Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth by Richard Lupoff, Basil Copper and Ramsey Campbell

Today we're reading three Lovecraftian tales from Stephen Jones's 2005 anthology Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth.  In our last episode we read stories by British writers Basil Copper and Ramsey Campbell that appeared in Jones's 1994 anthology Shadows Over Innsmouth, and today we take another crack at Copper and Campbell, and throw American Richard A. Lupoff into the mix.

I am reading the electronic version of the 2013 Titan books edition of Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth, made available to those of us serving time in Maryland by the Baltigore County Public Library.

"Brackish Water" by Richard A. Lupoff (2005)

Lupoff is a scholar who has written extensively about genre fiction icon Edgar Rice Burroughs as well as the history of comics; he has also penned lots of fiction.  The critics love his Space War Blues sequence; back in 2017 I read an early component of this project, "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama," a satire of Southerners (Lupoff is from New York City) that features an interstellar race war in which black scientists make zombies out of captured rednecks.  In the years prior to experiencing that "dangerous vision" I read Lupoff's novels Crack in the Sky (a dystopia about pollution and overpopulation with a multi-racial cast that Lupoff padded out with long discussions of his scholarly interests) and Sandworld (the story of college-educated white political activists protecting blacks and Hispanics from the abuses of a white ethnic cop...on another planet.)  I wasn't exactly crazy about this material, but I'm willing to read "Brackish Water" to see if Lupoff uses Lovecraftian settings and themes to further lecture us about racism and pollution.

DATELINE: The San Francisco Bay Area, during World War II.  College professor Delbert Marston is one of the world's best marine geologists, and the most eligible bachelor on the Berkeley campus!  For some reason his closest friend is an elderly spinster, the academic who mentored him.  She convinces him to forgo a concert (Marston loves classical music) to attend a meeting of a club of goofy college students.  These weirdies, The New Deep Ones Society of the Pacific, believe that the fish people described in Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth" are real!  Even crazier, they are split into two factions: the faction that thinks the Deep Ones are mankind's implacable enemies and the faction that wants to make friends with the amphibian aliens!

Marston tells them that Lovecraft stories aren't real and leaves the meeting early, but the next part of the story reveals to us that his mother was an avid swimmer who disappeared beneath the waves when he was young, and, sure enough, Marston's body begins to change so that he only feels comfortable when underwater and develops a taste for raw sea food!  He becomes a virtual recluse, sneaking off to swim in the bay at night and working hard all day advising the Navy on anti-submarine defenses.  (I guess this guy doesn't have to teach classes--sweet gig!)

Marston is given the job of advising the Navy on the safest route out of Port Chicago for the ship carrying the atomic bomb.  Lupoff mentions repeatedly that there are many black enlisted personnel working at Port Chicago, all of whose officers are white.  In the story's final scene Marston is swimming underwater near the ship upon which the A-bomb is being loaded, and spots other fish people, like the one he is becoming.  It looks like they are planting a mine on the bottom of the A-bomb ship!  As foreshadowed at the meeting of The New Deep Ones Society of the Pacific and in an offhand remark by a naval officer, somebody, presumably one or all of the German, Japanese and American governments, has allied with or suborned some Deep Ones!  There is a terrible explosion in which Marston and presumably the Deep Ones frogmen are killed.

Lupoff appends a "Historical Note" about the real life disaster at Port Chicago, mentioning the theory (dismissed by the authorities) that the U. S. government intentionally detonated an atomic bomb there as a test, using the black servicemen there as guinea pigs.  I guess Lupoff wants us to sympathize with the Deep Ones and see them as exploited by land-dwellers, treated as expendable second-class citizens, the way blacks are mistreated by whites in America.  By making the fish people sympathetic (and downplaying the practices, like worship of an alien god and human sacrifice, that characterize them in the source material) we may judge Lupoff to be turning his back on major Lovecraft themes, even betraying Lovecraft's vision, but I suspect what he is really doing is following the Lovecraftian template but sliding the United States government into the "inscrutable and/or evil alien entity with irresistible power" slot usually occupied by the likes of Dagon or Cthulhu!  (Maybe the painful memory of doing my 2017 taxes is inclining me to this interpretation!)   

"Brackish Water" has some problems; in particular, some elements that end up not really going anywhere receive more ink than perhaps they deserve, making the story too long.  Marston's relationship with his mentor, for example, gets a lot of attention early on but then is just dropped, leaving a sort of loose end.  (I wonder if Lupoff included in the story a likable woman scientist in a position of authority to demonstrate his commitment to diversity; if so his options for resolving her relationship with Marston would be limited--he couldn't have them have sex or have Marston cause her death without undercutting his feminist message and/or his larger sympathy-for-the-alien message.)  Lupoff also engages in lots of discussion of San Francisco geography and architecture, 1930s automobiles (Marston has a 1937 Cord Phaeton) and classical music; maybe this is just padding, but it does sort of give a strong sense of time and place, and of course in Lovecraft's original story there is lots of talk about architecture and objets d'art.  I was kind of expecting a scene in which Marston was torn over joining the Deep Ones because it would mean abandoning forever the music he loved, or a scene in which he learned that the Deep Ones have their own complex and sophisticated music--as with the mentor, I feel like this music business constitutes a lost opportunity or loose end.

Despite these problems, I'm giving "Brackish Water" a mild recommendation because Lupoff does a good job of describing Marston's physical and psychological transformation into a fish person, and because making the Deep Ones good and the US government evil, flipping the script of Lovecraft's "Shadows Over Innsmouth," is outside-the-box thinking that deserves some recognition and adds some welcome variety when you are reading ten or a dozen Lovecraftian pieces in a row, as I am.

"Brackish Water" would go on to be included in two Lupoff collections, Visions and The Doom That Came To Dunwich.

"Voices in the Water" by Basil Copper (2005) 

Roberts is a London-based painter; largely thanks to the work of his wife, a talented salesperson and indefatigable woman of business who travels all over Europe and America selling his work to galleries and wealthy clients, he has made quite a bit of money.  The couple decides to buy a huge 16th-century mill out in the country and convert it into a studio, gallery and living space.

2005 edition cover
With his wife so often out of the country selling his work, Roberts spends lots of time alone in his  huge new house, and the sound of the river flowing beneath his studio begins to get on his nerves.  He begins to hear voices in the "constant rush of the water," voices saying things like "Come to us!" and "Eternal life awaits!" and "Iä-Ryleh! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä!"  His buddy Kent, writer of detective stories, comes over sometimes, but not very often.  In the closing pages of the story Kent visits the mill late at night at the behest of the police, to identify Roberts's body--it lies in the studio, by the open hatch above the rushing river, torn apart and drained of blood.

"Voices in the Water" is reasonably well-written and well-structured, Roberts, his wife (cleverly named "Gilda") and Kent are interesting enough characters, and the idea of hearing voices in presumptively white noise is a good one.  Most of the story is in the third-person, but there are entries from Roberts's diary.  (I thought it amusing that in his personal diary Roberts was punctilious enough to include the diaeresis in "Iä!")  What exactly is going on is perhaps a little muddled, though.  The voices imply that Roberts is one of the Deep Ones, like the narrator of Lovecraft's original story or Marston in Lupoff's contribution to Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (they say, among other things, "You are one of us and we are reclaiming you!") but then why murder him?  I'm guessing that the body was not Roberts's at all, but a decoy; earlier in the story it is mentioned that a canoe was found overturned in the river and that no sign of its occupants was ever recovered.  The problem with my theory is that Kent identifies the body, but I guess references to the fact that some of Roberts's face is missing and that Gilda won't be asked to look at the body are clues that we can't trust Kent's identification.

I'm willing to give this one a mild recommendation.

On the last page of "Voices in the Water" Roberts's last painting is mentioned; we are told it is "vile" and depicts "some loathsome thing."  I decided to reread Lovecraft's famous story "Pickman's Model," to look for possible connections between it and Copper's story, written almost 80 years later.

"Pickman's Model" by H. P. Lovecraft (1927)

"Pickman's Model" has appeared in many
publications, including this British
 collection with a Richard Powers cover 
"Pickman's Model" is presented to us as the transcription of one side of a conversation, a Bostonian art lover telling one of his cronies about his relationship with Pickman, a painter of the macabre who has since disappeared.  Pickman's work was so horrifying that before he died many of his fellow artists and patrons of the arts had stopped seeing him socially (this was before James Carville published his magnum opus, kids.)  Our narrator was one of the last to drop him, and it wasn't because of how twisted and disgusting Pickman's art was--"Morbid art doesn't shock me, and when a man has the genius Pickman had I feel it an honour to know him....Boston never had a greater painter...." The narrator goes on to explain just why he dropped Pickman.

Pickman had a second, secret, studio in an old and slummy part of Boston, one where "foreigners" and "Dagoes" live.  "I've got a place that I don't believe three living Nordic men besides myself have ever seen."  He took our narrator to this dilapidated shack to show him his most extreme work ("I've let myself go a bit"), explaining that he believes you have to paint terror from life, just as you paint beauty from life, and this place is where "terror lives."

Lovecraft spends a lot of time describing these horrifying paintings, which depict monsters in historical and contemporary Boston slum and cemetery settings.  These monsters are shown murdering or eating people, among other things (one is an elaborate bit of gallows humor) in exacting detail.  The narrator stresses that these canvases are not in the least bit romantic, impressionistic or dream-like, but remarkably realistic--they bring to life an unacknowledged world that thrives under Boston in centuries-old tunnels, a world of ghouls who feed on the freshly-buried dead and occasionally ambush the living.  Then comes the punchline we have all been expecting for many pages--on his visit to the slum studio our narrator came face to face with evidence that Pickman, via the big hatch in his cellar studio, had access to this all too real world of man-eating monsters and was painting his most shocking work from photographs he himself took in those tunnels and graveyards.

Like Pickman in "Pickman's Model," Roberts in "Voices in the Water" had a cellar studio with a hatch to a dark subterranean world, and both artists disappeared into that world.  Copper's story certainly seems like it was influenced by Lovecraft's; perhaps it constitutes an homage.

"Raised by the Moon" by Ramsey Campbell (2001)

Isfdb lists this as a 2001 story, but doesn't list any places of publication before Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth in 2005.  (A mystery!)  Since 2005 it has been included in some collections and anthologies with sad sad amateurish covers.

Bill Grant is a grad student or something, driving near the seashore when his poorly-maintained automobile conks out near an almost abandoned fishing village.  He lodges with a working-class couple, Tom and Fiona, while he waits for a mechanic, based twenty miles away, to arrive the next morning.  The man of the house, a failed fisherman, blames the use of automobiles and electricity by the middle-classes for the dearth of fish and the village's bleak fate.

It transpires that the couple have an alliance or modus vivendi with the local Deep Ones--the fish people permit the last two humans in the village to eat dead Deep Ones.  Fiona feeds some Deep One flesh to Grant, and this, I think, begins the process of turning the young academic into a fishman himself!  As a fishman Grant will serve as, it seems, Fiona's surrogate child and perhaps a future source of food?

"Raised by the Moon" is a verbose story, full of long wordy descriptions of scenery and buildings and such, but I found Campbell's long sentences to be opaque jumbles of words rather than brushstrokes that conjured up vivid images.  With deliberate irony Campbell's characters all speak with cryptic brevity, something the author takes pains to point out to us readers.

The plot of "Raised by the Moon" is fine, if slight, but the style made it something of a slog--I feel like it requires more work than is justified by the pay off.  I'm torn between judging it barely acceptable and giving it a marginal negative vote...I guess I'll give Campbell the benefit of the doubt because I think he is making conscious artistic choices here, that my problems with the story are a response to those decisions and not to any incompetence on his part.


In our next episode, if my psyche can take it, we'll be going back to the dawn of Yog-Sothery and reading weird tales from the roaring '20s!

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