Like, I suspect, most HPL fans, I consider that “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” represents one of the quintessential masterpieces of his oeuvre. The story is tightly-paced and the action gripping; the menace is palpable and the characters doom-laden and desperate. It speaks directly to the investigative nature of the horror genre, the peeling back of layers of mystery before the final, mind-numbing revelation. To my mind it has defined the form that the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game uses for its narrative tales: the slow unspooling of information towards uncovering the hidden mystery. Further, the story ties itself up neatly, in and of itself, but there are enough points of interest raised to generate further tales; enough unsaid material, allusive references and throwaway lines to string out many more stories and plumb many more terrors. This has been the source of such publications as Chaosium’s “Return to Innsmouth” and Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green game.
I fully understand why fans of Lovecraft, and of the roleplaying that descends from his works, would want to explore Innsmouth and all that it represents; I’ve done it myself. However, there is one niggling little point that bothers me:
It’s “Devil Reef”. Not “Devil’s Reef”. Seriously people: go check the source material.
I suspect that this is a symptom of proof-reading gone mad, much as it has with the final sentence of “The Haunter of the Dark”: a draft prepared for publishing has been ‘amended’ by an earnest editor who feels that they know what was intended by the author and has ‘set things aright’. (Seriously though, anyone who claims to know what HPL intended should probably have a quiet lie down somewhere...) In that particular instance, the error has been perpetrated even to the silver screen: an HPL-based episode of the TV show Supernatural re-enacts the final moments of “Haunter” and the text that they display is also incorrect. But back to Devil Reef...
As most serious fans of Lovecraft should know, he was a man born out of his time. He was a Twentieth Century writer that should have lived in the Nineteenth. His style of writing clearly derives from an earlier age and he’s not alone in this regard. Most of the writers to whom Lovecraft owed a debt for stylistic tendencies, were somewhat contemporaneous, or men of the previous century, who also felt that the earlier writing styles were more conducive to the tales that they wished to tell. Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Sheridan leFanu – they directly inspired HPL in matters literary and he - unconsciously or otherwise – adopted their styles. In particular, M.R. James the British writer of ghost stories, reflects Lovecraft’s point of view: it was well-known of him that he could pen a story, accurate in terms of setting, voice, tone and style, of any time period offered at a moment’s notice. And he could do it well enough to fool the expert eye. And so could Lovecraft.
What I’m wending my tortuous way towards is the fact that HPL deliberately chose to write in the way that he did; the fact that he didn’t make more money in his lifetime than he did from his stylistic leanings shows that he was an artist of high idealistic stringency, if not much pecuniary nous. So why are we so eager to alter what he took such pains to create? It smacks a little of arrogance, I think. There are other issues too.
The stories that Lovecraft wrote are part of a writing tradition that is woefully out of favour at present. Writers generally dismiss horror writing as part of a category referred to as ‘Genre Fiction’. The current taste is to regard any form of narrative that uses standard tropes and mechanics as unworthy of the name ‘literature’. Genre fiction includes science fiction and romance writing, period drama, detective stories and thrillers. Dismissing any one of these categories is sure to offend every reader on the planet but nevertheless the literati would have it so. To an extent I see their point: ‘paranormal romance’ is another form of genre fiction and, on balance, I would get behind any movement that wants to deride Laurel K. Hamilton, Stephenie Meyers, Maggie Stiefvater or any of the other promoters of bestiality or necrophilia who seem intent on flooding the market with their crapulence. But I digress.
Despite the current literary fashion, there was some great writing going on in the horror field at the turn of last century. Nowadays, much of that material is unavailable except at venues like Project Gutenberg, or released by the big publishing houses in omnibus editions which make good monetary sense because ownership of this material has by and large passed into the public domain and it’s therefore cheap to produce. In these instances, we readers are at the mercy of editors who pick and choose what to include and what to leave out; fortunately, enough of these collections appear that a wide selection is available for those who want to shop around.
Chief among these kinds of omnibus re-printings is the company Dover Publications, Inc. Theirs are cheap and cheerful productions, often seen in academic remainders stores, and, let it be said right here and now, I applaud their dedication to seeing older works of literature re-issued for later generations of readers. The downside to their product though, is technology; specifically Optical Character Recognition (OCR).
Obviously, this process allows printed text to be turned into a digital format far more quickly than by hand, and it’s obvious why a company like Dover would choose to use it in recovering works of literature that have languished for too long away from any audience. Sadly though, a computer program is unable to differentiate between an ‘!' and an ‘l’, or a ‘1’, or between an ‘m’ or ‘nn’; occasionally, a ‘b’ is even transcribed as ‘lo’, amongst myriad other permutations. That these errors make it into print is part of a publishing throughput that focuses on lowering the price point by waiving textual integrity (and the integrity of the text didn’t exactly put any brakes on the Fifty Shades of Grey juggernaut!).
Not that I’m damning Dover (or Wordsworth, or any other low price publisher). Three cheers for keeping literature alive and ensuring a breadth of material in the publishing world! The upside of OCR publishing – and I’m citing the benefit of the doubt here – is that a looseness in the textual transcription forces us to become better readers, to practise discernment as we peruse the text, and to question that which is before us, in order to seek out, correct, and to better understand.
It’s easy and perfectly acceptable to jump on Project Gutenberg and edit a text so, if you spot a transcription error in a published work, why not fix it? After all, perpetuation of a textual error is the equivalent of gagging a beloved author by stifling their intent and, in the case of HPL, anyone who feels his texts aren’t extremely carefully considered and should be minutely preserved, should think again. I’m sure no-one would be so cavalier about Jane Austen’s writing.