H.P. Lovecraft, Pulp Story Review

The Call of Cthulhu Review

The Call of Cthulhu (originally published in Weird Tales 1928)

by H.P. Lovecraft

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by Neil John Buchanan

The short story begins with a short diatribe on the mercy of ignorance written in the first person of the narrator (presumed to be Francis Wayland Thomas of Boston).  He is the great-nephew of the deceased Doctor George Gammel Angell, Professor of Languages at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island (note of trivia: this is Lovecraft’s hometown).  The narrator is Professor Angell’s sole heir and executor.  While searching through the deceased files and and boxes, the narrator discovers a lock box without an obvious key.  Curious, he solves the puzzle of where the key is found opens this box to discover various manuscripts, articles, and papers on people having strange dreams and even more bizarre cults as well as a clay bas relief of modern construction of exceedingly ancient hieroglyphics and design.Image

Among the papers and manuscripts in the lock box is the account of its sculptor an Anthony Wilcox of the Rhode Island School of Design written in his dead great-uncles own hand.  It seems that Wilcox created the bas relief after a fit of nightmares of a strange  city of unimaginable size with colossal lumbering things miles in height.  In this terrible city Wilcox heard a language unknown to him but didn’t seem human.  The only words he could make out were, “Cthulhu fhtagn.”  Wilcox later falls into a strange fever-like delirium for more than a week where the young man plagued terrible visions of this same strange place with the sounds “Cthulhu” and “R’lyeh” are most repeated.  When the fever breaks, Wilcox hads no memories of the previous days.  The narrator’s uncle learns that Wilcox malady was isolated as many poets, painters, and other artist had similarly fallen a fever-like delirium with similar accounts all occurring within the span of little more than a month.  And all stopping on April 2 the same day as Wilcox’s recovery.Image

The next bit of evidence found within the lock box the narrator introduces is that of an account from Inspector John Raymond Legrasse of the New Orleans police.  He was investigating a strange statuette that had seized after what most called a voodoo cult.  However, what Inspector Legrasse saw during that raid was far more sinister than he could imagine in the blackest part of Africa.  The statuette was craved to look-like a thing with a vaguely humanoid form with a octopus-like head with a mass of tentacle feelers and narrow wings.  The work seemed to be centuries old yet no expert could recognize the school or culture it cold be part of.  Even the soapy green stone with flakes of gold seemed unlike anything known in modern geology.

It wasn’t until Inspector Legrasse collaborated with a Professor William Channing Webb, a professor of anthropology at Princeton made any sort of connection.  Professor Webb while touring Greenland and Iceland to study the native peoples, came across a similar strange tribe or cult of West Greenland to that of Inspector Legrasse.  Both cults were chanting the same phrase, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” which the professor had translated as, “In the house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

The Call of Cthulhu is an interesting way to structure a story with much of it done via the narrator relating the artifacts and notes to the reader as he finds and examines them from his dead great-uncle’s lock box.  Lovecraft also selects some fantastic locations for many of the accounts within the story such as the swamps of Louisiana, the tundra of west Greenland, and even the south Pacific.  Even today these places invoke a sense of mystery and isolation from the rest of the world.  I also enjoyed how Lovecraft feeds the reader just a little more about Cthulhu and what is occurring slow building the story and giving everything involved, such as the dreamers and cults, a grounded surrealism to it.  The way that Lovecraft chooses to tell the story is genius; as the reader and the narrator investigate the clues and evidence before engaging in humanity’s fight against Cthulhu.  Lovecraft alludes to the idea that like the narrator, Francis Wayland Thomas, finding his deceased great-uncle’s notes and thus becoming involved.  We the reader, having read his account and seen the evidence, take his place as he took his great-uncle’s in death.

It has been some years since I read this story, and I will honestly say I forgotten nearly all of the first chapter.  What remember most about this story was the raid of the cult in the swamp and the encounter with the sailors near the end.  The Call of Cthulhu is not one of my favorite Lovecraft stories.  Unfortunately, I did find the framework of the story more interesting than the story itself.  However, if you like the idea of the Cthulhu mythos this story is mandatory reading.

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Bottomline: It is a very innovative way of telling a story.  Lovecraft outdid himself in attempting to create a coherent series of events of near end of the world.  I give The Call of Cthulhu 6 out of 6 elder signs sealing the ancient one away until the stars are right once again.

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Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery

Red Shadows Review

Red Shadows (first published in Weird Tales, August 1928)

by Robert E. Howard

ImageTraveling on a moonlit night the puritan wanderer named Solomon Kane discovers a mortally girl.  Asking what fiend had done this to her the girl gives the name Le Loup.  As the girl’s body goes limp, Kane’s is filled with righteous rage and swears an oath, “Men shall die for this.”

Later, at the lair of bandit Le Loup, his men tell tales of Solomon Kane vengeance as if he were demon.  Kane has slew nearly all of Le Loup’s men leaving the initials SLK carved into the cheeks of the dead.  Even now the last remaining bandits escaped with barely their lives.  In fact, these survivors have led Kane back to Le Loup’s lair.  It is only by treachery and trickery that Le Loup escapes Kane.

Months, perhaps even years, have passed since the confrontation between Kane and Le Loup.  The trail has lead Solomon to the Dark Continent of Africa after his quarry.  The fire of vengeance no less intense even after countless miles.  Kane has his ship wait for seven days afterward they can assume that he will never return from the jungle.  Solomon attempts to sneak upon the African village that Le Loup has joined in hopes of surprising the Wolf and finishing what Kane believes to be God’s justice.  As stealthy as Kane is, he bested by a humungous African warrior named Gulka, the gorilla-slayer.

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Kane painfully awakens bound in a hut with a ju-ju man.  N’Longa, the ju-ju man, offers deal to Kane to work together to bring down Songa the chief of the village and his new partner Le Loup.  Before Kane can react, he and N’Longa are pulled from the hut and bind him to a post in front of the Black God, a huge, black parody of the human form.  He meets again with Le Loup who is cockly describes all the near misses two of them had in their chase from Italy to Spain.  Le Loup explains that he was never truly concerned to confront Kane, but found the chase far more enjoyable.  That is until now.  Now he has decided he has grown weary of the game and it must end with Kane’s death to the Black God.

Suddenly N’Longa appears as if by magic only to be felled by the great brute Gulka.  Also tied to a post it appears that N’Longa and Solomon Kane are to burn in sacrifice to the Black God.  As one of the villagers begins to set fire to N’Longa, the ju-ju man threatens his enemies with magic he has never let living men see.  The torch man falls dead seemingly of fright.  N’Longa goes into a trance and the once dead man rises once again and moves toward chief Songa…

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   While this is not my favorite Solomon Kane story, I do think it is an excellent example of the tenacity of the character.  The story also foreshadows Kane’s future adventures in Africa has well as the strange friendship between the puritan and N’Longa the ju-ju man.  The story’s basic frame Kane seeking to help a young girl/woman for no reason beyond it being God’s will or good will be seen again in The Moon of Skulls.

I also think it is important to spend sometime in this review to go over the racism or perceived racism found within this and other Robert E. Howard (REH) stories.  Yes, Howard describes Gukla as having an ape like head and many of the African villagers having flabby red lips.  Chief Sulka is given a particularly unsavory description.  Even N’Longa speaks pigeon English in this story.  However, I do not believe it was Howard’s intent to make the Africans seem inferior rather Sulka and Gukla are villains and as such given ugly features as short hand to their villainy.  In the later story The Hills of the Dead, N’Longa speaks highly eloquently in Kane’s dreams due to the ju-ju man’s vast intelligence not bound to the crudeness of language.  In fact N’Longa demonstrates in that story to understand the universe better than Kane or really any other white man with his knowledge of the supernatural.  Finally on this subject, I will state that REH lived in rural portions of Texas his entire life in the early part of the twenty century.  There is was nothing stopping him from being much more racist that he writing are given the place and time he lived, and yet some of his writing seems to contradict this.  I won’t say that his stories don’t have any racism when view through contemporary values, but that I believe that his critics are far more harsh toward him that he truly deserves.

I want to finish up by stating that Solomon Kane is my favorite Robert E. Howard protagonist.  I enjoy his adventures far more than Conan’s exploits.  However, I can see why Conan has wider appeal.  Kane is too rigid and fanatical in his cause seeming less like a man and more, as I’m sure Howard intended, a weapon of God’s justice.  REH himself noted that using earth’s own history was often times more of a noose that required far more research for creating a story than it was worth.  While nearly all of Conan’s world has a fairly obvious real world equivalent, Howard used this a short hand and changed the parts he wanted or was ignorant of to serve plot of Conan tales.

Bottomline: Red Shadows was still early in Howard telling of his stories and has a few rough parts.  Additionally, the African depictions could be offensive to modern readers depending on how they interpret them.  However, this story is a very good tale of swashbuckling and sword and sorcery.

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Pulp Story Review, Who-Done-It

Out the Window Review

Out the Window (Copyright 1977)

by Lawrence Block

This short story about crime and detection is one many tales about fictional private investigator Matthew Scudder.  The story starts with Matt describing a waitress named Paula.  She worked at place called Armstrong’s.  She wasn’t much of a waitress, but she did something in Matt’s opinion a lot people didn’t. She tried.

After hearing about woman who jumped to her death Matt decides to head into Armstrong’s and say hello to Paula only to find she hasn’t been.  She wasn’t fired either.  She was the jumper from her seventeenth floor apartment.

Paula’s sister Ruth Wittlauer, talks with Scudder back at Armstrong’s.  Ruth knows that her sister didn’t commit suicide. If she was going to kill herself, she would have taken pills not jump out the window.  She was murdered, and Ruth thinks it was her boy friend Cary McCloud.  Ruth tries to hire the ex-cop Matt to find out what really happened.  As Matt says. “She had five hundred dollars and a dead sister, and parting with one wouldn’t bring the other back life.”  He finally decides to take some of the money hopes to earn them.

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This is fantastic who-done-it story, that I’m not too ashamed to admit I was a little slow to solving and never had put all of the pieces together by the end.  Matt Scudder is one the classic archetypical private eyes and very easy for the reader to like.  This story can be found in Great Tales of Crime and Detection anthology.  It has some other good detective/who-done-it stories if you enjoy a good mystery.

Bottomline: This is very good short story and it easy to understand while there are so many Matthew Scudder stories as he is very much a classic private detective character.

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Board Games, H.P. Lovecraft

Arkham Horror Review

     Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight Games in a cooperative Lovecraftian board game written by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson and published in 2005.  It is based on the earlier 1987 Chaosium gamed based on the Call of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game.   It plays from 1 to 8 players (ages 14 and up) in 2 to 4 ([sic] plus) hours.

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     The premise of the game is that is 1926 and dark shadows grow in the fictional Massachusetts city of Arkham.  Great and powerful entities known either as Ancient Ones (AO) or Great Old Ones (GOO) slumber in dimensions beyond time and space waiting until the stars are right to awaken.  It appears that this time is now.  Strange eldrich gates to other worlds are opening in Arkham and bizarre, insanity causing monsters are pouring out them.  It is up to a small group of investigators (the players) to seal these gates and halt the encroachment of the Ancient One from entering and destroying our world.

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Arkham Horror board set up

To play Arkham Horror, the players select one of the 16 investigators in the game, from a hard-boiled private investigator to crotchety old university professor and even a wandering stage.  magician.  The investigators must prevent one of the 8 ancient ones from awaking by collecting clue tokens, entering gates to other worlds, exploring other worlds, and closing and/or sealing these gates.  If the investigators can seal 6 gates or close all the gates while possessing 1 gate trophy (earned by closing gates) per investigators the player beat back the Ancient One putting them back to rest for a while longer.  If the investigators cannot do this, they must battle the ancient one (with the exception of Azathoth that awakens and ends the game) in a last ditch battle for mankind.

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Cthulhu’s Ancient One Sheet

I’m not going to get much more in detail on the specifics of the game mechanics and rules as there are many and they are not particularity unified.  I will say that the game is composed a five phases: Upkeep, Movement, Arkham Encounters, Other World Encoutners, and Mythos.  Dice rolls are made with a standard d6 typically looking for a 5 or 6.  Most the time a single success is requires except the case of [X] were X equals the number of successes required.

Upkeep Phase is where the investigators can adjust their skills increases one at the cost of another.  Additionally, Upkeep is the phase where players maintain some of the special powers or effects such a Blessing witch makes dice probabilities easier.

Movement Phase is where the investigators can move around Arkham or Other Worlds.  It is also the phase where players initiate combat or evade with the monsters in Arkham.  It is important to note that Evading and Combat checks are different that Sneak and Fight checks which use each skill respectively.

Arkham Encounter Phase is where the investigator draws the color coordinated card to the location there are at (unless they are in a street location).  They read and perform the action described in the text of the card that matches the location that are at.  It is also this phase that investigators at locations with open gates are pulled into Other World locations.

Other World Encounter Phase is where the player draws Other World Encounter cards until they match the colors at the gate their investigator is at.  They read the text for the location or Other if the location is not on that card and perform the action(s) described.

Finally, the Mythos Phase is where the players draw a Mythos Card and perform the actions described on it in proper order.  This is often another gate opening up or it the location already has an open gate a monster surge.

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Investigator Sheet

This game is one my favorite board games.  I really like the Lovecraft theme as well as co-opt games.  Unlike some other board game players, I enjoy the random luck element of both the dice rolling and randomness of the cards.  I see it as crisis management as you have to plan on things not going your way even when percentages are heavily in your favor.  I think the game does a good job of balancing beneficial encounters with detrimental ones (although I count neutral ones as beneficial).  I also like the various sub-stories found on many of the location cards; though sadly many places in Arkham don’t visited ever outside of seeing what kind of encounters happen there. I never read the cards before the game, so I little idea what kind encounters happen at Ma’s Boarding House or at the River Docks.

While I really like this board game, it has many flaws that I think could have been fixed.  One thing I would have done different would be to make the street locations on the game board the space where the Arkham Location Encounter Cards kept.  The game board is already gigantic and the game has literally hundreds of pieces.  To help reduce the already cyclopean footprint of this game I would have put some the pieces on the board itself.  Perhaps that would have made the game more busier than the creator wanted, but I don’t think so.  One thing I have noticed it Fantasy Flight Games love lots of little tokens and Arkham Horror is no exception.  I wonder if it could have been possible to place spinners (or some other integral tracking) on the investigator sheet.  The back story would have to be in a smaller font or one a second sheet, but after all the tokens are placed on the current sheet it isn’t going to be picked up until after the game is over anyway.  More teamwork between investigators would have been nice.  I would liked the idea of being able to combine dice pools when investigators are working on the same task such as fighting monsters or even closing gates.  It doesn’t come that often, wouldn’t be difficult to house rule in, I don’t even think it would fundamentally change the game beyond making it a hell of a lot less risking taking down the really tough monsters (I’m looking at you The Beast).

In just about everything else, there are parts of Arkham Horror I’m not a fan of.  Like so many other reviewers, I think the game’s setup/tear down time is a little long in the tooth and often times the game itself runs a little (lot) long.  I have played in a game that stalled out 4/6ths (4 of the 6 sealed gates accomplished) through with no clue tokens on the board and too strong of monsters to bring down (was battling Shub Nigguarath) that took near 6 hours ending in a battle with the Ancient One.    I will also say the game becomes fairly easy once you know which gate locations are the most common.  My group picks the investigator they want to play rather than randomly.  While I don’t think anyone picks their investigator purely on power, we do tend to select ones that work in concert with each other.  Another thing to note is the rule book is not particularly well composed.  It would have been incredibly helpful to have a cheat sheet on the phases with notes on the most commonly missed things during phase.  Hell I don’t know if I would have mind a couple of notes on the game board such as how many monsters in a monster surge or how The Sky and Outskirts work.  The Terror Track is almost always a non-issue to the point I still don’t know if we are using it correctly.  It seems like by the time it kicks in you know if you lost or not.

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Bottomline:  I really enjoy Arkham Horror even if  it does have quite a few problems.  I will openly admit though, without the Lovecraft theme, it would not be the case. I give it 5 elder signs out of 6 not quite sealing away the Ancient Ones for good.

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Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery

The Phoenix on the Sword Review

The Phoenix on the Sword (first published Weird Tales 1932)

by Robert E. Howard

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by Andrew Robinson

The first novella of Howard’s iconic character is a startling contrast to the image Conan the barbarian has in popular culture.  In this first story Conan is king of Aquilonia with his adventuring days long behind him.  The story starts with a conversation between the Stygian sorcerer turned slave Thoth-amon and his current master Ascalente setting up the exposition for the basis of the story of The Phoenix on the Sword.  Asalente along with four other men (Dion the fat baron of Attalus, Volumana the Count of Karaban, Gromel the Black Legion Commander, and Rinaldo a fiery poet-minstrel) seek to overthrow King Conan.  Ascalente knows each of his fellow traitors reasons: Dion has royal blood and believes that gives him the right to the throne, Volumana seeks to return to the old regime where the nobles could collect and keep far more taxes than today, and Grommel seeks to be commander over the entire army of Aquilonia.  Only Rinaldo has no personal ambition; he sees Conan as a barbarian tyrant that wrongly claimed the throne by slaying King Numedides and taking the crown for himself.  Soon these men will assassinate the King and their coup will be complete.  However, Ascalente worries that Dion’s nerves with show the traitors intentions early, or worse yet, turn the traitors in.  For that reason, Ascalente send the Thoth-amon to watch over the fat baron.

In Chapter two King Conan speaks of his laments to Prospero, Seneschal of Aquilonia, the work being a ruler is far more difficult that fighting any man in combat.  Conan speaks of when he sieved the crown of Aquilonia he was greeted as a liberator.  Now the people spit on his name and burn him in effigy.  Led by Rinaldo, the people sing songs about old King Numedides and even placed a stature of him in the temple of Mitra in his memory.

Chapter three involves Thoth-amon under of the guise of serving Dion.  Dion is indeed starting to crack and Thoth-amon reassures the rotunt noble that the plot cannot fail.  Thoth-amon even attempts to ally himself with Dion to rid himself of the yoke of Ascalente by warning the baron that once Conan is murdered, Ascalente with Imageturn on him.  However, Thoth-amon being a formerly powerful magician could help Dion if agreed to help him find his magic ring.  Dion mostly ignores Thoth-amon for the lowly slave he is but shows some interest in the his story about a ring.  Thoth-amon describes this ring which Dion states he has something much like it.  Producing his lucky ring from a secret compartment in his seat, Dion actually possesses Thoth-amon’s ring of sorcery.  The Stygian slave springs onto the blubbery noble plunging a dagger deep into the Dion.  Thoth-amon contacts his true master Set and uses the magic of the ring to summon a shadowy misshapen baboon-like monster to destroy Ascalente.

Chapter Four begins with Conan in a strange dreamland where he encounters the sage Epemitreus who had been dead for 1500 years.  Epemitreus warns Conan that he is betrayed and something monstrous not of this world is loose.  The sage enchants Conan’s sword with the outline of the Phoenix.  Conan wakes confused with his sword in hand, the phoenix etched on its blade.  He takes no time putting on his armor.

The rogues and traitors burst in on King Conan’s bed chambers to find the King party armored and for their assassination attempt.  Conan standing one versus twenty men knows that he will be slain this night, but he will take as many as he can before he dies.  Grommel charges first, his head smashed but not before shattering the King’s blade.  Rinaldo screams and attacks like a mad man ignoring Conan’s attempts to persuade him.  Reluctantly, Conan also finishes off the minstrel.  Bloodied, Conan continues to fight slaying Volema.  However, during the conflict with Ascalente, the murderous traitor is killed by the talons of Thoh-amon’s nightmarish beast.  The beast then turns on Conan who instantly kills it with the broken blade of the Phoenix Sword.

     The Phoenix on the Sword is an action-packed story that Robert E. Howard clearly knew he was going to write many more stories about the character Conan and the world a Hyboria.  What did surprise me was I was expecting a later story with Thoth-amon as the villain that never manifested.   This story is far from the best or even one of my favorite Conan stories it feels very much like Howard was still trying to figure out what he wanted out of Conan and his world.  My biggest complaint would be this story has many characters a few of which could easily been edited out (Volema for one) especially for such a short tale.  Almost none of which make a second appearance in a Conan story written by Howard.

Bottomline: I’m appreciative that Weird Tales bought this story and Howard did create this world, but The Phoenix on the Sword is a long way from his best writing and story telling.  It is average fantasy pulp.

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H.P. Lovecraft, Pulp Story Review

The Shadow Over Innsmouth Review

The Shadow over Innsmouth (published in 1936)

by H.P. Lovecraft

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By DamnEngine

The novella begins with a unnamed protagonist referring to a secret investigation made by the federal government of the small coastal New England town of Innsmouth.  The protagonist describes a few of the reports leaked about the investigation made to the general public but hints to there being far more to what happened and directly informs the reader that he has decided to ignore the speech ban placed by the government concerning anything about this nearly abandoned fishing town and tells the story of his first and currently last visit to this unsettling settlement.

It seems that the narrator learned of Innsmouth while touring New England to study genealogy and sight see the region’s various architecture on the cheap.  While in Newburyport on his way to Arkham to learn more about his mother’s side of the family.  Talking to the tick agent to find the least expensive method to Arkham the ticket agent reveals details about Innsmouth.  The agent suggests that the narrator just take the steam train up to Arkham as most folks in Newburyport find the people of Innsmouth very off-putting.  In fact most locals are spiteful toward the Innsmouth denizens though the agent suspects it could be do to the better fishing found near Innsmouth.  However, even he gets uncomfortable in the presence of the Innsmouth people as they have an odd look about them.  They all sort have big bulgy, unblinking eyes, flat noses, big blubbery lips and big, clumsy hands and feet.  The narrator makes his up mind to take the bus to Innsmouth.  The ticket agent tells him that he could likely find a place to stay a the Gilman House, but the last traveler that did said he heard strange voice talking in a sort of weird language.       When the narrator first encounters people with the Innsmouth look he understands why other would be disgusted.  He was well is oddly repulsed by these people though he can’t exactly explain why.  Taking bus to Innsmouth narrator Innsmouth to be a dense town of decaying buildings and degenerate people.  Even the Freemason Hall seems to have been taken over by a cult known as the Esoteric Order of Dagon.  During his day in Innsmouth, the narrator takes in some light sight seeing and investigation of the history of Innsmouth mostly from conversations with the town’s few transplants including a grocery boy and ancient drunkard by the name of Zadok Allen.

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Bribed with a bottle of whiskey, Old Zadok is still hesitant to tell tale of the terrible things he has see in Innsmouth.  The old alcoholics tongue does loosen, and he talks about Captain Obed Marsh back before the Civil War who performed evil Kanaky Indian rituals out at Devil Reef, a reef that scant sits above the waterline even in low tide, to summon frog-fish creatures from deep below the ocean’s surface.  It seems that Captain Obed made a kind of Faustian Pact with the creatures for gold and immortality and it wasn’t long before others of the town also made that same deal.

The narrator thoroughly weird ed out by people with the ‘Innsmouth look’ and the stories he has heard decides against staying at the Gilman House and Innsmouth over night and attempts to hire the bus driver Joe Sargent to take him to Arkham.  Both unfortunately and conveniently, the decrepit bus has broken down and won’t be repaired until tomorrow.  Forced to stay the night, the narrator’s terror is increased as he begins to suspect the local’s of Innsmouth know of his investigation and are none too happy with an outsider asking questions…

That is as far as I will reveal the story.  I must say I really enjoyed The Shadow Over Innsmouth. It has quickly became my personal favorite story of H.P Lovecraft edging out The Mountains of Madness.  Its foreshadowing in both obvious but still quite clever to a modern reader who will quickly piece together Innsmouth’s insidious secret.  Yet I came to really empathize with the narrator which made the ending that much more horrific.  The writing is filled with less purple prose that many other of Lovecraft’s stories though it does slightly suffer from even fairly mundane items/occurrences have overly menacing descriptions.  This at times made wonder if Lovecraft intended for it to seem as the narrator was in fact slightly paranoid.  Though when it did actually seem like the town was against him he seemed less concerned about the machinations of the Innsmouth residents.

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Bottomline: The Shadow of Innsmouth is would definitely be an excellent story for someone to start reading some of H.P. Lovecrafts works.  6 out of 6 Elder Signs

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