The Shadow Over Innsmouth
Part One: Descent Into Innsmouth by Simon Birks, with art by R. H. Stewart, and letters by Lyndon White
H.P. Lovecraft is a writer who has made a tremendous impact on popular culture. His influence can be felt in books, games, music, films and of course comics. Among the many comics showing a Lovecraftian influence are Hellboy, Locke and Key and Alan Moore’s From Hell.
What is it about his writings that have caused them to have such an impact? Lovecraft excelled at creating a menace that is bigger than humanity. Threats that are so alien our human minds can barely comprehend them. Impossible geometry, creatures whose very form drive us to madness.
He also taps into uglier and darker parts of the human psyche. Lovecraft’s other dimensional terrors reflect a deep seated fear of the ‘other’ and a revisit of the original Shadow Over Innsmouth story will do little to dissuade the reader of Lovecraft’s racism. In that story the suspicious residents of neighbouring Newburyport don’t hesitate to blame miscegenation for the strange doings in the town. “But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em.”
The above quote is thankfully not included in this comics adaptation. The residents of Innsmouth are more markedly something other than human, with scaly, aquatic features evoking the terrors of the dark reef with its forbidden knowledge. The exotic Innsmouth ‘marsh gold’ jewelry which seems designed for a misshapen and inhuman body is portrayed wonderfully in the book by artist R.H. Stewart.
The portrayal of period architecture, clothing and vehicles is also very well done. There is a real challenge with illustrating Lovecraft, and that is how to portray that which he describes as outside our comprehension. As a reading experience it leaves the real horror to our imagination but in a comic that is more difficult to do. This book uses a slow build up of horror as the bus comes into Innsmouth, weirdly shaped haystacks, tumbledown shacks with strange children on the porch (that Lovecraft described as “groups of dirty, simian-visaged children playing around weed-grown doorsteps”.)
The colour palette of muted sepia and green tones works well to evoke an early Twentieth Century feel with uncanny overtones and is reminiscent of the stylised nostalgia of someone like Seth. As the bus reaches Innsmouth the tones subtly darken. Much of the book eschews dialogue altogether to instead build atmosphere through the illustration.
As his work increasingly comes into the public domain there will surely see more Lovecraft adaptations. Coming to terms with his racism and anti-semitism is a difficult challenge. I will be interested to see how future episodes deal with this especially in the context of an America which remains perilously divided.
The series will be published in three parts, and be released in a collected edition late in 2021.