Sunday, 6 October 2013

Shadows Over Innsmouth - Book Review

Shadows Over Innsmouth
edited by Stephen Jones

Innsmouth, that isolated New England fishing village where “the vast huddle of sagging gambrel roofs and peaked gables conveyed with offensive clearness the idea of wormy decay.” A desolate place where the bulging, watery eyes of the residents stared from misshapen skulls, and a musty stench blended hideously with the town’s fishy odour. This is the setting of one of H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous tales, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, where hideous chants echo from Devil Reef and the Hall of Dagon.

Under the unblinking eye of World Fantasy Award-winning editor Stephen Jones, sixteen of the finest modern authors contribute stories to the canon of Cthulu. (Synopsis from back of book)

I’ve read so many Lovecraftian stories now, enjoyed Cthulu mythos based books, movies and games, and am very familiar with the ideas and iconic elements of Lovecraft’s creation, but oddly, until this collection, I’d never actually read one of the original Lovecraft stories. This collection begins with The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which was pretty much exactly what I expected. The story is a slow starter, perhaps a little rambling in places, but with a great sense of atmosphere and, of course, a fantastically realised setting.

The other stories in the collection are all the works of other authors, all within the Cthulu mythos and with a connection to Innsmouth and to the events of the original Lovecraft story. The modern writers here are all men and all British, the former fact a bit disappointing and the latter just odd. Innsmouth itself is in America, and these stories are mostly set in America too, many in the Innsmouth area, and a few in Britain and Ireland (with one very notable exception set in Romania). The stories that break away from Innsmouth add a bit of variety, but it’s a shame that we don’t see the effect of these sinister events on more different places and cultures, and the arms of the cult of Dagon creeping over the world. There are only so many identical sleepy American towns and seaside British villages that a reader can take...

These stories, on the whole, offer exactly what you might expect from a collection of Lovecraftian stories. This is one of the strengths of the collection, but, unfortunately, I think for me it was also the main problem. I wanted to see a bit more of the unexpected. After a while, the horror and the creepy aspect of the stories begins to wear very thin as you realise that the plots and the tone of the stories mirror each other very strongly. The book continues at the same semi-religiously-paranoid pitch for large chunks, which is perfectly spot-on-Lovecraftian, but to the extent that I began to feel a little sorry for the fish-creatures and found myself taking their side a bit. Probably not the intended reaction, and not the fault of any one story, but the effect of the anthology as a whole. I understand that this collection is supposed to celebrate the original story, but I do think it’s possible to do that without having so many stories that are so similar to it. I wanted to be surprised and amazed. I wanted to see the authors really make the Lovecraftian elements their own.

This is why certain stories really stood out for me, the ones that take the familiar ideas and play with them, twist them a little, or use the atmosphere of the original story in a very different setting. These stories were Only the End of the World Again, by Neil Gaiman, and A Quarter to Three, by Kim Newman, which use a more playful attitude to give us a fresh look at Innsmouth and the kinds of people involved in the weirdness there, Down to the Boots, by D. F. Lewis, which offers a different perspective from the other stories, and The Homecoming, by Nicholas Royle, which I thought was a fantastic story and very clever in its use of the same paranoid atmosphere of the original, but applied to very different circumstances. Part of the horror for the narrator in A Shadow Over Innsmouth seems to come from a Victorian-like fear of the foreign ‘infiltrating’ society, having something of a similar feel to certain chapters in Dracula. The Homecoming uses this idea in very interesting ways, as we see citizens of a post-dictatorship Romania in constant fear of each other, and of what kinds of people may have infiltrated their world, and of a form of evil that appears to be immortal – one wave of fish-things may be defeated, but paranoia and cruelty never die. This story was so unexpected and yet made so much sense, and it was definitely my favourite of the anthology.

None of the stories in the collection were bad. To See the Sea, by Michael Marshall Smith, and Daoine Domhain, by Peter Tremayne, were, for me, particularly good examples of that heavy sense of foreboding and lurking evil that are so iconic to the Cthulu mythos. It’s just that I did get a little tired of reading one after another. I’d recommend reading a story every now and then, when you’re in the mood for something Cthulicious, rather than reading it all in one go like I did. There is plenty to enjoy here for the hardcore Lovecraft fans, but, ultimately, a little disappointing for me.

Thank you to Titan Books for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

No comments:

Post a Comment