April 11, 2016

Fish Monsters From Newburyport: Are the Deep Ones Real?

Last week I wrote about the Frogman of Silver Lake. It's interesting to think there might be a humanoid frog creature lurking in Plymouth County, but could there also be humanoid fish people hiding in the waters off the North Shore of Massachusetts?

Most people would say no, but a few people say yes.

The legend of these particular fish people started in the fall of 1931, when the Rhode Island horror writer H.P. Lovecraft visited Newburyport, Massachusetts. These days Newburyport is an expensive and upscale coastal community, but in 1931 the city was run-down and full of crumbling old houses. The downtown was full of boarded-up businesses.

Things were so bad that some locals jokingly called Newburyport the "City of the Dead." It sounds like a grim place, but Lovecraft of course loved it and used his visit as inspiration for one of his most famous stories, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" tells how a young man from the Midwest comes to Massachusetts to research his family's genealogy. His search leads him to Innsmouth, a depressed and decaying coastal town. Most of the town's businesses are shut down, and many houses are boarded up (but still seem to be occupied). Some people in Innsmouth also share the same strange physical deformities: receding foreheads, bulging eyes, and creased necks. To make things even creepier, Innsmouth's churches have been closed and replaced by a Masonic-style cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon.

A priest of the (fictional) Esoteric Order of Dagon from Propnomicon.
The young man encounters an elderly drunkard who tells him about Innsmouth's unusual history.  Innsmouth was once a prosperous fishing and mill town, but overfishing and bad economic times led to hardship for Innsmouth's citizens. As the town's leaders debated what to do, a sea captain named Obed Marsh proposed an unusual solution.

While Captain Marsh was sailing in the South Seas he learned about a group of aquatic humanoids called the Deep Ones. In return for the occasional human sacrifice, the Deep Ones provided local South Seas islanders with gold and bountiful catches of fish. Well, they actually wanted more than just sacrifices. The Deep Ones also liked to mate with attractive islanders. The hybrid offspring of these unusual couplings were born looking human, but as they aged they slowly turned into Deep Ones themselves.

Perhaps, Captain Marsh suggested, the people of Innsmouth could strike a similar bargain with the Deep Ones, who quite conveniently had a large underwater city just off the coast of Innsmouth? The citizens of Innsmouth were at first repulsed by the idea, but many of them changed their minds after seeing the gold Captain Marsh brought back from the South Seas - and after learning that their hybrid offspring would be immortal, like the Deep Ones themselves. Those citizens who didn't support Captain Marsh became the first human sacrifices...

That would have been a great town meeting to attend, wouldn't it? "My plan to revitalize the downtown business district stands on two pillars: human sacrifice and sex with scary fish people." I won't rehash the rest of the story, but it involves an encounter with a horde of hideous monsters, a daring escape, and a surprise twist ending.

A human/Deep One hybrid from Propnomicon.

"The Shadow of Innsmouth" is of course fiction. Lovecraft wrote horror stories, not history. But a few readers have always wondered if there was some kernel of truth behind what he wrote. When Lovecraft was alive his friend William Lumley told Lovecraft that he thought his stories were accounts of actual occult events. Lovecraft laughed it off. A woman also wrote to Lovecraft and said she was the descendant of a Salem witch. If Lovecraft would share his magical secrets she would share hers. Lovecraft thought he was nuts.

Despite Lovecraft's lifelong denial that his stories were anything but fiction, many practicing occultists have believed otherwise. This trend only accelerated after his death in 1937, and multiple books have been written that allegedly contain the secrets of "true" Lovecraftian magic. Several claim to be authentic versions of the Necronomicon, the terrible tome of blasphemous knowledge he created for his stories.

The British occultist Kenneth Grant (b.1924 - d. 2011) believed quite strongly that Lovecraft had tapped into a source of authentic magical power through his fiction. Grant claimed that Lovecraft accessed true occult knowledge - and supernatural entities - while dreaming and unknowingly incorporated them into his fiction.

Based on this supposition, Grant conducted many Lovecraftian rituals during his life, and several of them involved the Deep Ones. During one, a priestess in Grant's occult lodge descended into a tank of water where the Deep Ones materialized and attacked her. Another of his priestesses died when the plane she was on crashed over the ocean. Grant speculated that the Deep Ones were responsible.

It all may sound crazy to you (or perhaps not!), but Grant is not alone in trying to summon the Deep Ones through magic rituals. Here in the U.S., Episcopal-priest-turned-occultist Michael Bertiaux claims to have successfully summoned the aquatic humanoids in an isolated Midwestern lake (possibly Devil's Lake in Wisconsin). Sadly, Bertiaux hasn't offered up a detailed descriptions of how he did it, but perhaps that's a blessing. Do we really want our lakes infested with amorous fish monsters?

If you have encountered the Deep Ones please let me know. I don't think anyone has yet reported seeing them near Newburyport, but I suppose if people keep summoning them it's only a matter of time before they pop up on some Plum Island beach. The borders between fact, fiction and the occult are always blurry, particularly here in New England.


My sources for this week's post include The Necromicon Files (2003) by Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III, and my own book, Legends and Lore of the North Shore (2014). Thanks also to the reader who used the word "Lovecraftian" in their comment last week, which inspired me to write this post.

By the way, I filmed a segment for the Travel Channel's show Mysteries at the Museum last summer about the Melonheads, and it should be airing this Thursday, April 14 at 9:00 pm. I hope you are able to tune in!


Wade Tarzia said...

When we were young motorcycle-riding nerds (yes, such existed), my friend I, Lovecraft fans, went on a few Lovecraft explorations along that coast. We knew of course his mythos included non-New-England topographic features (we closely studied the geological survey maps), and so, sadly, found nothing close to the Strange High House in the Mist. Searching for Innsmouth was a little more successful as we retraced the bus route from Newburyport to Cape Ann. We figured essex would be the closest we would get to Innsmouth (though from my few boating experiences around that coast I understood there only was sandy or marshy shoal water all along that area). At Essex we saw signs posted everywhere: "Fresh Essex Clams!" My friend shouted over to me as we rode, "The Deep Ones have sent clams!" and so we were happy enough :-). On the way home we passed a temple-like building, looking very ornate and odd, and our jaws dropped -- I think it was a town hall or something, but of course we knew it was a thin disguise for the Esoteric Order of Dagon. All in all, a good day in 1975! Glad to say I am still a nerd with nerd friends, as another friend and I walked College Hill last last year to finally visit 'Miskatonic University', and my office door at my college of course sports an M.U. sticker....

Peter Muise said...

Hi Wade!

Thanks for the story. Woodman's of Essex claims they are the originators of the fried clam - was that addictive recipe somehow also occult knowledge from the Deep Ones? I'm vegetarian, so perhaps the Deep Ones could send me saltwater taffy instead.

In all seriousness though, those marshy landscapes, particularly in Ipswich and Essex, are amazing.

Anonymous said...

This is just what I was looking for, thank you!