My stories always feature a Black woman lead, no matter how hard history tries to erase us and our contributions. I speak to my experiences in my stories as a way to flush them out as well as show the world that we are here, we matter, we are worthy.
—Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn (26 Feb 2021) by Michelle R. Lane
Perspective in any story is more than just the race or gender of the protagonist: it is a way of looking at the world. The history of slavery in the United States, for example, looks different from the perspective of the slave than it does from the perspective of the slaver and abolitionist. The experience and the stakes are different. It leaves its mark on individuals and generations in a way that is almost inescapable, and it shapes the way people understand and pass on their own stories and histories.
Persecution is not something Lovecraft thoroughly understood or expressed in his stories. While his life featured great hardships and poverty, he and his family never experienced systemic prejudice or discrimination. In stories like “The Festival,” he alludes to the hangings at Salem Village and the quiet diaspora of witches, but the witches are not sympathetic victims, even from the perspective of their descendants. There is no rancor at the injustice done, because to Lovecraft there was no injustice: they were witches, after all. Likewise, the fate of the people of Innsmouth is not presented as a crime amounting almost to genocide akin to the forced relocation of the Native Americans, though in all particulars it certainly approaches it.
Chronological distance offers one axis for reflection: “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys both shift the narrative on “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” seeing in the Innsmouth camps parallels to the Japanese internment camps and the Holocaust of World War 2. These stories deal with individuals who survived true persecution, the personal trauma and the breakup of families, and deal with the psychological and cultural consequences.
As a more diverse set of authors came to Lovecraftian fiction, they brought with them different points of view. The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin exists, in part, as a rejection and refutation of Lovecraft’s perspective and specific prejudices; “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle and “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders focus on the perspective of the marginalized Black men who faced the discrimination in the 1920s and 30s that Lovecraft never knew or attempted to depict.
What Zin E. Rocklyn brings to her stories is not necessarily a need to counter, refute, reimagine, or even mention Lovecraft and his Mythos, but her existence and perspective as a Black woman writing weird fiction. As she puts it, when asked about whether she puts broader messages on race into her work:
By default, my presence within horror and writing horror is a message unto itself. Me showing up is message enough, so there’s no definitive way for me to divorce myself from that ongoing narrative.
—Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn (26 Feb 2021) by Michelle R. Lane
Which is absolutely the case for her short novel Flowers for the Sea (1921). Readers familiar with Lovecraft might well identify this story, which is set in an ambiguous time and place, as a left-handed descendant of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” by way of ecological disaster fiction like “Till A’ the Seas” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft. Iraxi is one of the last survivors of a persecuted minority with rumored supernatual powers and ties to the sea, a literary cousin to the survivors of the Innsmouth diaspora in stories like “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe—but, the details aren’t quite right. There is a visceral reality to the persecution often missing from Innsmouth stories, ugly details like this one:
They called us nims. A word with hardly any meaning other than to spit upon its victim.
It morphed, much like forked tongues who spoke it, an encapsulating slure that reduced one to shreds, to the foam of the sea we feared, to nothing but the scent of a bowel movement.
—Zin E. Rocklyn, Flowers from the Sea 15
Slurs in science fiction and fantasy are not to be created lightly; too often they tend to mask real-world prejudices, and be substituted for them. Yet in this story, it serves the purpose of an introduction to the history of persecution that has brought Iraxi to this point, the beginning of the end of the pregnancy she didn’t want aboard a dying ship, hated by and hating those around her.
There is no calm, philosophical Lovecraftian indifference in this story. Anger is a major theme, sometimes ugly and sometimes righteous, but never unjustified. There is history behind that anger, long history, some of which is only hinted at…and it isn’t over. The people around her on the ship tolerate her, use her, but she is only and ever a resource to be managed, not a person to be respected…until, at last, it is too late.
Hate has its place in every life; it is a natural reaction to the pain of loss. An excess of hate can lead to terrible consequences; it is what leads to the transformation of Tommy Tucker in “The Ballad of Black Tom,” and nearly damns Maryse Boudreaux in her fight against the Ku Kluxes in Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark. Through Rocklyn’s prose, we get Iraxi’s struggle with her own hatred…but if she becomes a monster, it is because the monsters around her have made her one. The people that burned down her home, killed her family, called her people names for generations, and finally forced her to carry a child she didn’t want…it was their monstrous deeds that stoked the furnace of her rage and honed her cruelty to a sharp point.
There are counter-narratives that might be considered, since we only have Iraxi’s viewpoint for the whole novel. The ship is dying, women unable to bear children, and in this context Iraxi is an ungrateful madonna, given the best food while the others slowly starve. Should she not be thankful for the life she is to give birth to? Is she an unreliable narrator, self-centered and toxic, unable to appreciate what others sacrifice for her sake? Or how her individual sacrifice is for the greater good, for the survival of all?
The problem with these counter-narratives is that they run up hard against issues of bodily autonomy. How grateful should a slave be, to bear the child of her master to increase his wealth? Why should she submit herself and her own needs and desires for the good of a people who see her as little more than a particularly stubborn breeding cow? That is the presence Rocklyn brings to the tale. The arguments against Iraxi’s perspective are ultimately ugly because what Iraxi suffers is, by and large, an extrapolation of the horrors and indignities that women, especially Black women, have suffered for centuries in the United States and the Caribbean.
While we’re seen as sexual beings, we’re rarely seen as sensual beings. We’ve been used and abused for hundreds of years for the sake of personal slavery to the advancement of science, but never as human beings who own their bodies and their sexuality. Even in contemporary thought, there is the myth of the Strong Black Woman who needs no partner, no love, and it simply isn’t true. It’s a bastardisation of a mantra that means we won’t put up with bullshit. I want my fiction to make that distinction, that we crave and deserve love and nurturing.
—Interview: Zin E. Rocklyn by Gordon B. White in Nightmare 107 (Aug 2021)
So it is with Inaxi, though her desire for love is never requited…hence the depth and intensity of her hatred. The issues of desire for love and bodily autonomy for women, especially within the context of pregnancy, are seldom made explicit in Lovecraftian fiction; stories like “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens and “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales touch on them, but Flowers for the Sea is particularly vivid not only in its microscopic emphasis on the horrors of an unwanted pregnancy, approaching splatterpunk levels of grue when the chapter arrives for the birth, but in the implications. Iraxi is not just a Black Lavinia Whateley; her experience comes out of a very distinct experience of Black Womanhood.
Which is ultimately something that sets Flowers for the Sea apart from many other “Lovecraftian” tales. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is not so much a distant ancestor as it is the raw material for a tube of Mummy brown that Rocklyn uses to paint her own distinct picture.
Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn was published in 2021 by Tor. Readers might also enjoy her fiction “teatime” (2020) and “The Night Sun” (2020).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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