American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

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 Inns- mouth” (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, universe.

Grove Koger