Note: This review contains spoilers for H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Verdict: This self-styled prequel to Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, in which Matthew Davenport details the events and happenings leading to the corruption of the town of Innsmouth, is a successfully executed tale of dread and horror.
In the original Lovecraft story, Obed Marsh is described by the town drunk Zadok Allen as the person responsible for the town’s change. Although many details are alluded to by Zadok in the story as to what Obed Marsh did to bring corruption to Innsmouth, Obed’s story remains largely untold. It is only revealed that Captain Marsh began trading basic goods with an unnamed island in the South Pacific in exchange for strange gold relics, and befriended the island’s chief Walakea. Eventually he imported the islanders’ strange religion to Innsmouth and initiated a series of events that converted the town from Protestantism to the worship of Dagon.
Davenport does an outstanding job of not only showing us the events leading to the initial corruption of Innsmouth, but using the Lovecraftian method of slowly building up to a terrible conclusion.
Let’s start with the problems that the story has before moving on to what makes it a modern day Lovecraftian classic. The most glaring of all the issues are the anachronisms that crop up. While the prose is mostly written in a serviceable pseudo-19th century style that more than suffices as a nod to both Lovecraft and the era in which the story takes place, there are a couple dozen instances where a jarring anachronism pulls one from the story. It would be a disservice to the author list them all here, but words and phrases origining in the early and mid-twentieth century show up where they are plainly not welcome.
The second problem with this story is the timeframe that Davenport adopts when describing Captain Marsh’s transit to and from the South Pacific island featured. There were multiple places where it was metioned that this trip takes a week or two, when in fact a sail-powered ship from the early 19th century would have required months each way. Even ships of today could not make it from New England around South America and to a South Pacific island in a week.
A third issue is that the story reaches a crescendo of horror, but then a somewhat indulgent epilogue is added as backstory to Davenport’s backstory. The epilogue is somewhat chilling and clever, but it can’t beat the previous act, which I couldn’t help but think would have been where Lovecraft himself would have ended the tale.
But these are minor issues. The beating heart of this story is the fact that it never stops moving forward, and it never stops building the dread of something horrible. Even for fans of Lovecraft who have read Innsmouth (read: all of us), and who know the fate of the town and thereby the outcome of Davenport’s story, there is still a dreadful surprise at the end, something as sickening as it is subtle.
With regards to the reading of this audiobook by Steven Gordon, my personal experience with most Lovecraft and Lovecraftian works is that they are read by dark and brooding voices. That is not the case here. Gordon doesn’t miss a beat, and has decent vocal variation for the characters Obed and Walakea, but his voice does not carry the darkness which is baked into the narrative itself.
Despite the glaring anachronisms and the impossibly fast sailing vessels, this story deserves 5 stars for its pace, inventiveness, style and most of all restraint. It holds back the entire time, feeding the reader just enough to keep listening (or reading) intently, and for those who are paying attention, the gut-wrenching denouement to Obed’s trials will never be forgotten.