Arrival in Innsmouth, a hideous impression, and a tour of brooding streets.
⁓The Voice before the Void
The Shadow over Innsmouth
edited by The Voice before the Void
Shortly before ten the next morning, I stood with one small bag in the town square waiting for the Innsmouth bus. As the hour for its arrival drew near, I noticed a general drift of the loungers to other places up the street, or to the lunchroom across the square. Evidently the ticket-agent had not exaggerated the dislike which local people had toward Innsmouth and its citizens. In a few moments, a small, dirty gray bus rattled down the street and stopped at the curb beside me, the half-illegible sign on the windshield saying: “Arkham-Innsmouth-Newburyport.”
There were only three passengers — dark, unkempt men of sullen visage and somewhat youthful cast — and when the vehicle stopped, they clumsily shambled out and began walking up the street in a silent, almost furtive fashion. The driver also alighted, and I watched him as he went into the drug store to make some purchase. This, I reflected, must be the Joe Sargent mentioned by the ticket-agent; and even before I noticed any details, there spread over me a wave of spontaneous repulsion. It suddenly struck me as very natural that the local people should not wish to ride on a bus owned and driven by this man, or to visit any oftener than possible the town of such a man and his kinsfolk.
When the driver came out of the store I looked at him more carefully and tried to determine the source of my evil impression. He was a thin, stoop-shouldered man not much under six feet tall, dressed in shabby blue civilian clothes and wearing a frayed cap. His age was perhaps thirty-five, but the deep creases in the skin of his neck made him seem older. He had a narrow head, watery-blue eyes that seemed rarely to blink, a receding forehead and chin, and singularly underdeveloped ears. His greyish cheeks seemed almost beardless except for some sparse yellow hairs; and in places the skin seemed irregular, as if peeling from some disease. His hands were large and heavily veined. The fingers were short, and seemed to have a tendency to curl closely into the huge palm. As he walked toward the bus, I observed his shambling gait and saw that his feet were immense. I wondered how he could buy any shoes to fit them.
A certain greasiness about the fellow increased my dislike. He was evidently given to working or lounging around the fish docks, and carried with him much of their characteristic smell. Just what foreign heritage was in him I could not even guess. His features did not look Asiatic, Polynesian, Levantine, nor African, yet I could see why the local people found him alien. I myself would have thought of disease rather than alienage.
I was sorry when I saw there would be no other passengers on the bus. Somehow I did not like the idea of riding alone with this driver. But as leaving time obviously approached, I conquered my qualms and followed the man aboard, extending him a dollar bill and murmuring the single word “Innsmouth.” He looked curiously at me for a second as he returned forty cents change. I took a seat far behind him, but on the same side of the bus, since I wished to watch the shore during the journey.
At length, the decrepit vehicle started with a jerk, and rattled noisily past the old brick buildings amidst a cloud of vapor from the exhaust. Glancing at the people on the sidewalks, I thought I detected in them a curious wish to avoid looking at the bus — or at least a wish to avoid seeming to look at it. Then we turned to the left, where the going was smoother, flying by stately old mansions of the early republic and still older colonial farmhouses, passing the river, and finally emerging into a long, monotonous stretch of open shore country.
The day was warm and sunny, but the landscape of sand and sedge-grass and stunted shrubbery became more desolate as we proceeded. Out the window, I could see the blue water and the sandy line of an island, and we presently drew very near the beach as our narrow road veered off from the main highway. There were no visible houses, and I could tell by the state of the road that traffic was very light hereabouts. The weatherbeaten telephone poles carried only two wires. Now and then we crossed crude wooden bridges over tidal creeks that wound far inland and promoted the general isolation of the region.
At last we lost sight of the island and saw the vast expanse of the open Atlantic on our left. Our narrow course began to climb steeply, and I felt a singular sense of disquiet in looking at the lonely crest ahead. The smell of the sea took on ominous implications.
Then we reached the crest and beheld the outspread valley beyond, where the Manuxet River joins the sea. I had, I realized, come face to face with rumor-shadowed Innsmouth.
It was a wide and dense town, yet with a dearth of life. From the chimneys, scarcely a wisp of smoke came, and the three tall steeples loomed stark against the sea’s horizon. One of them was crumbling at the top, and there were gaping holes where clock-dials should have been. The huddle of sagging roofs conveyed the idea of decay, and as we approached along the now descending road, I could see that many roofs had completely caved in. Stretching inland, I saw the grass-grown line of the abandoned railway, with leaning telegraph-poles now without wires, and the half-hidden roads to Rowley and Ipswich.
The decay was worst close to the waterfront, though in the middle I could see the white belfry of a fairly well-preserved brick structure which looked like a small factory. The harbor was enclosed by an ancient stone breakwater, on which I could discern the tiny forms of a few fishermen.
Here and there, the ruins of wharves jutted out from the shore to end in rot. And far out at sea, I glimpsed a long, black line just barely above the water yet carrying a quiet suggestion of evil. This, I knew, must be Devil Reef.
We met no one on the road, but presently began to pass deserted farms in varying stages of ruin, then a few houses with rags stuffed in the broken windows and dead fish lying about the yards.
As the bus reached a lower level, the unpainted houses grew thicker and lined both sides of the road. The houses were apparently deserted, and there were occasional gaps where chimneys and cellars told of buildings that had collapsed.
Pervading everything was the most awful fishy odor imaginable.
Soon cross streets and junctions began to appear. There now came signs of sparse habitation — curtained windows here and there, and an occasional battered motorcar at the curb. Pavement and sidewalks appeared. Most of the houses were quite old — wood and brick from the early 19th century. As an amateur antiquarian, I almost lost my feeling of repulsion amidst this rich survival from the past.
But I was not to reach my destination without one strongly disagreeable impression. The bus had come to an open space with churches on two sides, and I was looking at a large pillared hall ahead on the right. The building’s once white paint was now gray and peeling, and the black-and-gold sign was so faded that I could only just make out the words “Esoteric Order of Dagon.” This, then was the former Masonic Hall now given over to a degraded cult. Then my attention was distracted by the tones of a cracked bell across the street, and I quickly turned to look out the window on my side of the bus.
The sound came from a squat stone church of later date than most of the houses, built in a clumsy Gothic fashion and having a high basement with shuttered windows. Though the hands of its clock were missing, I knew that the hoarse strokes were tolling the hour of eleven. Then suddenly, time was blotted out by an image of intensity and horror which had seized me before I knew what it really was. The door of the church basement was open, revealing a rectangle of blackness inside. And as I looked, an object crossed that dark rectangle, burning into my brain a conception of nightmare which was all the more maddening because there was not a single nightmarish quality in it.
It was a living object — the first besides the driver that I had seen since entering the town. Clearly, as I realized a moment later, it was the preacher, wearing some peculiar vestments doubtlessly introduced since the Order of Dagon had influenced the local churches. The thing which had probably supplied the touch of bizarre horror was the tall tiara he wore; it was an almost exact duplicate of the one I had seen in the Newburyport Historical Society the evening before.
A thin sprinkling of repellent-looking youngish people now appeared on the sidewalks — lone individuals, and silent knots of two or three. The lower floors of some of the crumbling houses harbored small shops with dingy signs, and I noticed a parked truck or two as we rattled along. We clanked over a bridge, and I looked out on both sides and saw some factory buildings on the edge of the river gorge. Then we rolled into a large square and drew up in front of a tall, cupola-crowned building with a half-effaced sign identifying it as the Gilman House.
I was glad to get out of that bus, and at once proceeded to check my bag in the shabby hotel lobby. There was only one person in sight — an elderly man without the “Innsmouth look” – but, remembering that odd things had been reported in this hotel, I decided not to ask him any of the questions that bothered me.
I chose to make my first inquiries at the chain grocery store, whose employees were less likely to be native to Innsmouth. I found a solitary boy of about eighteen in charge. He seemed eager to talk, and I soon gathered that he did not like the place, its fishy smell, or its furtive people. A word with any outsider was a relief to him. He hailed from Arkham, boarded with a family who came from Ipswich, and went back whenever he got time off. His family did not like him to work in Innsmouth, but the chain had transferred him there and he didn’t want to give up his job.
As for the Innsmouth people – he didn’t know what to make of them. They were as furtive and seldom-seen as animals that live in burrows, and one couldn’t guess how they spent their time apart from fishing. They seemed sullenly banded together in some sort of fellowship of understanding — despising the world as if they had access to other, more preferable realms of existence. Their appearance — especially those staring, unblinking eyes — was certainly shocking, and their voices were disgusting. It was awful to hear them chanting in their churches at night, and especially during their main festivals, which fell twice a year, on April 30th and October 31st.
They were very fond of the water, and swam in both the river and the harbor. Swimming races out to Devil Reef were common, and everyone seemed able to partake in this arduous sport. But, when you thought about it, it was generally only young people who you saw in public, and of these the oldest were the strangest looking. You wondered whether the “Innsmouth look” were a strange disease that got worse as years went by.
Only a very rare affliction, of course, could bring about such radical anatomical changes in a individual after maturity — changes in bones, like the shape of the skull. But it was difficult, the youth said, to form any real conclusions, because you never got to know the locals personally no matter how long you might live in Innsmouth.
He was certain that the worst cases were kept locked indoors. In the streets, he sometimes heard the strangest sounds. What kind of foreign blood — if any — these people had, it was impossible to tell.
It would be no use, he said, to ask the locals anything about the place. The only one who would talk was a very old but normal-looking man who lived at the poorhouse on the north of town and spent his time walking around or lounging at the fire station. This character, Zadok Allen, was 96 years old and somewhat crazy, besides being the town drunkard. He was a strange person who constantly looked over his shoulder as if he was afraid of something, and when he was sober he would not talk at all with strangers. He was, however, unable to resist alcohol; and once drunk, he would tell the most astonishing stories.
His stories were all insane, of course. It was probably from him that some of the wildest rumors about Innsmouth were derived. The locals did not like him to drink and talk with strangers, and it was not always safe to be seen questioning him.
Non-native residents reported occasional glimpses of unexplainable things, but between old Zadok’s tales and the strange locals, it was no wonder such hallucinations were perceived. None of the non-natives ever stayed out late at night, there being a widespread belief that it was not wise to do so. Besides, the streets were terribly dark.
As for business — the abundance of fish was certainly uncanny, but the locals were taking less advantage of it. Plus, prices were falling and competition was growing. The town’s real business was the gold refinery, whose commercial office was on the square only a few doors over from where we stood. Old Man Marsh was never seen, but sometimes he went to the factory in a closed, curtained car.
There were all sorts of rumors about how Marsh had come to look. He kept out of sight and left the brunt of the business affairs to the younger generation. It was said that his health was failing.
One of his daughters was a repellent woman who wore an excess of weird jewelry. The boy had noticed it, and had heard that it came from a secret hoard, either from pirates or the Devil.
Warning me that many of the street signs were down, the youth drew for me a rough but ample map of the town. Disliking the dinginess of the single restaurant I had seen, I bought cheese and crackers for lunch later on. My plan, I decided, would be to walk the main streets, talk with any non-locals I might find, and catch the eight o’clock bus for Arkham. The town, I could see, formed a significant example of social decay; but being no sociologist myself, I would limit my observations to architecture.
Thus I began my tour of Innsmouth’s narrow, shadow-blighted streets.
Collapsing roofs formed a jagged skyline, above which rose the ghoulish steeples of the ancient churches.
I passed close to the Marsh refinery, which seemed to be strangely free from the noises of industry.
Some houses along Main Street were tenanted, but most were tightly boarded up. Down unpaved side streets I saw the black, gaping windows of deserted hovels, many of which leaned at dangerous angles through the sinking of their foundations. The sight of such avenues of vacancy and death, and the thought of linked infinities of brooding memories, stir up strange fears.
Not a living thing did I see except the fishermen on the far break-water.
One detail that disturbed me was the few faint sounds I heard. They should have come from the visibly inhabited houses, yet they were most often strongest inside the boarded-up houses. There were creakings, and scurryings, and hoarse doubtful noises.
North of the river there were traces of squalid life — active fish-packing houses, smoking chimneys and patched roofs here and there, occasional sounds from indeterminate sources, and infrequent shambling figures in the dismal streets — but I found this even more oppressive than the desertion southward; several times I was reminded of something evil which I could not quite place. I hurried out of that vile waterfront slum.
Again, in many streets, no living thing was visible, and I wondered at the complete absence of dogs and cats in Innsmouth. Another thing that disturbed me was the tightly shuttered condition of many third-story and attic windows, and I could not escape the sensation of being watched from every direction.
Back in the center of town, traces of life reappeared. Furtive figures stared at me coldly and curiously. Innsmouth was rapidly becoming intolerable, and I turned toward the Square in the hope of finding some vehicle to take me to Arkham before the still-distant starting-time of that sinister bus.
It was then that I saw the rundown fire station, and noticed the red-faced, bushy-bearded, watery-eyed old man in nondescript rags who sat on a bench in front of it talking with a pair of unkempt firemen. This, of course, must be Zadok Allen, the half-crazed, ancient drunkard whose tales of old Innsmouth and its shadow were known to be so hideous and incredible.
Continued in part 3.