We know the secrets of Innsmouth, or what the alleged witnesses told us were true so long ago. Nearly a hundred years has passed. […] Maybe none of it was true. The surviving records sound like witch trials to me, more imagination than fact. Yet standing here on the bridge over the tumbling River Manuxet, gazing out to sea, I wonder. The fact is, I want it to be true, all of it.
—Storm Constantine, “Down into Silence” in
What October Brings: A Lovecraftian Celebration of Halloween 19
Salem, Massachusetts proudly advertises itself today as Witch Country. The 1692 trials have become fodder for tourists, something for the ancient city to hang its hat on. Sightseers gawk at Gallows Hill, take pictures of the Witch House to post on the internet. Lovecraft did some of that himself, nearly a hundred years ago, and it’s only gotten more commercial, more elaborate.
What if that happened to Innsmouth?
Kenneth Hite in his essay “Cthulhu’s Polymorphous Perversity” in Cthulhurotica commented on the advent of Cthulhu kitsch:
But Cthulhu is not unique in this. Everything that can be sold in the modern age will be sold, and in every form possible. Count Dracula, after all, not content with great movies, novels, mediocre movies, nonfiction tie-ins to novels, debunkings of non-fiction tie-ins to novels, worse movies, superb comic books, and the entire Romanian tourist industry, appears thinly disguised as a fictional children’s rabbit (Bunnicula) and a molar-corroding breakfast cereal (Count Chocula). There are bobble-heads, and illiterate T-shirts, and clever board-games, and plastic toys, and ridiculous cameo appearances devoted to Dracula, and James Bond, and Batman, and every other figure of modern myth. (You can also get a plush Cthulhu dresses as Dracula or James Bond.) (291-292)
We live in the now of Cthulhu kitsch; 3D-printed idols and plushies, action figures and posters, cereals and soda and beer. But we do not live in a world with a real Innsmouth, where the Gilman Hotel has been refurbished and dressed with Hallowe’en decor for the kind of guests that like seeing strands of dried corn and pumpkins strewn about the lobby for that Authentic Old New England™ flavor. How would that work, exactly, if you could read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and then go drive to Arkham and Innsmouth in your car? If Robert Olmstead, instead of living forever in glory, died of a brain tumor in a sanitarium after publishing his narrative?
This is the kind of mood that Storm Constantine explores in “Down into Silence.” The desire for something real, something dark and magical, and being sold instead the licensed, authorized version of the experience. It is in many ways something of the other side of “The Nyarlathotep Experience™” (2019) by Miguel Fliguer, where we see someone trying to craft that kind of experience for others.
At the same time, it is also an interpretation of “The Shadow over Innsmouth”—and not necessarily a cynical one. What if there was some truth to the story? Not everything, not nearly everything. What would Innsmouth be like, if it had been a real place, a small town with an Esoteric Order of Dagon and a Devil’s Reef, and the g-men had come and there had been blood in the streets? What would it look like, if the town had survived that, and bore the scar proudly, and charged people to take photographs of it?
“If it hadn’t been him, then it would have been someone else, Kezia. Innsmouth couldn’t have stayed hidden for ever. The modern world doesn’t allow that. If Innsmouth had—or has—an enemy it is time, the changes in society, not merely the word of one man.”
“He was bitter,” Kezia says, in a voice craving for vengeance. “He wanted to be here, he was one of them, but he ruined it. They chased him out and then, like a mean little boy, he told tales.”
—Storm Constantine, What October Brings 32
Is Storm Constantine’s Innsmouth your father and mother’s Innsmouth? No. It’s a mark of a more mature phase of Lovecraftiana. You need a certain hit of commercialization and nostalgia, like Hallowe’en itself has become, to appreciate what she’s driving at. Before you could have “Down into Silence,” you needed the Cthulhu kitsch zeitgeist. So it has, and so here she is.
In the sense that Innsmouth is a real place—in the sphere of human ideas, not the physical world—it took a Lovecraft to mark it on the map. Once, perhaps, it was a bit of a secret. Fans of weird fiction were few, they shared their pleasure of discovery with each other…and word got out. Now everyone knows about Innsmouth, it seems. There are comics and erotica, entire anthologies dedicated to Innsmouth and its diaspora. Like a tattoo that fades in time, but keeps getting re-inked, the memories of the old lines distorted but still there like a shadow, adding depth. Innsmouth is in the now, constantly re-discovered, re-invented, re-visited—and the Mythos needs that to stay relevant, to grow and change rather than stagnate and sink into decay. Fans need not fear the tourists, the new readers attracted by films like Dagon or Innsmouth. New blood, new ideas, new media to keep the old concepts alive for another generation. Just so that one more crop of visitors can find Innsmouth, and leave wanting more of that strange town with its weird shadows and furtive mysteries.
“Down into Silence” was published in What October Brings: A Lovecraftian Celebration of Halloween (2018).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).