Shadows Over the Anthology

by Arthur B

Stephen Jones' fishy-themed Lovecraftian anthologies really aren't that good.
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Stephen Jones’ Shadows Over Innsmouth series of anthologies takes an approach to compiling themed Mythos anthologies which represents a similar but different approach to Price’s ”Cycle” books - whereas Price’s Cycles take in stories which influenced or dealt with particular entities or concepts in Lovecraft’s fiction, Shadows Over Innsmouth compiles stories written in response to one specific Lovecraft story - namely, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This is a concept which unfortunately gets tired out before the first anthology, Shadows Over Innsmouth, is even done - let alone when you get to the followup anthologies.

Jones starts the first collection out with the obvious-yet-redundant choice of Lovecraft’s own The Shadow Over Innsmouth - it’s obvious because it’s the story that inspired the collection, but redundant because there’s no fucking way anyone who went out of their way to buy this thing doesn’t already own it. Our first dose of original material is Basil Copper’s Beyond the Reef, which sets the tone for the rest of the book by being an amateurish pastiche. Copper makes a token attempt at a Lovecraftian prose style, but it’s inconsistently applied and rather poor and wooden. Mere imitation cannot reproduce the long effort Lovecraft put into finding his voice, and slipping into and out of that voice over the course of the story just exposes Copper’s poor grip on it. In addition, he commits the basic error of having a framing story which establishes the main narrative as being a particular character’s witness statement, but has them talking about themselves in the third person and recounting conversations in detail despite the fact that they weren’t actually present. I couldn't finish it.

Kim Newman’s The Big Fish - reprinted in the far superior Cthulhu 2000 - is billed here as being by Jack Yeovil, presumably because like his Warhammer material he wasn’t so proud of it at the time. Other stories here that get reprints in much better anthologies that you should get instead of this one are Ramsey Campbell’s The Church In High Street, which is one of the less interesting stories in his excellent collection Cold Print and Neil Gaiman’s Only the End of the World Again, which S.T. Joshi included in A Mountain Walked. Even though Brian Lumley’s Dagon’s Bell anthology is a bit of a mixed bag, its overall standard is still better than this and the title story is one of the better pastiches here.

Other material here hasn’t been found worthy of being especially widely reprinted. Guy N. Smith contributes Return to Innsmouth, which is mostly a drab pastiche; it only delivers its one interesting idea at the very end and doesn't develop it very much. The Crossing by Adrian Cole starts with an evocative mystery but ends with a drab chase sequence and a frustratingly repetitive father-son conversation. It kind of feels like it wasn't originally an Innsmouth-based story and had the old town crowbarred into it clumsily for the sake of this anthology, its debut appearance. Down to the Boots by DF Lewis is daft nonsense, a brief vignette which Lewis attempts to spice up with absurdly overwritten metaphors and similes, somehow mistaking that for erudition; I am not fooled and you shouldn’t be either. Daoine Domhain by Peter Tremayne is basically The Wicker Man only in Ireland with Deep Ones and almost all flavour removed. It’s as disappointing as that sounds. To See the Sea by Michael Marshall Smith rambles too much and is too obsessed with middle class annoyances and preoccupations for me to get into.

Due to the whole “alien-human hybrid” angle in the original Shadow Over Innsmouth, you’d expect rape and sexuality to be dealt with here with all the usual crudeness and clumsiness that genre writing is so unfortunately known for. Innsmouth Gold by David A. Sutton starts with an interesting premise - the narrator is going to the ruins of Innsmouth in modern day in search of a rumoured stash of gold left behind from the Marsh refinery operations. However, it doesn’t do much of note after that beyond having the narrator blithely assume that if the Deep One women of Innsmouth caught him they were going to rape him. (Dude, come on, there’s self-confidence and then there’s just being presumptuous.)

Kim Newman, under his own name (presumably so Jones could pass this book off as including a wider variety of authors, which seems a bit deceptive), doesn’t pass up the opportunity to be unnecessarily crass either. A Quarter to Three is a brief vignette set in an all-night diner in Innsmouth, somewhere between the 1960s and the modern day, which culminates in a joke about Deep Ones having huge dicks. It’s basically a huge jokey in-joke because that's pretty much what Newman does - crap fandom and literary in-jokes designed to make him look clever. As ever, I’m not fooled and I think worse of the segment of the SF/fantasy readership which is fooled.

The cheapest use of rape in the anthology shows up in Deepnet by David Langford. This one has a plot that has to be spelled out to be believed. So, the Deep Ones establish Deepnet, which in the world of this story has Microsoft-level dominance in computer software. They use this to modulate the radiation from computer monitors in such a way as to genetically manipulate pregnant women so they give birth to Deep One hybrids. The final horror has the narrator, who has pieced this all together, hinting that the influence has also worked on him, making him want to rape his hybrid daughter in order to breed more hybrids. Full marks for originality, but it's a pile of cheap shots - a lazy use of child rape for cheap effect at the end and a plot largely riffing on early 1990s computer scare stories and now-stale geek culture animosity towards Microsoft.

A story which manages to steer away from overt rapiness but still ends up being pointlessly exploitative is The Tomb of Priscus by Brian Mooney. This is part of his Calloway and Shea stories of gentle Mythos-themed detective mysteries, owing an awful lot stylistically to Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow material (indeed, Titus is namedropped in it as the provider of a job lot of Elder Signs). On the one hand, it takes the reasonable enough step of presenting Deep One transformation as a result of Cthulhu worship and resultant contamination from that, and so avoids racist angle at least, but it’s very male-dominated affair with the most significant woman in the story being a nude sacrificial victim. Stylistically and in terms of pacing it’s actually better than most of the Crow stories, but only marginally - it’s fun but hardly a keeper.

Possibly the most interesting story in here is The Innsmouth Heritage by Brian Stableford, though it also is likely to frustrate much of the audience. It’s essentially a story-length exorcism of the original Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which it is establish that Captain Marsh and his harem of Polynesian wives were a myth cooked up as a spurious explanation for the Innsmouth Look, that the Look is a genetic defect resulting from inbreeding, and that the Lovecraftian dreams experienced by those with the Look just boil down to the power of suggestion. If you look there are hints in certain accidents that this is bunk and the Deep Ones are real, except actually the explanation is so persuasive and the hints so minor and amenable to alternate explanation that it really does seem like the myth is dead.

Woven through this is the story of a relationship that breaks down as a result of this package of legend and rumour, which seems to be Stableford’s main point - that the real horror isn't Cthulhu or conspiracies of cultists, but lives blighted by superstition. This is ironically a point Lovecraft would probably have conceded, his opposition to superstition having been a cause he was actually far more active in than any of his racial neuroses. It's a decent piece, though not one I feel especially keen to revisit - the point it makes doesn't especially call for restatement and the prose and characterisation are not rich enough to call you back. On top of that, I think many readers are likely to be simply annoyed by it - when you buy an anthology like this what you are after is Innsmouth-themed horror stories, not a story which tells you that the whole Innsmouth thing was bullshit and horror is bullshit too and you should be taking a rational scientific approach to things and read hard SF of the sort Stableford usually writes. By itself, this is a good story, but as an inclusion in a horror anthology it’s a bit of a “fuck you for reading this”.

Even more tenuous in its relevance is The Homecoming by Nicholas Royle, in which a Holocaust survivor loses it in Bucharest in the wake of the Ceausescu regime’s overthrow. There’s some Lovecraftian imagery and bits of language slipped in, but it feels rather forced - to the point where the story’s inclusion here feels like kind of a stretch.

A full analysis of a Mythos anthology wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at the Boy’s-Club-o-meter, and guess what: Stephen Jones is clearly a proud gatekeeper for the Boy’s Club.

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 16
Number of said authors who are male: 16
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 100%

This rating wouldn’t improve much over the rest of the series - only three women get stories published in any of the anthologies.

In short, Shadows Over Innsmouth is a rather poor selection, and we find out why in Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth, the followup collection; in his introduction to that volume Jones confesses his intent with this and the original was not to pay tribute to Lovecraft but to August Derleth, and expresses admiration for The Mask of Cthulhu and The Trail of Cthulhu - thereby proving once and for all that he has terrible taste and his judgement should not be trusted on Mythos matters. The second volume throws in the discarded first draft of Shadow Over Innsmouth for the sake of being able to claim some Lovecraft content and then offers a mass of pastiche I simply could not bring myself to tackle; Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth, the third anthology in the series, seems to be much of the same and has the temerity to pass off on the reader one of Derleth’s fake collaborations with Lovecraft.
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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 20:06 on 2017-10-29
Is "Brian Stapleford" an actual author, or a misspelling of Brian Stableford?
Arthur B at 20:38 on 2017-10-29
It's the Mandela Effect in action, is what it is.
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