Winter Tide (2017) by Ruthanna Emrys

After I wrote “The Litany of Earth,” I thought I was done. I’d said what I needed to about Lovecraft and being a monster; it was time to move on. When people started asking for more, I figured it was just a nice way of saying “I liked it.” But the requests kept coming, and I started explaining to anyone who’d listen why the story didn’t need a sequel.

My second thanks, therefore, are to everyone who pushed for more of Aphra’s story until I talked myself around and figured out what else I had to say.
—Ruthanna Emrys, “Acknowledgements” in Winter Tide (2017) 363

A Cthulhu Mythos novel is difficult to write. The very first was August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945); others followed, such as Brian Lumley’s Beneath the Moors (1974) and Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978). Most of these early Mythos novels face the same problems and criticisms: the difficulty of maintaining a Lovecraftian narrative and atmosphere at length, and an over-reliance on Mythos tie-ins. They were basically very long pastiches, and not always good pastiche. The little tie-ins which readers thrill in during a short story can become overburdening if dwelt on at length, or if the entire story’s plot serves no other purpose than to expand on connections between parts of the Mythos. While Lovecraft could sometimes inundate readers with references, it was usually fairly brief and never to the detriment of the plot of the story he was telling. The reference to Innsmouth in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” for example, is a reference that would thrill readers of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but Lovecraft doesn’t focus on the connection, or even explain it.

Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Litany of Earth” is admirably self-contained in that way. While Aphra Marsh retells some of the events of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in her own words, the story is not just a retelling and commentary of Lovecraft’s story, but focuses on Aphra’s life after that tragedy. Coping and rebuilding, forming bonds and friendship, learning and learning to deal with accumulated trauma, trust issues, etc. The close of the story doesn’t cease Aphra’s narrative—she’s still alive—but neither does it beg for or immediately suggest a sequel.

Looking back at “The Litany of Earth” and Winter Tide in hindsight, it is easier to see how Emrys got from one to the other. The novel takes advantage of its length to explore a few of the themes of “Litany” in greater depth, and following that thread Aphra and her companions return to Lovecraft Country in Massachusetts, picking up on some of the wider connections between “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and the Mythos. Some of these work better than others; Pickman Sanitarium is basically an Easter egg, the Cthäat Aquadingen (originally created by Brian Lumley in “The Cyprus Shell”) a wink and a nod. The regurgitation of endless Mythos titles is the kind of thing that feels like running a finger down the laundry-list of tomes in the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game; the little Mythos details are generally at their best when being creative (salt-cakes!)

While Emrys’ novel definitely isn’t pastiche, the over-reliance of tie-ins does drag a little; Miskatonic University in this incarnation looks a lot more like Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley in the sheer density and scale of the occult shenanigans. More annoyingly because some of the details given don’t line up, but without any real explanation. The founders of Innsmouth, for example, are alleged in the novel to have come from England rather than Oceania, and for reasons unspecified apparently the Deep Ones don’t have any communities off the West Coast of the United States. There might be good narrative reasons for this, but without some hint it feels like a misstep rather than a deliberate authorial choice. Those pedantic niggles are relatively rare, and not necessarily bad. For example, the Hall School for girls which Lovecraft mentioned in “The Thing on the Doorstep” is transformed into a women’s college affiliate with Miskatonic University in Winter Tide.

The issue of plot and atmosphere are different for Winter Tide than the early Mythos novels. “The Litany of Earth” never made any attempt to copy Lovecraft’s atmosphere;  Emrys has her own voice and is comfortable with it. Aphra and the other main characters are essentially already initiates into the Mythos, or become initiated quickly, so there is a lot less peeling-back-the-onion…which is fine, except that nominally the A plot is a Cold War occult spy thriller (“cloak & enchanted dagger,” or maybe “cloak & tentacle”) a la Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives and “A Colder War,” Tim Powers’ Declare, or even the Delta Green Roleplaying Game, and that plot goes…essentially nowhere. Most of the book, and thus most of the interest in the novel, relies entirely on the drama generated by the interactions between the slowly expanding cast of characters.

The expansion of the cast seems less organic than it should be. While admirably diverse for a Mythos novel in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the cast is bigger than it needs to be and some of the relationships feel forced. One of the characters from “Litany” is revealed as homosexual, for example, but there’s no build-up to the revelation and ultimately no real impact on the narrative. While Emrys is keenly aware of the discrimination that various characters are subject to in the 1940s United States of America for being some combination of women, homosexual, African-American, Japanese, Jewish, and/or an Innsmouth hybrid and doesn’t shy away from how bad the “good old days” could be if you weren’t a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, she can’t give equal attention to every single character’s experience and not all of those characters have an equal contribution to the nominal plot.

The opposition to Aphra & her group are basically heterosexual white people—whether privileged Miskatonic students, sexist and sexually abusive male university professors, or racist and sexist FBI agents. The characterization isn’t inaccurate to the time period (and it is the rampant bigotry, spoken and unspoken, which unites the group of outsiders in common cause), but it does get to be a little frustrating when pretty much every single one of them refuses to learn absolutely anything from the mistakes that leave a trail of bodies and ruined lives in their wake. Maybe that’s deliberate, but it still feels like there could have been room for more nuance—or, at least, that there would have been some small moral victory in getting at least one them to step out of their headspace of thinking they know better than everyone else, or of being self-righteous about it.

Where “Litany of Earth” doesn’t demand a sequel, readers might wonder what the point of Winter Tide is. Mostly, it serves to drag Aphra back to Innsmouth, the prodigal daughter returning home to reconnect with and face the demands of her family. Many Mythos stories have focused on issues of reproduction, from Lovecraft’s miscegenation theme in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” to miscarriage and infertility (“In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens), arranged marriages and unwanted pregnancies (“Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader), to rape leading to pregnancy (“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins), to spousal abuse (“A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales), but this is one that addresses an issue both perennial and very current: family expectations to have kids, and the right to choose not to have a child.

This could honestly have been the theme of the novel in many ways; a way of confronting past and future at once…but it feels like a B-plot that is, if not completely resolved, at least resolved way too quickly. There are good reasons why Aphra (or any woman) might want to have a child and not want to have a child; replace an aging parent with an immortal, fully-transformed Deep One asking when and how you’re going to spawn and suggesting suitable mates from your immediate pool of friends is something that could be played up for both horror and laughs. Yet for a decision that doesn’t have to be made right away, it’s one that Aphra caves to after a bare minimum of self-reflection. Aphra isn’t the only one subject to this expectation—at least two or three other characters are in analogous positions, even if not all of their family have gills—and Emrys could have played with the comparison of situations a bit more there, but chose not to.

Winter Tide is definitely a better written novel than The Lurker at the Threshold or Strange Eons; the characters are deeper, the interactions better, many of the embellishments on the Mythos more creative. From a Mythos perspective, it feels like it draws too much from the roleplaying game side of things; as a dramatic novel, it feels like it has too many characters and doesn’t do enough with those that are there. In comparison with “The Litany of Earth,” Winter Tide definitely doesn’t have the same focus; Emrys already made her point about providing an alternate take on “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and there’s no need to rehash it here—but neither does Emrys have quite the same twist or insight to offer on Miskatonic-focused stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and The Shadow Out of Time.

The marketing for this novel refers to it as part of the “Innsmouth Legacy” series—and it really is the focus on the bits and piece of Innsmouth culture, material and otherwise, that survive which are the best “Mythos” parts of the novel. The references to “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft are less interesting and relevant than the pieces of Innsmouth gold we see, and the meaning that they represent; the depictions of the gods (including “Shub-Nigaroth” as a substitute for “Shub-Niggurath,” probably to avoid any perceived issues with etymology); an origin story for the Deep Ones; the reference to how Innsmouth had few graveyards and that the dates on the stones were relatively young (stillbirths and childhood illnesses & accidents)…these are all good details. The kind of world-building which the book could have used more of, or have focused more on.

 It’s a great story and a seamless subversion of Lovecraft’s most repellent views while simultaneously being a tribute to his greatest accomplishments.
—Carrie S., review of Winter Tide on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (26 May 2017)

Is Winter Tide actually subverting Lovecraft? This is a question that applies to many books published around the same time which dealt with issues of race, prejudice, and the Mythos, including Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff and “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle. It’s not an easy question to answer. 1949 is a different world than the one Lovecraft left in 1937, or wrote about when “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in 1931. Lovecraft himself was racist, to the point of bigotry, he was homophobic, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant; how much of that made it into “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep?”

The fantasy racism with regards to Innsmouth in Lovecraft’s fiction is inspired by the real-life racial discrimination of the United States in the 1930s, but in Lovecraft’s stories it is very specifically so much weirder than “normal” racism that the prejudices of the surrounding towns is the red herring. Unlike Winter Tide, no one in Lovecraft’s stories suspects what the people of Innsmouth actually are. That is what makes Lovecraft’s Innsmouth narrative so sensational…and what makes it so difficult to subvert.

Is it a subversion if the Deep Ones are sympathetic and not actively evil? Is it a subversion to tell a story from the perspective of a Deep One? Or to have a protagonist who openly embraces various characters without discriminating about them based on gender, sexuality, race, or religion? Not rhetorical questions; Ruthanna Emrys doesn’t carry forward many of Lovecraft’s prejudices, but neither does she invert all of them.

“The Innsmouth Legacy” is more inclusive than Lovecraft’s Mythos, but it can’t negate or even really address the substance of race and discrimination that informed Lovecraft’s writing. Or to put it another way, Winter Tide does not exist to deconstruct the ideas of race & the Cthulhu Mythos. Emrys works to turn Lovecraft’s ideas to her own usage, but in doing so never really questions the underlying fundamentals of some of those ideas—the Deep Ones (“Children of Water”) and K’n-yans (“Children of Earth”) are in several respects fundamentally different from “normal humans” (“Children of Air”), and Lovecraft’s depictions of them are treated as broadly accurate, if not universal—and they could not be otherwise, for the characters to be as they are, or the narrative to play out as it does.

In the review for “The Litany of Earth,” it was noted to make Deep Ones just a nigh-immortal, magically adept subspecies of humanity is to basically turn them into ugly versions of Tolkien’s elves. To extend a tortured metaphor, the depiction of the inhabitants of K’n-yan is basically a version of the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons. While they don’t have dark skin pigmentation, the K’n-yans are a magically adept subspecies of humanity, but one which is seen as (perhaps genetically) evil, insane, and sadistic; they are shunned by other intelligent peoples and subject to pejorative epithets (“dustblood”) and wariness, if not outright discrimination. The discovery of K’n-yan heritage fundamentally changes how a character views herself, and how she is viewed by an interacts with the other characters; this isn’t an ancestry test where the character is pleasantly surprised to see an unexpected result giving them a genetic tie that didn’t know about…and unlike at the end of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” acceptance of this unusual heritage does not equal any kind of promise of glorious transfiguration.

Which does not make Winter Tide in any sense a bad novel; a Dungeons & Dragons novel can be fine fantasy without working to subvert everything J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about elves. A book can be fresh and well-written without necessarily being revolutionary. Part of the point of a Cthulhu Mythos novel is to build on what has gone before—and add to it. Ruthanna Emrys has certainly done that.

Winter Tide was published in 2017; the Innsmouth Legacy series would continue with a sequel novel Deep Roots in 2019.


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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