The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”One night I had a frightful dream in which I met my grandmother under the sea. She lived in a phosphorescent palace of many terraces, with gardens of strange leprous corals and grotesque brachiate efflorescences, and welcomed me with a warmth that may have been sardonic. She had changed--as those who take to the water change--and told me she had never died.”
It might have been the uncertain light from the flickering fire casting deceptive shadows across my friend’s face or maybe it was the way the lush, aromatic smoke from our smoldering cigars circled around his head, but I could swear that I was seeing changes morphing the features of Robert’s face as he told me his tale.
He showed me a piece of jewelry with grotesque depictions of insidious looking creatures engraved on its surface. I rubbed the engravings vigorously with my thumb as if I could smear the gold and blur their hideous features.
“I’ve seen them.”
I gave him a startled look. “You mean in your nightmares like the fantastical one about your grandmother.”
He sighed and drained his glass of cognac and signaled into the darkness for another. “Jeffrey, you are my only hope. The only person I know who could even begin to fathom what I have seen, what I have experienced. Out of all my friends, you are the most likely to be able to set aside what you think are absolutes and allow me the courtesy of objectively considering that what I’m telling you could possibly be true.”
I nestled back into the oxblood leather of my chair. I considered the set of his face as best I could. His eyes seemed larger suddenly, black as if the pupils had encroached outside of their normal sphere. A waiter appeared, dressed in dark colors, barely distinguishable from the surrounding darkness except for a white napkin tucked in his belt. He dropped off two more cognacs and evaporated back into the midnight recesses of the room. I’d barely touched the first, but I felt that this might be a fine time to add some fortification, given that I felt an uncontrollable, insane urge to grab one of the decorative shields from the wall of the room so that I would have something between me and the words that were about to be shared.
I flicked a trembling hand in the air. My hand had a pale luminescence as if I were reaching for a torch burning under water. “I appreciate your faith in me, dear Robert, please do continue.”
He flicked the piece of jewelry with his finger. “These images are mere stick figures gouged into a cave wall by an ancient man when one compares them to what they actually look like.”
”I think their predominant colour was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the sides of their necks were palpitating gills, and their long paws were webbed. They hopped irregularly, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four.”
“You’ve seen them yourself? If anyone else were describing these creatures to me, I’d think they’d been reading too many Penny Dreadfuls”
“I nearly didn’t escape them.”
He held up a hand to quiet the questions bubbling to my lips.
“I discovered that this piece came from Innsmouth, Massachusetts. My curiosity was peaked as to the origin of the artwork. Little did I know that I was being pulled by more sinister forces than just my own natural interest in the extraordinary.”
“What a peculiar statement, Robert. Are you saying that something was compelling you against your will to go to Innsmouth?”
I watched his hand reach out for his glass. The fingers, as they wrapped around the round curve of the cup, were deformed. It took me a moment to ascertain that the fingers were misshapen by what appeared to be webbing.
“What’s the matter, Jeffrey?”
I looked up at his face and then looked down at the hand again. Robert’s hand now looked as normal as my own.
I laughed weakly. “Your tale of fantastical creatures has permeated my brain with disturbing apparitions.”
Robert leaned forward. “Do I look alright?”
He did, too pale, the standard problem with academics. We all began to look like cave creatures after long bouts of research. Whatever morphing I was seeing was merely my own hallucinations. I was starting to wonder if I’d ingested something that was unbalancing my vision. “You look fine, Robert.”
“I’ve been seeing things in the mirror. The Innsmouth look as they say. It is as if something has been changing in me. I do wonder about my own sanity. I’ve been researching my family tree and have discovered that I am descended from a prominent Innsmouth family.”
“What an odd coincidence that is," I exclaimed.
“I’m beginning to believe that none of this has been happenstance, but more to do with predestination.”
“More like morbid curiosity, my old friend,” I said, but doubt was beginning to hang a heavy stone around my own assurances.
“I’m going back to Innsmouth. I do think that I will bring my uncle with me. You know the one that has been incarcerated for mental illness. I’ve been having thoughts of liberating him.”
“Liberating the insane? Is that wise?”
“Maybe he is not insane. Maybe he is just not where he is supposed to be.”
“You are worrying me, Robert.”
He sighed heavily. “It is all so complicated, but only because I keep denying what needs to be done. I’ve been keeping notes of my research and of my dreams. I’m leaving them with this scholar in Providence, Rhode Island, named H. P. Lovecraft. We’ve been corresponding for some time. A strange young man with a voracious appetite for anything I might know about these creatures.”
After we parted that night, I never saw Robert Olmstead again. After months of hearing nothing from my old friend, I decided to take the train to Providence and see if this Lovecraft fellow had seen or heard anything. I knocked and battered at his door, but he refused to come out to see me. His windows were covered with what looked like sheets of metal. I found a place where a hole had been bored through the window frame. As I peered through the aperture, I was momentarily shocked to find myself looking eyeball to eyeball with him. His eye widened and then fell away from me. I heard this awful clatter followed by what sounded like terror induced moaning.
I heard him scream something odd...something that sounded like Cthulhu. Though he screamed it several times, I’m still not sure I heard properly what he was calling out. After several more minutes of pounding on the door, extorting him, and menacing him with all forms of retribution for not helping me, I finally gave up.
There was nothing for it. I was going to have to go to Innsmouth.
The man who checked me into the hotel didn’t look right. ”He had a queer narrow head with a flat nose and bulgy, stary eyes that never seemed to shut. His skin was rough and scabby and the sides of his neck were shrivelled and creased up.” He had a half drowned, dropped on his head too many times look about him that sent a shiver up my spine.
“Have you seen my friend, Robert Olmstead?” I gave him a brief description. He looked at me for longer than was necessary and finally shook his head.
“Listen, you degenerate rogue, I can tell you are lying.” I slapped my hand on the counter for emphasis which made him jump back. The first look of mild intelligence crossed his amphibian features.
He walked around the counter, picked up my valise, and started up the stairs. I weighed my options, but decided it was late and probably the best thing for me would be to rest and recuperate from the long hours spent on the train. ”It would perhaps have been easier to keep my thoughts from disturbing topics had the room not been so gruesomely musty. As it was, the lethal mustiness blended hideously with the town’s general fishy odour and persistently focussed one’s fancy on death and decay.” To further discombobulate my already acute discomfort, the bolt for the door was missing. I wedged a rickety chair under the door knob. The chair looked old enough that Captain John Smith may have put the grooves in the seat with his very own buttocks.
I didn’t feel comfortable enough to undress or even pull my shoes off. I expected at any moment to have some horrendous beast burst through the door intent on my eminent destruction. I tossed and turned. The musty smell of the room and the general stuffiness of the high humidity was driving me to distraction. Finally out of desperation, I decided to leave the uncertain safety of my room for a brisk walk around the town. Few lights offered any help in determining a surefooted way. Luckily, the moon was full and illuminated a choice of paths. I decided that a walk down to the shoreline was probably my only hope of relaxation.
The smell of the salt air did clear my head. I peered out at the water and thought about the stories that Robert had told me. They couldn’t possibly be true. My fear was that his mind was cracking and that the unfortunate circumstances of his uncle might be one he currently shared. I noticed that the waves were being disturbed, that something, possibly wreckage from some unfortunate vessel, was coming ashore.
”For a closer glance I saw that the moonlit waters between the reef and the shore were far from empty. They were alive with a teeming horde of shapes swimming inward toward the town; and even at my vast distance and in my single moment of perception I could tell that the bobbing heads and flailing arms were alien and aberrant in a way scarcely to be expressed or consciously formulated.”
Fear gripped my spine. I wanted to scream, but only an inhuman gurgle was able to traverse the constriction of my throat. My legs, fortunately, responded, and soon I was fleeing at a helter skelter pace up the pathway to the hotel. There were several of them waiting for me outside the hotel, but I flailed my way through them, shuddering every time my fist or my boot came in contact with their foul, nauseating flesh. I ran down the road and out of town. After my stamina began to fail, I crawled into a ditch and shivered all night long expecting at any moment for a webbed hand to reach for me.
I must say, I feel no end of guilty torment over my decision, but I gave up on my quest to find Robert. Once back in civilisation, I returned to my books. I occasionally happened upon some mention of trouble at Innsmouth, but my eyes would always blur before I could read more than a few words. My hand refused to continue to hold the newspaper. I pined for my good friend, Olmstead, but I feared that if I ever did see him again, he would be a creature intent on making me immortal in the most grotesque of forms.
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