Ruthanna Emrys’s novel Winter Tide builds on and challenges Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” in ways I find very exciting. This is not a review of Winter Tide (I’m not sure if I liked it as a novel, and I doubt my opinion should be relevant to anyone else), but I want to write about what it does with its Mythos source material and why I’m excited by it. In doing so I’ll describe some details of the plot and absolutely all of the setting: if you care about spoilers you may want to stop reading at this point.
H.P. Lovecraft has a complicated relationship with modern weird fiction. On the one hand of course his stories are massively influential. On the other hand the man himself was poisonously racist, and there are plenty of elements of his work that reflect those attitudes.
If he were less influential it would be easy enough to simply close the lid on his legacy (“he wrote some stuff, you should bear in mind he was pretty racist if you’re going to read it”), but the Cthulhu Mythos has become a massive shared fictional setting, and shared fictional worlds are a serious business both commercially and creatively. So if you’re a writer who wants to work within that shared setting, but you’re deeply uncomfortable with the attitudes that gave it its first form, what to do?
Emrys, brilliantly, largely accepts the events recorded in the Mythos stories as canonical, but completely undercuts their interpretation. (Here is the moment to note that I’m neither a Lovecraft scholar nor a committed fan: I don’t actually know exactly how much massaging of the canonical material is hidden in that “largely”. It’s obvious, though, that the effect she’s aiming for is “different perspective from within the same shared setting” not “rewrite the setting changing the facts”.) Her narrator Aphra is a native of Innsmouth, and from her perspective we see the “Aeonians” as a persecuted religious minority much like any other (apart from the minor issue that Aphra’s folk metamorphose into biologically immortal amphibians after living out a human lifespan). This perspective recasts the various narrators of the Mythos tales as deeply unreliable, blinded by their own prejudice (for instance the stories of human sacrifice in The Shadow Over Innsmouth are simply another blood libel, credulously repeated by the narrator).
The story Emrys wants to tell is about prejudice, particularly racism and sexism. By recasting the Mythos narrators as unreliable in this way, she makes the entire Mythos canon about the same themes: instead of a Mythos story being only incidentally or accidentally racist, the gap between the events it narrates and Aphra’s version of the same events makes the original story, retroactively, draw attention to the narrator’s prejudices. I like to think of this as subcreation jiu-jitsu: taking the energy of the original setting, and redirecting it in the direction of the themes she cares about.
(I’m reminded of Pierre Menard’s Quixote, but the effect is in reverse, with the later work conferring new meaning on the earlier. Borges again: “The fact is that all writers create their precursors. Their work modifies our conception of the past, just as it is bound to modify the future.” Tracking down that quote, which I remembered only very vaguely and wasn’t sure was his at all, makes me think I should spend some time with him again.)
Despite the brilliance of the jiu-jitsu, there’s one aspect of this approach that makes me uncomfortable: it may strip away Lovecraft’s horror of half-breeds, but by accepting the canonical truth of the Deep Ones it carries over an essentialist notion of race unchanged from the original Mythos. Aphra considers her folk to be human, and disagreeing about this is narrated as prejudice in Winter Tide, but they do have some fairly significant biological differences from the rest of humanity (namely, a capacity for metamorphosis into an aquatic form which will live, barring misadventure, until the sun goes out). Even more distressingly, there’s a third subspecies of humanity known as “The Mad Ones Under the Earth”, and it’s implied that the madness in question is a universal racial characteristic with a heritable component. Here Emrys runs the risk of simply shifting the goalposts sideways: showing the Deep One perspective and thereby subverting the Innsmouth narrative of the standard Mythos, but inventing and demonising a new race to fulfill the same narrative role (the uncanny-valley almost-human-but-not-quite Other, the stand-in for Lovecraft’s fear of black people, Jews, and probably plenty of other racial groups as well). I hope that her future work in the same setting will subject the “Mad Ones” notion to the same kind of scrutiny and revision that Winter Tide does for Lovecraft’s Deep Ones.
That one concern aside, though, I love the possibilities that the jiu-jitsu opens up for reinventing the Mythos without revising its fictional-historical canon. For example, one small detail I particularly enjoyed is how Winter Tide (and its short prequel The Litany of Earth) inverts the atmosphere of cosmic horror. Lovecraft’s protagonists are frequently driven insane simply by a clear vision of humanity’s place within an utterly uncaring cosmos. Aphra, who has survived the genocide of her people and is therefore especially aware of humanity’s capacity for inhumanity, takes comfort in exactly the same vision:
The words come easily, the familiar verses echoing back through my own short life. In times of hardship or joy, when a child sickened or a fisherman drowned too young for metamorphosis, at the new year and every solstice, the Litany [of intelligent races that have populated and will populate the Earth] gave us comfort and humility. The people of the air, our priest said, phrased its message more briefly: This too shall pass. –The Litany of Earth
It’s fascinating to me to see that Lovecraft’s vision of an uncaring cosmos can survive, as compelling as it ever was, even while the emotional valence attached to that vision flips 180 degress, and to see his subcreation, founded as it is on deeply racist fears, repurposed to tell stories about that very same racism which trigger a fundamental reinterpretation of the original source material.