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

The Frost-Giant’s Daughter

The Frost-Giant’s Daughter (first published in 1976)

by Robert E. Howard

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This very short story opens with the last two warriors stand over the snowy field of battle between viking-like fighters, one side with blonde beards and the other hair as red as flame.  One of the tall combatants is a red-headed Vanir named Heimdul, the other is a youthful man with mane of black different from the others as Cimmerian named Conan.  After a brief exchange, Conan slays Heimdul and is the last man standing in this bloody battle of eighty men on frozen fields.

Yet he spies a woman with milky white skin and completely bare of clothing despite the freezing temperature.  She posses an elfin beauty with fair of neither Vanir red nor Aesir but a blend of each.  Conan remarks he knows of no village nearby she could be from.  The beautiful woman leads across plains of hoar-frosted snow to low hills that give way to towering mountains.  It is these silvery mountains of blue ice that the woman springs her trap upon the barbarian warrior.  Her brothers, giants seemly carved of snow and ice with thick armor and frost covered axes, strike  at Conan with the fury of a winter storm.

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This story was originally rejected by Weird Tales hence the publishing date of more than 30 years after the author’s death during the 1970’s fantasy and sword and sorcery boom.  This tale is perhaps the earliest account in Conan’s adventurous life as he is younger than most of Howard’s original stories.

As for the story itself, I can partly understand why it was rejected.  It comes in at a scant seven pages making it the shortest of the Conan stories.  Additionally, there isn’t a whole happening in this story as well.  Conan is the last warrior in a battle of eighty men (which comes off rather incredible even for Conan).  He follows a strange naked beauty for several miles in some strange lust-fueled obsession only to be attacked by frost giants.

For me, The Frost-Giant’s Daughter may be my least favorite Conan story between The Black Stranger and Vale of Lost Women both which are better stories but have elements I dislike more than any of The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.  With The Black Stranger it is swashbuckler/pirate Conan which just seems out of place for the character.  While Vale of Lost Women is one of Howard’s more racist stories though it does have Conan fighting a creature seemly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.

Bottomline, this is not a particularly good Conan story though it is serviceable and short enough to read without leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

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H.P. Lovecraft, Pulp Story Review

The Dunwich Horror Review

The Dunwich Horror (first published in Weird Tales 1929)

by H.P. Lovecraft

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by Santiago Caruso

The novella begins with a prolonged setup of the Massachusetts town of Dunwich and the surrounding features such as Round Mountain, The Devil’s Hop Yard, and Sentinel Hill atop which a strange ring of stone columns thought to have built by now extinct tribes of Indians. It is perhaps these stones that started the stories of witches and devils that haunt the areas around Dunwich, however, what is know is the general disdain travelers have for loitering in the town any longer than they absolutely have to.  The Dunwich folk are mostly composed of but a few families such as the Bishops and the Whatelys.  A few of the branches of these familial trees have fallen into degeneration over the decades.  It is one such family that story revolves largely around.

Wizard Whately and his albino daughter, Lavina, bizarre and deformed part of the degenerated Whatelys living our at a farm near Dunwich.  The xenophobic townsfolk usually take little interest in affairs others, but the birth of Lavina’s son is of note for several reasons.  For one, the boy is a bastard with the father unknown by any in Dunwich.  Cursorily, Lavina doesn’t shun the boy, but in fact, seem proud of the goatish looking baby.  The other oddity is the the boy’s, Wilbur,  astonish rate of growth and mental development.  By a year and half the boy had grown to the size of a child normally thought to be four.  Wilbur began speaking at eleven months seemly skipping lisping and forming sentences almost immediately.

Wizard Whately began odd projects soon after Wilbur’s  birth.  He found renewed wells of stamina to repair and make additions to his old dilapidated home.  Old Whately also began to purchase additional cattle though the surrounding folk noted that his herd size never appeared to increase.  For years after none of the people of Dunwich paid this branch of Whatelys any mind as was common for them to mind their business.  However, ten years after the birth of Wilbur, the boy who have the appearance and demeanor of a man aided his grandfather in restoring the old barn on the property for some strange purpose.  It was later in the spring that old WIzard became worn out and sick.  The Whippoorwills had gather in frightening number at the Whately farm.  According to Wizard to try an take his soul as he died.

With the death of old Wizard Whately, it was up to Wilbur to finish what sinster task his grandfather has started.  To do so required an earlier edition of the Necromonicon written by the Mad-Arab Abdul Alhazred for a passage written on page 751.  Wilbur writes many universities and even visits Arkham’s own Miskatonic University to get his hands on own.  It only by Dr. Henry Armitage’s refusal that the boy is unable to get the required knowledge from the book.  Yet something urgent is requiring Wilbur to return to home…

The Dunwich Horror is a departure from Lovecraft’s normal first person narrative.  Although, the author doesn’t stray that far from it.  The story is still told in a typical account style writing that gives feels like Lovecraft wanted to have it told from single source (such as a newspaper reporter) but could make all the elements he wanted fit.  This does allow the story to give the reader information  and immediate tension not usually found in his story.  Because the story isn’t written after the fact, the climax can actually generate a more visceral experience that typically found in H.P. Lovecraft.  Not withstanding first short chapter, the Dunwich Horror has an easier narrative for readers new to H.P. Lovecraft to follow.

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Bottomline: The Dunwich Horror is one of my top five favorite Lovecraft tales.  It makes a good entry into reading the author as the story is about villains trying to bring about the end the world and academicians attempting to stop them. Six out of six elder signs to keep the gate and the key of Yog-Sothoth sealed away.

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H.P. Lovecraft, Pulp Story Review

The Colour Out of Space Review

The Colour Out of Space (originally published in Amazing Tales in September 1927)

by H.P. Lovecraft

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By Darksorrow 666

The narrator of this short story is a man sent to New England to survey land for a new reservoir.  Even from the city of Arkham the narrator is told this area known as the Blasted Hearth is evil though the younger folk don’t known why and the elders won’t say other than, “strange days.”  Curiosity gets the better of the him, and he finally gets the name of someone that might talk about those strange days.  He warned not to believe Ammi Pierce’s crazy stories about the past and the desolate area known as the Blasted Hearth.  Instead, the narrator seek Mr. Pierce out immediately.

Using the reservoir surveying as guise to ask about the story behind Blasted Hearth and the strange days, the narrator talks to Ammi and discovers the old man to be far more intelligent that he was led to believe.  Ammi states it would be better for what had happen during those strange days to be under water.  Without much prodding however, Ammi retells the story of Gardner Farm as well as its fall.

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by Rafa García de la Mata

Decades ago in 1882, a strange meteorite fell on the Gardener Farm and intrigued professors from Miskatonic University to study it.  The meteorite seemed to shrink in size after hitting the Earth according to Nahum Gardener.  It was composed of a malleable material that was warm to the touch and seemed to completely inert to acids and many other chemicals.  In fact many of the test performed by the professors yielded result not like any material known.  After gouging deeply into it, the University geologist discovered a strange substance that could only be describe as a colour, though it was not like any in the known spectrum and entirely impossible to describe.  Only one of these colour globules were found within the odd meteorite.  After a thunderstorm the meteorite was struck by lightning according to Nahum and the professors could not find any remains of the meteorite.

It was this that Nahum’s farm began to produce huge, mutated crops that completely inedible.  Disgusting in taste the entire crop was useless.  Soon after, the animals began to act strange and the livestock also impossible to eat as the meat took on a horrid taste.  After more than a year, the surrounding vegetation grow strange.  The flower bloomed colors unlike they ever had and even the grasses were prismatic in their array of colors.  The Gardener’s were not immune to what ever was causing this strange growth.  Nahum grew taciturn though most though it was from the hard times at his farm.  Mrs Garden fell into a madness, and the Gardener child became ill and died.  By harvest, the Gardener Farm and the area surrounding the farm the vegetation was crumbing to gray ash like powder.  Like the color and life had been sucked out.  That was forty-four years ago.

The Colour Out of Space is brilliant blend of science fiction and horror.  I always put myself in the shoes of Nahum Gardner who not only is his livelihood falling apart, but his family is either becoming ill and dying or insane.  The Colour’s effect happens over the course of a couple years forcing Nahum to endure the menace and dread of such a tragedy far more than a simple serial killer or mad man chasing after the protagonist.  He is truly helpless against this force from beyond the stars that even the brightest minds of Miskatonic University can’t understand.  What is most frightening is that the Colour may continue to expand, perhaps faster, even after the reservoir is place over the Blasted Hearth.  I always took the strange effect the Colour had on the environment as well as the heat from the meteorite to be a sort of radiation.  Or even the Colour itself being or giving off toxic radiation that mutated and drove mad living things before draining the life and color out them.

The Colour, like the Nothing is the Neverending Story, is purely literary concept as Lovecraft goes out of his way to make the reader known it was a color know like any known shade or type.  I can’t help to at least think a little of the impossibility of such an idea as I’m fascinated by electromagnetic radiation including the visible spectrum of light.  However, I don’t let that bother me from such a chilling tale.

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Bottomline:  The Colour Out of Space is a tale that even to this day gives a heavy gut from the tragedy and horror it produces.  The idea of a thing so subtly destroying your life without concern and perhaps one day becoming a threat to the entire world is a spine chilling one.  I give The Colour of Space 6 out of 6 magnetic field producing elder signs.

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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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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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