And you stood up, then. You stood, taller than I recalled because you have grown longer, and the moon flashed across the glistening scales below your small breasts, your nipples as erect and sharp as barnacles, thorns grown from the sea, and I took a step back, despite myself.
Do not retreat.
Do not retreat from me.
Only my thoughts, not yours. I will not now be so conceited as to believe I could ever know your thoughts. Not after what she has done with you, or you have done with her. Mother Hydra has held you tight to her bosom in the lightless places at the bottom of the world, and she has accepted all your gifts, all those human parts you were forever trying to cast aside. The old flesh.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Pages Found Among The Effects of Miss Edith M. Tiller” in Frog Toes and Tentacles (2005), 13
Monsters have a particular fascination in a transgender context. The act of transformation, however violent or painful, gives results. What you were is gone, and you have become something else—perhaps who you were meant to be. Body dysmorphic disorder is real, and the fantasy of such transformations that do not require months or years of hormone replacement therapy and surgery is real.
There is a sexual component to such transformation fantasies. Consider the ending to The Shape of Water, blood erupting in clouds from the vertical scars in her neck as the gills finally come in, as a visual metaphor for losing her virginity all over again. To become a woman…and more than that, to cast her old life behind. Such transformations are one-way, like puberty. You can’t go back again.
In the various sequels to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” a great deal of focus is given to the transformation itself, its implications and effects. “The Gathering” (2017) by Brian Lumley and “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe both look at what happens when the change does not come, and how those who cannot go down beneath the waves to live in glory forever and ever deal with that. Caitlín R. Kiernan, by contrast, looks at a heretic. Someone who has refused the call.
And her lover.
Innsmouth-related erotica is not exactly rare; Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton is an entire novel exploring it, and one could easily fill a fairly decent anthology of short stories including such pearls as “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011) by Monique Poirier or “Madeline Marsh’s Midlife Crisis” (2015) by K. Z. Morano. Yet it is rare to find stories that focus on the characters involved, their complex motivations and emotions, as much as the sexual action itself. In stories like “The Innsmouth Porno VHS” (2014) by Adolf Lovecraft, the characters involved are consciously skeezy and the fetish is teratophilia; they don’t have any emotional investment in the transformation or the people transformed, much like folks fetishize transgender sex workers, seeing them not as individuals but as commodities.
Not so with Caitlín R. Kiernan.
She wants you to feel the reunion of these two lovers, one of whom took the plunge (literally), and the other who would not. Wants that taste of real horror as the act begins, and the clothes are shredded “making of them ribbons for a mermaid’s hair.” Edith’s lover Samaritana did not come back as she had known her…and there are surprises in store.
I stopped struggling (I had been; I can say that now, because I know I ama a heretic) and lay entirely still while those tendrils worked their way quickly between my legs, those strong tendrils or arms sprouting from the hairless mound where your sex had been, twisting back upon themselves, flexing, searching like blind, unfed serpents. What is it the old stories say? Cut off one, and two will sprout in its stead? (ibid., 21)
There is much unsaid in the story. The text has the quality of Edwardian prose, at once explicit and poetic. This is not sexploitation, no actors mugging for the camera and faking orgasms. Elaborations on the Mother Hydra mythos are hinted at but not elaborated upon, and the relationship, like many of the relationships in her fiction, does not have a happy ending. The subtitle for this story is:
Dead by her own hand, Janury 7th, 1905
Danvers State Insane Asylum, Mass.
Which is how it should be. Not every story, even an erotic story, has a happy ending. Transgender folks know that better than most. The struggle of whether or not to transition is real, and takes its toll both physically and psychologically. There is more to unpack in this story…and that probably says more to its quality than anything else.
“Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” was first published in Frog Toes and Tentacles (2005).