Since last year, I have noticed something interesting going on in the world of speculative fiction, and the way it approaches H.P. Lovecraft and his oeuvre. As I point out in my review of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, it seems that there’s been a sea change in the way writers approach the Cthulhu Mythos: instead of remaining silent upon Lovecraft’s racism, misogyny, and classism, all of which are deeply embedded in his oeuvre, writers are, instead, using that same oeuvre to question and criticise Lovecraft’s disgusting politics.
I am glad to say that the trend continues with Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide, the first book in The Innsmouth Legacy series. In 1928, the town of Innsmouth was destroyed by government forces, its surviving residents interred in desert camps far away from all they know. Amongst those survivors were Aphra and Caleb Marsh, who managed to survive the harshness of their desert interment and left the camps at the end of World War II, facing an uncertain future now that the only home they’ve ever known is gone for good.
But then an FBI agent comes to San Francisco, where Aphra has settled down working in an antiquarian bookshop. The FBI agent claims that a Russian spy is trying to infiltrate Miskatonic University, looking for dangerous secrets that could launch a third, even more destructive war. Despite her misgivings, Aphra goes to Massachusetts in order to find this spy, and along the way, rediscovers that not all families are built on blood – and not all secrets can be kept safe forever.
Like many recent works that play around with the Cthulhu Mythos, Winter Tide’s starting point is in one of Lovecraft’s own stories: in this case, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Divided into five chapters, The Shadow Over Innsmouth tackles the history of the tiny fishing town of Innsmouth and its residents, “half ichthyic and half batrachian in suggestion”, who are revealed to have strange and horrific doings with malevolent gods living in the deep. Because of these mysterious doings and the potential danger they present, the government destroys the town, thus ending the danger for good – or at least, that is what they believe. It turns out that there are survivors from the disaster, and moreover, Innsmouth is just an outpost. The true city of the Deep Ones lies deep in the ocean itself, far from the reach of any government in the world, and when their god Cthulhu wakes they, too, shall rise and take the land from the human race.
Winter Tide, which takes place several years after the events detailed in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, picks up almost directly where Lovecraft left off – but with a twist. Much like what Victor LaValle did in his novella The Ballad of Black Tom, which revisions Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” by telling it from the perspective of the purported monster, Emrys’ choice of narrator is also one of the “monsters”. Aphra is a “child of Innsmouth”: that is to say, a child who survived the raid of 1928 and is now living with the consequences. The narrative tactic is a fairly common one in other genres, but when applied to the Cthulhu Mythos it becomes an incredibly powerful tool for interrogating the misogyny, classism, and racism that are deeply embedded in the Mythos itself, because those were the exact same prejudices of the Mythos’ creator.
In Winter Tide, however, the story is vastly different. Innsmouth is still the site of unspeakable horror, but not the eldritch kind. Instead, the unspeakable horror is that of an entire people and culture that has all but eliminated from the face of the earth. The horror of this is that such an event is not merely fictional; it is entirely factual. Even a cursory look at the history of Native Americans in the United States shows that this is something that has been going on for a very long time, and is still ongoing today. There are even shades of the “blood libel” accusation levelled against the Jews in the way rumours about the people of Innsmouth eventually became the justification for their elimination.
Aside from the above, what stings Aphra – and what angers her brother Caleb – is that their culture, their history, has been reduced to nothing more than strange trinkets and historical curiosities for others. Now that Innsmouth is no longer a danger, its history and culture have finally been reduced to nothing more than tidbits of obscure lore for the curious to pick over, instead of the living, breathing culture that they actually are. Consider this excerpt:
The statue of Hydra was carved from onyx, and doubtless here for that and the inset ruby eyes rather than its relation to the necklace. Tentacles spread mane-like around the goddess’s face and swept back along Her sides. I wanted to see the statue’s presence as a promise for tomorrow’s expedition, perhaps bray for guidance, but could not. … The museum sucked meaning from things that ought to be sacred, or bound it too tightly to sense. Looking at the image, I saw nothing but stone.
In this excerpt, what was once an important symbol for the people of Innsmouth has been reduced to nothing but spectacle to feed the morbid curiosity of people who know nothing about what it means to the people that actually made and revered it. It is this same contention that has driven Native Americans to demand repatriation of both tribal artefacts and human remains, which is supported by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Countries like Greece and Egypt are also using a similar contention in demanding the return of important historical and cultural artefacts from museums in Western Europe (ex. the return of the Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles to Greece, or the ongoing tug-of-war between Egypt and Germany over a bust of Queen Nefertiti).
Though this scene is small when set against the larger arc of the novel’s storyline, it is nonetheless a very good illustration of the ways the privileged establishment treat those they think are beneath their notice, or whom they perceive as a threat. Anyone who is not white, wealthy, and educated according to certain standards must be shunned or exterminated – a view held not only by H.P. Lovecraft himself, but also by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the 21st century.
This is also reflected in parts of the story where Emrys tackles the Japanese internment camps during World War II. It is a chapter of American history that most Americans themselves do not like discussing, given the too-easy parallels it presents to the Nazi concentration camps, but Emrys does not attempt to sugarcoat their reality. Some people may argue that one is less monstrous than the other, but the fact remains that rounding people up and holding them against their will for racial reasons is monstrous – gas chambers or no gas chambers.
This leads to an important question: What makes a monster? As children we are used to thinking of monsters as hideous, otherworldly creatures: things that crawl in the dark, that eat people, that wish humanity ill. Lovecraft’s stories, and many others besides, are rife with them. But in Winter Tide, Emrys reframes the original question – instead of asking “What makes a monster?” she asks: “Who makes a monster?” In framing the question thusly, Emrys reveals that monstrosity is really a matter of perspective: the result of a person’s own fears and prejudices. And once the reader realises this, it becomes easy to see that when a character says “We are all monsters…one way or another”, said character is asking the reader not only to examine his or her own prejudices, but also himself or herself. It is easy to see the monsters without; it is much harder to see the monster within.
Overall, Winter Tide is a delightful, albeit quiet, read. There are no thrilling action sequences and no jump scares, but this is a story that focuses more on other things that are more terrifying than being chase down dark hallways by eldritch horrors. Much like Lovecraft Country, it focuses on the horrors of the real world, many of which still plague us today: things like misogyny, and classism, and racism. In tackling these issues, not only does Emrys address them as contemporary problems, but also the fact that they formed the core of Lovecraft’s politics and are pervasive throughout his work. I look forward to reading how Emrys will deconstruct the Cthulhu Mythos in the other books in this series, as well as further explore the themes tackled in this novel.