VNS – Under the Sea

Today’s Lovecraftian lesson is based upon The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

In this story a number of dark secrets slowly come to light. They are only hinted at, until the first denouement reveals the gruesome truth of the circumstances that cast a dark shadow over the New England fishing port of Innsmouth. Lovecraft teases out a terrible aquatic nightmare, leading us from the narrator’s initial suspicions of mere economic depression and mental disturbance, to a full-scale invasion by the Deep Ones. But that is not the only secret. This truth is revealed by the end of the fourth section of the story. The fifth ratchets up the tension, by uncovering the narrator’s own horrific connection to Innsmouth.

Horror cannot exist without secrecy. We may experience fright and terror momentarily–but we can only truly be horrified by the slow revelation of dark secrets, the unsettling nature of the revealed truth plaguing our minds over extended periods of time.

Here is an empty room: there are no windows, no interior lights. It is dark and vacant. And if we know that the room is perfectly empty, if we understand that dark is merely the absence of light, and things are no more remarkable for the lack of photons bouncing off of objects, then a dark, empty room is not scary.

But now consider that nobody goes to that room. That your family and friends have long shunned it. They don’t know why, they were taught to avoid it. Family legend speaks of disaster to befall anyone who enters. Mention of it causes your grandparents to blanche and quickly change the subject. And the neighbours, whispering about the things seen in the dark, the neighbours who stop talking whenever you approach, swiftly changing the subject.

No information, just an awareness of secrets. Suddenly that empty, dark room takes on a very different character.

Secrecy plays upon the mind in two ways. Without full knowledge of the facts then a situation can be unnerving. Ignorance allows imagination to run riot, whereas advance knowledge destroys horror; we can’t be scared of what we comprehensively understand and are prepared for. There must always be revelation to keep us in a state of terror.

Imagine that you are attacked by an assailant, and that you are armed with a gun. You raise the gun, and empty the clip into your attacker. They are wholly unaffected, and keep coming for you. What kind of undead, unstoppable creature is after you? Could you even outrun such a supernatural monster?

Now imagine you were told in advance that your gun only has blanks in it. Suddenly your attacker is not a supernatural beast, just someone not easily scared by threats. The horror is removed from the situation (but not the fear, fear being something else). Best to wait until they are in striking range and cosh them with the gun.

Aside from keeping us ignorant of the facts, secrecy affects us because of the nature of secrecy: put simply, secrets remain secret for a reason. In horror, it is often the truth behind the truth that you have to be wary of, as is the case in The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The pact between the Deep Ones and Obed Marsh is horrific enough. But it is his discovery of an ancestral link to the Marsh family that creates the lasting shudder in this story.

His personal truth behind the truth is the horror of the tale. All through the narrative the reader and narrator are as one, sharing in the revelations. But this final revelation separates us. We share his shock at the discovery of what he is, but are left alone in the end when he embraces his destiny.

Alone in a dark room, and surrounded by secrets.

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