The pathos of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is that the nameless narrator does not know who he is. What should be a homecoming, a prodigal son awaiting the proverbial fatted calf, the embrace of heritage and belonging, all goes terribly wrong. The various sequels to the story, written in the years and decades after, usually mark the nameless narrator as a traitor or black sheep for their unknowing betrayal, rather than the pathetic figure that they are. For those who survive in the Innsmouth diaspora, as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys, the loss of community, accumulated knowledge, and shared identity is as important as the actual lives destroyed and people killed.
Memory and identity thus make appropriate themes for Angela Slatter’s “The Song of Sighs.”
Lovecraft painted the Innsmouth identity in broad strokes: clannish, taciturn, inward-looking, forward-looking, religious, conscientious of appearances. The rites of the Esoteric Order of Dagon are not given in any detail, no holidays are named, no community activities described, or peculiarities of dress or cooking. The vast majority of what makes up “Innsmouth culture” or identity was built up by later writers, using what little fragments Lovecraft left in his writing. The result is somewhat stilted; imagine trying to recreate the ancient druid religion from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico: what you get is largely based on biased, partial accounts by outsiders, filled in with a great deal of extrapolation and wishful thinking. There’s little enough there that writers can do practically whatever they want with the inhabitants of Innsmouth—and have.
So when readers begin the journals of Vivienne Croftmarsh, they look to seize on what they know. To place this story, this fragment of the Innsmouth Cycle, in context with the other fragments. Like scholars piecing together the Dead Sea Scrolls, the “truth” is a bit plastic: here is the evidence we have, where do the pieces fit? Are we even looking at the right puzzle? In this case, the situation is complicated by Croftmarsh’s own faulty memory: like the protagonist of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” she does not know herself. Which is as clever a way for a writer to get the readers as any other; a clever reader will path themselves on the back as Dr. Croftmarsh scratches at her neck, as she worms her way deeper into the secrets of the school she teaches at. They think they know what’s coming…because they’ve read this story before, or at least variations of it. The wayward Innsmouthian that comes to know themselves, that discovers their heritage.
Of course, if Angela Slatter was just parroting Lovecraft’s story, it wouldn’t be much of a story at all. The point of invoking the same themes is to seize on the reader’s expectations before subverting them; to give, if not a genuine surprise, than at least a bit of a shock that the reader hadn’t thought to ask the right questions before the answers were given to them. Slatter is a deft hand at this sort of writing, and the crumb-trail left for Vivienne Croftmarsh to follow, and for the readers to vicariously pick up as they read along, is just that: a way for someone to find their way back over ground they’ve covered before. It isn’t that the readers’ memories of Innsmouth are wrong, but the trail may be leading them to a different destination than they might expect.
That is the lesson which readers are sometimes long in learning: sometimes you have to forget what you think you know. Don’t anticipate. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is so familiar to many stalwart regular readers of the Mythos that it is sometimes difficult to forget that there are other ways to read and interpret the events, and that some things are, if not best forgotten, than not the pleasant reconstructions of those who like to think of the Innsmouth folk as purely victims.
“Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had ’em ages afore, but lost track o’ the upper world arter a time. What they done to the victims it ain’t fer me to say, an’ I guess Obed wa’n’t none too sharp abaout askin’. But it was all right with the heathens, because they’d ben havin’ a hard time an’ was desp’rate abaout everything. They give a sarten number o’ young folks to the sea-things twict every year—May-Eve an’ Hallowe’en—reg’lar as cud be. Also give some o’ the carved knick-knacks they made. What the things agreed to give in return was plenty o’ fish—they druv ’em in from all over the sea—an’ a few gold-like things naow an’ then.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”
Caesar’s druids were a bloody-handed lot too; human sacrifice was anathema to the Romans, and for those cultures that followed the Romans, it became a familiar polemic (cf. cannibalism and Relatione del Reame di Congo (1591) by Filippo Pigafetta). The “reality” of these practices remains a key part of Innsmouth identity in many stories of the Innsmouth diaspora: Brian McNaughton in “The Doom That Came To Innsmouth” leans one way, Ruthanna Emrys in “The Litany of Earth” and her subsequent novels leans another. Fewer readers sympathize with an Innsmouth diaspora that does practice human sacrifice in some form.
There’s probably a thesis to be written on the finer philosophical details of that point. For the Innsmouth identity to have verisimilitude, there should be unpleasant or alien aspects, things that set it apart from contemporary culture at more than a superficial level. If all of the survivors of Innsmouth were virtuous, ethical, hardworking, and not hurting anybody, then they’d be a culture of Mary Sues. Angela Slatter holds the reader in suspense on that point to the end, and for good reason.
Angela Slatter’s “The Song of Sighs” was first published in Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth (2013), and has been reprinted in New Cthulhu 2 (2015), her collection Winter Children and Other Chilling Tales (2016), and Broad Knowledge: 35 Women Up To No Good (2018).