Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Shadow Over Portsmouth

The start of fall is the time for weird tales, so let me tell you one…..

We live in an empire in decline and, as with all declining empires, it is the outposts which tend to suffer first.  Portsmouth Ohio is one such outpost.  Once a prosperous river city that boasted wealth and commerce, now little more than a, forgive the pun, shadow of its former self.  Perhaps, ironically enough, the only thing of which it might boast today is its fourth tier college, which is the only visible sign of development in an increasingly retrogressing community.

The Innsmouth Look
In a story by H. P.  Lovecraft there is a portrait of a town similar to my own.  Though the fabled town of the story is set on the east coast and not a major river, water is water.  Innsmouth is avoided by those who know it, and those who inhabit it rarely venture forth into the wider world.  A stranger on holiday is taking a tour of the region to seek out colonial architecture and historical curiosities.  Against his better judgment, he buys a bus ticket whose route stops briefly within the town and upon arriving at his destination checks his bag at the local hotel.  He goes on to explore the sights and meet the locals.  To his irritation, he finds neither of much interest until he encounters the village drunk.  An aged fellow, he appears nothing like the other towns people, who all share the “Innsmouth look”, something between a fish and a frog with wide bulging eyes that never shut.  He engages the old man in conversation and, in a long rambling bit of dialogue, reveals perhaps a bit too much, and the visitor soon gets the impression of being watched.  That evening his fear's are confirmed when an attempt is made to enter his room.  He takes flight, just barely escaping in a moonlit scramble through the darkened streets of Innsmouth.

What does all of this have to do with Portsmouth?  Little, as far as the supernatural elements of the tale go but, to a poetic cast of mind perhaps, it becomes more obvious.  The visitor to the strange little town discovers that its wealthy elite long ago made, for all intents and purposes, a pact with the devil and, all are slowly losing their humanity as they devolve into monsters from the sea.  Even more unsettling, the visitor afterwards learns (while a student at Oberlin College no less) that he too is of their blood.

Long ago our nation made a similar pact, not for immortality, but for abundant wealth.  The devil certainly delivered but, as he always does, he's come back to collect his due.

In the decaying old streets of Portsmouth I see too often the dehumanizing effects of poverty work towards the retrogression of humanity, just as the magic of the Old Ones turned the men and women of Innsmouth into spineless jellyfish.  It will be a long time yet before the empire's leaders, who likewise are just visitors passing through at election time, discover that they consist of a similar goo.  But, as it always is in horror tales as in tragedy, the knowledge will no doubt come too late.