13. “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

During November and December 1931, Lovecraft wrote the novella “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (DUN, 303-67), a story set in a fictive Massachusetts seacoast town (by details in the text, placeable around the mouth of the Ipswich River, north of Boston), Lovecraft’s degenerate and horrific community of human/nonhuman miscegenation. The unnamed narrator, a young man from Ohio, is starting off in the summer of 1927 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, celebrating his coming of age by “a tour of New England—sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical” (303). A ticket agent in Newburyport tells him of a strange town between Newburyport and Arkham (Salem), an ill-regarded place through which he might route himself by bus to save on fares.

Innsmouth, the narrator learns, sends its own bus to Newburyport every day, with a return to Innsmouth, but the bus runs mostly to bring Innsmouth natives to Newburyport to shop. These are repellent and peculiar people, and virtually no one among the ordinary Newburyport populace ever visits their malodorous and decadent town. Common understanding has it that the place sunk to its low standards in the wake of a devastating plague in 1846, but darker rumors circulate about the Innsmouth populace itself, particularly about a Captain Obed Marsh (grandfather of Old Man Marsh, who currently runs the town’s gold refinery). A century before, Captain Marsh is supposed to have brought an evil foreign influence to the town, where a strange religion called the Esoteric Order of Dagon has grown up to replace the native faiths. The ticket agent places little stock in these wilder stories but acknowledges that Innsmouth people are indeed repulsive, with their bulging, unwinking eyes and abnormal skin. They seem to look fairly normal in youth but get more repellent as they get older. They seem not to be seen around at all in advanced age—“Guess they must die of lookin’ in the glass!” (308).

The narrator, fascinated by these hints of a decadent community and by a jeweled tiara from Innsmouth that he sees at the Newburyport historical society, resolves to visit the place. He takes the bus the next morning. His ride into the town reinforces all the reported impressions of degeneration and squalor. The place smells of rotted fish, and the people look diseased. Checking his valise at the Gilman House in town, he goes exploring and talks with a normal-looking boy at a grocery store, who provides him with a sketched map of the town and mentions a local character named Zadok Allen, the ninety-six-year-old town drunk, a man free of the peculiar “Innsmouth look” but full of wild stories. The youth intimates that it is not safe for outsiders to be seen talking with Allen, but the narrator seeks him out and, plying him with whiskey, extracts from him a bizarre tale explaining the town’s degeneration.

It seems that after the War of 1812, when the town’s trade was declining, Captain Obed Marsh, trading among the Pacific islands, encountered a group of island people who improved their fishing by currying the favor of a race of fish-frog-like beings, the Deep Ones, who eventually came up out of the sea and interbred with the islanders. Learning how to attract these beings, Obed brought their influence back home to Innsmouth and established a new religion based on them, involving human sacrifices off Devil Reef in return for better fishing. The Deep Ones in time came up to breed with the humans in Innsmouth, hence the progressively degenerative “disease” by which in later generations many people turned monstrous-looking and eventually took to the water themselves.

The narrator, shaken by this story though not believing it, returns to Gilman House to be told that the bus has broken down and that he must spend the night in Innsmouth, something which by now he is not eager to do. In the night he hears strange, scarcely human-sounding voices in the halls, and someone or something tries to enter his room. He makes a desperate escape onto the roof of an adjacent building and runs through the town, pursued by hordes of the natives. At length, by way of an abandoned railway bed, he gets out of the town, but not without seeing, in pursuit, a crowd of “flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating” creatures led by one figure (Old Man Marsh of the refinery, we infer) “clad in a ghoulishly humped black coat and striped trousers” with “a man’s felt hat perched on the shapeless thing that answered for a head” (360-61). After making good his escape, the narrator returns to Ohio, only to discover certain unwelcome facts about his own ancestral line. This novella, besides its more obvious narrative and stylistic appeals, offers a wealth of covert machinations, dealing as it does in the ineluctably problematic concept of origins, perturbing its own modes of figurality, and commenting allegorically upon its own textual nature.

We begin with the title, finding even there adumbrations of the problems that the rest of the text will pose. A shadow is a problematic entity from the outset. Shadows celebrate absence over presence; a shadow has its being in vacuity, in the absence of light due to blockage by the object casting the shadow. Yet it marks the shape of that which casts it, thus marking a presence with an absence. Presence and absence come thus to mingle, to contain traces of one another. The “presence” (and guarantor of presence) of the shadow is an absence, both of the light and of the shadow-casting object, the object being not where the shadow is. This scenario immediately raises questions of origins. The shadow-casting object is presumably the origin of the shadow, though in playing this role it becomes an origin for that which is not—the light whose absence gives being to the shadow. (This is an interesting instance of Lao-tzu’s maxim that nonbeing gives rise to being.) Yet we might equally well regard the shadow as the origin of the shadow-casting object per se, since, obviously, nothing can be a shadow-casting object without a shadow. Questions of cause and effect abound. The issue here of presence and absence is further complicated by the fact that the title may be regarded as using the term shadow metaphorically, to mean something akin to “doom” or “menace.” Thus shadow metamorphoses from an absence into a kind of presence—that dark gloom or threat that hangs over Innsmouth. Yet we may turn things around again by pointing out that in fact the palpable menace (shadow) besetting Innsmouth does in a way contain more of the nature of absence than of presence. The narrator learns that the most repulsive Innsmouth denizens are kept out of sight and that the town is rumored to be riddled with secret tunnels. The ambivalence of the text could scarcely have been adumbrated by a more potent image than that which shadow in the title turns out to be.

The enigmatic nature of the shadow is, one could say, foreshadowed even in etymology. Shadow has the Indo-European root skot-, “dark,” and is associated also with the root skai-, “dim light,” “gloom.” In containing suggestions both of (dim) light and of dark, the absence of light, these roots begin to show their antithetical contents. Skai- is responsible for the Latin scintilla and the English scintillate, suggesting sparkling, twinkling, and light rather than dark. The same root gives us the Sanskrit chitra, “variegated,” “speckled,” again suggesting light as well as dark. Clearly the concept of shadow, so pluralized that its titular usage in the singular preceded by the waxes ironic, is one not given to facile settling of matters of privilege in the binary opposition involved.

This unstable situation finds allegorical echo in the text in the narrator’s various attitudes toward what is happening to him. If one tries to settle the analysis into symbolic, categorical pigeonholes (light for hope and happiness, dark for dread and despair), one finds oneself enmeshed in difficulties. The narrator scarcely seems to know what attitude to take, referring to Innsmouth variously as “fear-shadowed” (341), “blight-shadowed” (343), “evil-shadowed” (361), but later “marvel-shadowed” (367). His chiaroscuro pattern of assessments is a shadow cast by the unsettled nature of shadows generally.

The place-name Innsmouth is redolent of the same sorts of difficulties. Since Inns- is an uncommon place-name configuration, we may say that the closest factual counterpart to the name is Innsbruck, which derives from the name of the Inn River, a tributary of the Danube. Mouth, then, may refer metaphorically to the outfall of a river. Yet in both the anatomical and metaphorical senses of mouth we find questions again of presence and absence. An anatomical mouth either as a feature of the face or as the cavity beyond is presence due to absence. Like a window or a doorway, the cavity is what it is only due to what it is not, that is, only due to empty space—vacuity, void, absence. And with mouth as mouth of a river, we again find questions of origin. One supposes that the origin of a river is a point in the mountains out of which the river begins to flow, but to an exploring voyager sailing up a river against the current, the mouth of the river is the origin, the beginning, the enabling condition of the voyage. Intriguingly, this origin or condition of possibility is space—emptiness, void, absence as origin.

The text, one will notice, is obsessed with origins. It describes them, insists on them, toys with them, denies them. We will examine textual references, overt and covert, to origins.

No time is lost in establishing such a textual concern, since the narrator’s motives for travel are described as being, in part, genealogical. Even at this point, however, the text is ludic over the matter of origins, for we are not told here where the narrator comes from. We read only that he intends a tour of New England and that he is about to take a conveyance to somewhere, ultimately Arkham, so that the textual energy here expends itself in dwelling upon destinations and concealing origins, while at the same time announcing the narrator’s interest in genealogy, that is, in origins. In the conversation with the ticket agent, the text slyly admits that in seeming to centralize the notion of origins it will in fact decentralize the notion at the same time, dealing with concealment of origins. The ticket agent tells the young man that “folks here and hereabouts always try to cover up any Innsmouth blood they have in ’em” (306). He is specific about his own origins, however, in clarifying his position vis-à-vis the wild legend of Captain Marsh: “I come from Panton, Vermont, and that kind of story don’t go down with me” (306). Since Panton, Vermont, is a rural and presumably conservative community, the ticket agent postulates a connection between origins and credulousness—a connection between origins and how one “reads” a story. For him the connection is simple, but this is merely another way for the text to wax playful over its own operations. The connection between origins and “the story” is, as we are in the process of seeing, not simple.

The notion of origin is of course closely related to the notion of the cause of an effect, and the text goes out of its way to make causality problematic, when the ticket agent, speaking of Captain Marsh and the evil reputation of Devil Reef, says, “One of the things they had against old Captain Marsh was that he was supposed to land on it sometimes at night.” Then he admits, “Fact is, I guess on the whole it was really the Captain that gave the bad reputation to the reef” (307). Causality is blurred here, as are origins—the evil reputation of Devil Reef may be thought to have its origin in guilt-by-association with the ill-thought-of captain, or conversely. The ticket agent goes on to dwell on multiple possibilities for origins in speculating on Innsmouth’s erstwhile shipping activities and on “what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em” (307). By his use of the phrase “everywhere else,” he admits and the text admits the nebulous and problematic nature of origins. Of the repellent aquatic appearance of Innsmouth natives the ticket agent remarks, “I don’t know how to explain it” (308). We may read the “I” as textual self-reference. The text, though making a great show of dealing with origins, will ultimately give them over to impossibility of explanation. The ticket agent further ruminates about the mysteriousness of origins: “Queer how fish are always thick off Innsmouth Harbour when there ain’t any anywhere else around” (308). Nor can he explain the provenance of other things: “You know it’s always ben a kind of mystery where the Marshes get the gold they refine” (308-9). Clearly one ironic shadow over Innsmouth, to hear its neighbors tell it, is its making origins problematic in the midst of a textual concern with them.

The narrator tries to avail himself of origins, in consulting reference sources at the library to discover whence the evil repute of Innsmouth may have come. But he is foiled: the histories have little to say beyond prosaic descriptions of Innsmouth, where the Marsh refinery seems to have been the only remaining industry “aside from the eternal fishing” (310). The diction here is telling: “eternal fishing” suggests not only fishing without beginning or end (i.e., without origin) but also our own fishing for textual stability over the point of origins, fishing that is not destined to yield a clear catch. Given that fishing in Innsmouth is said to be good, we have here a delectable species of irony.

At the local historical society, the narrator examines a jeweled tiara from Innsmouth, and the text’s description of it amounts to an exemplum of originlessness. Generally, the narrator reflects, art objects belong “to some known racial or national stream,” but not the tiara: “It clearly belonged to some settled technique of infinite maturity and perfection, yet that technique was utterly remote from any—Eastern or Western, ancient or modern—which I had ever heard of or seen exemplified” (311). The curator, Miss Tilton, another textual tilting away from stability, offers what amounts to a pseudo explanation of the tiara’s provenance. “Comparing all possible hypotheses regarding its origin” (311)—the word itself occurs here—she is inclined to attribute it to an exotic pirate hoard. In “all possible hypotheses,” a compendium of hypotheses whose totality of course defies possibility, Miss Tilton represents another space in which the text waxes playful. In reading as if one could consider all hypotheses, the text disingenuously suggests possibility where there is only impossibility, containability for the uncontainable.

The narrator, upset over a sensation of pseudo memory stemming from his seeing the tiara, takes the Innsmouth bus and is immediately bothered by questions of origins. “When the driver came out of the store I looked at him more carefully and tried to determine the source of my evil impression” (313). The narrator works hard at becoming a reader of the unreadable (for surely the “Innsmouth look” with its muddling of origins epitomizes unreadable text), and he continues to speculate, frustratedly, about origins: “Just what foreign blood was in him I could not even guess.” He then reflects: “I myself would have thought of biological degeneration rather than alienage” (314). It is curious, here, that he entertains this reflection in the act of speculating on possible kinds of “foreign blood” that might course through the bus driver’s veins. But in saying “would have thought of biological degeneration,” he seems to be admitting having been dissuaded already from this line of speculation, as if convinced by the Newburyport explanations concerning intermarriage with unspecified foreigners. The quest for the origin of the Innsmouth look, as characterized by the narrator’s reflections at this point, could scarcely be more deeply fractured. This fracturing is the text’s sly admission that its centralizing of the theme of origins will result in open, decentralized, unsettled structure.

The text continues, in one way and another, to dwell upon origins. During his bus ride into Innsmouth, the narrator looks out at Devil Reef and is haunted by “a subtle, curious sense of beckoning” for whose source he is at a loss to account (317). Of the Innsmouth natives that he observes from the bus, he reflects: “For a second I thought this typical physique suggested some picture I had seen, perhaps in a book” (317). He searches in vain for the sources of his impressions. When the bus finally stops, it is at a tall building “with a half-effaced sign proclaiming it to be the Gilman House” (319). With this reference to a “half-effaced sign” the text begins to suggest, on the level of symbol, irretrievable linguistic origins. Signifiers placed “under erasure” (sous rature) are indeed half-effaced signs admitting their inability to satisfy a hankering after original meanings, origins, presence. In this regard we may also note that in the text’s final account of the narrator’s family tree, the teratological strain seems to be a matrilineal one. The aquatic females seem to pass on the Innsmouth look, while the affected males, at least in the narrator’s particular family line, do not reproduce. That is, the males transmit names without substance. The obvious suggestion is that the text is covertly commenting upon the fact that signifiers do not contain, or line up in one-on-one fashion with, signifieds.

Still on the symbolic level, the narration once more casts doubt upon the apparently central notion of origins, when it describes the open space in front of Gilman House as having streets that “radiated away to the southeast, south, and southwest” (319)—notably not to the north, from which the narrator has come, the direction in which he has his spatial origin in the tale.

The narrator meets the “grocery youth” and is regaled with an account of the elderly town drunk Zadok Allen, whose wild stories of Innsmouth “could have no source save in his own disordered fancy” (322). Zadok Allen, speciously, is thus identified as the source of the strange stories that circulate about the town. On the narrative level we will insist, of course, upon expecting that those stories do have some historical provenance, so that once more the text, though seeming to center its concerns on originary matters, works against its own currents to cast doubt upon the propriety of assumptions about origins. The narrator’s young informant tells him that one of Old Man Marsh’s daughters wears “weird jewellery clearly of the same exotic tradition as that to which the strange tiara belonged” (as if that tradition were a known quantity) and has “heard it spoken of as coming from some secret hoard, either of pirates or of daemons” (323). Again, origins are made problematic. Centers are as well, when the narrator, beginning his walking tour of the town, sees the Marsh refinery near “an open confluence of streets,” which he takes to be “the earliest civic centre, displaced after the Revolution by the present Town Square” (324). The text is playful here about the notion of centers. Its own operations with regard to central yet noncentral notions of origin suggest that a displacement of center does not in fact leave one with a center reestablished such as the Town Square is described to be. In fact the notion of a displaced center is a curious one, since it really argues that there is no such thing as a center, or at least that centers—for example, thematic “centers” of texts—are shiftingly provisional.

The narrator, continuing to explore, hears “sounds from indeterminate sources,” noting that, while they should come from obviously inhabited houses, they in fact seem to emanate from “the most rigidly boarded-up facades” (325). From these facades he discerns “hoarse doubtful noises,” which again makes the question of origins problematic. When he spies Zadok Allen and makes the decision to question him, the narrator himself questions the source or motivating origin of his action: “It must have been some imp of the perverse—or some sardonic pull from dark, hidden sources—which made me change my plans as I did” (326). Sources, though seemingly thematically central to the text, are “dark” and “hidden.” The narrator philosophizes to himself that “the strangest and maddest of myths are often merely symbols or allegories based upon truth,” hoping to “sift a nucleus of real history” from the old man’s tales (327). The text slyly hints at central, original truths to hedge against its growing tendency to admit the problematic nature of origins and centers. It is significant, symbolically, that when the narrator and Zadok Allen sit down near a wharf, the narrator’s back is “toward the fishy-smelling sea, but he was facing it” (329). This suggests (if one credits the sea as being the source of the Deep Ones) the narrator’s failure to face the sources and answers that he purports to seek.

Indicating Devil Reef, the old man says, “Thar’s whar it all begun—that cursed place of all wickedness whar the deep water starts” (329). His subsequent story of encounters with the Deep Ones in the South Sea islands does not bear out this initial reference to origins. Devil Reef, figuring into the drama only after faraway encounters, is of course not “whar it all begun.” Origins and beginnings come in for ever more enigmatic treatment. Relating the tale of the bygone Captain Marsh’s dealings with the islanders, the old man speaks of the Kanakys’ worship of the Deep Ones and speculates, with regard to mythic origins, “Mebbe they was the kind o’ critters as got all the mermaid stories and sech started” (330). The Kanakys, according to Zadok Allen, learned that “human folks has got a kind o’ relation to sech water-beasts—that everything alive come aout o’ the water onct, an’ only needs a little change to go back agin” (331). The old man later refers to “Mother Hydra an’ Father Dagon what we all come from onct” (337). Thus we have the suggestion of the evolution of humankind from the aquatic creatures, an originary thesis ironically paling and deferring the narrator’s own current genealogical quest—a suggestion that will, as we shall see, lend access to problems of figurality in the text.

One notices that while humans are theorized to have come from the aquatic Deep Ones, no theory is offered of the Deep Ones’ own provenance. Or if Mother Hydra and Father Dagon are the origin of the Deep Ones, then one may still of course question the origin of Mother Hydra and Father Dagon. The text covertly admits the dubiousness of any ultimate acquaintance with origins. It is significant in this regard that we are told that the semihuman offspring of unions between islanders and Deep Ones were in touch with their comparatively immediate ancestors. They were shown to the old Captain, but the island chieftain “never would let [Captain Marsh] see one of the reg’lar things from right aout o’ the water” (332).

Among other examples that one may discern of textual concern with origins, we may further list one of a symbolic nature, involving the room that the narrator, against his will, later takes for the night in Gilman House. The room looks westward over inland regions, away from the eastward sea. The door of the room opens eastward into a hallway. The door suggests access to (and by) the aquatic creatures but no view of them, while the westward window looks both toward and away from the narrator’s origins—toward Ohio, whence (we eventually learn) he has traveled, away from the more remotely ancestral sea. Again the notion of origins is one made problematic on all levels by the text.

Indeed the etymology of origin is redolent of antithesis. The Indo-European root is ergh-, “to flow,” whence derives also river, suggesting not only aquatic concerns again but also, with regard to flowing, the unsettled, unfixed nature of aspirations to determine origins. The root also yields rival—a person sharing a stream, both a colleague and, antithetically, a competitor. Another derivative of the root is the Latin errare, whence of course come error and aberrant, suggesting aberrancy of reading, all reading being misreading. The narrator comes to grapple with the problem of origins through his interest in genealogy, and again etymological materials prove to be of interest. For genealogy and related words of origin (gene, genesis, gender, genitals, genus, etc.), the root is gn-, meaning both “to know” and “to beget.” The “know” strain of the root appears in such derivatives as know and ken and the Latin cognitus, whence comes the English quaint and Chaucer’s queynte, the female pudendum. The two senses of “to know” and “to beget” are thus curiously intertwined. One recalls the biblical “know” in the carnal sense. To know, to have knowledge, is to be able to produce, to kindle, to beget. In Lovecraft’s text, which finally provides a gallery of “begets” in describing the narrator’s family, references which the reader must piece together—meaning is, after all, distributed and elusive—the narrator’s experience begets self-knowledge. Yet this knowledge shows that he has never before known himself, that he is divided against himself, divided both in ancestry and in identity. Begetting suggests coalescence (of sperm and egg), yet here it is divisive. Ultimately, textual begetting, as this text allegorically argues, is divided against itself, and the “know” sense of gn- is, though joined with, divided away from the “beget” sense. The text covertly acknowledges that texts “beget” without knowing, disseminating themselves beyond authorial knowledge or the knowledge inhering in any particular reading.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of this text is its indeterminacy about the figural question of metonymy. The particular trope that operates in the text with regard to the Deep Ones is in fact metonymy. One notices that the “Innsmouth look” is metonymy for (or synecdochic reference to) an entire compendium of qualities possessed by the aquatic encroachers upon Innsmouth. They are certainly more than their mere outward “look.” Similarly, when Zadok Allen tells the narrator that the latter has the Marsh “eyes” (330), he refers, probably beyond his own knowledge, to the larger matter of the narrator’s kinship. Again the part has been made to substitute for the whole.

And in suggesting, as it does, that humankind has evolved from the aquatic creatures, the text raises the issue of the old notion “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—the metonymic notion that the life cycle of the individual organism retells, in miniature, the history of the development of the species. Yet the text becomes curiously self-subverting on this point, for, as one readily notices, what happens to each affected Innsmouth native (product of a human and aquatic union) is in fact the reversal of the supposed evolutionary process. Where the larger process involves aquatic forms evolving into humans, the individual experience is to start out looking human and become, with age, more and more aquatic. In a sense, then, human forms produce the aquatic look as an effect, countering the notion that the aquatic creatures are a cause of observable effects. With names like Marsh and Gilman (gill-man), the Innsmouthians, to the extent that their names are symbolic, are always already aquatic, so that cause and effect and the whole issue of origins are further confounded. Thus while the text makes constant use of metonymic figures, nevertheless, when it comes to the metonymic structure of ontogeny and phylogeny, the same text, by inverting what is supposed to be the ontogenetic substitution for the phylogenetic process, strikes a blow against the propriety of metonymy and thus opposes its own figurality.

It can be argued, actually, that the metonymic or synecdochic pattern, substitution of the part for the whole, is always involved in reading a text, in the sense that any reading is a particular, localized interpretation of a textual potential for unlimited reading. Any specific reading or group of readings is a part of an unspecifiably vast whole, and that part for the moment “represents” the larger or more inclusive text. The “Innsmouth” text, then, in constantly making use of metonymy and at the same time unsettling the propriety of this figure, both affirms and denies the situation of its own reading. It both affirms and denies, that is, its own unreadability. Yet in presenting this paradox, it affirms on another level its unreadability. In contemplating these (and further) levels of paradox, one is drawn into an aporia of oscillations that forever fail to resolve.

We may conclude by noting one curious point at which the text, seemingly suffering a lapse of logic in its syntax, makes unwitting admissions of its own undecidabilities. When the narrator first sees the bus driver who will take him to Innsmouth, he reflects: “It suddenly struck me as very natural that the local people should not wish to ride on a bus owned and driven by this man, or to visit any oftener than possible the habitat of such a man and his kinsfolk” (313). The phrase “any oftener than possible” is intriguingly illogical. One would think the text should have said that the local people did not wish to visit Innsmouth “any oftener than necessary.” Such expressions are tricky. Even if we say “any oftener than it would be possible to avoid,” we presumably mean “any oftener than that frequency of visitation which is absolutely unavoidable” and thus “any oftener than would be impossible to avoid.” “Any oftener than possible” in any case leads to a tautological remark: of course one does not visit Innsmouth any oftener than it is possible to do so. Since Innsmouth in the tale represents the whole problem of origins, the text admits here an unsettled logic about facing that problem. An injunction not to visit Innsmouth “any oftener than possible” is an injunction against doing the impossible, and the impossible, as we have seen in the text’s wafflings back and forth on the matter, is the securing of origins, which the text then “knows” to be impossible. Again the text covertly comments on its own undecidabilities.

The text of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” starts out, upon casual reading, looking “normal” and grows more anomalous, more teratological (terato-logical) as time goes on, more monstrously complex with every reading. The text itself, an allegory of its own reading and its own unreadability, has the “Innsmouth look.”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!