“Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader

Most interesting of all was a glancing reference to the strange jewellery vaguely associated with Innsmouth. It had evidently impressed the whole countryside more than a little, for mention was made of specimens in the museum of Miskatonic University at Arkham, and in the display room of the Newburyport Historical Society. The fragmentary descriptions of these things were bald and prosaic, but they hinted to me an undercurrent of persistent strangeness.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

The story takes place in a desert town, far from the ocean. A lonely businessman traveling far from home, steps into an art museum to relieve a moment’s boredom. What follows is an exercise in titillation. “Gillman-Waite” is the hook; “Iä, Hydra Mother!” is the sinker, and in between is the line, reeling the reader in slowly, paragraph by paragraph.

Ann K. Schwader is a poet laureate of the Mythos, but her fiction receives relatively little attention. In stories like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) and “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) she offers a quiet, but distinct, embellishment on the Deep Ones. Both stories focus on the oft-neglected feminine side of their life and worship, but both are also written so that the narrative viewpoint is that of a male human, and this point-of-view character’s relationship with the Mythos in the story is complicated by their relationship with women. The alien nature of the Deep One hybrids is never apparent on the surface, because they find women themselves alien and incomprehensible. Yet chauvinism is far from their only or worst sin, as the protagonist of  “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” recalls:

The strain and twist of muscles under slick cold skin, almost slipping from his grasp as she struggled…

A past episode of sexual violence tends to evaporate any good will the reader has toward a protagonist, but even this is a cue that Schwader plays with. Rape is an act of domination, a show of power and physical strength against someone weaker rather than an expression of lust—and the protagonist even recalls “he did what he’d done in anger”—but his victim’s response emasculates him (figuratively), and there hovers over the story the question of who, exactly was (and is) in control. That anxiety as much as anything drives the mood of story.

Mechanically, Schwader astutely utilizes several familiar devices from Lovecraftian storytelling. The structure of the story thus takes on two parallel narratives: the nameless protagonist viewing the exhibit in the museum, and the flashbacks of the same protagonist to a drunken night in a college town in Massachusetts and the secret shame of what he did there. This is a common track in much Lovecraftian fiction, where the events of the current day are one level of the narrative, and the uncovered history (biographical, genealogical, etc.) forms a secondary narrative, both progressing toward a common conclusion; compare to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where present-day exploration of the town is juxtaposed with the story of how it came to its current condition, and the author’s own story and that of his family are intertwined in the narrative of both.

The story sets a steady pace: marked not by the number of the exhibits but by the protagonist’s growing sense of dread, and the completeness of the memory of the night he wants to forget. In many Mythos stories the climax of the plot or action, and the climactic revelation are often two separate events—the latter typically occurring, in Lovecraft, at the very end of the story, sometimes as the final line of the story. In “The Shadow over Innsmouth” for example the climax is the raid on Innsmouth by federal authorities and the torpedoing of Devil’s Reef, but the climactic revelation is when the protagonist discovers their own Innsmouth heritage—and embraces it. In this story however, the climax and revelation occur essentially simultaneously, coming together naturally at the end of the tour with the final exhibit, past memory merging with terrifying present. Schwader also uses a familiar trick of Lovecraft’s where an aesthetic element slowly grows throughout the piece to set the pace; in this case, the humidity grows steadily throughout, a marked contrast from the dry desert air of the opening that takes on sinister connotations by the time the protagonist reaches the final exhibit.

To call “Objects in the Gilman-Waite Collection”  an embellishment is to recognize that the story, while it can stand on its own, is really building off of something larger than itself. Schwader doesn’t recap the whole history of Innsmouth here; she doesn’t need to. No explanation is ever given regarding Cthulhu, Mother Hydra, or the Deep Ones, and the author does not try to cram in any new Mythos entity or large chunk of exposition explaining some aspect of Mythos lore or carving out some unique corner of Lovecraft Country. What it does do is successfully gild the lily.

All in the band of the faithful—Order o’ Dagon—an’ the children shud never die, but go back to the Mother Hydra an’ Father Dagon what we all come from onct—Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn—”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Mother Hydra is mentioned only once in Lovecraft’s fiction: a single throwaway line in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” as a sort of Eve figure or mother-goddess, her character, worship, and cult are never explored or expanded upon by the Providence gentleman. It’s not much to work with, but rather than writing paragraphs of exposition to expand on Mother Hydra, Schwader does it subtly. The little expansion on Mother Hydra during the climax and revelation at the end of the story serves the plot, not the other way around…and in the end, there are still things left unexplained, mysteries for the reader to make up their own mind about, and perhaps explore.

“Objects from the Gilman-Waite Collection” first appeared in Ann K. Schwader’s collection Strange Stars & Alien Shadows: the Dark Fiction of Ann K. Schwader (2003) and the limited edition (100 copies) Cthulhu’s Creatures (2007), and was reprinted in Ross E. Lockhart’s anthology The Book of Cthulhu II (2012). Why the story hasn’t been reprinted more broadly is hard to say—there’s been no shortage of Innsmouth-themed anthologies since 2003—and what little critical appraisal it has received is in the brief notes in Strange Stars & Alien Shadows.  Editor Kevin O’Brien notes a “feminist tone” in her story “Mail Order Bride,” expanding:

Though the protagonist is male, the agents of the Deep Ones are female and their patron is not Dagon but Hydra. The tone was obvious throughout, yet it wasn’t blatant. The story was not a diatribe against men, and it even managed to make me sympathize with the otherwise unsympathetic male caricature. Yet almost from the beginning it was clear that the women were in control, and their control only became stronger with time.
—Kevin O’Brien, introduction to Strange Stars & Alien Shadows ix-x

The same basic observation can be applied to “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection”—but there’s a weird assumption there. Why would a feminist Cthulhu Mythos story be “a diatribe against men?” Joanna Russ, more noted for her feminist fiction, didn’t exactly write a “diatribe” in “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964); Irvin Rubin is a caricature of a certain type of socially awkward male fan, but not all men. The answer might be supplied in part by Robert M. Price’s notes to the story:

Perhaps because of the patriarchal nature of the Mythos, we rarely see women involved in cultic activities, except as sacrificial victims. They are almost certainly involved, among the nameless and faceless crowd of worshippers, but we almost never see them. […] In this story Ann gives us a glimpse of an exclusively female cult dedicated to Mother Hydra, one in which the only service a man might provide is as the sacrifice. Disturbing perhaps; after all, it’s based on the radical feminist idea that, aside from fathering children, men are practically worthless in a society dominated by women. But what’s sauce for the goose….
—Robert M. Price, Strange Shadows & Alien Stars 199

There’s a political angle to both O’Brien and Price’s interpretations of Schwader, and a subcurrent of that is, for all their praise of her work, a negative association of feminism. The implicit idea that female empowerment is somehow a threat to the power, authority, or position of men: that there is a balance of power between the sexes, and if women gain power men must lose power.

As Price notes, the treatment of women in the Cthulhu Mythos is not very pretty. Lovecraft never employed the “virgin sacrifice,” but there are female rape victims in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “The Curse of Yig,” and hinted at in the notes to “The Shadow over Innsmouth”; the ape princess in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” ends up stuffed and mounted, Lavinia Whateley births two monstrous children in “The Dunwich Horror,” for which willing or unwilling service she is blocked from the rites and eventually disappeared. Aside from pregnancy and implied sexual violence, this is no worse than the fates of Lovecraft’s male characters—who often end up dead or occasionally worse—but in the wider Mythos, the female sacrifice is a not uncommon trope. Molly Tanzer even invoked it in “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer.

The idea of this negative drawback to female empowerment or emphasis is a real part of the horror of the stories—to male readers, at least. Just as Tina L. Jens played with uniquely female horrors of reproduction in “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens, here Schwader may be playing on a uniquely male horror: the loss of privilege afforded by their gender…or maybe that horror is just the natural result of Schwader following her own voice, as an independent female Mythos writer:

Women in the Mythos—why there aren’t more of us, why there are as many of us as there are, or even why we’re here to begin with—have become quite a topic in Lovecraftian circles. […] After spending the last couple of years trying to formulate answers, I’ve come to only one conclusion. One little secret to share about women in the Lovecraftian Mythos.

We were there from the start.

[…] Like all Lovecraftians, I’m interested in the past. In traditions. Women have their own literary tradition to reclaim in the Mythos, and I hope to see more of us doing so in future anthologies and collections.
—Ann K. Schwader, “Reclaiming the Tradition” vii-viii

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