Walpurgis Night Special:
The repulsiveness and the allure of Innsmouth.
⁓The Voice before the Void
The Shadow over Innsmouth
edited by The Voice before the Void
I am going to talk about this thing. I have an odd craving to whisper about those few frightful hours in that evil seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. The mere telling helps to reassure myself that I was not the first to succumb to a contagious nightmare hallucination. It helps me, too, in making up my mind regarding a certain terrible step which lies ahead of me.
I never heard of Innsmouth till the day before I saw it for the first and — so far — last time. I was celebrating my coming of age with a tour of New England, and had planned to go directly from ancient Newburyport to Arkham, whence my mother’s family was derived. I had no car, but was travelling by train, trolley, and bus, seeking always the cheapest possible route. In Newburyport, they told me that the train was the best thing to take to Arkham; and it was only at the station ticket-office, when I demurred at the expensive ticket, that I learned about Innsmouth. The ticket agent, who seemed sympathetic toward my efforts at economy and whose accent showed him to be no local man, made a suggestion that no one else had made.
“You could take that old bus, I suppose,” he said with a certain hesitation, “though it ain’t thought much of hereabouts. It goes through Innsmouth — you may have heard about that — and so the people don’t like it. Run by an Innsmouth fellow — Joe Sargent — but never gets any traffic from here, or Arkham either, I guess. Wonder it keeps running at all. I s’pose it’s cheap enough, but I never see mor’n two or three people in it — nobody but those Innsmouth folk. Leaves the square at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., unless they’ve changed lately. Looks like a terrible rattletrap — I’ve never been on it.”
And that was the first I ever heard of shadowed Innsmouth. Any reference to a town not shown on common maps or listed in recent guidebooks would have interested me, and the agent’s odd manner of allusion roused something like real curiosity. A town able to inspire such dislike in its neighbors, I thought, must be at least rather unusual, and worthy of a tourist’s attention. If it came before Arkham, I would stop off there, and so I asked the agent to tell me something about it.
“Innsmouth? Well, it’s a strange kind of a town down at the mouth of the Manuxet River. Used to be almost a city, but all gone to pieces in the last hundred years or so. No railroad now; the branch line from Rowley was given up years ago.
“More empty houses than there are people, I guess, and no business to speak of except fishing and lobstering. Once they had quite a few mills, but nothing’s left now except one gold refinery running on lean part time.
“That refinery, though, used to be a big thing, and old man Marsh, who owns it, must be richer’n Croesus. Strange old duck, though, and sticks mighty close to his home. He’s supposed to have developed some skin disease or deformity late in life. Grandson of Captain Obed Marsh, who founded the business. His mother seems to have been some kind of foreigner — they say a South Sea Islander — so everybody raised Cain when he married an Ipswich girl fifty years ago. They always do that about Innsmouth people, and folks hereabouts always try to hide any Innsmouth blood they have in ’em.
“And why is everybody so down on Innsmouth? Well, young fellow, you shouldn’t put too much stock in what people here say. They’re hard to get started, but once they do they don’t let up. They’ve been telling stories about Innsmouth — whispering ’em, mostly — for the last hundred years, I guess, and I think they’re more scared than anything else. Some of the stories would make you laugh — about old Captain Marsh, or about some kind of devil-worship and awful sacrifices in some place near the wharves — but I come from out West, and that kind of story don’t go down with me.
“You should hear, though, what some of the old-timers tell about that black reef off the coast — Devil Reef, they call it. It’s above water most of the time, and never far below it, but you couldn’t really call it an island. It’s a rugged thing, over a mile out, and toward the end of shipping days sailors used to make big detours just to avoid it.
“That is, sailors not from Innsmouth. One of the things that people didn’t like about old Captain Marsh was that he was supposed to land on the reef sometimes at night. Maybe he did, and it’s possible he was looking for pirate loot and maybe finding it… Fact is, I guess it was really the Captain that gave the reef its bad reputation.
“That was before the big epidemic of 1846, when over half the folks in Innsmouth was carried off. They never did quite figure out what the trouble was, but it was probably some foreign kind of disease brought from China or somewhere by the shipping. It surely was bad — there was riots over it — and it left the place in awful shape. Never came back — there can’t be more than three or four hundred people living there now.
“But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice. I can tell you’re from the West by your accent, but you probably know New England ships used to go to ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.
“Well, there must be something like that with the Innsmouth people. The place always was isolated by swamps and creeks and we can’t be sure, but it’s pretty clear that old Captain Marsh must have brought home some odd specimens when he had all three of his ships in commission. There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today — I don’t know how to explain it but it sort of makes your skin crawl. You’ll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Animals hate ’em — they used to have lots of horse trouble before the automobiles came in.
“Nobody around here will have anything to do with Innsmouth folk, and they act kinda offish themselves when they come to town, or especially when anyone tries to fish their waters. It is strange how fish are always thick off Innsmouth Harbor when there ain’t any fish anywhere else — but you just try to fish there and see how the Innsmouth people run you off!
“Yes, there’s a hotel in Innsmouth — called the Gilman House — but I don’t believe it can amount to much. I wouldn’t advise you to try it. Better stay over here and take the 10 o’clock bus tomorrow morning; then you can get an evening bus from there to Arkham. There was a factory inspector who stopped at the Gilman House a couple of years ago and he had a lot of unpleasant hints about the place. Seems they get a strange crowd there, for this fellow heard voices in other rooms — though most of ’em was empty — voices that gave him the shivers. It was foreign talk he thought, but he said the bad thing about it was the kind of voice that sometimes spoke. He said it sounded so unnatural that he didn’t dare undress and go to sleep. Just waited up all night and left first thing in the morning. The talk went on almost all night, he said.
“That factory inspector had a lot to say about how the Innsmouth folk watched him and seemed kind of on guard. He found the Marsh refinery a strange place. Books in bad shape, no clear account of any kind of dealings. You know it’s always been a kind of mystery where the Marshes get the gold they refine. They’ve never seemed to do much buying, but years ago they shipped out an enormous lot of ingots.
“Used to be talk of a strange foreign kind of jewelry that the sailors and refinery men sometimes sold on the sly, or that was seen once or twice on some of the Marsh women-folk. People said maybe old Captain Obed traded for it in some heathen port, especially since he always ordered lots of beads and trinkets such as seafaring men used to use for the native trade. Others thought and still think he’d found an old pirate cache out on Devil Reef. But here’s a funny thing. The old Captain’s been dead sixty years, and there ain’t been a good-sized ship out of Innsmouth since the Civil War; but just the same the Marshes keep on buying those native trade things. Maybe the Innsmouth folks like ’em to look at themselves — Gawd knows they’ve gotten to be about as bad as South Seas cannibals.
“That’s why I wouldn’t go at night if I was you. I’ve never been there and I don’t have any wish to go, but I guess a daytime trip couldn’t hurt you — even though the people hereabouts will tell you not to do it. But if you’re just sightseeing and looking for old-time stuff, Innsmouth ought to be an interesting place for you.”
And so I spent part of that evening at the Newburyport Public Library looking up data about Innsmouth. When I had tried to question the locals, I had found them even harder to get started than the ticket agent had predicted. They had a kind of obscure suspiciousness, as if there were something wrong with anyone interested in Innsmouth. At the Y.M.C.A., where I was staying, the clerk merely discouraged my going to such a dismal place; and the people at the library showed the same attitude.
The county histories on the library shelves had little to say, except that the town was founded in 1643, noted for shipbuilding before the Revolution, a seat of great marine prosperity in the early 19th century, and later a minor factory center using the Manuxet River for power. The epidemic and riots of 1846 were sparsely treated, as if they formed a discredit to the county.
Most interesting of all was a glancing reference to the strange jewelry vaguely associated with Innsmouth. The description was spare, but hinted at a persistent strangeness. Mention was made of a specimen of the jewelry in the Newburyport Historical Society. Something about this seemed so odd and provocative that, despite the lateness of the hour, I resolved to see the local sample, if it could possibly be arranged.
The librarian gave me a note of introduction to the curator of the Historical Society, who lived nearby, and after a brief explanation, that ancient lady was kind enough to guide me into the closed building. The collection was an impressive one indeed, but I had eyes for nothing but the bizarre object which glistened in a corner under electric lights.
I literally gasped at the unearthly splendor that rested there on a purple velvet cushion. It is difficult to describe, but it was clearly some sort of tiara. It was tall in front, and with a very large and curiously irregular periphery, as if designed for a freakishly ovoid head. The material seemed to be mostly gold, but with a weird luster that hinted at some alloy with an equally beautiful and unidentifiable metal. The design was exquisite, but utterly different from any style — Eastern or Western, ancient or modern — that I had ever seen.
In contrast to the tiara’s aspect was its prosy history as related by the curator. It had been pawned for a ridiculous sum at a shop in 1873, by a drunken Innsmouth man who was shortly afterward killed in a brawl. The Society had acquired it directly from the pawnbroker — at once giving it a display worthy of its quality. It was labeled as of probable East-Indian or Indochinese origin, though that attribution was frankly tentative.
The curator believed that it was part of some exotic pirate hoard discovered by old Captain Obed Marsh. This view was bolstered by the insistent offers of purchase at a high price which the Marshes began to make as soon as they knew of its presence, and which they repeated to this day despite the Society’s unwavering determination not to sell.
As the good lady showed me out of the building, she made it clear that the pirate theory of the Marsh fortune was the accepted one among the intelligent people of the region. Her own attitude toward shadowed Innsmouth — which she had never seen — was one of disgust at a community slipping down the cultural scale, and she assured me that the rumors of devil-worship were in part justified by a peculiar secret cult which had gained force there and engulfed all the regular churches.
It was called, she said, “The Esoteric Order of Dagon”, and was undoubtedly a pagan thing imported from the East a century before, at a time when the Innsmouth fisheries seemed to be going barren. Its persistence among a simple people was understandable given the sudden return of abundant fishing, and it soon came to be the greatest influence in the town, replacing Freemasonry altogether and taking up headquarters in the old Masonic Hall.
For the curator, all of this formed an excellent reason for shunning Innsmouth; but to me it was merely a fresh incentive. To my architectural and historical anticipations was now added an acute anthropological interest, and I could scarcely sleep for excitement that night in my small room at the “Y.”
Continued in part 2.