LOVECRAFT, H[OWARD]. P[HILLIPS]. (1890–1937). Born in Providence, Rhode Island, H. P. Lovecraft subsequently used that seaport and
such Massachusetts ports as Salem, Marblehead, and Newburyport (which
he refashioned into “Arkham,” “Kingsport,” and “Innsmouth,” respectively) in much of his weird fiction. In doing so, he drew not only upon
Salem’s importance in the history of the witchcraft hysteria but also upon
maritime associations of those various ports.
These associations figure most prominently in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1942), a long story in which retired Captain Obed Marsh has
established the Esoteric Order of Dagon, a cult involving the sea and the suggestively named Devil Reef at the entrance to Innsmouth harbor. The
batrachian appearance of the port’s inhabitants, it turns out, is a result of
Marsh’s return to Innsmouth long before with an aquatic, semihuman mate
from the South Seas. Three stories set in Kingsport also touch upon New
England’s maritime history. “The Terrible Old Man” (1921) concerns a
retired captain who preserves the souls of shipmates in bottles. “The Festival” (1925) deals with the survival of ancient rites in caverns connected to
the town’s harbor. In “The Strange High House in the Mist” (1931), an
isolated cottage acts as a sinister gateway to the mysteries of the sea.
Behind much of Lovecraft’s fiction lies his so-called Cthulhu Mythos, a
pantheon of malign, vaguely defined deities who interact with, and prey
upon, the human race. Cthulhu, for instance, is said to reign over the City
of R’lyeh, which disappeared beneath the seas and thus presumably contributed to the myth of Atlantis. Dagon (not coincidentally, the Philistine god
of the sea) is Cthulhu’s subordinate. These deities figure directly in “Dagon”
(1919) and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), in both of which submerged
and fantastic realms rise unexpectedly to the surface of the sea, while in
“The Temple” (1925) a disabled German submarine discovers Atlantis.
Lovecraft wrote floridly, making striking use of the sea and of outer space
to suggest the loneliness of humanity within an indifferent, if not hostile,