On screen, a cavern beneath the black Amazonian lake, glycerine mist and rifle smoke, and the creature’s gills rise and fall, struggling for breath; its bulging eyes are as blank and empty as the glass eyes of a taxidermied fish. —Caitlín R. Kiernan, “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” in Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth 170There both continuity and a disconnect between H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1936) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Disconnect, because according to all the official histories, Lovecraft’s pulp story was not an inspiration for the film; the Gilman Hotel did not give rise to the Gill-Man. Continuity because fans and subsequent creators did draw comparisons, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit. When viewers today see Abe Sapien in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics and related media, there are obvious echoes of Lovecraftian elements in “Ichthyo Sapien.” The Shape of Water (2017), director Guillermo del Toro’s homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, also draws on Abe Sapien’s image in the creature design—in part because actor Doug Jones played the amphibian in both 2017 and in del Toro’s two Hellboy films. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill directly connect the creature and the Deep Ones in Nemo: River of Ghosts (2015)…and the list could go on. Caitlín R. Kiernan went a step further.
Her twenty-fifth birthday, the stormy day in early July when Lacey Morrow found the Innsmouth fossil, working late and alone in the basement of the Pratt Museum. (ibid., 174)
“‘From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6’ probably started taking shape in 1996,” recalls the author, “after David J. Schow sent me a beautiful reproduction of the Devonian-aged fossil hand shown in the opening scenes of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dave has the most awesome collection of Creature memorabilia anywhere on earth, I suspect. I sat the model atop a bookshelf in my office, and from time to time I’d think about its plausibility as an actual fossil, about coming across it in some museum drawer somewhere, forgotten and dusty with an all but indecipherable label, and what implications to our ideas of vertebrae evolution such a fossil would have. […] Anyway, the two things came together—the “fossil” hand of the Creature, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’—and I stopped working on the novel just long enough to write this story. I borrowed Dr. Solomon Monalisa from one of my earlier stories, ‘Onion.’ —Caitlín R. Kiernan, Afterword in Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth 287There’s a dedication to the secret history of The Creature from the Black Lagoon in this story that has all the care of a good hoax. It is told in bits and pieces; lengthy quotes from books that don’t exist but could easily have, variations of anecdotes that today’s readers could get off wikipedia. There is a kind of irony too—readers of Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth, where the story first appeared, would be expected to pick up on the bits related to Lovecraft’s tale, but in the 2000s and beyond—how many monster fans have actually seen The Creature from the Black Lagoon in action? Everyone knows the Gill-Man, but like plush Cthulhus, often at third- or fourth-hand, watered-down derivations, jokes, cartoons, a discarded juice carton in The Monster Squad (1987), one more familiar figure in the old line-up of Universal Horror monsters—and unlike Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man, and the Mummy, not one that ever got an update by Hammer in the ’70s, that largely avoided exploitation and cheesy effects in the ’90s. The 79-minute original 1954 film is considered a classic, but with fewer sequels and fewer imitators. The Gill-Man, in its original incarnation, is humanoid but alien; ancient, inhuman, yet akin to humanity. A bit like King Kong (1933) in that respect; beauty killed that beast as well…though why these creatures should go for human women is left unspoken in the films, movie-goers knew why. Kiernan’s timeline in the story is disjointed; she starts at the end, then delves into the beginning, and cuts back and forth. Nonlinear storytellling, masterfully done: when a reader goes to the last word on the last page, they want to turn back to the beginning to find out what it means…and reading the story again, after you know everything, bits and pieces click into place. Lacey Morrow isn’t quite the unnamed protagonist of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or the nubile fishbait Kay Lawrence in her custom white swimsuit, but borrows a bit of both. Sometimes the unfortunate victim, more often the intrepid investigator bumbling into deeper waters. Nor does Kiernan tell the reader everything. There’s a sketch of what happened between the events of Lovecraft’s story and the filming of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but only the sketch. Readers can fill in the details with their imagination. If this had been that story of the filming, it might have been something closer to James Morrow’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima (2009)—and maybe someone will write that someday, and talk a little bit more about Milicent Patrick, The Lady from the Black Lagoon who sculpted the models for the original Gill-Man suits, and how she fits into the Innsmouth diaspora. James Goho in Caitlín R. Kiernan: A Critical Study of Her Dark Fiction (2020) files “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” under chapter 5: “Warnings to the Curious,” subsection “The Danger in Fossils,” and observes in her work:
Our world may not be as we normally designate it. It is weirder, stranger and more hostile than we can imagine. (78)For Goho, the story illustrates something of the essential paradox of scientists: to challenge new hypotheses and new interpretations for proof, and yet to be open to such viewpoints if they can be proven. The dogmatic scientist that is too conservative to change or challenge convention can find nothing new, the radical who proposes new theories endlessly but cannot support them is a crank. The wonder of discovery, the possibility of upsetting the established conventions with new evidence, to study and preserve it—is Morrow’s main motivation in the story. Against this she pushes into a secret history, where some things cannot be published, some orthodoxies cannot be challenged—and there’s a great deal of frustration and sadness wrapped up in that. While few stories of the Innsmouth diaspora touch on this attitude in so many words, there are elements of this theme in many of them. Something happened in the winter of 1927-1928, and the public part of it is not the whole of the story…and those who find a piece of it, who descend from the old families, or are drawn into the web of secrecy through curiosity have to face the challenges that come with knowing too much. A conspiracy of silence, and the question has to be asked: who holds those secrets, and why? Why are they secrets, and who benefits from keeping the public from knowing what really happened? Every writer who sits down to write a tale of the Innsmouth diaspora is, in effect, that nameless narrator at the beginning of Lovecraft’s story who claims:
But at last I am going to defy the ban on speech about this thing. Results, I am certain, are so thorough that no public harm save a shock of repulsion could ever accrue from a hinting of what was found by those horrified raiders at Innsmouth. Besides, what was found might possibly have more than one explanation. I do not know just how much of the whole tale has been told even to me, and I have many reasons for not wishing to probe deeper. —H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”May they dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever. Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” was first published in Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (2005), and has since been reprinted in her collections Two Worlds and In Between (2011) and Houses Under the Sea: Mythos Tales (2018).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).