This story has so much potential it is frustrating how it loses narrative momentum three quarters of the way through. Many of Lovecraft’s hallmarks are here: abundant and lush (too lush, I’ll explain later) setting, other-worldly creatures, underground tunnels, a hapless or bystander type narrator, and a twist ending (sort of).
Innsmouth is a dying coastal city in which rumor and legend hide a truly horrible transformation. The slowly decreasing population has a distinct “Innsmouth look” described as such: “His age was perhaps thirty-five, but the odd, deep creases in the sides of his neck made him seem older when one did not study his dull, expressionless face. He had a narrow head, bulging, watery blue eyes that seemed never to wink, a flat nose, a receding forehead and chin, and singularly undeveloped ears.” As the reader continues in this story that “Innsmouth look” strikes fear as you learn that this isn’t just some family trait, this is the outward visual manifestation of a horrible transformation taking place, and it is happening to the entire town.
As always, Lovecraft bows at the altar of setting in this story. The reader is treated to pages and pages of seaside ruin, empty decrepit houses, seafronts and factory buildings, ocean surfaces and architecture. This attention to setting derails the narrative momentum of this story in Chapter IV. For seven pages, a full quarter of the story, the reader is treated to an absolute overkill of details of buildings and train tracks, windows and walls as the narrator escapes the fish-frog hordes searching for him. This section should have been full of suspense and dread. This section should have had the reader on the edge of their seat. Instead the reader is waiting for the whole cat and mouse (or human and fish-frog if you like) affair to end.
Why? On page one Lovecraft ruins the suspense by telling us it was this narrator who called in the government. We know he (or she) is going to live. We know there is no real danger. Chapter IV ends with a parade of fully transformed fish-frogs making their way past the narrator as he hides along the forgotten train tracks. This is good stuff, the “big reveal” if you will, but it comes seven pages after the reader has been lulled to sleep.
The fish-frogs themselves are outstanding. Once again, Lovecraft has dug into the crust of the earth and found an other-worldly evil that universally creeps out the reader. The idea that there are millions upon millions of these things down in the depths is terrifying. The best use of these creatures to strike horror in the reader is this: “For at a closer glance I saw that the moonlit waters between the reef and the shore were far from empty. They were alive with a teeming horde of shapes swimming inward toward the town; and even at my vast distance and in my single moment of perception I could tell that the bobbing heads and flailing arms were alien and aberrant in a way scarcely to be expressed or consciously formulated.”
Hordes of anything are usually scary, hordes of fish-frogs who sacrifice humans and mate with other humans really have the reader freaked out. As the story goes and the reader thinks back to the description of Joe Sargent (the bus driver) the line between human and the “Innsmouth look” and the fish-frogs who come shambling out of the water is made. The idea of not being able to blink, of limbs elongating and becoming webbed, of gills growing out of the soft flesh of your neck truly does horrify a reader.
But then we come back to a plot point I found “fishy” if you’ll allow the Innsmouth pun. Lovecraft tells the reader through the drunken ravings of Zadok Allen that once the transformation is near completion a lot of the newly formed fish-frogs take trial runs down into the depths. This is an excellent plot point and one the narrator desire illustrates well as the story closes. As the transformation nears completion these near fish-frogs are boarded up in homes and shunned from the light of day.
If they seek water, and truly live in water, why wasn’t water more of a plot point for Lovecraft? Why wasn’t the town dotted with ponds or pools? Why didn’t Innsmouth build a canal or dig the harbor into the heart of the city? I kept waiting for the narrator to discover the underground tunnels (a Lovecraft staple, he loved the idea of subterranean connections, he probably loved the subway system) were actually underground canals. If that didn’t happen I was expecting the waterfalls the bus drives over to get into town to come into play as a place budding fish-frogs go to frolic and stretch their gills. I know, personal expectations cannot be blamed on the writer, but if the water and the drive to return to the water were so important to the transformed, then water could have played a bigger role in this story (and could have been used to up the creep factor as well).
Now we come to the narrator. He ends up becoming what he dreads in this tale. That seemed to come out of left field, but wasn’t a deal breaker. After reading the story, though, and knowing of the town’s long history of oddness, disappearances and superstition, the reader does wonder one thing: what is so special about this narrator that his stories and explanations were enough to motivate the government to swarm in record numbers to essentially eradicate the fish-frog threat. From the opening of the story: “The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting - under suitable precautions - of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront.” The narrator goes on to tell of a submarine that torpedoes the Devil Reef as well.
So, what gave this narrator the power to get action that all the rumors, gossip, and disappearances previously did not? It seems a minor question, but one that is pretty important after completing the story.
All in all, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” works on one level (creepy). With a little tweaking, and a more real-time narrative voice, this story could work on every level (creepy, tension filled suspense, vested interest in the narrator, good narrative flow). Fish and/or frogs are not by themselves creepy or horrifying. Humans generally dismiss them as lower creatures. Lovecraft takes that notion of the lower creature and twists it to make them superior to humans. In doing so he takes a rather mundane animal and makes it creepy. That is a great credit to this story. Taking that element (creepy critters) and ratcheting up the other elements of storytelling and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” could have been a masterpiece.