Tentacle (2019) by Rita Indiana

I also took a trip over neighbouring coral reef in a glass-bottomed boat which gave splendid view of the exotic tropical flora & fauna of the ocean floor—grasses, sponges, corals, fishes, sea-urchins, crinoids, etc. […] If I use the tropic setting for any kind of tale, it will be one involving brooding mysteries on one of those low coral keys which lie in spectral desertion just off the shore.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 17 Jun 1931, Essential Solitude 1.349

In the summer of 1931, Lovecraft traveled down to Florida, as far south as Key West—he had hoped to make it to Cuba to see Havana, but lacking the funds for the passage, made his way back up the East Coast by bus, taking with him the memories which inspired Devil’s Reef, when he came to write “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in the winter of that year. Perhaps Lovecraft was still thinking of the Florida he saw outside the bus window when he wrote:

Once in a while I noticed dead stumps and crumbling foundation-walls above the drifting sand, and recalled the old tradition quoted in one of the histories I had read, that this was once a fertile and thickly settled countryside. The change, it was said, came simultaneously with the Innsmouth epidemic of 1846, and was thought by simple folk to have a dark connexion with hidden forces of evil. Actually, it was caused by the unwise cutting of woodlands near the shore, which robbed the soil of its best protection and opened the way for waves of wind-blown sand.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

As much as Lovecraft loved the outdoors, the proto-environmentalism sentiment in some of his stories did not come from any active idea of man-made pollution, overfishing, overfarming, overgrazing, or other ill-use of the land in the sense that readers today would think of. During Lovecraft’s lifetime the nation was just coming to terms with the potential extinction of the American bison, and it was several decades before Silent Spring would see print. “The Colour Out of Space,” for example, was a freak accident, not a buried radioactive waste dump, for all that the insidious pollution carries some of the hallmarks of environmental horror. For Lovecraft, the environmental desolation around towns like Dunwich and Innsmouth are a reflection of the human ills within, much as how in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” the decay of the physical dwelling-place reflects the moral decay of the family within.

There is a certain parallel there with today’s environmental horrors: environmental devastation is human sin made manifest.

What would Lovecraft say if he could see those same Caribbean coral reefs, now bleached white and dead, silent and no longer home to the teeming wildlife that once swam beneath the glass-bottomed floor? Would he be reminded of “Til A’ The Seas” by R. H. Barlow, which Lovecraft had commented on, offering comments and suggestions. Or perhaps he would recall “The Shadow Out of Time” and wonder…what if?

Tentacles (2019) by Rita Indiana is the English-language version of her 2015 short novel La mucama de Omicunlé (The Maid of Omicunlé), translated by Achy Obejas. The story is set in the Dominican Republic in three periods: in a post-apocalyptic future where a terminally-online populace chokes in the middle of a dead Caribbean, a contemporary period before the disaster has happened, and the deep Colonial past, when the island of Hispaniola was a wild frontier for European empires, already drenched in the blood of the indigenous Taino.

The story that unfolds, the heroic effort to prevent the disaster, involves a syncretised cult, a sex worker who goes from turning tricks to planning a heist to facilitate their nanotech-powered gender transition, the last remnant of the indigenous peoples, the play of race, class, and sexuality that has made the island such a dynamic and divided place, and the tentacles of a sacred anemone that may have the secret to everything:

According to the letter, black Cubans called a certain marine creature Olokun. It could travel back in time, dude, very Lovecraftian.

Rita Indiana trans. Achy Obejas, Tentacle 105

The concept is a little Lovecraftian, but the execution is distinct. Whereas Lovecraft had very little interest in characters, writing his story more about phenomena rather than those who experienced them, Tentacle is really all about the intertwining nature of people and the environment. Some of the characters are short-sighted and self-indulgent to an extreme, too wrapped up in their own affairs to care about the ramifications of their actions; others are long-planning and self-sacrificing to an extreme that borders on fanatical. Yet ultimately, all of them play their part in the events that lead up to a key moment—the point where one person, at the right place and the right time, with the correct connections and resources, might be able to make a difference and change the future.

In terms of content and approach, Tentacle is not Lovecraftian in the usual sense of the word, for all that it once invokes Lovecraft. There is nothing of Lovecraft’s Mythos or atmosphere in this novel, and while there is a similarity in some of the themes addressed, the execution and style are completely different. Like Flowers for the Sea (2021) by Zin E. Rocklyn, this is not exactly cosmic horror as Lovecraft & co. envisioned it—because while the big horrors of environmental disaster are vast and impersonal, it is the very personal horrors of racism, sexism, and human greed and lust which are the more immediate threats and drivers of the plot.

With the gender transition and the time travel aspect, certain comparisons might be made with Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—'” (1959)—but Tentacle is not so self-consciously attempting to be as complicated or as clever. Gender reassignment in Heinlein’s story is a sort of inevitable accident; in Indiana’s novel, it is the main character’s stated and most urgently desired goal. The paradoxical loop in Heinlein’s story is never quite closed in Tentacle; in fact, the established rules of time travel in the story rather prohibit Heinleinian shenanigans, at least for the most part.

It is somewhat telling that when Lovecraft handled time travel with “The Shadow Out of Time,” he did not address the possibility of time paradoxes. The Great Race was constantly looking forward, not backward, and whatever the future had in store for them they adapted to that new environment, not striving to change the past to fix the future to their design. The final revelation at the end of the story was implicitly always there, just waiting to be discovered after untold millions of years. Indiana’s solution to the potential consequences of changing the future is ultimately a very human one—and if it isn’t the most satisfying, it does rather fit the themes of the novel, and the unspoken moral is the one that underlies nearly every piece of environmental writing:

Don’t wait for some miraculous savior. If you want change to happen, you need to do it now, before it’s too late.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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