H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth

I made my first attempt at reading H.P. Lovecraft in the summer of 1989, between high school and college. I was taking a pre-calculus class that summer to allow me to start my engineering studies at the University of Connecticut with that prerequisite met. It was an awfully boring class as I'd taken non-AP pre-calculus and calculus in high school (though regretfully didn't do well enough to test out of it). Summer classes were rather long and had an intermission. I usually brought along a book to read during break in case I wanted to be alone. One of the authors I brought along was H.P. Lovecraft.

The first few stories I read didn't grab me too much. I wasn't much into Lovecraft's evocative descriptions at the time, wanting more to get to the point. Then one afternoon I came upon the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. That was the story that got me hooked.

For those unfamiliar with the work (and as usual I will stay clear of  big spoilers as much as possible) it deals with the young narrator taking a tour of New England on the cheap. While in Newburyport (a real Massachusetts town) he learns of nearby town of Innsmouth (a fictional town) which the residents of Newburyport view with superstition and dread. Researching Innsmouth he learns how the town had once been wealthy but had fallen upon hard times and decides to visit it.

The visit to the town is where the story truly comes to its own. The town itself just isn't right. Boarded up houses, natives with a strange "Innsmouth look" - a fishy look to them. Touring the town he learns much of the town from an out-of-town boy who works in the local supermarket and from the town drunk. He learns how Innsmouth merchant Obed Marsh made bargains with undersea creatures and as time goes on the price they must pay for what they get from these creatures, known as the Deep Ones, increases.

The boy had planned on spending just the afternoon in Innsmouth but the only bus that can take him out has "broken down", forcing him to stay in a hotel in Innsmouth. Needless to say the townspeople are on to him and what follows that night is Lovecraft at the peak of his powers as he weaves a tale of horror with the townsfolk coming after the narrator and the narrator engaging in an effort to escape, sending him in a chase throughout the hotel and out into the town. Here is where Lovecraft's wordy, evocative style pays off. The narrator sits in his bed while the natives make their first attempts to get to him as the doorknob is attempted and then the narrator hears a scuffle in the hallways around him. Lovecraft builds up the tension slowly, allowing it to seep into his readers.

Every year or two I find myself rereading this story. During a vacation in New Hampshire I once found myself in a hotel that greatly resembled the hotel that Lovecraft portrayed in Innsmouth. Thankfully it was in a town north of the White Mountains and far from the coast, but it still brought back some chilling memories.

Now being a Massachusetts resident, a few years ago I had reason to visit Newburyport, a Massachusetts town along the North Shore. Lovecraft described Innsmouth as a "considerably twisted" version of Newburyport. While the residents were friendly and lacked any "Innsmouth look", the layout of the town was quite different from what I was used to in the western suburbs of Boston. Lots of narrow, twisty streets. The presence of the ocean felt inherent to the character of the town.

So for members of the gaming community, what does this story bring? Obviously if you are playing in or running a Call of Cthulhu game it is in your list of must-reads. But it is also an excellent work for those running any horror or fantasy game. It even is workable for science fiction, considering some of the strange alien planets visited in Star Trek or Doctor Who. The techniques Lovecraft uses for building the horror and, more importantly, dread, make for excellent study. Like in the films Alien or Jaws, Lovecraft takes his time building things up before revealing the full horror. In a role-playing game I believe this to be an especially important skill. In my experience genuine horror is a difficult feeling to evoke in a gaming session but dread is something that can be carefully cultivated and Lovecraft illustrates how to do so in a masterful fashion.

I believe that in fantasy games like D&D The Shadow Over Innsmouth provides special inspiration. There are a number of aquatic humanoid monsters that can be made a great deal creepier when viewed through the lens of the Deep Ones. Easily coming to mind are the lizard men, the Sahuagin, and the Kuo-toa. The Kuo-toa are clearly inspired by the Deep Ones and in later incarnations of the game the resemblance increases. Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG includes the Deep Ones themselves in their list of monsters.

The idea of a town like that of Innsmouth lends itself for a variety of fantasy adventures, from dealing with the cult infiltrating the town to an undersea adventure to the home of the Deep Ones.

If you've not read this story, read it. And if you're read it, it is in my opinion well worth a reread.

I believe The Shadow Over Innsmouth has entered the public domain and can be found at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive and is found in a variety of Lovecraft collections. I am also fond of the audiobook version as read by Phil Reynolds.

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