Column: Writing the Mythos: Fish Genes and Bloodlines

Fish Genes and Bloodlines

By G. W. Thomas

H. P. Lovecraft was skilled at borrowing what he wanted from those who came before him. It was a kind of literary game to him that could adopt any monster, book or idea he liked. He did this with Robert W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, even his friends like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. The idea of fish-human hybrids or fish people was no exception. The idea pre-dates HPL’s Deep Ones by at least thirty-five years. “In the Abyss” by H. G. Wells (Pearson’s Magazine, August 1896) may have been the first fish-people story to inspire him. In it, a man in a diving bell goes to the bottom of a sea trench, sees a civilization of underwater fish people, and is almost captured by them. The creatures are described:

It was a strange vertebrated animal. Its dark purple head was dimly suggestive of a chameleon, but it had such a high forehead and such a braincase as no reptile ever displayed before; the vertical pitch of its face gave it a most extraordinary resemblance to a human being. two large and protruding eyes projected from sockets in chameleon fashion, and it had a broad reptilian mouth with horny lips beneath its little nostrils. In the position of the ears were two huge gill-covers, and out of these floated a branching tree of coralline filaments, almost like the tree-like gills that very young rays and sharks possess…It was a biped; its almost globular body was poised on a tripod of two frog-like legs and a long, thick tail, and its fore limbs, which grotesquely caricatured the human hand, much as a frog’s do, carried a long shaft of bone, tipped with copper. The colour of the creature was variegated; its head, hands, and legs were purple; but its skin, which hung loosely upon it, even as clothes might do, was a phosphorescent grey. And it stood there blinded by the light.”

If that doesn’t sound like a Deep One, I don’t know what does.

Another inspiration was Irwin S. Cobb’s “Fishhead” (The Cavalier, January 11, 1913). The plot is more similar to “The Cats of Ulthar” or “The Terrible Old Man” than “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”: two good ol’ boys set out to murder a fish-faced man who lives in the swamp. The Baxter Boys murder him with a shotgun, but end up in the waters of the swamp where a gigantic catfish munches them. Cobb’s story is built around racism. Fishhead is half-black and half-Indian. His struggles with the Baxters come out of hatred as well. Fishhead had beaten both of them in a fight, spurring their evil plans.

Perhaps most important of all are A. ‘s “The Moon Pool” (All-Story Weekly, June 22, 1918) and “Conquest of the Moon Pool” (All-Story Weekly, March 1, 1919). Both were published as one book in 1920. In this novel, a group of scientists explores a moon-lit temple on the island of Ponape (now in the Federated States of Micronesia) where a magic portal takes them to a city of men and fish creatures. The city is divided by religious strife: the human faction worships the Shining One, a strange supernatural being, and the fish people worship their own weird gods, The Silent Ones. The inevitable battle between the two ends the book.

H. P. Lovecraft’s response to these fish tales was three stories. The first was “Dagon” (The Vagrant, November 1919), which features a gigantic fish deity named by the ancient Phoenicians. The longest, and his masterpiece, is “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936), which shows what terrible things came from Ponape to live on the Eastern coast of the USA, interbreeding with the Marsh family. The suffocating menace of this story has kept it a horror classic for seventy-three years. The third story is a minor, later piece called “The Night Ocean” (The Californian, Winter 1936) with Robert H. Barlow, which features an artist out on a lonely beach at night who sees a deep one.

The deeper meaning of fish-human hybrids is open to discussion, but many critics feel HPL used the idea to look at degeneration and tainting of bloodlines. Some feel this was part of his racist feelings about the thinning of good Yankee stock by foreigners, but if so, he wasn’t much different than many writers of his time. I don’t think such a theme today would be palatable to most publishers, but we shouldn’t dismiss the tales because of this possible interpretation. Fish people are creepy and that should be, as Lovecraft himself says in “The Supernatural Horror in Literature”, its primary goal. Anyone who is familiar with human gestation can tell you there are some pretty fishy stages in human development.

So why write a Deep One or Dagon story, then? Certainly, between Lovecraft and his posthumous collaborator, August Derleth, the old Deep One idea has been done enough. But as Scott Smith has proven with his huge bestseller¬†The Ruins (2006), the ideas don’t have to be new. His plant monsters were right out of 1930s Clark Ashton Smith. The difference is his approach. Writing in a style that is so very un-Clark Ashton Smith, he was able to breath new life into something as trite as killer plants. The same can be done for the Deep Ones. What about a more fantasy approach that shows us the inner world of Deep Ones–their culture, their beliefs? Something more akin to HPL’s The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath or Merritt’s The Moon Pool? Or a science fiction story that shows the eventual evolution of Deep Ones in the millennia ahead? Or, my favorite, a cheeky Bridget-Jones style diary of an Innsmouth Girl and her trails and tribulations of devolving into a scaly fish-face? The fish people are the tool; what will you say with them?