These days reading horror, as with watching horror movies, can easily be an unfulfilling and disappointing experience. The Shadow Over Innsmouth did not disappoint on the horror front, but I’m puzzled how one could not become frustrated with the persistent and pervasive racism both in the novella and in its subsequent influence on more modern creations.
The story follows a thrifty and curious traveler (and op) as he tours New England and visits Innsmouth to save money and satiate his curiosity.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth is quite effective in setting up an atmosphere of mystery and dread in the uncovering of what would presumably deserve the sweeping government raid on Innsmouth shown in the first few paragraphs. The reveal is done at a wonderful pace, and I’m often dreading what will come next for our narrator and government snitch.
But the racism hits hard and fast. Lovecraft explicitly uses racist ideas and the perceived whiteness of the reader in an attempt to dampen our suspicions of the horrific. He references the history of New Englanders bringing people back from “queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else.” Initially blaming much of the prejudice towards the people of Innsmouth on their heritage and possible history of wide miscegenation between South Sea Islanders and white New Englanders.
The first person to talk about Innsmouth states “the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice…” after he talks about some legitimately weird occurrences. We get great early hints of strange happenings at Devil Reef and demons from the deep, but Lovecraft uses racist ideas as the reason for both the cause and response to the horror presented.
As a modern reader who sees exactly what racist tools Lovecraft is using, I surprisingly found that it reinforced the strangeness of the story. For example, Lovecraft covers almost every creepy and strange happening with the cloak of foreign queerness, but “a queer foreign kind of jewellery” makes us, the modern reader, more suspicious of otherworldly activity rather than think maybe it’s just from another country. The modern reader is much more likely to jump on board with the narrator (and government informant) when he then goes on to describe an Innsmouth tiara as other-worldly.
We are just as inquisitive as the narrator (and fink) because we know that the “Esoteric Order of Dagon” is not “a debased, quasi pagan thing imported from the East.” We want to know the truth because we know that the lies covering them are clearly racist inventions.
Despite how much I enjoyed the weird horror in this novella, I ultimately left feeling frustrated by the lasting effects Lovecraft has had on science fiction, horror, and race.
As I read the descriptions of the fish-like, blue-grey skinned beings of Innsmouth with their increasingly Eastern cultural markers, my mind went to Star Wars- specifically to the Viceroy of the Trade Federation who was Neimoidian. Lovecraft describes them with narrow heads, bulging eyes that never wink, a flat nose, and undeveloped ears. To realize that Star Wars, among numerous other works, are still bringing these types of connections to our lives reinforces why we need to uplift diverse authors and interpretations.
I wanted Lovecraft to read as something that belonged to and remained in the past. Unfortunately, I think that because this novella still works today may also be the reason the racism still hurts too.
I’m left wondering where we could be if another brilliant author was able to form community like Lovecraft did around their weird writing. In another dimension people have a legacy of horror and sci-fi that isn’t centered around whiteness and I can be horrified without also having to side-step the racism.