The Innsmouth Cycle, edited by Robert M. Price


H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth" is the greatest, and possibly the most influential, short story of the "stranger comes to a small town gone awry" subgenre. It sets up most of the basic ideas that the others will incorporate, with Lovecraft making a fertile bed for others to daydream about: a fear of strangers, inbreeding, empty streets with decaying buildings, old and scary churches with their odd rituals, evil history tied in with the terror of religious mania, and wrong and demented sexual practices. Just about any sort of horror story that one could want to write can incorporate some aspect of Innsmouth. This is all peppered with scenes out of other genres. Zardok Allen's retelling of the town history taps into an early twentieth century vibe of white man's burden gone wrong. The flight from the hotel resonates with a gothic caper. The ending line reminiscent of something that a Romantic poet might have written. And while most of the real horror is told in an internal story already a near centry old, Innsmouth still feels effective now, nearly 80 years later.

Chaosium's collection, The Innsmouth Cycle: The Taint of the Deep Ones in Thirteen Tales and Three Poems, shows exactly what works, and what doesn't, in the Lovecraft original. Price's first three stories are chosen as inspiration. While the Dunsany story is tenuously connected at best and the excerpt from Robert Chamber's In Search of the Unknown makes for a mild taste of horror, the early gem in the collection is Irvin S. Cobb's "Fishhead". Reading like a precursor to something that Joe R. Lansdale might right, the racist little ditty manages to be funny and offputting at the same time. Maybe he is part catfish. Maybe he's not. But the fact that you can't be sure is creepy in its own right.

The inspirations aside, the collection moves into the Lovecraft original, and then into nine stories inspired by it. Some of them, like Franklyn Searight's "The Innsmouth Head" and James Wade's "The Deep Ones" are a bit weak compared to the original story, precisely in their trying to live up to it. The original "Shadow" was about the unfamiliar being right inside of the American dream. A small town becomes corrupt trying not to become rich but just to survive. It is a cautionary tale of what happens with white men give into heathen ways. While this racist overtone is dated and somewhat dulls the impact of "Shadow", it also helps to shape it into a morality tale about embracing the alien, embracing strange technology, rather than embracing more sensible lifestyle changes. On top of this is a caution about any religion that gives up today for the gory of an eternal tomorrow, and how it perverts the body. When Cthulhu does get name dropped, and Father Dagon is referenced, it is more than just a namecheck, it is how things have gone wrong.

Then, in these later pastiches - including also Henry Vester's III "Innsmouth Gold", "The Transition of Zardok Allen" by Lewis Theobald III and John Glasby's "Devil Reef" - the names are brought forth again. We get a second namecheck. But while the original is about the lurking unknown, these new stories threaten to familiarize the Deep and all it's minions.

This is not to say these stories are poor. Some of them are quite good. Overly obvious references to "Arlyah" aside, Wade's 1960s infused exploration of the darker side to the green movement ponders questions about a different sort of "deep one". Glasby's visitor to Innsmouth constrasts the curious coward of the original tale with a coldhearted profiteer. The confusing end to Theobald's "Zardok" enchances the moodiness. And if "The Innsmouth Head" adds very little to the mythos, it at least poses a different sort of horror (namely, what kind of man would stuff the head of a humanoid Deep One to begin with?)

The three gems of later tales come back to back, and each adds a substantial enough chunk to the world of Innsmouth that all three feel undeniably like canon: Roger Johnson's "Custos Sanotorium", Stephen Mark Raimsey's "Rapture in Black", and "Live Bait" by Stephen Mark Sargent. In all three, the focus is on continuing horror by assuming the 1920's Innsmouth incident to be just an event. An even that can be repeated, or found elswhere, and has consquences. In the first two, the concept of their being other "Innsmouths" is well explored. Why couldn't other westerners come across the strange devilish chants? Surely some of the Innsmouthers survived. Where did they go?

"Live Bait" is the crown gem. Not only does it return to Innsmouth, years later, but it shows a side unglimpsed before. Rather than just copy Lovecraft, it looks toward a different sort of horror: genocide, coverups, revenge. It answers some important questions about what happened next, and it is well written all around.

The poems are not bad, but not quite as attention getting as the short stories. The collection ends with them, and they, along with "Zardok" help to end the thing on a lyrical note, which is fitting given the lyrical nature of the final line of the original "Shadow".

The collection is Good overall, with "Fishhead", "The Shadow over Innsmouth, and "Live Bait" being Great and the rest ranging from Eh to Good.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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