Lovecraft’s “Shells and Bones of Perished Shapes”

The ocean is a terrible place, full of life still unknown to much of modern science and infinitely more alien than most writers can possibly imagine. Most writers, that is, except for Howard Phillips Lovecraft, one of the twentieth century’s greatest American writers of weird fiction. In Lovecraft’s ocean, monstrous things dwell.

H.P. Lovecraft, art by Sean Phillips for Fatale #1

Having lived the majority of his short, unhappy life in the port city of Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft shows both a fear of and fascination with the sea in his works of short fiction. From the almost comical half fish / half frogs that dwell in Innsmouth to the fish God Dagon to the Kraken-like behemoth that is Cthulhu — a titan from beyond the stars (or perhaps another dimension)sleeping for an eternity at the bottom of the ocean — the monsters sprung from Lovecraft’s imagination are invariably wet and lumbering, gelatinous and oozing — all eyes and tentacles. Awful things deep in the blackest depths. Not only could Lovecraft describe these horrible imaginings, he could impart a palpable dread in language that is fatalistic, reducing mankind to an insignificant speck in the immense expanse of a cold and uncaring universe.

“Vast and lonely is the ocean, and even as all things came from it, so shall they return thereto… On the deep’s margin shall rest only a stagnant foam, gathering about the shells and bones of perished shapes that dwelt within the waters. Silent, flabby things will toss and roll along empty shores, their sluggish life extinct.” — H.P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean” (http://www NULL.hplovecraft NULL.com/writings/texts/fiction/no NULL.asp)

Biased as I may be and, like Lovecraft, perhaps even a bit of a thalassophobe with an irrational fear of the sea, you see, you, dear reader might say “ok… so other than the requisite few sharks that inevitably chew up a few international business travelers each summer (http://tampa NULL.cbslocal NULL.com/2012/05/21/shark-attacks-still-a-danger-for-east-coast-swimmers/), what is there really to be afraid of in the ocean? A jellyfish sting? A toe pinched by a burrowing hermit crab? Really.”

Well, Ladies and gentlemen. For your video-viewing pleasure, I give you the clam.

One of the most seemingly benign of sea creatures, the clam — or should I say a particular clam — has become an YouTube sensation this past month with a video now topping a million views in a matter of a week. Watch closely, and if the actions of this mollusk don’t unnerve you, causing your skin to crawl simply by its absolutely alien behavior, then perhaps I have read too much of Lovecraft’s work and am overreacting to what is perfectly natural and normal for mother nature.



 Now, before you go and Google the matter further, finding, as I did, an article from the UK’s Daily Mail explaining the creature’s skin-crawling behavior (http://www NULL.dailymail NULL.co NULL.uk/news/article-2172241/Tis-season-Clam-licking-salt-dinner-table-enormous-tongue-internet-sensation NULL.html), I will save you some time and explain that the appendage that suddenly darts out from the deceptively still and otherwise innocuous shell is NOT a tongue. That milky slab of glistening wet seeming muscle is, in actuality, a foot.

Turns out the clam has no head either, and usually has no eyes (scallops being an exception); but a clam does have kidneys, a heart, a mouth and, if you can wrap your head around this one (and if you can, that’s quite disgusting and surprisingly limber) an anus.

Miriam Goldstein, a graduate student of oceanography at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, tells the Daily Mail that the clam is not licking the salt but “probably trying to find a place to dig itself in” (mistaking the salt for sand).

Regardless, the video is more disturbing to me than any horror movie ever could be. A disembodied tongue — I mean, foot — lapping  and/or slapping at an unforgiving surface to no apparent avail — all the while leaving behind it a mucous-like trail — will haunt me for quite some time. No wonder I can’t eat sushi (especially when it’s clam served fresh and wriggling on a bed of rice).

One last thing. Chew on this…

An Arctica islandica clam, caught off the coast of Iceland in 2007, was declared the world’s longest-lived animal (http://news NULL.nationalgeographic NULL.com/news/2007/10/071029-oldest-clam NULL.html) by researchers from Bangor University in Wales; they believed Ming — a nickname given to the elderly mollusk to reflect its great age — to be 405 years old.

If you are not in the least bit disturbed by a centuries’ old glob of wiggling goo or the abrupt lunge of a tongue-like foot that struggles to propel what is effectively a rock, then you will never understand the sense of profound unease that comes from imagining what may lie beneath the sea nor will you be able to appreciate Lovecraft’s artistry in having us fear the mysteries of the deep.