Four-Color Newburyport with Captain America, The Shadow and Dr. Strange

MBTA commuter rail station with the surviving ornamentation of the destroyed YMCA where both the narrator and Lovecraft stayed. (David Goudsward photograph.)

Thanks to H. P. Lovecraft’s visits to Newburyport in the 1920s and 30s, the Clipper City has received some distinguished visitors of the four-color kind. Captain America, The Shadow and Dr. Strange have all visited Newburyport in their comic book adventures.

“The Shadow over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft.

Technically, they didn’t visit Newburyport per se, but Lovecraft’s version of Newburyport, as chronicled in his story “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Written in November–December 1931, the story was considered too long and too challenging to serialize in his regular market, “Weird Tales.” Instead, he allowed an amateur printer to publish the story as a book in 1936. The book had so many typographical errors that Lovecraft insisted on an errata sheet (which in turn was loaded with typos). The only book of Lovecraft’s fiction distributed during his lifetime was so poorly done that 200 copies were actually bound, and it’s doubtful most them sold.

Now considered a core story of the “Cthulhu Mythos,” the story opens in Newburyport with a student touring New England. He stays at the YMCA (then next door to the library, which he also visits). The story is full of familiar landmarks. Our hero visits the Historical Society of Old Newbury and waits for a bus at Market Square. As the arrival time for the bus draws near, the square begins to empty out, people wandering off or stepping into the Ideal Lunch (5 State St.) to avoid contact with any passengers. This bus, you see, is cheaper than the train, but includes a stop in Innsmouth, a blighted and best-forgotten village no decent Newburyportian would visit.

The original entrance to Newburyport library. (David Goudsward photograph.)

Innsmouth itself, although located farther down the coast, is also based on Newburyport. The parts of Newburyport that Lovecraft appreciated became the idealized Newburyport of the story—an antiquarian’s dream, with the beautifully maintained buildings and amply stocked research facilities. Innsmouth was a composite of the areas of Newburyport Lovecraft considered blights upon the city. Newburyport is epitomized by the library, the historical society and High Street. Innsmouth is represented by abandoned shipyards and rotted docks along the Merrimack and ramshackle clam huts in Joppa Flats.

The narrator is forced to spend the night in Innsmouth when the bus develops engine trouble. He finds Innsmouth as bad as he was warned. It is an all but abandoned fishing town, the buildings neglected and crumbling. But it is the Innsmouthians themselves who are the real terror. With vaguely misshapen people, they walk with a shambling gait, and all have similar facial features—narrow heads, scaly patches of skin, and bulging eyes.

Learning too much, he barely escapes the town with the terrible truth about Innsmouth. A colonial Innsmouth sea captain named Obed Marsh discovered a race of fish-like humanoids known as the Deep Ones in the Pacific. Marsh and his descendants have been sacrificing humans to the Deep Ones, who now live off coast beneath Devil’s Reef. Even worse, Innsmouth citizens have bred with the Deep Ones. The hybrid offspring have the appearance of normal humans in early life, but as they age, slowly transform into Deep Ones.

Lovecraft died in 1937. By 1939, all of Lovecraft’s stories were under the control of the publishing firm Arkham House. The claim to the rights was, at best dubious, but they were always ready to bluff with a lawsuit. After Lovecraft’s death, “Shadows over Innsmouth” appeared in an abridged version in the January 1942 issue of “Weird Tales.” In July, Captain America Comics ran a story that features a thinly disguised version of Innsmouth called Valley-Port. Timely Comics (later renamed Marvel Comics) wasn’t prepared to litigate.

Betty Ross is a government investigator looking into a series of bus accidents that killed federal agents. Private Steve Rogers has been assigned to escort her to Valley-Port, but Betty can’t wait for Rogers to build up the courage to accompany her. Rogers is already suspicious and becomes Captain America to investigate on his own. Now Cap finds himself battling amphibian monsters and Nazis to prevent Betty and Bucky from being sacrificed in the lost city beneath Satan’s Reef in “The Horror of the Seas.” Freed of Nazi control, the frog men chase down and destroy the Nazis. Captain America then seals the entrance to reef, resolving the matter once and for all.

Marvel Premiere #4 (September 1972) would find Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, traveling to the town of Starkesboro. Arkham was still not inclined to play nice, but Marvel now had a way around the matter. They had licensed the rights to Robert E. Howard’s literary estate. In addition to creating Conan the Barbarian, Howard had dabbled in the Mythos as well. So, with “Featuring concepts created by Robert E. Howard” on the credit page, Marvel had some wiggle room. Just to be safe, Starkesboro/Innsmouth/Newburyport was located “north of the Quabbin reservoir.” Since it’s tough for ocean-dwelling monsters to be in the middle of Massachusetts, the Starkesboro hybrids became snake people, the surviving offspring of an ancient snake god. These reptilian foes would prove more troublesome to Dr. Strange than the angry giant frogs were to Captain America. Cap saved the world in a few pages. Dr. Strange would battle the snake god’s minions for three more issues before fighting increasingly more powerful (and carefully renamed) Lovecraftian terrors.

Our third hero of the Pulp Era, Lamont Cranston, is returning to New York from a business trip in Nova Scotia with Margot Lane. Heavy fog forces them to land their tiny seaplane in Innsmouth. Margot stumbles across amphibian creatures on the docks. She and Lamont are informed the monsters are the Deep Ones of local legend. Lamont finds it curious that amphibians would be as heavily armed as this group was, according to Margot. And when Lamont gets curious, the Shadow investigates!

In this one-issue adventure from Dynamite Entertainment in April 2014, Innsmouth is a little larger, a little cleaner, but just as unwelcoming to outsiders. More importantly, it’s in the correct location! The Shadow is not concerned about such mundane matters—there is evil afoot.  He discovers the amphibians are wearing masks—they are bootleggers using a submarine to bring illegal alcohol in the U.S. in the middle of Prohibition. By the end of the adventure, the bootleggers are dead, the sub is sunk and a warehouse of illegal booze is on fire.

The bartender tells the story, adding that the one survivor of the fire, before he died, just said, “The Shadow.” As the story ends, we discover the bartender has been telling the tale to a familiar author, jotting notes about “The Shadow in Innsmouth.” The cycle is complete –H. P. Lovecraft, who created Innsmouth from Newburyport, is now a character in Innsmouth.

David Goudsward, raised on the summit of Scotland Hill, Haverhill, brings his New England sensibilities and respect for historical perspective his work. Although living in Florida, his bibliography consists primarily of New England topics. His latest book, “Sun, Sand, and Sea Serpents,” is available via Amazon.

Comments are closed.