Sailing Downward To The Cthulhu Call (2022) by Lisa Shea

Who hath desired the Sea—the sight of salt-water unbounded?
The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded?
The sleek-barrelled swell before storm—grey, foamless, enormous, and growing?
Stark calm on the lap of the Line—or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing?
His Sea in no showing the same—his Sea and the same ’neath all showing—
            His Sea that his being fulfils?
So and no otherwise—so and no otherwise Hill-men desire their Hills!

Rudyard Kipling, “The Sea and the Hills” from Kim (1900)

There are weird things out in the water. We still thrill to every strange creature that washes ashore, or is dredged up from the depths by a storm; the exotic, almost alien lifeforms that we glimpse through submarines or haul up in nets. The great depths of the ocean remain unexplored territory where wonders and terrors may yet reside: shipwrecks, volcanoes, lost cities. Nautical tales often contain elements of mystery, survival, adventure, and horror…and have left their mark on science fiction and fantasy. Krakens, Cthulhu, and Godzilla are all part of the lore and mystery of the ocean; sailors were the first great explorers who have lent their terminology to starships and space marines.

Yet for all the weird inspiration that the seas and oceans of the world have lent to H. P. Lovecraft and other weird writers, actual nautical weird fiction is a distinct and often overlooked subgenre. William Hope Hodgson, who was himself a sailor, was no doubt the greatest master of the weird nautical tale with his Sargasso Sea stories, “The Island of the Ud” (1907), and the unforgettable “The Voice in the Night” (1907), which inspired the Japanese film Matango (マタンゴ, 1963). H. P. Lovecraft would dabble in the genre with “Dagon” and the final chapter in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Frank Belknap Long, Jr. would contribute “The Ocean-Leech” in Weird Tales.

Nautical fiction has not gone extinct, but like railroad fiction and zeppelin stories, cultural and technological shifts have made such tales less common than before. Fewer people travel by water over long distances, with motors and electronics making it easier for ships to travel and stay in communication. Many of the tropes of nautical fiction are readily adapted to space travel stories—Event Horizon (1997) is essentially a ghost ship story set in space—and vice versa, as shown by films like The Abyss (1989) and Underwater (2020), so it might be more accurate to say that nautical fiction is undergoing an evolution as it finds its place in a changing culture.

Sometimes evolution tries something weird.

As the title might indicate, I was informed by a fellow author that every series absolutely must stay within a well-defined genre. Being a contrarian, I promptly set out to write a series in which each subsequent story is set with the same characters in a wildly different genre. I would love to hear your thoughts as I write this series as to which genres I should tackle next. Space Opera? Cozy Mystery? Amish Romance? The fun of me posting series as I write them is that it provides you, the reader, with an opportunity to shape and guide the results!

Lisa Shea, A Lovecraft Romp Through Every Genre There Is – And Some That Are Not

“Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” by Lisa Shea is Book 4 in an ongoing series about Samantha, a Black bisexual woman with a Mythos artifact and dire premonitions of Cthulhu’s emergence, and her friend-and-romantic-interest Gabriel. Strictly speaking, it might be better to regard these as chapters in a serial: while each attempts a distinct genre (1 – Horror, 2 – Mystery, 3 – Science Fiction, 4 – Sea Stories, and 5 – Romance), none of them is quite a standalone story in itself. Nor does the narrative seem complete; presumably more books are forthcoming at some point to carry Samantha and Gabriel’s story onwards, hopefully to some kind of conclusion.

Lisa Shea is a prolific author who is game for anything, and the decision to specifically try and do a nautical story with the Cthulhu Mythos has a lot of potential. While “Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” might seem the obvious candidates for maritime adventures, one could just as easily imagine a sailor of any time period coming across a ghost ship crewed by Mi-Go brain canisters, or an Antarctic cruise ship that hits a frozen shoggoth. Sailing has such a rich and fascinating history, has been such a constant in human life even to the present day, that a story could be set almost anywhere or anytime.

Shea was slightly constrained in that she was keeping the same characters and continuing an overall narrative; “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” starts out with them aboard ship, has a bit of light-hearted fun with nautical terminology, and tries to stay on topic…which is kind of where it begins to fall apart.

“I suppose, if I’m going to be reciting lines from doomed naval incidents, the Titanic shouldn’t be my first choice. Seems only two men of color were even on the ship, out of its 2,224 passengers.”

Lisa Shea, “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call”

How many people can recite the exact number of passengers on the Titanic off the top of their heads in casual banter? Keeping in mind that at no point in the proceeding does this character demonstrate that she is a Titanic fanatic. The point is driven home in the next paragraph when she begins to go into the details of the Port Chicago disaster, without any real prompting. It is not that this is information she couldn’t know, or have looked up at some point, but for a character that doesn’t know port from starboard it feels very out of character, and almost like the kind of filler used to fluff out historical romance novels for which page count is more important than pacing.

The point of bringing up the Port Chicago disaster specifically appears to be to prompt a discussion between Samantha and Gabriel on the issue of historical racism and the historical racial diversity of sailing crews, e.g.:

“When I was a boy, our neighbor was African-American. Elderly. Wrinkledlike a raisin. He’d served on the U.S.S. Mason in World War II. It said out of Boston, you know. The entire crew was African-Ameircan. At the time, our Navy wouldn’t mix those types with the white sailors.”

His brow furrowed. “Can you imagine, caring about something like that while the Nazis were slaughtering Jewish people by the trian-car-load?”

I could very well imagine.

Lisa Shea, “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call”

If this was a single bit of conversation in a longer novel, it might stand out less. Perhaps it might even help establish elements of their characters better and explain their romantic rapport since they both appear to be WWII naval buffs. However, the interaction doesn’t really drive the plot of the chapter or the story forward at all. It’s fascinating as trivia and in another context it might provide an interesting line of inquiry—how did changing racial politics affect the dynamics of sailing ships?—but in this story, the question has to be asked: what is the point? Because neither the Titanic, the Port Chicago disaster, or the U.S.S. Mason figure into Samantha and Gabriel’s little sailing cruise to Nantucket Island.

“Sailing Downwind” is technically a sea story because it takes place at sea, on a small sailboat, and most of the content is explicitly related to sailing in some fashion—even the discussion about why rum and why alcohol is measured in proof, which makes me wish Shea had consulted And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis. Yet it feels like a missed opportunity. The sailing is a little too smooth. Samantha never really learns anything about how to help out around the ship in her brief time on it. Long car trips have been planned with more care and contained more incident and excitement. For a single chapter in a longer novel, this wouldn’t be a complaint, but in a chapter trying to bill itself as nautical fiction, it just feels like so much more could have been done with the idea…a storm. Rough waves. Shark attack. Man overboard. Lost at sea. Sneaky Deep One stealing the rum. St. Elmo’s fire. Pirates (off Nantucket? Perhaps not.)

The Cthulhu Mythos material is a continuation of the story from previous books. Readers who skipped those can get the gist of the idea rather quickly; Samantha has a crystal, a piece of alien technology which is somewhere between a palantir and a browser for extraterrestrial webcams, and it’s safer to use it far away from land just in case Cthulhu decides to make a guest appearance.

I murmured, “The Chinese government would love to get their hands on this. It seems the cameras are simply orbs of energy. There’s one currently by a mountain range. I remember it from last time. I can even see how the clouds driftingby get caught in its peaks and drag a bit. It’s quite lovely.”

Lisa Shea, “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call”

The Mythos material is slight. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, Lovecraftian mood and ideas are more important than quotes from the Necronomicon and eldritch entities with tongue-twisting names. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of that mood either. In trying to make this a “sea story,” “Sailing Downwind” gives short shrift to also being a Mythos story. On paper, there’s no reason why it can’t be both—the nominal reason for the cruise is grounded in using the Mythos device, the Mythos device is used, and Gabriel uses sailing lore to try and interpret some of the information retrieved—and maybe it would have worked, if there was more story there.

If the essential goal of “Sailing Downwind” was to write a work of nautical fiction that mentions Cthulhu in ~25 pages, then it technically fulfills that goal…but only technically. There are some real missed opportunities here, as far as what could have been done with the same characters and the same premise with the same word count. Shea could have made this much more dramatic, much more focused on the sailing experience, emphasized the nautical horrors of the Mythos…but, Shea misses the boat. The overall impression is less of a sea story or a Mythos story, but a bridging chapter between the science fiction chapter (#3) and the sweet romance chapter (#5).

But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean. Blue, green, grey, white, or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The White Ship”

“Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call – Book 4 – Sea Stories (A Lovecraft Romp Through Every Genre There Is – And Some That Are Not)” (2022) by Lisa Shea is available on Amazon Kindle.

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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