Literature: The Shadow Over Innsmouth

"It's beginning to look a lot like Fishmen
Everywhere I go.
From the minute I got to town
And started to look around
I thought these ill-bred people's gill-slits showed."
Dagon Tabernacle Choir [1][2]

Innsmouth is a small, run-down village on the northern coast of Massachusetts, near Ipswich, Gloucester, and Arkham. Locals don't like it much. There are whispered rumors about dark dealings with the supernatural, the taint of foreign blood, and some sort of hereditary deformity. While touring New England, a young man learns of the town's sinister reputation and decides it's worth a visit. Curiouser and curiouser, he bribes the local drunk, said to be the only normal human left, with his favorite poison. The tale he tells sounds crazy, yet the narrator cannot ignore the sinister atmosphere and the evidence before his own eyes.

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is one of HP Lovecraft's longest and most famous stories. Among the various beasties of the Cthulhu Mythos, the Deep Ones and their half-human spawn are among the most popular and enduring, inspiring numerous other authors (including Neil Gaiman), as well as the 2001 film Dagon, the 2007 film Cthulhu, and the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

Innsmouth has also been adapted twice as an audio drama by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company and the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society. It has also been adapted for stage in Spain.

The complete story can be read online here.


Tropes in this work include:

  • Adaptational Badass: Lovecraft depicted the Deep Ones as a pathetic degenerate subhuman race. Most writers since have turned them into aquatic supermen who would even give Aquaman a run for his money. This may have to do with changing understandings of why the Deep Ones would be able to obliterate humanity if they felt the need to. To someone like Lovecraft, the only way sub-humans (e.g. Deep Ones) would be able to do it would be through the text-implied superior numbers (look at the surge from Devil Reef alone!), along with a little help from their exported shoggoths. If you're not steeped in the 1920s racism that Lovecraft held, though...
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Deep Ones are depicted this way, and nearly all writers since have followed suit.
  • Animals Hate Them: Animals hate the Innsmouth folk, and the town is naturally devoid of them.
  • Author Avatar: The narrator shares his antiquarian interests and frugal travel habits with Lovecraft.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: The narrator escapes from the Gilman House using window drapes as a ladder.
  • Black Speech: The Deep One/hybrids' voices are described as a "bestial babel of croaking, baying and barking without the least suggestion of human speech" and a "hateful guttural patois."
  • Blind Alley: A variation of this trope. The narrator hides in a ditch and the huge search party just passes him by.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The narrator is in Massachusetts on a genealogical tour.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: By association, since it's part of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • Driven to Suicide: The narrator's uncle, after learning of his heritage. And the narrator himself, almost.
  • Dying Town: Innsmouth. Everyone is poorer, even the Marsh family; half the buildings are abandoned and crumbling, and population is going down. But if you think of it as a breeding ground for Deep Ones...
  • Eldritch Abomination: Indirectly: the Esoteric Order of Dagon worships Cthulhu and there are references to the shoggoths.
  • Escalating Chase: Rather unusual for Lovecraft's tales, this one has a rather long, exciting, action-packed chase scene.
  • Evil Smells Bad: Innsmouth and its inhabitants emanate a nauseating fish odor.
  • Face Full of Alien Wing-Wong: It's never explained why exactly the Deep Ones are so insistent on mating with humans.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Combined with What an Idiot. See Blind Alley above. The Deep Ones have an entire huge search party and it never occurs to them to spread out instead of just all following the railroad? The narrator eventually faints from horror too, so it's not like he was making much effort to hide.
  • Fantastic Racism: Inverted. The locals from the nearby towns hate the Innsmouth folk but are actually unaware of the Half-Human Hybrid part. They think the people of Innsmouth are just mixed-race in the mundane sense of the word. Of course, the story today is widely accepted as a metaphor for the danger and degeneracy of miscegenation.
  • The Film of the Book / Lovecraft on Film: Dagon and Cthulhu.
  • Fish Eyes: The Innsmouth natives are characterized by their bulging, lidless eyes.
  • Fish People: The Deep Ones.
  • Funetik Aksent: Zadok Allen. The fact that he's a decrepit alcoholic doesn't help.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: In typical Lovecraft fashion.
    It was the end, for whatever remains to me of life on the surface of this earth, of every vestige of mental peace and confidence in the integrity of nature and of the human mind. Nothing that I could have imagined—nothing, even, that I could have gathered had I credited old Zadok's crazy tale in the most literal way—would be in any way comparable to the demoniac, blasphemous reality that I saw—or believe I saw.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The Innsmouth natives are part human, part Deep One.
  • Hell Hotel: The Gilman House.
  • Hillbilly Horrors: Innsmouth is an isolated small town. The Arkham ticket agent describes its denizens as "white trash."
  • Hollywood New England: The real fun of the ARTC version is hearing the cast affect some truly ridiculous New England accents.
  • Human Sacrifice: Practiced by the Esoteric Order of Dagon, as recalled by Zadok Allen.
  • In the Blood: Deep One blood is hereditary, of course, and, judging from the ending, also causes profound psychological changes.
  • Infodump: The ticket agent and Zadok Allen, though arguably done right.
    • Musn't forget the grocery clerk, who actually draws our protagonist a map of the town. Good thing he had that map....seemed extraneous at the time.
  • Inn Security: The Deep Ones try to capture the narrator at the Gilman House. Luckily, he was paranoid enough to barricade the door beforehand.
  • Interspecies Romance: Marriage and interbreeding, anyway, if not quite the romance part.
  • Lovecraft Country: By default.
  • Mars Needs Women: Both genders, actually. (In fact, the only pairings we hear about are female Deep Ones and human men.)
  • Mayfly-December Romance: One Deep One spouse was 80,000 years older than her human husband.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Obed Marsh was the first to unite the land-dwelling people of Innsmouth with the water-going Deep Ones, and his family is allegedly full of hybrids. Another family that married the Deep Ones were the Gilmans.
    • The narrator-protagonist is named Robert Olmstead. An olm is an amphibian that spends its entire life in water, like a fish. The Deep Ones are described as fish-like amphibians.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Innsmouth was based on Newburyport (mentioned in the story as a separate town), which was apparently a dump at the time. (It's since recovered.)
  • No Escape but Down / Roofhopping: The narrator has to climb out an upper-story window of the Gilman House, land on the roof of the building next door, and then jump down a skylight.
  • No Name Given: The protagonist of the story is never named. His name, however, is revealed to be Robert Olmstead in Lovecraft's notes.
  • Not-So-Safe Harbor: Innsmouth is a seaside village and former great shipping port. Its decay is commonly attributed to people/diseases/customs imported from other countries by local sailors.
  • Only Sane Man: The destitute drunkard Zadok Allen is the only remaining inhabitant of Innsmouth who is not part of the Esoteric Order of Dagon and not in the process of mutating into a fishman.
  • Purple Prose: Trademark Lovecraft.
    And yet I saw them in a limitless stream - flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating - urging inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare.
  • Religion of Evil: The Esoteric Order of Dagon.
  • Scenery Gorn: Lovecraft loves describing Innsmouth's decay.
  • Schmuck Bait: Innsmouth's bad reputation is precisely one of the reasons the narrator decided to go.
    A town able to inspire such dislike in it its neighbors, I thought, must be at least rather unusual, and worthy of a tourist's attention.
  • Sinister Minister: Zadok Allen recalls how the Esoteric Order of Dagon took over the town and Captain Marsh's crewmen were promoted as priests of the new religion. Creepy tiara-wearing priests still lurk in dark corners, and several are seen among the narrator's pursuers toward the end.
  • Slow Transformation: The hybrids' transition from human to Deep One apparently takes several decades. It's observed several times that older Innsmouth people tend to be the most "tainted" looking, before they drop out of sight entirely.
  • Spiritual Successor: Several Innsmouth/Deep Ones stories by later authors make reference to or were inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon. "Understudy" by Gary Myers is a great example; also "Cabinet 34, Drawer 6" by Caitlin Kiernan and "The Deep End" by Gregory Luce.
  • Take Our Word for It: Typical of Lovecraft, the worst is only hinted at.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The narrator is so horrified by the Deep Ones that he tries to explain what he and others saw in Innsmouth as a mass hallucination brought on by the town's decaying atmosphere and the wild rumors surrounding it.
    Where does madness leave off and reality begin? Is it possible that even my latest fear is sheer delusion?
  • Time Abyss: The Deep Ones are immortal and one is stated to be 80,000 years old.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: The narrator is a Deep One hybrid himself, descended from Obed Marsh and one Pth'thya-l'yi.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Probably the Trope Maker or Codifier.
  • Uncanny Valley: Invoked via the "Innsmouth Look."
    "There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today - I don't know how to explain it but it sort of makes you crawl. You'll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Some of 'em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, starry eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain't quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of the necks are all shriveled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young."
  • Underwater City: Y'ha-nthlei.
  • Was Once a Man: The hybrids are born human but slowly transform.