, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

[The following contains spoilers.]

The first thing to say about the BBC Radio 4 audiodrama “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is that it is not The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Or rather, it reports in as another The Shadow Over Innsmouth or even as potentially one of many. The Innsmouth in the story is the same Innsmouth as that described in HP Lovecraft’s 1931 horror novella but the story is a different story altogether. And let us come in here at an angle, with the question of whether it can be ever possible to now pass down The Shadow Over Innsmouth intact, to a new generation. Can we today make a connection with Lovecraft and see Innsmouth through his own eyes?

One might think that any adaptation of a piece by Lovecraft would be severely handicapped in 2020. For a start, Lovecraft only ever grows more embarrassing with time. The absence of nuance or irony in his writing, along with the fact that OTT is the only setting on his narrative dial, means that his “horror” can often sound decidedly camp to modern ears. Then there is also the racism that colours and flavours every aspect of his fiction like the luminescence in a poison-dart frog. Lovecraft had viewed black people as being little more than goblins. All of the horror in his fiction is achieved through a radical speculative escalation from his emotional baseline, a fear of the Other. He had essentially begun with his own racism and then foamed it up until it was horror.  

It is thus a tremendous curiosity why Lovecraft is still such a crowd pleaser. If someone with Lovecraft’s cultural beliefs tried to start a literary career today, only the news of their arrest and numerous convictions would ever get published. In any other circumstances, if it was discovered that the BBC had dedicated a podcast to an author who had maintained that “the Negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races,” excitable Twitter users would be frantically virtue-signalling their own arms and legs off. Politicians and celebrities would let fly a guano blizzard of denunciation. The leadership of the BBC would have to resign and the rest of the staff would have to undergo compulsory retraining.

With Lovecraft, though, the whole ideology of “wokeness” is suddenly like a magic spell that does not work anymore. Nothing looks more Lilliputian than “woke” academics who are trying to launch an assault on Lovecraft’s Gullivernian physique. And perhaps a crucial layer is indeed missing from Lovecraft’s aesthetic without his cranky racism and the sense of lurking danger that it generates. With an improved, politically sweet Lovecraft there would be no weight behind the horror.

Lovecraft being received in the BBC’s citadel of wokedom is rather like the Devil taking tea at the Vatican. The success of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is nonetheless that the incongruity seldom occurs to you, or at least it does not whilst you are listening to the show. There is scant rattling of the teacups. It is an entertaining adventure story and it goes a long way with its voice performers too.

Julian Simpson has written this audiodrama and it is actually the third season in a series of densely interconnected, Lovecraft-interpreting investigations. “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (reviewed here) precede it. All three seek refuge from the shrillness of Lovecraft’s horror in the realism and the matter-of-factness of an investigative documentary. In truth, the convoluted plot of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and its happiness in the company of double-crossing intelligence operatives, make you soon feel like you are exploring some audacious hybrid work. As if you have accessed a universe where Lovecraft has somehow co-authored a radio script with John le Carré.

The original Innsmouth was a Massachusetts fishing town that was down on its luck. It was first visited in a story that reads rather like an excoriating TripAdvisor assessment of the local hospitality. The narrator, who is otherwise innocently holidaymaking, stumbles upon a cult in Innsmouth that is communing with nautical beings and honouring them with human sacrifices. News of what the narrator has seen soon reaches the federal government, which consequently closes in and shuts the town down:

Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed.

Had any other writer penned this passage, one would expect for there to be an element of ironic detachment in its mentioning of “concentration camps.” Yet no such irony is available here. Lovecraft had genuinely thought that the FBI should be sent in to suppress any communities that erred from the norm of “robust Aryan civilization.” He had approved of brutal and discriminatory policing – of lynching, even.

Physiognomy was the be-all and end-all of Lovecraft’s racism. The freaks that flop wetly down the wynds of Innsmouth are fishfaced because this is the most unequivocal way of denoting that they are Other. If Lovecraft was writing in regular prose then they would be blacks or Chinese or Arabs. Within the poetry of his horror, they are speculative mutants and with this their true Otherness is at once caricatured and made more transparent. In an infamous letter from 1922, Lovecraft had made this connection clear, in likening the “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid” citizenry of New York to “deep-sea unnameabilities.” If any moralistic protest movement had emerged in Lovecraft’s world in 2020, it would be called Mutant Lives Matter.

In Simpson’s audiodrama, it is the present day and peace has been restored to the seaport. Lovecraft’s narrative is lately a mere episode in the history of Innsmouth, just one more brush between probing outsiders and the gooey lore that lies behind the town’s unprepossessing shell.

Although this audiodrama is bigger and more sprawling than a single trip to Innsmouth, it dutifully scrapes out a kind of potted, modern-day simulacrum of the original story. This is always encompassed within the larger, framing story, in the manner of a play-within-a-play. The investigator in the field, Kennedy Fisher (Jana Carpenter) is usually running in the same grooves as Lovecraft’s own narrator. This echoing of footsteps is in turn amplified through the uncanny resemblance that Fisher bears to Daisy Marsh, another doppelgänger who is waiting at the end of her investigation. If Innsmouth has returned after being suppressed by the FBI, Fisher’s investigation concludes at Pleasant Green, a lost East Anglian village that has briefly rematerialised in 2020.

This time around, though, the authorities leave Innsmouth be. The security services, as exemplified by the louche agent Parker (Phoebe Fox), are content to monitor Innsmouth. From Parker’s perspective, its horror is an irrelevance or else neo-imperialist administrators should these days adopt a “hands off” approach towards the natives. The problem with this is that if Parker is so relaxed about the horror then the disbelief of Fisher and her fellow investigator Matthew Heawood (Barnaby Kay) comes to look shallow or like a jejune unfamiliarity. Fisher and Heawood are increasingly circled by the guilty sense that their horror might be simply as subjective as a phobia of, say, spiders.  

The story gets stranded midway between Lovecraft’s racism and Parker’s unphased acceptance. The Deep Ones arrive dispossessed of vocal organs, so Fisher is unable to speak to them and understand them. Admittedly, it never occurs to her to attempt this. The greatest journalistic scoop for humanity since Stanley had met Dr Livingstone therefore goes cold. The Deep Ones are promptly forgotten about and indeed Fisher treats them with such comical rudeness that you almost feel sorry for them. Whereas the Deep Ones were the source of all horror in the original story, in this one they are literally a detail.  Although she is called Fisher and they the Deep Ones, they have been thrown back.

Not all of Lovecraft is flushed out of Fisher’s system. She refers to the “in-bred” appearance of Innsmouth’s natives in a way that would have been unacceptable on the BBC fifty years ago, let alone in a modern, Ofcom-regulated broadcast. And she never anguishes over whether her horror towards the Deep Ones might be a product of white privilege, in the fairminded way that any liberal journalist would today interrogate their own assumptions when confronting an obscure immigrant culture. In Fisher’s reaction to the Deep Ones, we can therefore see the point where the tides of horror have washed back, leaving bare the gaping lack of empathy that is the racist mind.

“It kept occurring to me that I might be dreaming.” The denouements at Innsmouth and Pleasant Green are pacy and well executed. They are also quite unlike the familiar Lovecraftian climax, in which the brittle white ego is orgasmically overwhelmed and the horror flows almost merrily out of the tube. Instead, when Fisher is at Innsmouth and Heawood at Pleasant Green, there is the atmosphere of a dreamland and the itchy feeling that its illogicality cannot last for very long.

In both cases, this atmosphere also results from how Parker’s character is used. As an agent of the state, and a figure of intellectual control, she embodies the cultural values that Lovecraft had deemed the most precious and, verily, the whitest. At Innsmouth and Pleasant Green, however, Parker is disabled. In the former setting, she is so remote from the horror as to be reduced to meaningless twitterings about breakfast foods. In the latter, she ends up trapped in a time loop. She becomes like the conscious mind within a dream, present but unnaturally passive.                    

Lovecraft’s fictions conclude with their white protagonists smashed or demoralised and with the fragility of white civilisation being even more devastatingly confirmed. Yet the ending of Simpson’s story characteristically chips the edge off Lovecraft’s mania. A multicultural truce is more or less agreed between the human world and the realm of Nyarlathotep. Heawood is missing but this is in effect an accident of timing. He has not succumbed to cosmic dread; it is more that he had failed to disembark from the dream when it was leaving the station. If Fisher’s task is to now retrieve him, it had been never previously imaginable that the corresponding figures in Lovecraft’s stories could be salvaged.