“A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales

Thirteen women in shadowy Innsmouth, brides of arranged marriages to the inhuman denizens of the neighboring reef, are bound by the will of their male relatives, until they pursue revenge.
—J. M. Yales, A Coven in Essex County | Prologue

“A Coven in Essex County” is a rare example of serial Mythos fiction, told in 18 monthly episodes on The Visitant. The story that develops focuses on perspective and impact—readers are presumably already initiated into the mysteries of Innsmouth, they know the big secret that the nameless protagonist in Lovecraft’s tale uncovered from the drunken lips of Zadok Allen. What Yales zeroes in on is not the terrible threat of the Deep Ones, or even the fact of their existence; not the aftermath of the story, as with Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Litany of Earth”, or the possible variations such as “Take Your Daughters to Work” (2007) by Livia Llewellyn or “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader—no, Yales wants to present the story of the women of Innsmouth, the wives and daughters who grow up in this strange, twisted society—and the expectations that are placed on them.

As background: there is an inherent imbalance in the gender dynamics of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Human men marry female Deep Ones, then their hybrid children—primarily women—are apparently married off. The focus of Lovecraft’s story is on the nameless narrator protagonist, whose great-grandmother is a Deep One, and whose grandmother was one of these Innsmouth brides, “married off on a trick” to an Arkham man. Lovecraft’s initial notes for the “Innsmouth” suggest a more complicated and subplot that didn’t make it into the drafts:

All opponents killed off—many women commit suicide or vanish. Things refuse wholly to leave the town. Horrible incidents—hybridisation. Marsh dares not call in outside world—Things threaten to rise in limitless numbers. Compromise reached—secret habitation, since they would prefer to avoid general war.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Notes to ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth'”, Collected Essays 5.249

Some of this never made it into the finished version of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where Lovecraft focuses on one family line. Implicit but unspoken is that regardless of the offspring the Deep Ones never stop intermarrying…and as his notes hint, these are not implied to be marriages of love and mutual attraction. Read between the lines as Yales must have, and the picture gets grim and depressing: the women of Innsmouth have been raped…and this has been going on for a long time. Long enough to have become part of the social structure of the town. Parallels might be drawn to the child brides and forced marriages of certain patriarchal religious sects, or the system of concubines in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); the disenfranchisement of the Innsmouth women, who are trapped in a system that does not recognize or reward their agency, recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (1850). The author certainly takes the concept farther than Lovecraft ever dared to, as the women become literal commodities, bodies and lives traded away for Innsmouth gold.

In the decades since Lovecraft wrote, many gender and sexual permutations of Deep One/human relations have been explored, sometimes in pornographic detail, but the particular dynamics of those relationships—and the society that permits and encourages the relationships—is rarely explored. Ann K. Schwader’s “Mail Order Bride” (1999) makes the females the dominant sexual partner, using unsuspecting human males as essentially sperm donors and providers; the graphic novels Neonomicon (2010) and Witch Doctor, Vol. I: Under the Knife (2011) suggest that a quirk of biology is to explain for why normally only male human/female Deep One result in viable offspring.

Sex in all three cases is rarely forced: it is generally presented that the male humans are willing to have sex with female Deep Ones, just as it is generally presented that female humans aren’t willing to have sex with male Deep Ones. (Homosexual and transsexual variations on the theme, such as Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “Pages found among the effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005) and Monique Poireur’s “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011), are another barrel of fish entirely.) The systemic “marriage” of human women to male Deep Ones, by force or coercion, and the effects that would have on those women is largely unexplored. Many have found sympathy for the devil, but few besides Yales have looked into the hardened souls of the traumatized women of Innsmouth—an issue made more complicated because the women are yet divided by social convention and personality as well. To achieve redress, they have to overcome their differences and unite…and they have one very good reason to come together.

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me […] If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? […] The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
—Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Act III, Scene I

“A Coven in Essex County” is experimental fiction, and one of the most difficult and important parts is the beginning of the penultimate chapter, “A November Wedding.” Throughout the story, the character of Cora speaks in a kind of glossolalia, languages coming together in almost Joycean runs, bits of English, German, pidgin languages, R’lyehian, folding together, syllables merging, alphabets converging as they sought to express meaning…and perhaps all the better, when in this section they hit upon the inexpressible, the unnameable. The obscured climax is in its was as effective as the italicized culminating revelation of Lovecraft’s stories.

However, this is not a story about revelations, either cosmic or personal. It is about impact. Yales’ story is not so much about the act of marriage as how it impacts the women forced into these arranged unions:

Something happened after the wedding night to women of Innsmouth that erases what in other places would signify them as women. There is a gravity about them, an otherworldliness as much attributable to their exotic looks as to the fact that none of them quite focus on any one thing with their eyes. They seem always to be elsewhere, and absent the calculating intelligence of the gentler sex.
—J. M. Yales, A Coven in Essex County | A November Wedding

Just so, the last leg of the story is not on the moment of revenge as how it impacts the women who perform it. After the deed, these women’s story does not end. The society of Innsmouth was built on this system of arranged marriages, now that they have transgressed, they enter into an unfamiliar social territory. Familiar ground for many women over the last century, as the slow struggle for women’s rights and place outside the home has caused a shift in societal norms—but then, the suffragettes of Lovecraft’s era never had to deal with covenants with the Deep Ones.

Josephine Maria Yales published “A Coven in Essex County” over a period of 18 months from 2016 to 2017 on the Visitant. She has published a good deal of nonfiction pertaining to women, gender, and horror.

 

 

“The Elder Sister-like One, Vol. 1” (2016) by Pochi Iida (飯田ぽち。)

My days with her were everything to me.
—Pochi Iida ( ぽち小屋。), The Elder Sister-like One, Vol. 1

Ane Naru Mono / The Sister of the Woods with a Thousand Young / The Demon Who Became My Sister (姉なるもの), translated and published in the United States as The Elder Sister-like One is an ecchi manga written and drawn by female writer/artist Pochi Iida (ぽち小屋。), translated into English by Sheldon Drzka with lettering by Phil Christie. Th story follows the day-by-day life of Yuu, an adolescent orphan who inadvertently summons Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young, and makes a pact with her…to become his big sister. The goddess takes a (mostly) human form and calls herself Chiyo, and strives to honor her obligation.

Adaptation and translation always carry with them layers of interpretation and reinterpretation, and the original syntax is often lost or re-envisioned, refitted to the appropriate cultural context. So Pochi’s take on the Cthulhu Mythos in this manga is definitely in the tradition of the supernatural/monstrous girlfriend trope of manga like Monster Musume (モンスター娘のいる日常) or Oh My Goddess! (ああっ女神さまっ), and the re-casting H. P. Lovecraft’s dark fertility goddess as a buxom young woman recalls works like the manga Fight! Iczer One (戦え!!イクサー1 ), the visual novel Demonbane (デモンベイン), and the light novel Nyaruko: Crawling With LoveHaiyore! Nyaruko-san (這いよれ! ニャル子さん) and their various incarnations as anime, manga, video games, etc.

What largely sets Pochi’s work apart from others is the bittersweet undercurrent that runs throughout the work. Told as a series of chapters (“First Night,” “Second Night,” etc.) the attitude of the first volume is one of discovery, as Chiyo adapts to the human world and strives to be a good big sister to the lonely Yuu, who is sometimes frightened by the glimpses of her inhumanity…and yet is so desperately happy to no longer be alone. Yet from the very start, we know that this happiness is to be somewhat fleeting. From the very first page, the reader is told that this co-occupation is only temporary. In the beginning, the seeds of the end are sown.

The bitter reminder is offset by the sweetness, however, and most of volume one is very light, and full of fanservice. Chiyo is buxom, and when she remembers to wear clothes tends to wear things that emphasize her breasts or curves, and Yuu is often faced with unexpectedly close circumstances (such as Chiyo hiding Yuu’s head under her skirt, giving him a point-blank view of her panties). Such fanservice is almost slapstick compared to the hints of a darker world which he story gives the reader as it progresses, but the balance and pacing are such that the themes blend together very satisfyingly. Readers will likely warm up to Chiyo and Yuu’s relationship as their attraction and understanding grows. All the more precious with the knowledge that summer must one day end.

It is worth mentioning that the story is published simultaneously in two separate “continuities.” The ecchi form above has plenty of exposed skin, but never any full frontal nudity or actual sexual contact—the attraction between Chiyo and Yuu is teased and developed along the lines of an eromanga where a teenaged boy might develop a crush on his kindly big sister. The hentai form released from the circle Pochi-Goya (ぽち小屋。) follows the same basic storyline but is sexually explicit, with Chiyo’s tentacles getting into all sorts of places and her relationship with Yuu being much more intimate (although censored in accordance with Japanese laws regarding depictions of genitalia, etc.) The dual release is a relatively mature approach to publishing: save the sex for the readers that are interested in it.

The actual Mythos elements are fairly light in the first volume. Chiyo is by and large the only blatant supernatural element, though at one point it is made clear that other monsters do exist in the world. There is no mention of the various tomes, Lovecraft country, other Mythos entities, etc. The question might be reasonably asked then: why use the Mythos at all?

The value may be that Lovecraft’s artificial mythology is explicitly inhuman, with only peripheral connections and parallels to traditional Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity. If Chiyo was a succubus from a Judaeo-Christian Hell, or a traditional Japanese goddess or monster, the reader would have different expectations of behavior or interactions with humans, which would probably have to be explained away. Being Shub-Niggurath frees the character from those conceptual constraints or hurdles, allowing the emphasis is on personal development rather than world development, so that the story remains very focused on its two main characters.

Elder Sister-like One was first serialized in Dengeki G’s Comic in 2016, volume 1 and volume 2 have been translated and released in English in 2018 by Yen Press in both print and electronic format. Hentai volumes are released individually in Japanese by Pochi-Goya.