I don’t remember exactly what brought me to H.P. Lovecraft – maybe just hearing his name in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror communities I moved in, maybe something else – and I’m not entirely sure, either, what caught my attention so much. Accusations of purple prose and excess leveled against Lovecraft are not unfair, and he certainly relies on “unspeakable” and “eldritch” more than is perhaps seemly. But his use of suggestion, of things unseen or barely seen and impossible to understand, and perhaps most of all the idea of a universe that is terrifying in its indifference rather than malevolence, certainly struck me.
Even more fair than critique of Lovecraft’s prose, however, is critique of his personal politics: racism and xenophobia that are not just peripheral but integral to many of his works. Lovecraft’s descriptions of the horrifying other are not just limited to semi-metaphorical depictions of degenerate humans living underground, or miscegenating peoples who breed with apes, but often literal depictions of black savages worshiping tentacled monsters.
There are certainly those who would see Lovecraft thrown out of the canon on the basis of his views – and it is a view I can absolutely understand and sympathize with. I am never going to demand that anyone “forgive” or “look past” his abhorrent racism. However, what I do find more interesting is the recent crop of writers who have taken a new look at Lovecraft and seek to grapple with his writing.
These writers seek not to avoid the pitfalls of his writing by ignoring the problematic elements in favor of more tentacles and eldritch horrors, but incorporating them – metabolizing them, in the words of China Mieville – and grappling with what they mean for a generation that has inherited Lovecraft’s legacy. I am thinking of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, and Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe.
And now, adding to that list, Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide.
One of my favorite Lovecraft stories was always a lesser known one called “The Outsider.” It tells the story of an unnamed individual who leaves his long and lonely home, only to find that all other people flee from his company in horror. The story concludes with the narrator’s seeing a horrible, grotesque creature, described in classic Lovecraftian prose.
I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world—or no longer of this world—yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more.
Throwing up a hand to fend off this apparition, the narrator realizes, to his horror, that what he is looking at is his own reflection. The story ends with his understanding: “I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.”
This particular short story is unusual in its compassion for the monstrous subject. Many of Lovecraft’s protagonists find themselves suffering a deterioration due to their encounters with the uncanny, but this is one of the few who learns that he has been “an outsider” from the beginning. There is sadness in his understanding and resignation that he must live in isolation, “a stranger in this century”, isolated from the company of humans.
This brief glimpse of a Lovecraft with some feeling for the plight of the outsider is, of course, brief. Ruthanna Emrys takes that glimpse and builds a novel from it.
Her protagonist is a member of the Deep Ones, the race of fish-human hybrids described in Lovecraft’s famous story “A Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Aphra Marsh first appeared in a short story called “The Litany of Earth”, which really should be required background reading for Winter Tide. In “Innsmouth”, Lovecraft describes a village of secretive and strange people, linked by interbreeding with the sinister Deep Ones who live in a just submerged reef off the coast. An offhand mention at the end of the story of a United States raid on the village, and the destruction of the reef, is Emrys’s jumping off point.
Aphra Marsh and her family were removed from Innsmouth, along with all her people, and taken to camps deep in the desert, where all but her and her brother died. Eventually joined by the Japanese during World War II, they also were freed when the internment camps were closed. The base plot of Winter Tide follows Aphra’s being recruited by the government that imprisoned her in order to prevent Russians from stealing dangerous and powerful occult knowledge.
The real story of Winter Tide is letting the voiceless others of Lovecraft’s stories speak. She weaves an intricate alternative point of view that elegantly exemplifies the ways in which ritual and culture can be distorted and misrepresented out of fear. She not only uses fictional prejudices, but intertwines them with real ones: questions about the loyalty of Innsmouth’s citizens beside questions about the loyalty of Jewish ones after the founding of Israel, for instance.
Winter Tide is less about the Cold War than it is about building family, and rebuilding self. Reclaiming legacies and finding links with strangers. A willingness to reach out beyond oneself, no matter the risks.
There is a kind of quiet loveliness to this book. It takes the grotesqueries of Lovecraftian legend and gives them a kind of beauty, inverted through other eyes.
If The Ballad of Black Tom weighed cosmic horror against the horror of everyday racism and found the latter greater, Winter Tide offers an alternative vision of Lovecraft’s uncaring universe: if the gods don’t care, then all we can do is help ourselves – and each other.
The Outsider need not be an outsider alone.