of the transitions and spaces between places—in some of the Gothic fictions that interest me most, before picking up Tracy’s point about the intersections between our authorial selves in my last post. Less imaginative, but hopefully still a fruitful subject. In the first of my blog tour posts, I’m going to talk about a literary place to which there is rather more than meets the eye: H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional New England port, Innsmouth. Innsmouth—like so many of the locations found in fiction, and indeed like many of those you’ll find in the Impossible Spaces anthology—functions both as a boundary between worlds, and as the double of another, stranger (or perhaps more exciting) place.

.”]"Innsmouth's Nightmare" by Deltamike

The name ‘Innsmouth’ first appears in Lovecraft’s 1920 story, ‘Celephaïs’. Here, it appears to be in the south of England,1 but by 1931’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, it is clearly situated in Lovecraft’s fictional New England topography. In both cases, though, it’s situated by the sea, and in ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, it’s Innsmouth’s station on a border—one which has been left catastrophically unguarded—that will prove to be important.

The town is pervaded by an atmosphere of ‘wormy decay’; the very first signs we see of its existence are ‘dead stumps and crumbling foundation-walls’, and the tale’s narrator muses that ‘this was once a fertile and thickly settled countryside’, but has declined steeply since the middle of the nineteenth century.2 There are ‘black gaping holes’ in the church steeples, caved-in roofs, railways and roads abandoned to the weeds.3 ‘The decay’, we learn, is ‘worst close to the waterfront’, the ‘sandy tongue’ of beach creeping into the harbour seeming almost to have eaten the town away.4 In the place of the rotting buildings, the view from the town is dominated by the ‘odd latent malignancy’ of Devil Reef, a natural structure that simultaneously repels and attracts the narrator.5 The man-made buildings of the town give way to the natural process of erosion, and meanwhile, the sinister reef takes their place. Later, indeed, it will prove to be the true meeting place of Innsmouth’s inhabitants, having ousted the dilapidated churches and the dismal town square. Permeability is foregrounded here. The boundary between wilderness and civilisation begins to break down, and the narrator’s initial foreboding that he is about to ‘[leave] the sane earth altogether and [merge] with the unknown arcana of upper air and cryptical sky’ gains substance.6

As the story progresses, we, and the narrator, begin to gain glimpses of an underlying horror, only partly camouflaged by the decaying grandeur of the old port. There are strange shapes in unorthodox-looking churches; bizarre rumours repeated by the rare locals who are not themselves part of the mystery; and, of course, the strange ‘deformities’ that give the townspeople the distinctive, rather fishlike, ‘Innsmouth Look’.7 Eventually, the narrator learns the truth: the Innsmouth Look is not the symptom of a disease, as is often conjectured, but the result of decades of interbreeding with a species of frog-like underwater monstrosities known as the Deep Ones. The half-human offspring of these entities develop the Innsmouth Look as they grow older, having to be kept hidden from outsiders, and eventually returning to the undersea city of Y’ha-nthlei to live with their marine relatives. Pursued by a cavalcade of hybrid Innsmouthers, the narrator flees and informs the authorities. Innsmouth is raided and burned, and torpedoes are launched into the Deep Ones’ habitation out beyond Devil Reef. But the story is not over. The narrator is horrified by the revelation that he is a descendant of Obed Marsh, the trading captain responsible for bringing the Deep Ones to Innsmouth. His sentiments gradually begin to turn, however, and the tale ends with his declaring his intention of returning to ‘marvel-shadowed Innsmouth’ and swimming out to Y’ha-nthlei, where he will ‘dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever’.8 Innsmouth’s thin veneer of human civilisation crumbles away to reveal the truth, and may be reminded of Arthur Machen’s frequent intimations of the world as illusion, a horrifying reality hidden behind a ‘veil’.

Innsmouth, then, is a meeting-point between worlds. The possibility of such a meeting could be a dangerous one. Written at a period shortly after the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the peak of US anti-immigration sentiment, and before the eugenics movement had been decisively discredited by its association with Nazism,9 ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ comprises an invasion narrative haunted by endemic national and racial anxieties, as well as by Lovecraft’s own personal prejudices.10 The anxieties surrounding this permeable barrier between land and shore are charged both by recent political concerns, and by fears about the nature and status of the ‘human’ that still hung on in the wake of Darwinism.

Discussed rather less often, though, is the realm to which Innsmouth is a gateway. We learn tantalisingly little about the Deep Ones and their home; even the narrator, eventually revealed to be part Deep One, is unaware of his heritage at the time of his visit. We know only that they are vastly numerous and can be contacted anywhere in the world; that they worship ‘Great Cthulhu’11 (a throwaway mention that allows Lovecraft to invoke his other uncanny submarine city, R’lyeh); and that they have built at least one city of their own, ‘Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei’.12

This city becomes a kind of shadowy double of Innsmouth, related in vague terms and visited in dreams, where its on-shore counterpart is sometimes mundanely, sometimes repulsively real. In Innsmouth, the Deep Ones must hide in the basements of crumbling terraces; in Y’ha-nthlei, they live openly in ‘phosphorescent [palaces]’, and it is those who still look human who may visit only in dreams.13 It is possessed of a transformative power that echoes that possessed by Innsmouth in the narrative. The narrator’s visit to Innsmouth in one respect allows his transformation to take place: the knowledge he gains there gives meaning to the changes he undergoes and the memories he unlocks. The knowledge he gains in his visits to Y’ha-nthlei, meanwhile, occasion the shift in his perceptions; it is this which renders Innsmouth ‘marvel-shadowed’.

Y’ha-nthlei becomes both a kind of heaven (a place where the narrator will ‘dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever’) and a home, though perhaps not an entirely reassuring one (Lovett-Graff reads the narrator’s dreamed encounters with female ancestors as a kind of fantasized return to the womb14). It encompasses both past and future. And the transformation undergone by Innsmouth prefigures another possible future for Y’ha-nthlei. When the Deep Ones do ‘rise again’, wiping out the human race, will Y’ha-nthlei become similarly derelict?15

‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, then, transforms urban space in part by placing it in time—the deep time of the evolutionary past, as well as the future, via the invoking of potentialities. It always contains the hint of somewhere—and sometime—else. The existence of the inhuman city of Y’ha-nthlei changes the meaning of the human city of Innsmouth; it is no longer a specifically human accomplishment, and so what it is to be human alters. If both humans and Deep Ones can produce cities, then they are no longer the product of uniqueness. The ‘place’ of these places, then, is somewhere within an inevitable and indifferent natural process that pays no particular attention to the ‘human’ species.

1 H. P. Lovecraft, ‘Celephaïs’, in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, ed. by S. T. Joshi (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 29-30.

2 H. P. Lovecraft, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, in The Call of Cthulhu, ed. by Joshi, pp. 280-281.

3 Ibid., p. 281.

4 Ibid., p. 281.

5 Ibid., p. 282.

6 Ibid., p. 280.

7 Ibid., p. 288.

8 Ibid., p. 335.

9 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1962), pp. 178-178, pp. 291-292.

10 See Bennett Lovett-Graff, ‘Shadows Over Lovecraft: Reactionary Fantasy and Immigrant Eugenics’, Extrapolation, 38:3 (1997), 175-192, for a fuller discussion of Lovecraft’s racism.

11 ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, p. 334.

12 Ibid., p. 335.

13 Ibid., p. 334.

14 Lovett-Graff, pp. 187-188.

15 ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, p. 334.

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