Column: On the Marches of Dreamland: Review: Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth

Jones, Stephen, ed. Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth. Fedogan & Bremer: 2013. $35. ISBN: 978-1-878252-07-4.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the Lovecraft universe, Innsmouth is the most blighted piece of real estate on Earth. Arkham may have its pockets of oddities. You may want to stay out of subterranean Boston and the Vermont woods, but the whole town of Innsmouth has never been the same since Captain Marsh started with his South Sea imports.

It’s no wonder rotting, run-down Innsmouth has inspired so many writers and publishers. That includes not only, obviously, this website, but one of the more monumental works of modern Lovecraftian fiction: Stephen Jones’ anthological trilogy of original and reprinted stories following up and playing off of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

After publishing and Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth, Fedogan & Bremer fell on hard times after the death of its co-founder and editor Philip J. Rahman in 2011, and it looked as if F&B wouldn’t be publishing the planned third volume. However, company co-founder Dennis E. Weiler took the “essential saltes” of the company’s inventory and, after some management wizardry, resurrected it into a going concern. This is the second title of the revived F&B.

Like its predecessors, it has original, wonderfully grotesque black-and-white artwork, this time from Randy Broecker. The wraparound dust jacket is from Les Edwards and, yes, that is London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background.

It’s not a gratuitous painting. Specifically, it’s for Brian Lumley’s “The Long Last Night.” It seems a bit of a literary experiment for Lumley, since it’s told mostly through the dialogue of two men as they wander the London Underground, heading towards the ruins of Piccadilly Circus, now the site of the Twisted Tower built after various Cthulhuian entities have returned to Earth and destroyed civilization. One man is on a mission of revenge. The other, the narrator, is not what he seems. While I guessed his mission, I didn’t guess all his secrets. A good Lumley story, with his tendency to throw every Cthulhuesque critter into a story’s mix restrained here.

Another regular of this trilogy is Ramsey Campbell. His contribution, “The Winner,” is a reprint from Taverns of the Dead. Like Lumley’s tale, it’s set in England and, while it has no explicit Lovecraftian references, it does partake of cosmic horror. A music lecturer wanders into a seaside pub during a storm and finds a strange, menacing crowd who won’t give a straight answer to any questions. This story got under my skin with its surrealism and the apprehension of danger in a common social situation. There’s bathroom horror, too.

Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “Into the Water” is a very effective, atmospheric piece about a news cameraman covering massive flooding in southern England and encountering Deep Ones retaking the land. Unsworth’s portrayal of one Deep One is unusual in its cheerful menace.

Yet another story set in England is Kim Newman’s “Richard Riddle, Boy Detective, in ‘The Case of the French Spy.'” Newman’s author notes state that, while this may seem to American readers to be a takeoff on the Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown children’s mysteries, it’s really inspired by Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives. A trio of children in a late-19th-century English seaside town get involved in a story mixing legends of a ghost and a captured Napoleonic spy, as well as paleontology and creationism in the character of a nasty reverend. Fun if not horrific.

We’re still not on American shores with Reggie Oliver’s “The Archbishop’s Well.” An expert in medieval history is brought to the town of Morchester to see if there really is an historical reason not to just tear down the sealed-up archbishop’s well and put a drinking fountain over it for the benefit of pilgrims. The 1938 setting and the presence of a local fascist who is also the self-proclaimed representative of the Order of Dagon link real world horrors to Lovecraftian ones in a memorable way.

We move even farther away from Innsmouth with Conrad Williams’ strong “The Hag Stone,” set on the very real Channel Island of Alderney. This is a well-paced story of a recent widower going on vacation to the island. Against the backdrop of the island’s Fort Clonque, occupied by Nazis during World War II, his unease grows as he meets a weird swimmer on the beach and his fellow vacationers encounter various disturbances and disasters. There’s a serial killer stalking the UK beaches, too.

Every once in a while in a theme anthology, you come across a story whose inclusion seems downright perverse in its deviation from the anthology’s stated purpose. Sometimes, that turns out to be audaciousness on the part of author and editor. Sometimes, it just comes off as an editor having to fill space with something.

I first thought – given that it’s not set in rotting, fictional Innsmouth but lovely and real Caramel, California – that Michael Marshall Smith’s “The Chain” was here for space-filler. But, at the conclusion of this story of a professional painter trying to reignite his artistic fires by a vacation to Carmel, I ultimately came down on the side of brilliant audaciousness for this one.

Adrian Cole’s “You Don’t Want to Know” (a very Lovecraftian title) mixes hard-boiled detective narration à la Mickey Spillane with the Mythos. An entry in Cole’s Nick Nightmare PI series, the detective is hired by some mysterious strangers to find and kill a recent immigrant to America. A fun piece that brings the Deep Ones’ story up to 2002.

Caitlín R. Kiernan is an author I discovered through the Innsmouth anthologies, and she has not one but three stories here, all reprints from her Sirenia Digest. Without repeating themselves in theme or images, they all manage to be pieces long on mood and beautiful language and shorter on plot.

“Fish Bride” is not, strictly speaking, an Innsmouth story but set in the beach slum of a town devastated by a storm in the late 1950s. Its narrator, a pulp writer, has taken up with a local woman who lives in that slum, a woman of webbed hands, iridescent skin, and too many teeth.

“On the Reef” narrates what the members of the Innsmouth diaspora, post-1928, get up to every Halloween on Devil Reef. “The Transition of Elizabeth Haskings” concerns the ritual its heroine periodically undertakes, with the aid of a gay friend, to show what she is becoming. Her motto is that monsters must be honest with themselves. There is not only an air of sublimated eroticism in the ritual but something of the tension-reducing purge of a bulimic.

Brain Hodge’s “The Same Deep Waters as You” takes up something seemingly missed by every other writer doing a followup to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”: What happened to all those Innsmouth residents the government put in concentration camps? It’s a well-done story, especially in the surprising turn the protagonist’s life takes after meeting said inmates.

The good taste of our own editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia is validated with a reprint of Angela Slatter’s “Rising, Not Dreaming,” a Cthulhu tale by way of Orpheus and first published right here in Innsmouth Free Press. Slatter also has an original story here, “The Song of Sighs.” A language teacher at a private academy begins to realize new things about her past and identity in this engaging story.

In fact, I liked almost all the stories here. I even had some affection for the alleged Lovecraft and August Derleth collaboration of “Innsmouth Clay,” which involves some strange blue clay taken from near Devil Reef after the U.S. Navy raid on it, a sculptor, and damp sheets and erotic dreams.

I’m afraid, though, that I forgot John Glasby’s “Innsmouth Bane” before I even finished the book. My notes reminded me it involved the father of Zeke Allen, the deliverer of the wonderful expository rant of Lovecraft’s story, and Innsmouth’s corruption by Captain Obed Marsh and his new friends from the South Sea.

I think this is the best of Jones’ Innsmouth anthologies, so, if you liked the others, you will definitely want to pick this up.

If you haven’t read the others, they are now easily and cheaply available as reprints. Try them out and, if you like them, spend the money on this one. You won’t be sorry.