“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe

So you’re not here to initiate me into the mysteries of the sea-mother whose faces rise and fall with the countless waves and her consort who makes the fish shoal as thick as cornfields in the fall?
—Sonya Taaffe, “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” in Forget the Sleepless Shores 247

There is an anthology or two yet to be compiled about Innsmouth. One might be called Women of Innsmouth, exploring the less-trodden narrative paths of the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers which go largely nameless and implied in Lovecraft’s tale, and include “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson, “Mail Order Bride” (1999) and “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader, “Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith Teller” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, and “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales. Another, inspired more by the raid on Innsmouth and its aftermath, might be called The Innsmouth Diaspora, and include “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys, and “The Gathering” (2017) by Brian Lumley.

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” by Sonya Taffe would fit neatly into both.

There is a promise in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” that is unique in all of Lovecraft’s work, that at the end:

We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

It is the one ending where the Lovecraftian protagonist embraces their change, and looks forward to what is to come. When all that once terrified them becomes, in a new light, what they have always wanted. And maybe that change in perspective is itself just another of Lovecraft’s rhetorical devices, showing that even the mind is not spared and all that they were was lost…but for some folks, there is a real path forward there. For those who have hated themselves or been hated by others for what they were (or were not), for those who have desired a personal transformation to accompany their private realizations, it is a promising ending. Not necessarily a happy ending, but one that promises a posthuman future.

Sonya Taafe wrote the story about what happens when that promise can’t be fulfilled.

Can’t is a mean word, full of inevitability. There are a lot of can’ts that exist in our world, a lot of nevers. People don’t like that there are things that they can’t change, about themselves and the world around them. Limits to medical science, to money, to talent, to the imagination. Speculative fiction exists in part to answer those can’ts, to provide a haven for what if, a place where it’s okay to dream about a world where you can have the biological gender to match your identity, or can have children, or can fly through the sky to the beating of great wings…

…or where you can breathe water and go down into the dark abysses.

This is a story about those who can’t. Blame it on genetics, the legacy of old Innsmouth families that survived the raid growing diffuse with the generations. Real-world genetics as applied to Lovecraftian biology, . Hopes and dreams crushed by terrible realities. It is wonderful in its way: bleak and unsparing as the love between distant cousins, tied together in the loose-knit way of diaspora, like seeking like, and yet feeling distant and alienated from their own kin. Because not everyone belongs. Not everyone can…and it isn’t their fault. Isn’t anyone’s fault.

It is not a universe that cares about what is fair, even for the lost and wandering descendants of Innsmouth. And it can only end one way:

[…]  I was asked that question once and all I could think of was the Odyssey, how the road of the dead is a sea-road, the sun’s road, past the streams of Ocean and the gates of Helios, and maybe the pattern would be clearer to someone outside my head.
“An Interview with Sonya Taaffe, Author, Editor, Durian-Lover” (4 Aug 2004)

For some, the sea calls her children home; for others, they go willingly into a different abyss…and that is, perhaps, still better than the dry land.

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” was first published in Dreams from the Witch-House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016) and republished in her collection Forget the Sleepless Shores (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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