“Book title Marvels of the Deeps,” she began. “Dimensions approximately 30 centimeters width, 40 centimeters height. Thickness 8 centimeters.”
“How very forensic,” murmured Mrs. De La Mere.
—Storm Constantine, “From the Cold Dark Sea” in Dreams From the Witch House 278
Bibliophilia has been descried as “the gentle madness,” and is one of the more respectable sorts of mental illness for both fans and characters of the Mythos to fall into. Ever since Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon“ and Robert E. Howard’s history of Nameless Cults in “The Black Stone”, the various tomes and texts of the Mythos have attracted the love of readers. Sometimes this extends to full catalogs of pseudobiblia, including Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley and The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time (2014) edited by Nade Pedersen. Sometimes too, it provides an entry into a story through the antiquarian book trade: collectors, sellers, forgers, book detectives like Corso in The Club Dumas (2006) by Arturo Perez-Reverte…and, in the case of Storm Constantine’s “From the Cold, Dark Sea,” a book-restorer named Cara Milltop.
It’s a fish out of water story, pun very much intended. The shadow of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” hangs over it, as it does with many other stories, though Constantine makes no explicit mention of either Innsmouth or the Deep Ones. This is a Mythos story in construction and inference; Cara Milltop never hears any calls to Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, or great Cthulhu. Yet there is enough indisputably there that Mythos aficionados can slip into the feel of this story like putting on an old glove; the pace and texture of it almost tells itself—but Constantine knows what she is doing, and if you don’t question the plot there’s more than enough embroidery on the Deep Ones lore to satisfy, with some lovely imagery to the description of the woodcuts and the dreams that they bring.
What really sets “From the Cold, Dark Sea” apart from stories like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader is that there is no confirmation. Cara Milltop remains a hired hand, an outsider. Knowledge does not bring initiation, nor does Constantine provide a final proof to any mystery. The unreadable words on the page remain unread, the actual truth remains unconfirmed. Readers are left to wonder if it really is just all in Cara’s head, an overactive imagination from working to restore an old book, exacerbated by staying in a spooky old house full of women.
There are no male characters in the story. Something that might sneak up on readers, but one of those nice details that dovetails with the frisson of unknowing in the story. Is it just coincidence, or is there something more to it? The legend, as Cara interprets it, is a female rite of passage, starkly in contrast to the patriarchal approach of the Esoteric Order of Dagon in, say, “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales. Not so much a rebuttal to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but an alternative. Maybe the Deep Ones don’t marry, as such.
Of course, if every child survived there would be far too many of them. How cruel, though, how barbaric. Yet, little different from the way baby turtles started life, Cara thought. Just the cruel barbarism of Nature herself.
—Storm Constantine, “From the Cold Dark Sea” in Dreams From the Witch House 294
Bibliophilia is a gentle madness. Cara Milltop never gets violent, never says outright what she thinks she knows—or suspects. The Marvels of the Deep can slide onto the shelf next to The R’lyeh Text and the Cthäat Aquadingen, squeezed between the Codex Dagonesis and Invocations to Dagon, and it would not be out of place. What she is left with in the end is not horror, or awe, but disappointment. To have come that close to something so magical, or almost-magical, and yet be unable to know if what she suspects is true, no invitation to take part. In the end, she doesn’t even have the book; she was only there to restore it, as she did. Money is a poor coin in a Mythos story, because so rarely can it buy what the characters—and the readers—really want.
“From the Cold, Dark Sea” was first published in Dreams From the Witch House (2016), and was reprinted in Storm Constantine’s collection Mythumbra (2018).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).