Wednesday, February 16, 2011
So, I've revisited all the major Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos stories, plus Colour Out of Space, and The Shunned House. I'm happy to report it was a very pleasant experience, for the most part. Sometimes, when you go back and take a look at stuff you grew up on, you wish you hadn't...you just spoil old memories. But Lovecraft held up. Frankly, I was kinda surprised...he's sort of a whipping-boy in some critical circles, at least regarding his technique, and he is indeed easy to parody. As some of you know, I did my own Lovecraft takeoff way back in the eighties, in the first Samurai Cat book.
But even though you can have a lot of fun with him, there's no denying that the guy's best work is the product of a very powerful imagination. It's original, it's intense, and it has a great deal of scope and sweep...it's extremely atmospheric, and frequently quite unsettling, almost disorienting. The man was absolutely justified in pursuing his writing, even if it meant he never made any real money, and had to survive on the goodwill of his maiden aunties, etc. The world didn't need another drudge. It needed the man who gave us The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Boy is that a cool story. Yeah, I know there are some people who think that his Cthulhu/SF hybrids like Mountain of Madness and Shadow Out of Time are his best stuff, but I just don't buy it. Among other things, Innsmouth is simply his most exciting story, actually working up some genuine narrative steam. Also, it's set in his single most interesting and persuasive location, a rotten fishy version of real-life Marblehead, where he spent some happy vacations, apparently...I wonder what the good citizens of the place thought about his depiction of their town.
Story features a young fellow who's out on an antiquarian jaunt around New England...he's never heard of Innsmouth, but when a guy at a bus-station tells him about it, and mentions the shitty bus that takes people there, our hero decides he'd just better take a look. While he's waiting for the bus, he visits a local museum, and hears some strange stories from a historian...turns out Innsmouth used to be a prosperous fishing town, but has been going downhill for eighty years, and it's populated by bizarre inbred degenerates. Our hero is also shown a weird golden tiara that was smuggled out of the town...it's fabulous work, but very peculiarly shaped, not the sort of thing that would fit too easily on a human dome. All this, needless to say, simply inflames the protagonist's desire to hop on that bus.
Finally the old rattletrap arrives...it's driven by a feller who, well, looks as though he's turning into a fish. It's the Innsmouth Look, you see, and our hero is about to see a lot of similar specimens. The bus takes him to Innsmouth, which is this very clearly-realized place full of once opulent but now decaying early nineteenth century New England architecture, something Lovecraft knows a hell of a lot about. There's a gorge (with a rushing river at the bottom) that bisects the town and runs down to the sea, and a decrepit old gold mill that's still, rather suspiciously, a going concern. We get some more info on the town from a young outsider kid who works at a chain supermarket and points our hero in the direction of the town drunk, who dishes up a whole mess of sinister dirt for a bottle of booze.
As the shadows lengthen in Innsmouth, he tells a wild tale about economic depression, and a wide-faring ship-captain who made an unholy deal with some undersea monsters down in the south seas; in exchange for importing their cult (renamed, for New England purposes, the Esoteric Order of Dagon) to Innsmouth, and giving them mating rights with the humans, they supplied the townsfolk with all the fish they could possibly catch, and a bunch of gold to boot. The local churches were taken over by the cult; things just got fishier and fishier; normal people who wouldn't cotton to the new order were exterminated in a great gruesome purge. The drunk was allowed to keep living because he'd be inducted into the preliminary stages of the cult, but he's not doing himself any favors now by spilling the beans to an outsider...he and our hero get spotted, our hero's told that he can't get out of town because the bus has broken down, and he has to spend the night at a horrible dump called the Gilman House.
What follows is a bunch of truly thrilling stuff...as you might imagine, our guy keeps his door locked, but fishmen arrive outside, and try to get in, and he's forced to flee into adjoining rooms, locking their doors just as the Innsmouthers bust in behind. Finally he finds a place where he can climb onto an adjoining roof, and then down to the street. But soon the whole town is looking for him, led by fishy robed clerics in tall golden tiaras, just like that one back in the museum...he manages to get out of town, but not before he witnesses a whole procession of the alarming inhabitants, from a railway cutting, as they pass by its mouth...
Since you may not have read this thing, I won't give away the ending. I will say that it serves up one of Lovecraft's strongest twists. Overall, the story's beautifully constructed and very well paced. It doesn't really feature anything like real characterization, but that's okay. It would make a wonderful movie...a much better one than Mountains of Madness, let me tell you, even though some folks are talking about a 200 million dollar version of that. There was a semi-adaptation of Innsmouth called Dagon, made by the Reanimator guy, Stuart Gordon...to save money, they filmed it in Spain, and it has its moments, but the change of locale was simply not a good idea. One of Innsmouth's chief glories is the setting...it's exactly the sort of thing that digital effects were made for...you could create a whole 3D model of the town, which is described in such considerable detail.The screenplay could easily be broken down into a series of discrete sequences...we introduce our narrator, he talks to the guy at the bus station, he talks to the historian and sees the tiara, then takes the bus into Innsmouth; we get a good look at the town, glimpse some funky fish-people, meet the kid at the supermarket; our narrator goes on a walking tour of the town, gets scared, talks to the town drunk...we get a voice-over showing the ship-captain's deal with the sea-monsters, and the corruption of the town and blood-purge...then our narrator and the drunk are spotted, and we have the siege of our boy in the hotel room, the escape from the town, and the denouement, big twist, the end. The whole thing could easily be done in a hundred minutes or less. It wouldn't require any big stars, although it would be amusing as hell to have Johnny Depp playing our bonehead antiquarian as someone rather like the guy he portrayed in Sleepy Hollow. It wouldn't even have to be R-rated, which would appeal to the Hollywood suits these days, convinced as they are that horror movies have to be aimed at kids...as I've made clear elsewhere, I detest PG-13 for the most part, but Innsmouth could easily get by. I don't think there's a bit of explicit violence in the story... you could do some nasty stuff with the purge, I suppose, but you wouldn't have to. And you could have a stone blast rendering all the fishy stages of the denizens with prosthetics and CG.
By the way, those of you who are plugging away at an unsuccessful writing career might be interested in what became of Innsmouth during Lovecraft's life. He never got it published in any of his magazine markets...I don't think he even submitted it. In 1936, just before his death from cancer, a small press in Pennsylvania printed up four hundred copies, bound two hundred of them, sold a handful. Here you have the best story by the best writer of supernatural fiction that this country ever produced, and that's as far as he got with it. I don't know if that should inspire you or not. But if sometimes you feel as though you've spent your whole life crawling around under a flat rock, you've had some pretty good company.