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What Lovecraft Feared – A Review of Winter Tide and Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys
There’s an anecdote about H. P. Lovecraft, that he was invited to dinner at a friend’s house and when he saw that the main course was fish, he up and walked out, horrified. “I have hated fish,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “and feared the sea and everything connected with it since I was two years old.” It’s not too hard to imagine his revulsion. Fish are cold and scaly, they have those weird greasy bones and round staring eyes that never close, and there’s that fishy low tide smell. So it’s no surprise that when Lovecraft took up the trope of a city dweller’s run-in with murderous small-town yokels, he populated his fictional town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts with strangely malformed people slowly metamorphosing into sea creatures.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth is narrated by a young man who was damnfool enough to make a tourist stop there against the advice of everyone he spoke to. He describes finding the town dilapidated, the populous listless and sullen, and the whole place suffused with the nauseating smell of fish. Nonetheless, he spends the day on a walkabout, admiring the architecture and chatting up the town drunk, who feeds him wild tales about children sacrificed to an abyssal deity and townspeople sprouting scales and gills. The afternoon bus to Arkham breaks down, forcing him to spend the night in Innsmouth’s only hotel, and in the wee hours of the morning someone tries to enter his room. He flees, escaping out a window, to spend the hours until dawn pursued through the town by shambling, half-human shapes.
Human sacrifice, unholy gods, but the worst of it is … ewww, fish.
The young man escapes the village and reports what he saw and heard to federal investigators. Soon afterwards the town is emptied with mass arrests, buildings are dynamited, and a submarine is called in to torpedo an offshore reef where townspeople would sometimes congregate after dark. We’re told that most outsiders assumed all of this to be a raid on a bootleg liquor operation, but …
“Keener news-followers … wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges, were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed.”
And there, the modern reader is (or should be) brought up short, for that’s where we see the true horror beneath the horror story. Even though Lovecraft’s Deep Ones are a safely imaginary race (no actual minorities were maligned in the making of this tale) he clearly tells us that the thing to do with strange, stand-offish people is to round them up and put them in concentration camps.
Between 1931 when the story was written and 1936 when it was published, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. By 1941 the Nazi death camps were incinerating Jews by the millions, and in ’42 President Roosevelt authorized the mass arrest of 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them American citizens. As with the residents of Innsmouth, there were no trials, no definite charges, and they were held incommunicado in concentration camps for years.
What prescience was it that allowed Lovecraft to write such an apt and chilling metaphor for the internment of Japanese Americans?
The “strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” he once said, and he would surely have seen around him the rising tide of xenophobia in the 1930s that brought Hitler to power and swept up FDR in its riptide. But instead of warning us about what fear would do to us all, Lovecraft milked it for a good story. And it is a good story—one of his best and most enjoyable, and one that continues to be adapted into movies and graphic novels. But the story’s juice comes from fear of the unknown, and in it Lovecraft is playing on my own unconscious unease around people who look and sound different from me. There’s a level on which that’s deeply not OK.
Ruthanna Emrys shares my conflicted feelings. In Winter Tide and its sequel Deep Roots, she pays homage to the drama and lyrical beauty of Lovecraft’s writing, staying scrupulously true to the mythos while turning its fear of the unknown inside-out. Her narrator is Aphra Marsh, a Deep One who was a child at the time of the raids. She came of age in the camps, watching her family and loved ones die off in the harsh dry heat of the California desert. When she and her brother were the last two left alive, the camps began to fill again, this time with Japanese Americans. When the war ended, she and her brother were taken in and adopted by one of the Nisei families as they returned to San Francisco to rebuild their lives.
The action of the novel begins in 1949. The end of the Second World War has left the U. S. with the Soviet Union as a new enemy. When the FBI learns of possible Russian spies trying to learn magic at Miskatonic University, they recruit Aphra to help with the investigation. Orphaned as a child by federal agents, Aphra has misgivings about cooperating with the government, but the G-man who approaches her is one who has always been kind and respectful towards her. Also, this assignment might be the chance she and her brother have been hoping for to get into the stacks of the Miskatonic library to see the books that were taken from Innsmouth after the raid, and maybe even to petition for their return. Nothing goes quite as planned, of course. Before long a Yith reveals itself, Deep One elders rise from the sea, magic goes awry, minds have been, destroyed and lives are in peril.
The sequel brings together the same cast of characters six months later. At first it’s a lighthearted reunion, almost like the Scooby gang getting together again. Aphra has asked her FBI friend to help her search for more of her people who may have survived the destruction of Innsmouth. What begins as a straightforward piece of mundane detective work soon uncovers a hive of Mi-Go, interdimensional beings that travel between the stars and have had a presence on Earth since before modern humans evolved.
Winter Tide and Deep Roots may be the best fantasy in the Lovecraftian mythos yet written. Emrys gives us all of the effusive, lyrical beauty that makes Lovecraft so beloved in spite of his flaws, and her stories have the same kind of slow-burn as they walk the line between rapture and horror. But where Lovecraft himself is something of a guilty pleasure (even leaving aside his racism, there’s a reason they call it pulp) Emrys’s writing is unalloyed beauty. Her characters are rich and three dimensional—all of them, including Deep Ones, FBI agents, Miskatonic students, a sojourning Yith, and even the enigmatic and frightening Mi-Go. The conflicts are meaningful, the stakes are high, and the tensions rise to a crescendo as events unfold in unexpected directions. Her writing is (dare I say it?) literary. It’s literature that gives us everything we loved about pulp horror — Ghirardelli Chocolate where Lovecraft gave us Hershey Kisses.