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Literature / The Shadow Over Innsmouth

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"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 cob-webs and memories and the conqueror worm, start up vestigial fears and aversions that not even the stoutest philosophy can disperse."
— The Narrator's thoughts upon touring Innsmouth

Innsmouth is a small, run-down village on the northern coast of Massachusetts, near Ipswich, Gloucester, and Arkham. 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.

Written in late 1931 and published in 1936, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is one of H. P. 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 (there are numerous Innsmouth short story anthologies), as well as the 2001 film Dagon, the 2007 film Cthulhu, and the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth — especially its famous Twist Ending.

Innsmouth has also been adapted twice as an audio drama by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company and the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre series, with a third audio adaptation released in November 2020 as the final installment of the "Lovecraft Investigations"-arc of the "Pleasant Green Universe" saga. It has also been adapted for stage in Spain, and even a silly musical synopsis by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

The complete story can be read online here.

Tropes in this work include:

  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Deep Ones initially seem this way, and most other writers have taken this at face value. The final few pages suggest it may be more a case of Blue-and-Orange Morality: they could rise up and destroy humanity, if they felt like it, but mostly they seem to think we're not worth the trouble.
    ...but some day, if they remembered, they would rise again for the tribute Great Cthulhu craved. (emphasis added)
  • And Then John Was a Zombie: The protagonist realizes at the end that he shares the ancestry of the monstrous Innsmouth residents and is in the early stages of transforming into them.
  • Animals Hate Him: Animals hate the Innsmouth folk, and the town is naturally devoid of them. This used to be a real problem for them since they still had to use horses for transportation and the horses couldn't stand them. This went away when trucks and cars became available.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Zadok quotes the original "writing on the wall" from the Book of Daniel, "mene, mene, tekel, upharsin" (literally: numbered, numbered, measured, divided) when recounting Obed Marsh's pact with the Deep Ones. He also mentions the Golden Calf from Exodus and a few "Babylonish abominations".
  • Author Avatar: The narrator shares his antiquarian interests and frugal travel habits with Lovecraft. Some critics have even interpreted him as an Escapist Character for Lovecraft, who struggled to find a place where he felt like he really belonged, in a constantly-changing, ruthlessly meritocratic world that, he felt, was losing touch with the past. The protagonist of this story gets to escape all of that for a place where he knows he belongs, where nothing much ever changes, where art and culture are valued over productivity, and where the events of thousands of years ago are within living memory.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: The narrator escapes from the Gilman House using window drapes as a ladder.
  • Benevolent Conspiracy: When the federal government takes action against the Innsmouth cult by arresting everyone involved in it and detaining/executing them without trial, they are almost certainly acting unconstitutionally. Moreover, all the details of the case are kept secret under the aegis of a Government Conspiracy. However, in the given context this is considered understandable (for obvious reasons), and even the news media eventually go along with the cover-up.
    Complaints from many liberal organisations were met with long confidential discussions, and representatives were taken on trips to certain camps and prisons. As a result, these societies became surprisingly passive and reticent. Newspaper men were harder to manage, but seemed largely to coöperate with the government in the end. Only one paper—a tabloid always discounted because of its wild policy—mentioned the deep-diving submarine that discharged torpedoes downward in the marine abyss just beyond Devil Reef.
  • 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.
  • Body Horror: The Innsmouth people's gradual "degeneration" into increasingly fish-like forms. It's mentioned that some of the older residents have become so deformed they can't even go outside anymore.
  • 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. In the story itself, hints of this turn up in the concluding pages, where the true scope of the threat from the Deep Ones and their assorted creatures becomes clearer - though at the same time, the story moves away from horror and more towards awe-inspiring fantasy, since we learn that the Deep Ones easily could wipe us all out, but don't think we're worth the trouble.
  • Deal with the Devil: Basically what Obed Marsh ended up doing. Sure, the Deep Ones give you gold and rich fishing in return for a few rituals and the occasional human sacrifice... that is, until they start wanting more.
  • Death by Childbirth: Obed Marsh's half-Deep One daughter; whatever she knew about her ancestry died with her, leaving her descendants to figure it out themselves.
  • Dominant Species Genes: Deep One hybrids are born looking human but gradually metamorphose into full-blown Deep Ones.
  • Driven to Suicide: The narrator's uncle, after learning of his heritage. The narrator himself considers it at the end of the story, but he doesn't go through with it.
  • 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...
  • Easily Forgiven: The protagonist causes the Deep Ones a lot of trouble, but when he appears to be joining them at the end, they assure him that his penance will not be heavy.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Esoteric Order of Dagon worships Cthulhu, it's said that they have a shoggoth (a Nigh-Invulnerable Blob Monster more centrally featured in At the Mountains of Madness) under their influence.
  • Eldritch Ocean Abyss: The Deep One city, beneath Devil Reef. There was presumably another in the Pacific, from which the Deep Ones made contact with the Kanakys.
  • Escalating Chase: Rather unusual for Lovecraft's tales, this one has a rather long, exciting, action-packed chase scene.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: Obed Marsh had learned of the worship of Dagon from the Kanaky tribe of the Pacific, (with special interest in the practical benefits of doing so, namely gold and ample fishing) and had acquired the tools and know-how to call up the Deep Ones for purposes of bargaining, but the islanders never revealed how to hold the Deep Ones at bay before they were wiped out by their neighbors. When Innsmouth began showing signs that it was well on its way to becoming a Dying Town, Obed decided to call up the Deep Ones anyway, leading to the frightful conditions of Innsmouth and its people in the present day.
  • 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. Zadok implies that the Deep Ones feel some sort of kinship with humanity and for one reason or another are drawn to mating with them. It's implied that the reason for this, and why humans and Deep Ones can interbreed at all, is because we share a distant common ancestor.
  • Failed a Spot Check: 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 a conscious effort to hide.
  • Family Eye Resemblance: The protagonist has the Marsh family eyes.
  • Fantastic Racism: 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 "degenerate", and/or mixed-race in the mundane sense of the word. Of course, the story today is often read as a metaphor for the "danger" and "degeneracy" of miscegenation, though some critics have challenged this, pointing to the oddly happy ending and Lovecraft's apparent admiration for the Deep Ones' intricate culture and artistic traditions.
  • The Film of the Book: Dagon and Cthulhu, though both are pretty loose adaptations.
  • Fish Eyes: The Innsmouth people are characterized by their bulging, lidless eyes.
  • Fish People: The fish- or amphibian-like Deep Ones are an early example, and in many ways a Trope Codifier.
  • Foreshadowing: Zadok says that the narrator's eyes remind him of Obed Marsh's.
  • Funetik Aksent: Zadok Allen. The fact that he's a decrepit alcoholic doesn't help.
  • Gas Leak Cover Up: Among the many reasons that outsiders fear and shun Innsmouth and its people is talk of a plague that swept through the town and killed all its able-bodied and more "respectable" folk. But according to Zadok Allen, the cause of all this death was an attack by the Deep Ones and a subsequent purge, wiping out all who were opposed to the dealings of Obed Marsh and his followers. Those left alive were told to blame all the death on a plague and to shun outsiders "if they knew what was good for 'em".
  • 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.
    • Although this passage ultimately comes across more as hyperbole, since this is not the end. The story goes on for one more chapter, and although the narrator still has a few big shocks in store for him, he ends the story unusually confident and lucid for a Lovecraft protagonist.
  • Half-Dressed Cartoon Animal: As shown in the article image, a lot of the Deep Ones wear elaborate jewelry, especially tiaras and crowns, but nothing else.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The Innsmouth natives are part human, part Deep One.
  • Hell Hotel: The Gilman House, a shabby and creepy hotel whose bedroom doors don't lock properly.
  • Hillbilly Horrors: Innsmouth is an isolated small town. The Arkham ticket agent describes its denizens as "white trash." In a spin on this trope, however, it's a fishing town in New England, rather than some mountain community in Appalachia, and the horror is exotic and foreign in origin, rather than rural and domestic.
  • Hollywood New England: The real fun of the ARTC version is hearing the cast affect some truly ridiculous New England accents.
  • Human Sacrifice: Zadok Allen's story does not quite clearly state, but very strongly implies, that the Dagon cult made human sacrifices to the Deep Ones and their gods. He also says that the Kanakys used to sacrifice young men and women to the Deep Ones, but he makes a point of not saying exactly what happened to them, implying that they may not even have been killed.
  • If I Wanted You Dead...: It's made very clear that the Deep Ones could easily exterminate all life on the surface of the Earth... if they could be bothered.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Marsh family is losing its money, as fishing (the city's main trade) becomes less and less profitable.
  • Infodump: The ticket agent and Zadok Allen, though arguably done right.
    • There's also the grocery clerk, who actually draws our protagonist a map of the town. Good thing he had that map... which 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: The Third Oath of Dagon that Zadok could never bear to take: marrying a Deep One and bearing or siring its child. Doesn't necessarily involve the romance part. But you never know. Obed's still living Deep One wife seems distantly fond of him still.
  • It Runs in the Family: Deep One blood is hereditary, of course, and, depending on your interpretation of the ending, may also cause profound psychological changes.
  • It's the Only Way to Be Sure: The crackdown on Innsmouth after the protagonist escapes and reports to the authorities includes "the deliberate burning and dynamiting — under suitable precautions — of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront."
  • Lord of the Ocean: Dagon, the Deep Ones' god, is implied to be something like this - an underwater intelligence of immense, perhaps even cosmic, power. Some readers have interpreted Dagon as another name for Cthulhu himself.
  • Lovecraft Country: By default. Innsmouth is located in Massachussetts.
  • Mars Needs Women: Kind of. 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.
  • Mesopotamian Monstrosity: Dagon was the name of a Levantine deity who is sometimes interpreted as being a merperson or otherwise related to fish.note  It's unclear from this story whether the Esoteric Order's patron is intended to be the same being, or if its human adherents just applied an existing name to it.
  • 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, with no help from Dagon, we hope).
  • No Escape but Down: 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. It's one of the few action scenes Lovecraft ever wrote, and an impressively exciting one.
  • No Name Given: The protagonist of the story is never named. His name, however, is revealed to be Robert Olmstead in Lovecraft's notes. The notes also give a name to his great-grandmother, Alice Marsh.
  • 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 (though he mentions having taken two of the three Oaths of Dagon) and not in the process of mutating into a fishman.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: Just as Lovecraft liked putting his own spin on witches and ghouls, this story shows us his version of merpeople, and their peculiar attraction to surface people.
  • Path of Inspiration: The Esoteric Order of Dagon, an occult society that promises something akin to glorification and the life everlasting already in this world. It's gradually revealed that they are really a version of the Deep One religion transplanted among the people of Innsmouth.
  • Pretend We're Dead: The narrator adopts this idea during his nighttime escape from Innsmouth, and it manages to work.
  • Properly Paranoid: Replacing the bolt on the main door to his room and fastening all others prevents the main character from being ambushed in the middle of the night, and buys him time to escape while his pursuers force the door.
  • Punctuation Shaker: The Deep Ones' names. Pth'thya-l'yi, for example, lives in the city of Y'ha-nthlei.
  • 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.
  • Scenery Gorn: Lovecraft loves describing Innsmouth's decay.
  • Shout-Out: Edgar Allan Poe was a major influence on Lovecraft's work. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" borrows several terms and phrases ("imp of the perverse," "conqueror worm," etc.) directly from Poe.
  • 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; Neil Gaiman's "Only the End of the World Again" is set in Innsmouth, and contains the humourous observation that all the Innsmouth people look kind of like Peter Lorre; also "Cabinet 34, Drawer 6" by Caitlin Kiernan and "The Deep End" by Gregory Luce. There are also some ripples of Innsmouth in Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, though Del Toro takes things in a somewhat radical direction.
    • The Shadow Over Innsmouth itself is heavily influenced by Robert W. Chambers' "The Harbour Master" (a chapter in his episodic novel In Search of the Unknown), as well as Irvin S. Cobb's short story "Fishhead", about a man with uncanny, piscine features - a sort of proto-Innsmouth Look.
  • Talkative Loon: When properly "motivated" by alcohol, Zadok will ramble on and on about the true nature of the town, though most people dismiss his rantings as the delusional fantasies of a madman.
  • Those Were Only Their Scouts: While the US military was able to clean up Innsmouth, thus defeating the Deep Ones' invasion attempt, and even managed to damage their base at Y'ha-nthlei with depth charges, the epilogue reveals that this was more of an inconvenience than a serious setback to the Deep Ones. They are already planning a new operation, and next time they will target a larger and more important city.
  • 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, or at least they have effectively unlimited lifespans as far as human perceptions are concerned. One is stated to be more than 80,000 years old, and not implied to be in any way exceptional for this.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: The narrator is a Deep One hybrid himself, descended from Obed Marsh and one Pth'thya-l'yi. And he's alright with that.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Probably the Trope Maker or Codifier. Innsmouth is already a decaying, depressing seaside town, but the truth - their arrangement with the Deep Ones - is even more shocking.
  • 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, home of the Deep Ones.
  • Unperson: After the Kanaky tribe was wiped out by their neighbors, the other tribes subsequently refused to admit there had ever been anyone living there in the first place.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Zadok Allen zigzags this. The narrator initially dismisses him as a Talkative Loon, but then learns that at least the gist of Zadok's account is correct. However, the ending implies that Zadok didn't have the whole story, since the Deep Ones that reach out to Olmstead in his dreams don't seem to be quite as bad as Zadok had assumed.
  • Was Once a Man: The hybrids are born human but slowly transform.